The claim that “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text” has become a popular assertion in presentations, articles, and blog posts about visual communication and marketing. However, the origins of this claim are dubious, and there is no clear scientific evidence to support it.
While not supporting the “60,000 times” statement specifically, scientific research has looked at differences in visual and verbal processing speeds using various methodologies. However, this research finds mixed results and does not point to such an extreme difference:
While images can be processed rapidly, especially concrete content, text is not necessarily slow. So again, there is no clear scientific basis for a 60,000-fold speed difference claim. At best, this represents a huge oversimplification.
Origins of the claim
The earliest known source of the “60,000 times” claim appears to be a 1982 Business Week advertising section written by Philip Cooper, then president of Computer Pictures Corporation. Cooper stated that “people assimilate visual information about 60,000 times faster than they assimilate printed copy.” However, this claim was made without any citation to research.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the claim was repeated in various presentations and documents from 3M Corporation, frequently citing unspecified “behavioral research” as the source. For example, a 2001 3M brochure states “Did you realize that we can process visuals 60,000 times faster than text? These findings from behavioral research confirm our daily experience: we rely on all our senses to bring ideas and concepts to life.” Again, no specific research is cited.
The claim continued to spread throughout the 2000s and 2010s, repeated in books, articles, and blog posts about visual communication, often citing 3M or attributing it vaguely to “studies.”
Attempts to verify the claim
Given how widely the “60,000 times” claim has been circulated, several researchers have tried to locate the original source and verify if it is supported by evidence. However, these efforts have not found any scientific research that specifically compares image processing speed to text processing speed using this metric.
Alan Levine, an educator who researches claims about learning and communication, has extensively investigated the origins of the statement. He traced it back to the 1982 Business Week ad, contacted Philip Cooper to inquire about the source, and found no substantiating evidence45. Other researchers, such as cognitive scientist Clark Quinn6, data journalist Jonathan Schwabish7, and Matthew Dunn8, have also tried and failed to find a scientific basis for this specific claim.
While there is no research that directly compares visual and textual processing speed in the manner stated, there are some potential explanations for how this claim may have arisen:
- An over-extrapolation from research on memory and learning shows that visual aids can improve recall compared to oral presentations or text alone. However, improved recall does not necessarily mean faster processing.
- Observations that people tend to look at images before text when viewing web pages or documents. But viewing orders does not necessarily reflect processing speed.
- The intuition that visual perception evolved to be faster for survival needs. While plausible, this is a hypothesis without specific evidence for a 60,000-fold speed difference.
- Misinterpretation of a finding that concrete words are processed more quickly than abstract words. This does not prove a general superiority of images over text.
In summary, while visual processing is important and may have advantages, there is no credible evidence for the specific 60,000 times faster comparison. The origins of this claim appear to be an unsupported assertion that gained credibility through frequent repetition. Researchers have been unable to verify that it is based in science.
Criticisms of the claim
Given the lack of evidence and plausible explanations for the claim’s origination, many experts criticize using the “60,000 times faster” assertion:
- It propagates a dubious factoid without checking sources.
- It exaggerates without nuance that images are universally faster.
- Repeating it enables “truthiness” via repetition, rather than accuracy.
- It can mislead people about how visual communication works.
- It is used mainly for persuasive marketing purposes, not accuracy.
While images can aid learning and communication, misrepresenting evidence is counterproductive. Visuals and text complement each other. Claiming images are massively faster promotes a false dichotomy. Critical evaluation, not exaggeration, serves both science and effective communication.
In summary, the key facts about this claim are:
- There is no good evidence for the “60,000 times faster” processing claim specifically.
- It appears to have originated as an unsupported advertising assertion.
- Attempts to verify it have not found a scientific source.
- Relevant research finds mixed results on visual vs verbal speed.
- It likely oversimplifies and exaggerates any processing differences.
- Repeating it without evidence contributes to “truthiness” but not accuracy.
Rather than relying on this dubious claim, evaluations should focus on evidence for how visuals and text can best complement each other for effective communication based on context and objectives.
Does the human brain process images 60,000 times faster than text?
No. There is no scientific evidence to support the specific claim that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text.
How many times do we process visual faster than text?
There is no definitive research quantifying exactly how much faster visual processing is compared to textual processing. Studies show mixed results and indicate the difference is unlikely to be as large as 60,000 times.
Is 90% of information to the brain visual?
This specific statistic is also unsupported. While visual processing is important, there is no credible evidence that 90% of the brain’s information intake is visual.
- Alan Levine aka. CogDog. (2015, March). The 60,000 Times Faster Claim Gets Dialed Back to 1982. CogDogBlog. https://cogdogblog.com/2015/03/dialed-back-to-1982/ ↩︎
- Alan Levin aka CogDog. (2012, July 23). 60,000 Times Question?. CogDogBlog. https://cogdogblog.com/2012/07/60000-times-question/ ↩︎
- Clark Quinn. (2020, January 28). Images Processed 60K Faster?. Learnlets. https://blog.learnlets.com/2020/01/images-processed-60k-faster/ ↩︎
- Jonathan Schwabish. (2015, September 17). The 60,000 Fallacy. PolicyViz. https://policyviz.com/2015/09/17/the-60000-fallacy/ ↩︎
- Matthew Dunn. (2013, February 10). Research: Is A Picture Worth 1,000 Words Or 60,000 Words in Marketing?. Email Audience. https://www.emailaudience.com/research-picture-worth-1000-words-marketing/ ↩︎