you, like me, came across a delightfully elegant, delightfully lucid interactive chart of the European financial crisis in the online edition of The New York Times last fall. Clicking through its various cataclysmic scenarios, watching the arrows shift and the pastel circles grow pregnant with debt, I was able to comprehend, for the first time, the convoluted and potentially toxic lending relationships between Greece, Italy, and the rest of Schengen Europe as well as the implications of this toxicity for the wider world. The reduction of such messiness into such neatness filled me with a familiar, slightly nauseating feeling of delight, a feeling I have since dubbed the infogasm. This fleeting sense of the erotic occurs only when a graphic perfectly clarifies complex phenomena through the careful arrangement of its visual data sets. The infogasm is instantaneous, overwhelming, and usually transitory in nature, leaving you oddly exhausted. Plain old text does not function with quite the the same epiphanic climax; by comparison, the written word’s magic is elusive and lingering, often revealing its fruits much later, after the article has been finished and put away.
In 1976, neuroscientist Douglas Nelson definitively described the cognitive potency of the image as the pictorial superiority effect. He and others have shown that our brains are essentially hard-wired for visuals—the very architecture of our visual cortex allows graphics a unique mainline into our consciousness. According to Allan Pavio’s somewhat controversial dual-coding theory, imagery stimulates both verbal and visual representations, whereas language is primarily processed through only the verbal channel. While there has been considerable pushback to Pavio’s theory since its introduction in the 1970s, numerous experiments have shown that imagery activates multiple, powerful neural pathways of memory recall.