A picture is worth a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words”  This adage tells us that a visual information would usually carry way more data than the same volume of textual or numerical data. But it only tells one quarter of what I am going to express in this article.

Recently I attended a seminar and listened to a great speech of an IT specialist who was talking about the awesomeness of data visualization, which I have never heard of before the seminar, though I have been vaguely aware of its existence for years. Essentially, data visualization is to put loads of verbal or numerical information in the form of a graph or a diagram, or infographic to present to our cognition in visual format. It certainly works. An infographic could easily save many pages of texts or statistical numbers. And what’s more, people are more inclined to read visual information than textual or numerical representation and it’s much easier to comprehend large sum of data in a short time. To demonstrate the power of infographic , I used the example of David Mccandless’ interesting study on Twitter. The infographic that well grasps the results and implications of this twitter study is presented as follows:

Here is the verbal representation of the result of this interesting Twitter study:

The research on the Twitter user’s habit showed that around half of the Twitter users are actually quite inactive and would be willing to tweet about their lives on their Twitter accounts less than once a week. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the Twitter accounts are basically dead and virtually idle. This together accounts for around 70 percent of the total users of Twitter. Among the rest active 30 percent of the Twitter accounts, only 5 percent of the all Twitter accounts have more than 100 followers, whereas another 5 percent of all Twitter accounts are making the loudest twittering frequently responsible for 75 percent of the noise on Twitter, of which 32 percent accounts are literally automatic bots and not even real trollfaces behind the computer. The remaining 20 percent of the Twitter accounts then belong to the regular active users’ group who talk a bit but no one really cares much. Meanwhile, it is found that women are slightly more enthusiastic in using Twitters than men, with 55 percent of the whole Twitter accounts appear to be of female gender.

Now, pay attention at this point (take a deep breath and rinse your throat a bit), let’s do some interesting tests based on what you have just learned from the previous sections:


Okay, after the test, now let me continue another quarter of what I am going to express in this article. Here is what I predict most of you would do (at least I know I will):

You were randomly flipping various internet pages impetuously, then some how you accidentally got slid into this funny dude’s blog and found this article. After a rough glimpse of the title, scrolling down the page. “Wait a minute”, there comes an interesting figure with little people and it’s about THE Twitter! “Interesting”, as you were probably mumbling to yourself, you started to examine closely with the picture and I bet it wouldn’t take long before you started to make some unnoticed noise again “Ah! Oh! Hmm! Ach-sooo!” and then gave a bit smirking face towards the funny image, “Right, Twitter, Right…”. After you feel pretty good at yourself for a while, you start to get curious to find out what else information is given in the texts above and below the graph, then you start to scan around and either spend double or triple the time to read carefully everything I wrote and then do the poll or glance from paragraph to paragraph and jump directly to the polls.

Either way, only through reading all the text that you will find actually this article is not really bashing on how stupid Twitters are, but using it as a mere example for my information processing theory, though I think you would probably learn more about Twitters’ brutal facts than what I really want to talk about here – that humans are more inclined to accept information from visual cognition than anything else first.

Of course this is not something new. It’s natural that way. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

True, I would probably have to come up with additional 500 words to fully interpret every major implication of that Twitter study finding; whereas that infographic speaks it all by itself. But why are we more inclined to receiving visual information? Because naturally visual information is way more straightforward than any other information medium to our human beings. We see the world, not really feel, touch, smell or read the world (in most cases, as long as you have normal sight or short sight with glasses). What I understand this natural preference of information medium is that:  1. visual representation could store complex and abundant information that could not be achieved in other mediums with the comparable volume; and 2. our human information processing, or cognition, have a much broader bandwidth for the visual information 12-lane superhighway than other 4-lane or probably 2-lane 60km/h limited regional roads for aural, haptic, and even verbal cognition processing. I am sure it would be much more self-explanatory if I drew a picture for illustration, but at this point I rather encode those information with English alphabets so you could decipher yourself and create your own imagination, whatever it looks like.

Qualitative illustration of different processing rates of various information representation

Whatever it looks like, I think you more or less get the idea of the first 50 percent of what I am trying to express in the article, now here comes the rest of the half (finally!):

What has been discussed above essentially provides with a theoretical support to the contention that it is more inclined to process information based on visual cognition due to the fast rate of visual information processing and the high efficiency of visual representation regarding information storage. This is basically why data visualization nowadays is a mega sensation online and offline. Good for the IT engineers!

After realizing this cognition fuzz, it occurred almost instantaneously to my mind that: hey, this explains why nowadays people are getting more impatient with all sorts of textual and numerical information and prefer to watch TV, youtube video, and funky pictures!

I always thought people are just getting dumber and dumber in waiting to be drenched with all sorts of straightforward visual information while spending less and less time to calm down and read. Now it seems I am just a senseless bigot after all. According to the definition of reading on Wikipedia, reading  is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols for the intention of constructing or deriving meaning. My understanding of reading is: for instance if you are reading English texts, written in the diacritic alphabet system, you need to scan those little alphabetic images into your brain, then decode them to match the aural verbal patterns for final cognition. At least whenever I am reading something in English, I’d watch each word carefully and then involuntarily start the subvocalization process at the same time (mine’s actually quite fast for I have been an experienced reader), or to a lesser extent, start associating words with visual memories directly (more in my Chinese reading). The transmission and the involvement of other information processing route such as the vocal information processing could be the major bottleneck that reduce the cognitive processing bandwidth of the textual reading compared to the straightforward visual information processing. At the same time, in nowadays information era, where people are literally stuffed with overloading information everywhere, voluntarily visual contents are screened at first glance and appear more appealing to information intake than the slower process of reading. In this sense, it is not that people turn more “impatient, impetuous, superficial, and stupid” in the information era of 21st century, but people nowadays simply prefer the easiest and fastest way to digest massive amount of information. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video, I guess, it’s worth a thousand frames? At this point, stop reading and start thinking, does those infographics in this article help you grasp those ideas in a faster and easier manner than just reading the texts?

So now there’s a different theory to explain why more people are getting information from watching rather than the good-old-fashion reading!  (other than people being more impetuous, impatient, and stupider?)

That’s why I’d always like to put some informative pictures as visual aids in my articles. It certainly helps readers to grasp a few points out of my muttering and blathering. However, this does not justify downplaying of the importance of textual reading. Information intake is like the soup intake, visual information being cup soup and readings being the French soup (or some other nice soup). Nowadays fast food is the trend as we have little time on nutrient intake and need to prepare and drink quickly. So there comes the cup soup to give us a taste. The French soup might take much longer time to prepare and enjoy, but it is always a better choice for the food for thought. Reading may take longer time to digest, but the range of information, especially in terms of abstract and conceptual description, could not be replaced by simple visualization. For me, plain text could always accurately address information and expression in a nuanced manner, especially for my verbose didacticism, and visual aids could always be a handy supplement.

P.S. My bold hypothesis:

While western languages are written in the diacritic alphabet system, the reading of the language might have more to do with subvocalization than Chinese, which was based on the logogram system where each character represent a unique visual image. In this sense, Chinese might be more concise to store information and easier/faster to be read and preserved and be used as records and a written language; whereas Western languages might be more connected to the vocal pronunciation and therefore might be easier and faster to learn and be used in the oral communication. That’s probably why others often find Chinese a very difficult language to learn and why Chinese as a written language stands the test of thousands of years and remain largely stable.



  1. That’s probably why others often find Chinese a very difficult language to learn and why Chinese as a written language stands the test of thousands of years and remain largely stable.

    As a Westerner who’s spent some time learning Chinese (currently my Chinese is in miserable shape from disuse), I’d say that the tonality was more difficult than the characters, but I’ll admit that I’m not a typical case. Anyway, I think that you may be right that Chinese is allows for more efficient reader comprehension.

    I’m not sure how accurate the test of time argument is. Egyptian hieroglyphics (which most Western, Middle Eastern, and South Asian scripts trace their roots to) were logographic like Chinese, but we only know how to read them because of a >2000 year old stone that positions them next to Ancient Greek.

    On a related point, if you look at this Strange Maps post:
    There is a Japanese version of the Octopus map which adds in Asian countries. I was intrigued to see that most of the country names were presented in Chinese (with names that would seem to work as Chinese phoneticizations) with only Afghanistan, Bertistan, Crimea, and a few European islands (Sicily, Crete, Sardina, and Corsica) getting the katakana treatment as opposed to nowadays, when the Japanese

    Now I personally like it when the Japanese use kanji, because I don’t know much Japanese and though most katakana is a Japanese phoneticization of some English word, it’s a much slower and deliberative process to decipher it, but it seems that as the Japanese have moved (to some extent) out of the Chinese cultural sphere of influence, their use of Kanji has decreased. Korea, of course, uses Hanja much less than Japan usese Kanji.

    I’d say that the reason that Chinese characters have stood the test of time rests with the persistence of Chinese civilization and Chinese elite literacy. Egypt’s hieroglyphics were lost after their elite changed (there were the Greeks who invaded and the Arabs pretty much toppled everything including the Egyptian language, whose remnant only exists in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, and that’s not written in hieroglyphics).

    Phonetic scripts have spread throughout the rest of the world because they are not language-specific. You only have to make a few tweaks and you can apply them to the language of a previously illiterate culture. The current Latin alphabet that I’m typing with is a somewhat modified version of what the Romans had, which was essentially a corrupted version of the (Semitic) Phoenician abjad and the Greek alphabet. It’s been so successful because it’s been easily transmitted across Europe’s multitude of languages and because of centuries of Roman Catholic hegemony in Western Europe (the border between Cyrillic alphabets and Latin alphabets is pretty much the border between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy…counting Protestantism as an outgrowth of Catholicism).

    Meanwhile Chinese script only spread to a few cultures that were under Chinese cultural hegemony historically and it’s not had staying power there. The Japanese have invented degenerated Chinese characters to represent phonetic sounds and aspects of Japanese grammar, the Koreans invented their own script, and the Vietnamese have picked up a Latin-based script.

    Basically, I’d argue that script persistence and prevalence is a function of the history of the societies using them and their ease of transmission between peoples, not necessarily their technical features within their originating culture. Another factor that may play a role in the future is the ease of typing and I think that alphabetic scripts have an advantage there. When I do type Chinese, it’s with a pinyin IME (with the exception of my online pseudonym 孟柏民, which I’ve managed to add to my English keyboard layout).

    Wow, that was a long comment. Guess I’ll stop bloviating now.

  2. 至 孟柏民:

    Thank you for your lengthy comment. Now let me address some of your contentions.

    I was saying the fact that Chinese logogram system is probably more straightforward for information processing could be a reason on why Chinese as a written language has been kept largely stable over thousands of years. It’s of course a necessary condition, not the sufficient one.

    I am now elaborating it further: Chinese characters have indeed stood the test of time, it does have a lot to do with the persistence of Chinese civilization, to a lesser extent the Chinese elite literacy. But keep in mind that in Chinese history there were lots of times when nomads from the North invaded southward and largely expelled those Chinese elite away to the Southern China (see https://theslittyeye.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/what-about-immigration/). Chinese as a spoken language changed drastically from Old Chinese, to Middle Chinese, and to modern varieties (e.g. Mandarin with 4 tones). It is now attested that Old Chinese, the original spoken Chinese from which the Chinese characters were developed, probably did not have tones at all. Either way, I just want to point out that Chinese history is not an absolute coherent history, nomads came once in a while and lead to continuous change of sound of Chinese, and to some extent, result in the evolution of thousands of dialects in Southern China (e.g. Minnan 閩南 is closer to old Chinese as it directly derives from the Chinese who emigrated from North during Wu Hu period; whereas Cantonese 粵more associated to Chinese immigrants in Tang era with middle Chinese etc.). The fact that Chinese character stands the test of time when its sound changed from time to time definitely has something to do with their logogram structure (given an opposite example is the evolution of different Latin dialect into different Romance languages after the fall of Rome, as alphabet system is apt to change according to different sounds). Of course Chinese character is unable to survive alone with Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, but its logogram nature help preserve the continuity of Chinese language and to some extent help hold together the big China proper and sinosphere.

    Then let’s talk about sinosphere, I have briefly discussed about the relation between sinosphere and Classic Chinese culture in one article before (https://theslittyeye.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/what-constitutes-a-chinese/). Chinese character did spread around, with the outreach of Chinese culture over thousands of years. Keep in mind that the origin of Chinese language and culture was confined in a limited flood plain of the middle-stream Yellow river. It has successfully expanded and converted other people to recognize Chinese culture and consequently adopt Chinese names and language. Be noticed that by language I was referring to the written language at first, while the pronunciation-wise spoken Chinese was a result of mixing with all different spoken language. That’s probably why in Northern dialect there’s much simpler tonal system (with more sound similar to northern nomad language), whereas the southern dialects have super complicated tonal system (southern tribal minorities have the most complicated tonal system of all, probably influenced the southern Chinese dialect). Therefore, Chinese culture influence created the China proper (a mixture of all kinds of people that speak different but share common recognition of Chinese culture and use Chinese characters, and most importantly largely under firm control of central government), and sinosphere (a mixture of different groups of people who speak vastly different but all recognize Chinese culture and adopted Chinese character, under their government’s control but politically accepted the superiority of China proper government). Not just Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese in this sinosphere, there used to be Okinawa, Jurchen, Khitan, Balhae, Xianbei etc. The reason why those identity no longer existed is because they were fully assimilated into the Chinese culture and by using Chinese logogram character they were often politically integrated with the Chinese (Okinawa being different case). Korean and Vietnamese elites did realize the danger of losing their ethnic identity and thus artificially created their own scripts to differentiate with the Chinese (Vietnamese invented Chữ-nôm, it was the western missionary who invented the Latin script for them much later). Japan is a different case, but the theory cold apply to a lesser extent as well.

    To me, the expansion of Chinese culture and Chinese logogram language is a very powerful combination that successfully formed a enormous China proper and an even bigger sinosphere, limited by the jungles in the SEA and desserts in Gobi. And remember this was done without constant military superiority (the case of Greek and Roman culture expansion), and religion, and before industrial revolution (Western influence rather limited in Europe prior to colonization and industrial revolution). Chinese logogram system largely help defend the originality of Chinese civilization and serve as a glue to keep all different groups of people together under the Chinese culture influence, thanks to its technical features. So Chinese logogram is somehow our legions, our churches that
    help maintain China as China it is nowadays. I consider it as the greatest Chinese invention of all time.

    By the way, western language has little to do with Egyptian hieroglyphics, which basically got extincted in the Coptic church. All modern languages (Indo-European and Semitic languages, even Hindi languages, and every other languages other than sinosphere) except for Chinese are derived essentially from Sumerian cuneiform, which was more popular as a communication script rather than the hieroglyphics which basically stays on the hand of handful priests. There are three indigenous written system, Chinese logogram character, Sumerian cuneiform, and Egyptian hieroglyphics (I consider Mayan system as proto-writing as it’s not as really systemic, you could argue back of course).

    However, you are right about modern stage where typing is way more important than writing. It does put Chinese in a difficult position, I have to admit. The thing is the might of Chinese logogram pretty much gone with the decline of Chinese Classicism. Chinese is getting more vernacular and colloquial, based on the Mandarin dialect. As much as I don’t like it, it is probably the only way to preserve Chinese logogram in modern era. Pinyin did help Chinese character survive in recent decades, it is however, not that difficult to type Chinese once you get used to it actually. But the king to master Chinese is still to write it, only through writing you could really grasp the essence of Chinese language.

    P.S. Did you know that link you gave me, the Japanese version of the map. They put 支那, which is a very demeaning term for China in early 20th century, as they refused to name 中國, which literally means the central kingdom. I am just point out, it might be seen offensive to normal Chinese.

    Good luck with your Chinese learning!

    1. I have a couple of questions about written Chinese. 1) How much faster is it to type Chinese on a keyboard compared to writing with pen/brush? 2) Wikipedia lists a lot of shape-based input methods for Chinese — Cangjie, Wubi etc., but does not say how widely these are used, if at all. Could you shed a light on this?
      PS: that Japanese map is a hundred years old, no wonder it uses 支那 (‘China’ itself is, of course, nothing but a transliteration of 支那).

      1. For your questions:
        1) It is generally faster to hand-write Chinese than type it on the keyboard. Though the new Pinyin system makes the typing much faster than before. The cursive script was basically derived from the fast hand-writing.
        2) Pinyin is the most widely used typing method. It’s pretty fast, probably the fastest one. I use it myself.

        P.S. No, It’s not about how old that map is. Japan is within the sinosphere. The name of China has always been 中國,or 中原, or whatever the name of the dynasty was in China (e.g. Tang, Ming etc), referring China to the center of civilization, even 1000 years before that map was made. The term 支那 comes originally from Sanskrit script and the name was mostly used by countries outside the Sinosphere. The Japanese deliberately used that term to deny the existence of Chinese civilization in China and use this transliterated term as a demeaning term for China. Japan has turned hostile unilaterally against China since 19th century. (See this:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Sino-Japanese_War)

  3. Thanks for the response.

    P.S. Did you know that link you gave me, the Japanese version of the map. They put 支那, which is a very demeaning term for China in early 20th century, as they refused to name 中國, which literally means the central kingdom. I am just point out, it might be seen offensive to normal Chinese.

    I did notice the strange name, but I didn’t know the connotations.

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