The First Principles of Visual Note-Taking

Why is visual note-taking a worthwhile way of working with ideas?

Why not just rely on words instead?

In the video above I share my response to those questions as I outline what I see as the first principles of visual note-taking.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each.

Working Memory Limitations

The number of ideas that we can keep top of mind using our brain alone is limited, somewhere between 4 and 7 depending on the type of information you’re thinking about.

That’s why it’s helpful to get ideas out of your head and onto the page, because that external reference gives you something to work with.

Since your brain can only keep track of so many ideas at once, creating an external representation of those ideas (perhaps with sticky notes on the wall) extends your brain’s capacities.

In that way visual notes can serve as an extension of your brain, so that you spend less energy remember each individual idea and more energy exploring how they all fit together.

Dual Coding Theory

When you make your notes visual, you’re tapping into both the verbal processing power and the visual processing power of your brain. That’s the core idea behind dual coding theory.

Since the brain processes verbal information and visual information differently, when you merge words and images together you’re tapping into a larger portion of your neural network.

That merging of words and visuals boosts your overall processing power and also supports the retention of new ideas because of the connections that you’re making in your brain.

Embodied Cognition

There’s growing evidence that the structure and function of the brain arise from our experience living in a physical body and relying on our senses. That’s the core idea behind embodied cognition, that the mind and body are not separate, but the same thing.

The functioning of our brain is highly dependent on our experiences within a physical body, and when you make marks by hand you’re engaging the body in a way that supports deeper thinking.

So when making marks by hand, you’re engaging the physical body in a way that supports cognition.

The idea of embodied cognition also explains the prevalence of metaphors in our languages that are based in our experience of the physical world.

An example is how we say we’re feeling up (happy) or down (sad), corresponding to the body itself – upright when happy, slumped when sad.

As visual note-takers we have the power to sketch out the many visual metaphors that arise naturally in language, thereby capturing ideas in a way that aligns with how our brain already thinks.

The Full Picture

Taken together, these three pillars make a strong case for the usefulness of visual note-taking.

The three pillars that support the use of sketched visuals while taking notes.

Whether you’re convincing others to give visual note-taking a try, or you simple need a little reassurance yourself as you’re re-learning to draw as an adult, I hope those three pillars give you a solid foundation to work from.

Learn How to Take Visual Notes

To build up from that foundation and develop the skill of visual note-taking, come join us inside of Verbal to Visual.

There you’ll find a full library of sketchnoting courses and regular live workshops to help you build your skills:

You can learn more and sign up here.