How your brain crunches visual data

As humans we are mentally and biologically conditioned towards favouring familiarity. It’s not a bad thing, there is a lot happening around us at any given time that our brain has to make sense of. 

Our brain provides context and understanding of the world around us in some weird and wonderful ways. It has been a guiding factor in how humans have evolved, and how we see the world around us. 

It is worthwhile delving into how our brain works though, because advertising spends large amounts of money every year, capitalising on our brain behaviour to get our attention, and to influence us to make choices subconsciously. 

We learn visual cues based on the context we see them in. 

Let’s take a square plank of wood. This flat, square piece of word happens to have 4 legs protruding out of it. Our brain immediately goes ‘this is a table’. Then put another plank rising vertically from one of the sides, and we immediately think ‘ok, this is now a chair’.  

The objects around us are defined by several key distinct features that define those objects. Once our brain identifies those key features, it just fills the gaps. It also relates to the context you see it in, too.

If you are driving in your car and you stop at the traffic lights, red means stop and green means go, but we can assign other meanings to the same colour, based on context.

If you are in the supermarket green usually means environmentally friendly, or the healthy option. If you’re in the dairy section light blue usually denotes the light fat option, it is the ‘healthier’ option. 

Our brain takes all the visual information that assails our eyes at any given moment, and looks for those visual cues that define the thought process. 

It’s just a quicker way to do business in our head, so we aren’t constantly overwhelmed by everything our eyes see. It allows us to interact with the world around us easily and most importantly; quickly.

Our brain is constantly making super quick judgement calls before we are even aware of what we are looking at. 

Let’s talk about what our brain is doing the moment it sees something. Our eyes create images in a blurry and very imperfect way. 

It is the brain that gives the visual stimulus the high definition. If the stimulus is new, it requires greater computing power because the brain does not have a previous point of reference for this new information. 

When you travel and you see new and wondrous things, it always seems so much more vivid, and you spend a lot more time observing the world around you. 

Once the brain has contextualised and compartmentalised its new surroundings, it assigns less computing power to it, thus pays less attention to it. 

The brain can draw on its previous experience of the environment, and being the little efficiency monster it is, allocates less brainpower to deciphering it.

New things require more attention and thus more brain power.

It is not an easy feat to crunch all that visual data in your brain every waking moment of your life.  Familiarity in your surroundings and how you interact with them is something you rely on quite considerably. We have our routines that we get stuck in, and unless you live a lifestyle that is constantly changing (like if you travel a lot), your brain will naturally favour efficiency. 

As wonderful as the brain is, it is very subjective in how it contextualises and categorises information.

Now you probably aren’t aware of all the calculations going on inside your head. We can assign a lot of justifications, reasons and confirmations to our decisions that in all honesty, aren’t always even remotely on the button. 

The truth is, this quick thinking can actually give us conclusions with very varied reliability. It works really well in our day to day with physical non-changing objects and surrounding environments. 

Where it starts to go a bit sideways is when our experiences, our knowledge, and what we may have been taught to think are being used to guide our impressions of what and how things are.

It is why we can make irrational judgements about people, be scared of mice, or get anxiety in certain situations. We may have a bad experience with a theme park, thus we don't want to go back to one. 

Our emotional reactions, and experiences absolutely impact how the brain contextualises things we see. So what does this have to do with advertising?

Branding, design, the use of words and media all have an impact on how we see a product. Let’s go back to the supermarket. Literally everything in that supermarket is crafted to catch your eye and make you compartmentalise it in a certain way. 

When you have so many options in front of you, what makes you choose one thing over another? Is it the words that stand out on the packaging? Is it the colours or the design that makes it seem healthier?  More luxurious? Tastier?

Just like the autopilot with the car, our brain tends to favour the things that we know. It works, it does what was intended, we will just choose that again. So if we got pasta that one time, and it did its job, we will probably grab that same pasta again despite there being other options there that aren’t that different. 

With certain foods there is a general autopilot of ‘well I ate this last time and it was good so I will get it again’ but at some point you made that choice to grab that particular item over other competitors. Then you just stuck with it. Did you go for the cheaper product? Or the slightly more expensive product because it looked like it was a more premium product?

You can see why as a business, how your customers perceive you and how they connect to your product is super important.

Have you tried all the types of soy sauce on the shelf, or the cereals, or the muesli bars? Or did you just pick one and that’s what you use now? Did you try another type of toothpaste, didn’t like it then just go back to the one you tried the first time? 

When you go shopping what makes you choose the items you do? 

You may not know the answer to that, you just grabbed some cheese because you needed cheese. You saw it, you picked it up and then took it home and ate it. 

Here is another revelation. You most likely made that decision about what cheese you were going to get before you even noticed that you had

(Alternatively, if you are a slow thinker like me, where you tend to be pragmatic and deliberate in your decision-making, you stand there staring at the cheese section trying to make sense of it all).

The brain is on constant lookout for the solution to our problems. It knows that if you are looking for something it’s on the scan for that item. It also remembers all the contextual information you may have picked up along the way. 

Need margarine? Trying to watch your diet? Oh that light blue one catches the eye. ‘Low fat’ is written in bold letters across the top. That item just received an entry into your shopping bag. Those visual cues just got that company a sale.

Visual cues can also go wrong. If your brain is trained to find the soy sauce with the red label and the company you usually buy from changed their bottle colour, then it could cost them dearly.

The bottle was right in front of you the whole time and you didn’t even notice.  The brain was looking for a visual cue that was no longer available. You grab another soy bottle instead.


The point is that the brain’s bias towards familiarity trains us to remember a brand and categorise it as something we need or use in a certain situation. If you own a business or a product this becomes hugely relevant.

Your brand is training people to identify it.

Your brand is training people to remember it.

Your brand is training people to associate visual cues, brand reputation, company values, services with that design or product.

There is a tremendous amount of money invested into creating visual brands and packaging products to create a certain look and feel. 

We need only see it in passing, and it may be at a time when we actually don’t need that product or service. The brain may mark it as irrelevant at the time and we may not even consciously notice it, but it is not necessarily forgotten.

Let’s say one morning you wake up and find your toaster doesn’t work. You start thinking about how Sunbeam is a good brand for toasters


Maybe you passed some Sunbeam toasters at a few different stores and your brain made the connection that they were popular. 

Maybe you saw an ad for them somewhere and the picture looked cool. They do seem stylish.

Maybe you have spent the last 4 years going round to a friends’ place and they have had the same Sunbeam toaster the whole time.

There are a million ways that toaster awareness seeped into your mind and you probably didn’t notice most of it. 

What this means is that brand design, brand trust, brand association and brand reputation are all very important. We are exposed to it all day, every day creeping around our peripheral, seeping into our subconscious. 

Brand names are like a million little ninjas infiltrating our psyche, whispering their biases into our mind, impelling us to develop trust in their brands and products.

When has advertising already worked its magic before you have even wanted to buy from a specific brand? Let us know in the comments the times you know a brand has influenced your decision even before you went searching for a product or service.

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