Why Our Brains Prefer Symbols to Words

Everyday symbols like &?!#@$ are highly memorable, according to new research. The study led by the University of Waterloo aimed to investigate how well symbols are remembered compared to words with the same meaning. “Our work is ground-breaking as it highlights how humans remember graphic symbols and logos,” said Myra Fernandes, co-author and professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Waterloo. “Symbols are particularly useful as they can be used as logos in advertising, as well as offer a faster means of communication through emojis. Our studies examining memory for symbols offer insight into ways to maximize retention and refine communication.”

Symbols and Memory

Across five studies, the researchers surveyed over 1100 adults to examine the role of symbols in memory. In the studies, participants were presented with either a symbol or its word counterpart, e.g., ‘$’ or ‘dollar’, and tested on how many symbols or words they could remember.  In all studies, the researchers found that participants were able to memorize symbols better than words with the same meaning.

“Symbols might be more easily remembered because they give concrete visuals to abstract ideas,” said Brady Roberts, lead author and PhD candidate in Cognitive Neuroscience. “When we think about abstract concepts, like love, it can be difficult to visualize clearly. But with symbols, we can use a sort of image that represents the concept – like a heart for love – which makes the abstract idea more concrete and therefore easier to remember.” 

Single Concept vs Multiple Meanings

Roberts adds that symbols may also be easier to remember because they are unique and tend to represent a single concept, whereas words can have multiple meanings. Consider the play symbol [▷]. It only has one meaning: to start a piece of media. But its word counterpart ‘play’ has many other meanings, such as a game or theatrical performance, and there are many synonyms for the word, such as commence, begin, and start.

The authors hope that their work will aid in the future of visual design to help plainly communicate complicated or abstract ideas. The paper, authored by Roberts, Fernandes, and Colin MacLeod, appears in the psychology journal Cognition.

StepUp Note

This research shows that symbols are easier to remember than words, across the 5 different research activities tested in this investigation. Symbol recognition requires us to use our brain power, to relate visual images to information and actions. Symbols help us know what to do, and when to do it. Red means stop. Green means go. Pictures and gestures give children more opportunities to use the power of images for learning and remembering. In StepUp programs, the images of “stool” and “shoe/foot,” along with pictures and gestures, help children tell themselves what to do and when to do it. Children who can tell themselves what to do and when to do it become independent learners!

Note by Nancy W Rowe, MS, CCC/A

Reposted from University of Waterloo



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