A Healthier Diet For The Mind

In new book, Communication's Barry says 'visual intelligence' is needed to understand media's impact

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Fast food offers an obvious but appropriate symbol for US popular culture, says Assoc. Prof. Ann Marie Barry (Communication): quick to obtain, easy to digest - and of little nutritional value.

But the metaphor goes deeper, Barry explains. Most fast-food restaurants utilize red and yellow in their design because of their subtle effect on human senses, she said, including an exaggerated perception of time. Customers who feel they have spent a long, leisurely meal actually replace one another in fairly rapid succession, thus enabling the restaurant to do a high volume of business.

This form of image manipulation may be relatively innocuous, but for Barry it suggests the darker implications of an increasingly visual-fixated society, which she explores in her forthcoming book Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image and Manipulation in Visual Communication . Drawing upon her background in fields like advertising, perceptual psychology, film and literature, Barry claims that the proliferation of visually-oriented technology has outpaced our ability to fully comprehend its impact.

Assoc. Prof. Ann Marie Barry (Communication)-"We have this great capability to visualize; the potential - like an Albert Einstein - to break through the linear logic of words. But we also have the vulnerability to be manipulated by TV ads, fast-food restaurants and shopping malls."

What's needed, she says, is visual intelligence: an ability to not only understand the logic employed in the manipulation of images, but to apply this understanding to better the social, economic and political environment. She sees it as a valuable resource in the ongoing debates over the link between video games and violent behavior, the influence of advertising on young people and other issues.

"Visual intelligence involves integrating the understanding of how we see things in a much broader way," Barry said. "In our everyday lives, our strengths can be our weaknesses. We have this great capability to visualize; the potential - like an Albert Einstein - to break through the linear logic of words. But we also have the vulnerability to be manipulated by TV ads, fast-food restaurants and shopping malls."

Too often, Barry says, we make ourselves susceptible to this manipulation through our reliance on visual media for information and entertainment - which nowadays may be barely distinguishable from one another. Again, the parallels with junk food are compelling: A steady diet of burgers, fries and shakes gives quick pleasure and eliminates hunger pangs, but excludes other vital sources of nutrition.

Similarly, she continued, hours spent watching TV or playing computer games prevent us from exercising more sophisticated elements of our mental faculties. In so doing, Barry warns, we also compromise our ability to interpret and process what we see on our screens and monitors.

"You need a balance in the kind of stimulation you receive, and that has to come from harnessing both our emotional and cognitive aspects," she said. "Visual intelligence, then, implies an ability to understand the balance."

Barry's work on visual intelligence reflects a growing trend in media-related studies, one which involves more extensive, cross-disciplinary explorations. Research in areas such as TV's effect on child behavior goes back years, Barry says, but "now we are at the stage where communications experts are talking with neuroscientists, to get a fuller picture of how we perceive, and what we think we perceive."

Accordingly, Visual Intelligence is divided into three sections. In the first, Barry describes not only the process of perception within people, but the theories and fallacies concerning it, and presents an overview of the nature and power of imagery. She then moves onto a discussion in the next section describing the production and manipulation of images, and how these may be processed by the mind.

In the last section, Barry brings these themes together as she examines advertising and political imagery - including the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, and the propaganda value of Adolf Hitler's image - and the long-running media-and-violence debate.

Seminal media analyst Marshall McLuhan correctly predicted that the advent of visual media "would change the very way we think," Barry said, and this poses a challenge for contemporary and future society. Students are choosing to learn through visual means more than any others, she said, but by its nature visual media does not allow them the opportunity to reflect fully on the message they receive.

"We learn emotionally from TV and film, and that's certainly important," Barry said. "If that is the only way we learn, however, we shut ourselves off from developing our full perceptive capabilities. As a result, we become a society which finds it difficult to respond in a linear fashion."

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