Using Computer Science to Determine How to Present Information Visually

New research by CSAIL Principal Research Scientist Aude Oliva provides new clues about the brain’s visual memory. In collaboration with Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) doctoral student Michelle Borkin and Professor Hanspeter Pfister, Oliva and graduate students Zoya Bylinskii and Phillip Isola studied the memorability of a wide variety of visualizations to help decipher the best ways to present information visually.
“All of us are sensitive to the same kinds of images, and we forget the same kind as well,” said Oliva. “We like to believe our memories are unique, that they’re like the soul of a person, but in certain situations it’s as if we have the same algorithm in our heads that is going to be sensitive to a particular type of image. So when you find a result like this in photographs, you want to know: is it generalizable to many types of materials—words, sound, images, graphs?”
“Speaking with [Pfister] and his group, it became very exciting, the idea that we could study what makes a visualization memorable or not,” Oliva recalls. “If it turned out to be the same for everyone, we thought this would be a win-win result.”
The collaboration provided several new insights on how the brain processes and stores visual information. While visually dense images and colors made graphics more memorable, researchers were surprised to find that more complicated charts like tree diagrams, network diagrams, and grid matrices were more memorable.