My brain recalls information in 3D — not hierarchical lists

by Erica Driver.

I frequently am tasked with recalling specific data points from the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009 for client inquiries, presentations, press calls, and blog posts. I can’t remember the exact numbers — my memory is sieve-like — so for the first week after the report was published I would go to the 36-page PDF and do a word search. Because it would take me too long to navigate my computer’s file system to get to the correct folder where the PDF is stored, I found that the easiest way to get to the PDF was through our Web site. But opening the actual PDF from the Web site took too long and I got frustrated.

So I tried going to the PowerPoint file containing the data charts from the study. But navigating my file system to find the PowerPoint deck, and then doing a word search or flipping through the charts one by one to find the chart I needed was also frustrating. I have several versions of the PowerPoint slides that were created for different purposes, and there are all the old drafts to contend with.

After the ThinkBalm Data Garden went live in the virtual world of Second Life, displaying data from the study, I immediately began to go there whenever I was looking for specific numbers from the survey. This is the way to go.

I can see the layout of the ThinkBalm Data Garden in my mind's eye
I can see the layout of the ThinkBalm Data Garden in my mind’s eye

 A few observations:

  • I can find what I need more quickly in the 3D environment than the old way. I launch my client software, log into the virtual world, press “Page Up” to fly, and within 2 seconds am standing in front of the exact data chart I need. I know what direction to fly in probably because I helped build the environment, have given dozens of tours, and helped produce a video tour about it. I can picture the entire tour loop in my mind.
  • Recalling information in 3D relieves mental stress. When I really tune in while meandering through a hierarchical file system to find a piece of information I need, I am aware that I feel mild stress. I’m an organized person, but I don’t always know ahead of time how my files should be organized and their organic growth doesn’t always make it easy for me to find stuff when I need it. The same is true for file and folder naming. I try to be organized and give things logical names. But what made sense at the time doesn’t always make the most sense later.
  • It’s not just me! I mentioned my observations to Sam Driver and he said that he finds information from our study the same way: he visits the ThinkBalm Data Garden. Today I mentioned my observation to a couple of visitors who stopped by the data garden and both understood exactly what I meant. One of them — Rob Muhlestein, an IBMer I respect very much — said he does the same thing. He visits the island when he wants to recall a data point from the study.
  • The human brain recalls information spatially, in 3D. Finding the data I need this way feels natural. My brain is used to understanding information in 3D. Despite that I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, my brain is not skilled at navigating hierarchical, alphabetical text lists of folders and files, and then skipping linearly through a bunch of document pages to find the information I want. One of the people I mentioned my observations to agreed, “Our brains are designed to process 3d data quickly and intuitively. It’s how we can walk around in a 3d world without bumping into things.” She hit the nail on the head.

This has profound implications for work-related use of the Immersive Internet — especially for the learning and training and collaborative 3D data visualization use cases. Lesson learned: find engaging, visually stimulating ways to create data experiences and one of the ways it could pay off is through productivity improvement and increased job satisfaction. Yes, on a micro level — but still. I think I’m onto something. 

© 2009 ThinkBalm. All rights reserved.


6 Responses

  1. Are you familiar with the Memory Palaces, described by Cicero and medieval and renaissance writers?

    This is an interesting book that describes the technique and history in detail: “The Art of Memory” by Frances Yates..

  2. Reedh: I read the first few pages of “The Art of Memory” on and have placed my order for the book. Can’t wait to read it! Thank you for the tip.

  3. I don’t remember where I first came across it many years ago, but when I first started to get interested in virtual worlds and the best ways to construct them I remembered it and re-read it.

    I’m sure there are also some modern texts out of psychology etc. that address the issue also, I’d love to find a good one (for a non-psychologist) if anyone is aware of one.

  4. This conversation is fascinating. 3d data visualization and memory seem to be largely untapped topics specifically as applied to virtual worlds. Could be I just haven’t found anything yet. Thanks so much!

  5. […] This article first appeared on the ThinkBalm blog. Erica Driver […]

  6. I originally posted the below in a discussion on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community group site on Linked. A great conversation is happening there.

    Great comments, everyone. I’m feeling very grateful right now to be connected to so many smart, thoughtful people. I have a few additional thoughts about this topic:

    * Just because I and a few others I’ve talked to find it faster and easier to locate information in 3D than by navigating the computer file system, does this mean it’s true for everyone?
    * It seems it would only be easier for a person to find information in 3D than the hierarchical way if they are intimately familiar with the 3D space. If I had never visited the ThinkBalm Data Garden before I would have absolutely no idea where to go to find a particular piece of information.
    * Does the need to be familiar with the 3D layout of information have implications for features of enterprise immersive platforms? Does it have to be easy for business users — not tech heads — to create data spaces that work for them and their teams?
    * I think that part of why I am able to find information in the ThinkBalm Data Garden more easily and quickly than via my file system is because at many of the data stations the data is displayed in interactive, visual, non-traditional ways. These stick in my mind. The 2D PowerPoint charts are there too for people who want them. But they are just the “backup points” for the data experience.

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