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Free Thinking: Drawing sensation!


Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks argues that learning styles theory, risks becoming just another rigid dogma; read on to find out how cartoons could save the day.

Most people who come along to our 'think like a cartoonist' workshops already recognise the value of cartooning as a tool for engaging visual learners. Some of them are keen to develop their drawing and visual thinking skills because they're aware of the predominance of vision over all the other senses.

After all, vision is definitely king of the sensory castle, with around half the brain devoted to processing visual information. It’s an astonishing thought that, of the 11 million pieces of information we take in each second through our five senses, 90% of them enter our brains directly through our eyes.

But people attending our workshops are often surprised to discover that cartoons appeal to more than just the visual sense – they can make you feel things, hear things, smell things, even taste things too. In fact, drawing can be a truly multi-sensory tool for teachers, trainers and communicators of all kinds. A bold claim, you might think, so let me back it up with some science.

Neuroscientist Edward Hubbard* says that "as the infant brain grows into the adult brain, regions that were connected to each other at birth are slowly separated or pruned."

Studies of the brain indicate that when we're born our senses are mixed up or cross-wired to a certain extent – a condition known as synaesthesia. For most of us the condition is temporary but for a small number of people, known as synaesthetes, it persists throughout their lives. For synaesthetes, days of the week can be coloured, textures can have tastes and words can have odours.

For the rest of us though, as we grow up our senses gradually become more separate and our synaesthetic sensibility fades. But our early synaesthetic phase leaves its mark, and although our senses become more differentiated as we mature, they never completely disentangle. Many everyday expressions like 'a loud tie', 'a sharp cheese', 'bitter cold' and 'sweet music' show just how commonplace the synaesthetic experience is.

Some neuroscientists even believe that the study of synaesthesia will one day lead to a deeper understanding of the creative process itself by revealing how the brain makes metaphors.

Learning styles
Thanks to the theory of learning styles we recognise that learners are unique individuals who respond differently to the same experience. The positive impact of this has been to remind us that variety is the key to good teaching and communication. We all take in and make sense of the world around us through our senses but learning styles theory says that each of us has a tendency to favour one sensory gateway over the others – some learn best through seeing, others through listening, doing or feeling.

But while learning styles theory certainly has much to offer, it is often oversimplified and risks becoming yet another way of categorising people into ‘types’ (he’s visual, she’s auditory, I’m kinaesthetic, and so on).

This oversimplification can mask deeper, more complex truths about multi-sensory learning, which stem from the fact that all of us remain synaesthetes to a greater or lesser extent throughout our lives. So we need a more carefully thought out approach to the understanding and application of learning styles theory, given that our senses don't work in isolation.

What advertisers know...
Perhaps trainers and teachers could learn some useful lessons about multi-sensory learning from the world of advertising. There's almost always a strong synaesthetic dimension to persuasive advertising campaigns. Take the recent series of highly successful Marks & Spencer television food adverts.

On screen we see a very tasty-looking cooked chicken dish. A female narrator with a captivating voice tells us seductively that it's not just chicken, it's actually farm-reared, organic, golden Wiltshire farm chicken. The carefully chosen picture words, attractive voice and inviting images culminate in a rich chord that gets all our senses pulsating in harmony.

The adverts success doesn't depend on appealing to one particular learning style or sensory mode, on the contrary, it works by unleashing a synaesthetic tidal wave capable of breaching the sturdiest of individual sensory gateways and learning styles. And all this is accomplished using only two sensory modalities – vision and hearing. So it would seem that if you can draw and speak, the world of multi-sensory learning experiences lies at your feet.

Drawing out the senses
For trainers and teachers who want to take advantage of this, cartooning is an obvious next step. The graphic simplicity and directness of cartoons can be used to evoke smells, sounds, feelings and tastes, as well as the emotions that accompany them. With a few simple lines you can, for example, draw explosions that will give your audience a headache.

You’ll be able to make their noses tingle by drawing someone sniffing a flower – dogs sniffing what dogs sniff will probably make them feel nauseous. Someone stepping on a sharp tack will make them feel pain. Someone biting into a lemon will make them salivate, and so on. And as you draw live, further captivating the attention of your audience, the well-chosen multi-sensory picture words you speak will support, enrich and orchestrate the whole experience.

*For a more detailed account of synaesthesia, see Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, in Scientific American, May 2003.

Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

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