• Amanda R. Zeller Manley, OD, FCOVD

What is Visual Thinking?

Updated: Oct 12

Visual thinking, visual perception, visual processing…. all different names for a set of skills that don’t take place in your eyeballs.

It may be a strange concept, but all vision takes place in your brain. Your eyeballs are really just bits of brain that grow out on the optic stalk to become sensors. Yep, eyeballs are just sensors. Light energy creates chemical and electrical signals in the retina, at the back of the eye. A series of neural circuits sends those signals to various points throughout the brain. Then signals go back to the eyeball, to tell it where to look, and what to look for. Those signals create the visual image, plus all the information about that image.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


For example: imagine looking at an apple– a red roundish thing. The visual signal may give you information about the color, shape, size. But I want you to imagine picking it up. How heavy is it? What temperature is it? Imagine giving it a sniff. Can you imagine the fragrance? Now take a bite. How does it feel as your teeth sink in? What sound does it make? How does it taste? Also, where did you pick it up from? Was it on your kitchen counter, or plucked from a tree? Was it day, or night?


How did you know all of that from seeing a red roundish thing? What if you picked the red roundish thing up, but found yourself biting into a rubber ball? Not the same experience at all!

Visual perception is not just creating that visual image, but all of the sensory information that goes with it. It’s remembering the location of that apple. It’s creating the anticipation of what interacting with that apple will be like. Now that your apple, with a bite missing, is on the kitchen counter, what would it look like from a different vantage point in your kitchen? Would you still be able to see the bite mark? How do you know this is still an apple?

Photo by John Finkelstein on Pexels.com


There are many other aspects of visual perception that we use in daily life, such as:

  1. Spelling sight words

  2. Understanding directional labels, such as right, left, over, under

  3. Developing the concept that the word “four”=”4″= ♥♥♥♥

  4. Remembering how much milk was left in the jug after breakfast

  5. Remembering where we left our keys

  6. Remembering which drawers the shirts go in

  7. Finding that favorite stuffy from the pile in the toy box

  8. Searching out the answers in the SAT comprehension test

  1. Parallel parking

  2. Safely making a left turn across traffic

  3. Assembling furniture

  4. Academic stuff, like reading comprehension, word problems, geometry, advanced math and science, art; understanding maps, graphs, charts

  5. Plus a whole bunch more

Why does visual perception come more easily for some than for others?

What is this? It’s not your eyes that will tell you, but your brain.


All aspects of vision are learned. That’s something most of us never think of, because we learned it at such a young age. It seems to just happen on its own. Some of us do a better job at learning vision, and some of us don’t.


Walking is a learned skill, too. You can take a look at any large group of people and observe that there are variations in the acquisition of that skill, too.

Fortunately, just as physical skills such as running, walking, kicking a ball, and touch-typing can be learned with appropriate instruction, visual perceptual skills can as well.


If you’d like to improve your visual skills, we can help.

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