How thinking with vision makes you a strong (reliable) thinker

Thinking with Vision Framework (a trilogy) 


Both 'Visual decision making' and 'visual problem-solving' are robust approaches that use the brain's cognitive process to think. SenseCatcher is the tool that allows us to make better decisions. Thinking with Vision is the framework.

In this article, we are primarily looking at how we think and how we can do better when solving problems and making decisions. We identify the weaknesses of our natural thinking process. Then we propose a framework that will make our problem solving and decision-making process robust. The focus of the article is not about problem-solving or decision making. It is about the 'Thinking with Vision' framework, where visual thinking becomes the bridge and buffer between, System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow) modes of thought.

The slow and fast modeas is also called the 'autonomic and novelty receptive aspects of the brain' in neuroscience. We will use the fast and low mode; provides us with an engaging metaphor.

Daniel Kahneman describes the 'apparatus' of thought as divided into two agents called 'system 1' and 'system 2'. These respectively produce fast and slow thinking. Also known as fast mode (intuitive) and slow mode (deliberate) thought. We will use these terms interchangeably.

System 1 = fast mode = Intuition.

System 2 = slow mode = Deliberate.

Decision-making can be difficult at the best of times, let alone when we have to deal with more complex situations. Studies show that anything that deals with more than three variables is complicated for the human brain to manage effectively.

We all can think well and make better decisions. We just need a little help.

We are not good at decision making. We are not very rational - contrary to what impression we might have of ourselves. Try the '
How Rational Are You? ' test at the end of this article.


This article provides a framework to help you understand how decision making works and how to make better decisions consistently, no matter how complex the issues.

The framework consists of various components. We have organized the content into separate articles. This page looks at 'How the Brain works'. The subcomponents: 'Cognitive Biases' and 'Visual Thinking' we explore in different posts. These concepts are central to the framework - click on links. We have done this to make it easier to understand.

We explain how the brain thinks, and we use this knowledge to demonstrate how a simple piece of technology can make you a good decision-maker and problem-solver.


The Problem with Decision Making & Problem Solving

There is a reason we all have varying degrees of apprehension when we have to make decisions and solve problems. Particularly when they are difficult and complex ones. That is because we are naturally lousy decision-makers, and at times we make poor judgements that we regret. We also have not had a robust framework, until now, that assists us with consistently making better decisions.

We believe that we are rational (homo economicus) – the ideal human being acts rationally, with complete knowledge, and seeks to maximize personal utility or satisfaction. This mantra is at the core of the tension and misconceptions we have with problem-solving and decision makingn.


How accurate is the above statement? As it turns out, not true at all. For this to happen, we need to have full knowledge of 'all' facts and variables. Firstly, knowing all variables is not possible because reality is continually changing - sorry to disappoint anyone. Secondly, it is impossible to know everything there is to know. We all have biases (cultural, social and personal) and emotions (we make different choices if we are angry, sad or happy). 


We often lack full self-control. For example, we might eat too much or not exercise enough. We prefer to maintain the status quo and are influenced by our network. The list can go on, but you get the idea. We are far from rational.


The way we currently go about processing and making decisions is at the heart of our anxiety with problem-solving.


The good news is that we can be 'more' rational. We just need a little help to relieve the cognitive pressure on our brains.


How the brain works

There are many explanations about how we think and make decisions. It is a topic that humans have been looking at for a very long time. With new technology (such as fMRI), we are now able to see more accurately how the brain works.


Research in various fields of study over the past few decades (based on experiments, observations and practice) has led to the creation of the software application 'SenseCatcher'. The core of the framework is Thinking with Vision. It provides the core principle for our Visual SenseMaking Framework - the driving principles when mapping complex situations.


We are not going to give a detailed account of all of the various fields of study. Instead, we will focus on the work of Daniel Kahneman - Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Visual Thinking (Visual Cognition). By combining these two relatively simple discoveries of the brain, we have a simple but powerful mechanism to help us deal with any problem and decision.

The two modes of thinking – fast & slow

thinking fast mode slow mode

Thinking fast and thinking slow explains why we are not entirely rational humans. It also gives us a structure to understand how to make the right decisions. By combining our visual thinking software application (SenseCatcher) with the two thinking modes (each having specific strengths and weaknesses), we can make sound and confident decisions.

Thinking fast and thinking slow are metaphors that describe how our brain thinks. It is also referred to in psychology as system one and system two thinking, respectively. They are not actual systems, nor are they are 'agents', merely shortcuts and characteristics of two distinct operations that describe how our brains behave. Thinking activities do not occur strictly in specific areas of the brain, although there are specialized regions to some degree. Many zones of the brain show activity when these modes of thinking are taking place, yet the processes show dispersed activity across the brain.

The Fast Mode

Thinking Fast accounts for 95% of our thought processes.


Fast thinking is primitive, unconscious, automatic, and never stops. It is emotional, intuitive, impatient, impulsive, and quick. It can work at various levels (automatically). It uses little energy (the reason it is cognitively favoured). It can create and make meaning and see patterns with little effort. But it is easily influenced and distracted. It pays no attention to what it does not know and only works with ideas in memory. It jumps to conclusions.

fast mode

The Slow Mode

Thinking Slow accounts for 5% of our thought processes.

Slow thinking, on the other hand, is linked to the neocortex, which is the most evolved part of the brain. It is involved in the higher functions of the brain such as reasoning, spatial awareness and conscious thought. It is rational, systematic, cautious, has small processing capacity, and is single focused. It is slow and uses a lot of energy.

slow mode

It can only control the fast mode of the brain under normal conditions. It cannot control the fast mode when it is highly-fired, especially when it is emotional, or the slow mode is tired or pre-occupied. The slow mode is excellent with abstractions and dealing with unknowns and complexity. It does not cope under pressure - this is when the fast mode takes over and shuts the slow mode down.

Comparing the two modes of thinking


To better understand how the two modes operate together, Table 1 compares them with the same criteria.

The two modes complement each other; one is not superior to the other. However, the fast mode can dominate the slow mode, due to the high energy requirements of the slow mode. When this happens, our thinking gets distorted, and we have problems thinking logically, solve problems; let alone reach a satisfactory decision.

The two modes of thinking help us to understand the flows and interrelationships of our minds.

There are benefits in both ways of thinking. The fast mode is INTUITIVE and depends on contextual signals (cues). Most of the decision errors occur in system 1. The slow mode is ANALYTICAL. It is quickly depleted or distracted and gives up if it requires too much effort to process inputs.

thinking Attribute


fast mode

Fast Mode: intuitive

slow mode

Slow Mode: Analytical

Reasoning style

Heuristic (rule-based)

Normative (related to a standard)

Associative (links to grouped patterns and values)

Deductive (the application of a general rule to a specific case)







Reflexive, skilled (involuntary or Unconscious reactions to stimuli

Deliberate, rule-based

Automatic response







Multiple, parallel

Single, linear

Behavioral tendency 









Vulnerability to bias


Less so


Low, variable

High, consistent




Emotional Spectrum



Predictive power



Hard-wired (permanently connected circuit)

May be


Scientific rigour



Context dependent



Adapted from Dawson (1993). Croskerry (2005) and Evans (2008)


At this point, we recommend reading ‘Cognitive Biases’ and ‘Visual Thinking’. They are central to the framework.

Biases will make you a poor thinker  (just saying)

A New Look at Visual Thinking (When Vision Makes Meaning)

double red arrow down

So far, we have identified the multiple components of the framework. We have established the set of assumptions in the puzzle. Next, we will describe the Thinking with Vision framework.


Why do we need visual thinking?


From what we have seen, the way we naturally and spontaneously think is not perfect. We can easily make poor decisions and not even be aware of it.

An effort is required to make sensible decisions. Activating the slow mode can be difficult, and at the same time, we need to make sure we do not fall prey to our biases - easier said than done.

For these reasons, we need a mechanism to help us be consistent and prevent us from slipping into the default way of thinking and bad habits.

why we need visual thinking

The ingredient is visual thinking (we also refer to it as visual cognition). Visual thinking as a mechanism provides the system 2 with extended working capacity. It creates almost a dual buffering and bridging effect, encouraging it to remain active, and continue doing its job for longer. While at the same time, allowing the system 1 to function and do what it does best.


Why we need a Framework

Tripartite Visual SenseMaking Framework

Note - we use the words - framework, method and mechanism loosely. We are referring to the broader notion of organizing principles rather than a step by step recipe. We are proposing a loose structure which leaves room for other practices and tools to be included but provides orientation and awareness as the organizing principle of Thinking with Vision.

Over 250 studies confirm and support that when using a systematic approach, we get positive results, versus relying on our intuitive thinking approach. We also can not find a single example that hints that having a framework compromises our decision-making abilities.

Using a framework allows us to operate in reliable ways. However, as with all useful mechanisms, we need to refine it continually - it needs to evolve as we learn and act in the real world.

If we make decisions without a method, the process will never be the same. It will be different each time. People are not consistent; emotions and feelings alter our focus. This kind of interference noise distorts decision-making, and this is why having a method that makes problem-solving more rigorous is essential. It forces us to look at the problem from a broader perspective, rather than intuitively, and it engages the slow mode to be activated. Noise and error are costly.

A study conducted in a large organization looked at decision making using 40 highly experienced individuals. All 40 received precisely the same information (the problem was technical). The assumed difference between the results was around 5%. However, the reality was 50%, which means that there were 20 different types of decisions made rather than the expected 2. That is huge and tells us that the human decision-making process is weak, especially if we can get such a diverging set of solutions to one problem. It confirms the fact that without a framework, individuals are, by default, using the fast mode (intuition) and falling prey to their biases and making errors of judgement.

To test if having a framework makes any difference, in the same organization 40 different, but experienced people participated in a second experiment. However, this time, a method was given as part of the problem-solving procedure.


The variance in the second experiment was 3%. This result speaks for itself. Noise and bias are additive – it compounds the weakness of the decision-making process. Without a structuring mechanism, the brain 'plays tricks' on us. It is almost as if we merrily go off at tangents, randomly. We are not aware of the turnoffs we make.

The majority of organizations are not aware of their weaknesses. Many do not have a framework nor feedback mechanisms.

The fact is that most organizations and individuals do not know the weakness of their approach to decision-making. They do not have feedback mechanisms, and experienced individuals have increased confidence in their idiosyncratic procedures – the decision-making process becomes compounded and weekend.

By using a method, we are disciplining our intuition. We are primarily learning and activating the slow mode to do its job.

The process becomes a Sense-Making process:

  • awareness of the context
  • observations of the dynamics that emerge between context and variables
  • seeking of information (process and the drivers)
  • creation of meaning
  • constructing the story

By mapping all these elements visually, we create an artefact rich with meaning. A sense-making journey drives the mapping process. In this way, the interaction between system 1 and system 2 becomes mediated by visual thinking. We can 'see' emergence and therefore make sense of the complexity that has surfaced in the problem. The exploration of the story propels the SenseMaking process. The telling of the narrative becomes the organizing and structuring principle (problem-solving) leading to the decision.

Using a method provides us with consistently good results in decision-making. It leads us to a systematic analysis, and it forces us to consider the various independent dimensions of the problem.

This approach allows us to learn, discover and look carefully at the uniqueness of the problem. Ideally, we remove our expert 'hats' and become participants.

The two modes of thinking must work together. Still, because of the high energy requirements of the slow mode, we need the visual sense to help the slow mode and reduce its cognitive energy requirements. Without any visual aids, our brain cannot cope with complexity and appreciate the interacting, interconnected and dynamic nature of the problem we are trying to find a resolution. 


What is visual cognition?


Our visual sense is dominant. We also know today that visual cognition is separate from normal cognition. Published evidence estimates that 80-85% of our perception, learning and thinking becomes mediated through Vision.

The brain dedicates 30%-40% of the high-functioning cortical 'real estate' to Vision. It is dominant, and research shows that the brain uses other sensory stimuli to accelerate visual processing (such as auditory). Vision is the quickest to engage and has the most extended processing cycle compared to the other senses.

There is a growing body of thought that holds that Vision has independent intelligence 
(Cavanagh, P). It does not give in to coercion from the rest of the brain, such as in the fast mode.

Irvin Rock (experimental psychologist) regarded as the founding researcher who presented the core of visual cognition as the logic of perception, and many have built on his work. They confirm that visual cognition operates as a separate aspect of cognition.


The Trilogy Framework

Tripartite Framework

Given these findings, visual cognition is the obvious candidate to facilitate our fast and slow modes to function optimally. It acts almost as a bridging and buffering mechanism - providing space and slack to both systems while at the same time working as the unifying 'agent.'

SenseCatcher - has been tested and used in various settings and professional domains since 1993, and used to solve problems of various complexities and help people make sound decisions with confidence.


The framework takes full advantage of our visual cognition, as well as the fast and slow modes of thinking. It integrates these elements by using SenseCatcher as a tool that accelerates and structures the visual sense-making process.

The majority of us do not know that our visual cognition is powerful. Instead, we rely on sequential cause and effect thinking (fast thinking) and are unaware of the fact that our brain uses the 'fast thinking' mode by default.

The default fast-thinking approach is only able to deal with one or two variables and operate intuitively. The moment we have three or more points to deal with, system 1 fails us and system 2 is very often turned 'off'. Most of the problems facing us are complex - for these resons, we have difficulty solving problems and making decisions. It is not because we are lazy or ignorant - it is because we are not aware of the inbuilt compass we all have and how to use it


How the elements come together

Seeing is an automatic process. It happens below our level of consciousness, and it is part of our decision-making process. It is independent and not influenced by either the slow or fast modes. But it does call on both systems, while reducing working memory capacity, allowing us to think more efficiently and make better decisions.

When visual thinking is active, the fast and slow modes are both used equally. System 1 is not dominant, allowing the system 2 to balance out the biases and impact of the fast mode. This simple realization makes visual decision-making extremely powerful, allowing us to think with clarity and become more rational.

We need to remind ourselves - the brain works as a whole. Our framework describes how we can use the mind to its full potential.

Visual thinking and the two modes

Both the fast and slow modes process visualization, the processing depends on the detail on the image.

Visualization draws freely on the fast and slow modes. Vision reduces the energy requirements of the slow mode by providing it with scope and space to do analysis. At the same time, the fast mode can function by providing inputs without tripping or switching the slow mode off.

In our experience with SenseCather and using the Visual SenseMaking framework (underpined by Thinking with Vision), we find that non-experts arrive at new and innovative solutions, just as well as experts. Sometimes outperforming experts.

Using this framework allows us to make decisions outside of our specific knowledge domain. Very often, problems span across professional fields. Complex issues that require innovative solutions are never domain-specific. There are no 'Medical', Architectural, Financial, Educational problems ... Complex problems need to address things like social, environmental issues etc. Collaboration is central as well as learning.

With expertise, comes a degree of inflexibility. Particularly true when dealing with new situations.

For example, an engineer asked to design a dam wall - design integrity will be the expected outcome. However, the engineer is very likely to ignore social issues that could affect the community, both upstream and downstream of the dam wall, as well as potential environmental impacts the dam can have.

Studies have shown that visual decision-making is particularly useful when two or more people are involved. The visual medium allows and encourages shared communication; it is considered the most effective way to make decisions. Using visuals in the process, it outperforms verbal and written communication by 93%. Visual SenseMaking strips away the biases and personal interpretations.

Facts become highlighted; removed from misinterpretations. Biases get easily spotted and surfaced in the discussion. Group visual SenseMaking is a more accurate and beneficial decision process. Even if you are working alone, the visual map has the properties of group work because you will be working from the 'outside' perspective. You will effectively be having a dialogue between yourself and the map. Weaknesses in your thinking are easy to identify.

We can represent information and knowledge pictorially, thus reducing the load on the slow mode. The reason this works well is that the prefrontal cortex tends to shut down or get easily distracted. However, once symbolic information has been captured and placed on a visual map, there is less stress on the slow mode. It is allowed to remain logical, rational and make sound decisions. At the same time, the fast mode can participate with what it does best - powerful functions of storytelling, holistic thinking and parallel processing capacity.

In this example, we know that a parent is reading a bedtime story. We even know what the story is about from this simple visual – this understanding happens in a split second.

visual story bed time story
Visual SenseMapping

The Visual SenseMap makes a complex set of relationships, along with tons of facts and information, easy to understand at a glance. Both the fast and slow modes can function adequately without the fast mode shutting the slow mode down.

System 1 can see complexity, but only system 2 can make sense of it. It can make abstractions while, at the same time, create meaning of unknown situations. System 1 relies on memory; it cannot untangle the unknown. It is up to system 2 to validate the complexity identified by system 1.

There becomes a tipping point where system 2 rejects too much information because of its linear processing function and limited energy capacity. By having a visual map, system 2 is forced to engage and deal logically with the newly exposed complexity of reality - system 1 does not shut it down. This process is only possible by using visual thinking.

The creativity of the fast mode provides the slow mode with the material to reason, mediated by visual thinking. It gives the slow mode more capacity to analyze and process the complexity, and make logical sense of the relationships and connections. The fast mode can then spot the meaning that emerges from the visual map after the slow mode has processed it.

The tripartite union of visual thinking, fast and slow modes allows us to make good decisions. Visual thinking expertly guides both the slow and fast modes to systematically and independently evaluate the individual components of a problem. It performs a weighted, balanced view of the whole, rather than a funnelled impression when no visual mapping is used. It balances and distributes attention away from biases and distortions of the dominant fast mode of thinking. Normally happening when no visual thinking is involved.

Visual thinking is disciplined thinking. It reduces the 'noise' (emotions, biases, values, ego, habits, overconfidence). It forces the brain to perform what is known as probability-weighting, something humans have difficulty with, but a breeze when using visual thinking.

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