Back in December of 2011 (so long ago, I was but a young lad…) I wrote a long winded post headlined “Can graphic novels make you smarter?” It discussed how combining the act of reading and looking at pictures to absorb a story activate different parts of the brain. You can read that post linked here.
At the time I hadn’t looked at the issue from the perspective of two interesting words which are usually used in the field of linguistics but have great resonance for the issue of using pictures and words together to tell stories.
Diachronic is a term for something happening over time. and ‘synchronic‘ refers to something that happens at a specific point in time.
In linguistics diachronic and synchronic have been defined as relating to the issues of examining language from a historical POV vs. a topological one. But I am interested in the broader meaning of the terms.
The big idea is that you gain meaning from language as it unfolds through time e.g. “Once upon a time there was a bear and a monkey who were best friends.”
Whereas you can absorb the impact from an illustration immediately e.g. an illustration showing a bear and monkey playing video games together.
Of course you can study the illustration, and gain more from it, but when you combine the experience of reading a story using words and have part of that story use visual imagery the brain is doing some extra work to build a larger meaning and context. Contradictions can arise and new levels of similarity can be gained.
I began to realize that a graphic novels and picture books activate different processes for a reader. And perhaps part of the intrigue and interest is that the brain is conceptualizing the narrative in different ways because of how we understand language vs. an illustration. (See this intriguing article from Science Daily about how a brain understands images) We read and gain understanding through time, while the image not only informs us in one ‘blast’ but they physically use different parts of the brain to gather meaning.
The brain likes to be surprised in a narrative. And by combining the use of language and image it’s a more dynamic experience.
I’m not saying that the more elements you add to a narrative creation the better it is. But it may explain why a graphic novel or a picture book brings such great pleasure and satisfaction to a reader.
I also suspect that better understanding how we experience words and pictures in different ways can help illustrators and writers better exploit what makes each form interesting and dynamic.