New paper: Visual narrative comprehension: Universal or not?

My latest paper has now been published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review entitled “Visual Narrative Comprehension: Universal or not?” This paper explores to what degree sequences of images are universally transparent, and questions this basic assumption that everyone can easily understand a sequence of images with no learning or decoding.

This has been a pervasive assumption amongst many scholars, particularly ones who protest my notion of a visual language, and yet I continually found evidence against this view. I had several researchers tell me of experiences they had where participants in their cross-cultural research could not understand a sequence of images. Then, in developmental research with kids, it became apparent that they didn’t understand image sequences until around age 4-6.

This research was troubling because many researchers were using visual narratives in their experiments as stimuli, without questioning how they worked or whether they were understood. This was especially true in research with young kids, where visual narratives were used as stimuli to study the developmental trajectory of different abilities, yet the kids were often too young to understand the stimuli themselves!

Another place where visual narratives were used as stimuli was in clinical research. Visual narratives are frequent stimuli for neurodivergent populations like individuals with autism or developmental language disorder. They are also used in studies with people who have brain damage that affects language, in aphasia.

So, I decided to research all of these topics, and found that all of these contexts have results where people do not comprehend a sequence of images in a “universal” or transparent way. This paper is the result of over five years of research on this topic, and it actually left out quite a lot! (it will thus be the topic of my next book, out next year)

You can find my open access paper online here.


Visual narratives of sequential images – as found in comics, picture stories, and storyboards – are often thought to provide a fairly universal and transparent message that requires minimal learning to decode. This perceived transparency has led to frequent use of sequential images as experimental stimuli in the cognitive and psychological sciences to explore a wide range of topics. In addition, it underlines efforts to use visual narratives in science and health communication and as educational materials in both classroom settings and across developmental, clinical, and non-literate populations. Yet, combined with recent studies from the linguistic and cognitive sciences, decades of research suggest that visual narratives involve greater complexity and decoding than widely assumed. This review synthesizes observations from cross-cultural and developmental research on the comprehension and creation of visual narrative sequences, as well as findings from clinical psychology (e.g., autism, developmental language disorder, aphasia). Altogether, this work suggests that understanding the visual languages found in comics and visual narratives requires a fluency that is contingent on exposure and practice with a graphic system.

Full reference (in Early View):

Cohn, Neil. 2019. “Visual narrative comprehension: universal or not?” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 1-20. doi: 10.3758/s13423-019-01670-1.


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