The Cognitive Science Behind Complex Content Retention

Dave Snyder


December 10, 2015 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

I go on Twitter to update the world on the kind of coffee I am drinking, and I am hit with a deluge of:

Top 11 XX

You Won’t Believe What Happens When XX

15 Stats that XX

Top that with Trends, Moments, and whatever other item Twitter is shoving down my throat this month and the information stream is overwhelming.

Twitter is a singular platform in the tapestry that makes up my online life. I find the same thick cloud of information on Facebook, I am getting sent articles on Slack from co-workers, and then someone will still sneak in with a recommended link via email.

This generation of Internet users sits down at their computers like they’re pulling up to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and the consumption of information is off any chart we ever thought of creating.

Infobesity is a real issue that content creators and marketers face. So what is the value of going “viral” in this environment?

Take it one step further.

How do we create content that people remember in this all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of online information?

Breaking down complex data and concepts in this environment of quick consumption can make this issue even stickier.

Infographics were originally created to give visual explanations for data points, but as the format has grown, so has its use outside of simple data visualizations. As more infographics have come online, the unique nature of these data breakdowns has dampened.

Complex data sets give marketers a strong and compelling story around sometimes less than compelling topics. Our job is to figure out how to break that story down quickly, in a way that can be remembered and that inspires the emotions that can cause actions.

Why and How People Digest Complex Content

We know that from a content creator’s perspective, complex data can help create a compelling story, but it is important to understand why readers will take in complex data and utilize it in order to shape an appropriate strategy to get the information out.

Readers are looking to:

  • Acquire facts or procedures
  • Understand reality
  • Make sense of the world

Just as people have many different reasons they want to digest complex data, they have many different ways they learn and retain the data they digest.

There are seven general ways people learn and digest information:

  1. Visual: Using sight
  2. Auditory: Using songs or rhythms
  3. Verbal: Speaking the information out loud
  4. Kinesthetic: Using touch and taste to explore the information
  5. Logical: A more mathematical approach to concepts
  6. Interpersonal: Learning in groups
  7. Intrapersonal: Learning alone

These learning types are called modalities.

Research has shown that because most educational content is stored in terms of meaning, there is not a true value in teaching an individual based on their own, individualized modality. However, modality when it comes to content is incredibly important.

For example, if you want to get someone to remember the bones in the human skeleton, a teacher may use a faux skeleton that the class can see and touch. They wouldn’t only kinesthetic learners go down this path, even though the content and context of the lesson is overall better suited for this modality.

Different Ways to Integrate Modalities

ChunkingChunking is a way of learning that does what it says; it takes larger concepts and breaks them into smaller digestible concepts. This can be done most effectively through the auditory and visual modalities.

Think about how you learned your phone number. We break it into several groups of smaller numbers in an auditory fashion rather than a long series of 10.

The below infographic takes the concept of cooking rice, and breaks down the function through several independent sequences.


Interacting Images

An item is much more likely to be remembered if it can be shown interacting with another item. In this case, we are compiling items together to create a whole memory. In the infographic below, the artist uses a simple use case of cows to explain complex government and economic models.


Because we understand what cows are, that they produce milk, and their general use in agriculture, the infographic is able to utilize them to symbolize resource ownership. We utilize information we already have to learn new information.

Dual Coding

Dual coding assumes that there are two cognitive sub-systems. One is specialized for dealing with processing imagery, and the other for dealing with language. A good example of dual coding is the utilization of graphs to represent numeric data. People can relate two different fractions more quickly in graph form.

Basic visualizations of data utilize dual coding concepts, as they allow for content to be quickly digested. Below, see an excerpt from an infographic showing a comparison of Fed Ex and UPS. You can quickly see that while Fed Ex leads in number of jets, UPS has almost five times the ground fleet.


Kinesthetic Learning

This modality is action based. Learners retain information by interacting with the item. Take our skeleton analogy above for example.

Movement and interaction is key. In terms of complex data digestion, interactive content hits on this learning style. Interactive content, designed largely through HTML 5 or Flash, allows content consumers to interact with data and information.

Below is an interactive piece of content we created that is loaded with data on British travelers. The content scrolls to unveil a story that coincides with the data. The content consumer must interact with the content for more data to be consumed.


Bottom-up and Top-down Processing

In bottom-up processing, stimulus influences our perception. So if we are looking at a red sphere on the ground, you allow the cognitive response to define the object.

Top-down, in contrast, uses your background knowledge to influence your perception. Our brains take information surrounding certain data, and use the entire bulk of information, including background knowledge, to fill in the missing information.

A good example top down processing is the following image:

From a bottom-up perspective, these are just some black blobs. Most people however inform the image from their background and see a face. Looking further, or being told to do so, a person will see a sax player formed in the black blob. Context and information helps to form what you see.

That is top-down processing.

This word cloud is a great example of top-down processing. It uses the Gettysburg Address to build an image of Lincoln.


Here is an image of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke made from data related to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.


Using Cognitive Science

Understanding cognitive science can allow you to create content that is more effective by matching the right modalities with the right message and data. However, understanding modalities and learning techniques can also allow us to optimize content we are already creating for it to reach maximum effectiveness.

Make It Concise and Scannable

By making your content concise and scannable, you are not only making the content visually appealing to intrapersonal learners, but you are also battling the infobesity issue. This is the reason really strong white papers should be presented via abstracts with the actual white paper being a downloadable or in some other format. Give consumers the gist and structure with concise data in a way that entices the consumer to read more.

Learn to Tell Stories

By creating a story for readers around your complex data concept, you are utilizing multiple modalities and cognitive concepts.

Do you remember Aesop’s Fable about sour grapes? It taught us how easy it is for us to grow to despise what we cannot have. Fables were a way to utilize storytelling to teach complex moral concepts to children. These stories use a mixture of interacting images and top-down processing to help consumers use exiting information to fill in the gaps of their understanding about a topic.

Visual Metaphors and Analogies

Similar to storytelling, adding metaphors and analogies to your content can help clear blind spots in your consumers’ understanding. “The Tale of Two Cows” infographic above did a tremendous job of using this concept to help make complex economic concepts easy to digest.

Make it Personal

People understand concepts better when the concepts relate to them directly. “How does this concept affect me?” is the question you should look to answer. Taking the neuro-science one step further, you should look to influence the emotional reaction of the consumer.

In Conclusion

Going viral is a great thing, there is no debating that. However, as marketers, we need to think about not only how our content gets shared, but how it is digested. We need to plan around our consumers and think about how our minds work in relation to the information we are trying to get out there.

Complex data and concepts are simply something marketers will need to learn to work with as they develop their content strategies. Not all content can be quick hit, buffet-style content. They key is learning to shape the content so it doesn’t get passed by in the buffet line, and make it good enough that people want to eat as much as they can get their hands on.

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Dave Snyder

CopyPress writer

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