A picture’s worth a thousand words. But why?


Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

Let’s find out!

My sister posted this picture on Facebook. It’s my old school, Bloxwich Church of England School. Locally, everyone called it the National School. And yes, it was already old when I went there — cheeky!

My old school.

Bloxwich Church of England School, Walsall, West Midlands, UK

Recollections of school flashed through my mind

Mostly, I have happy memories of that school. It was what we’d call in New Zealand an area school; infants, juniors, and seniors were all in the same building. See the blue door? The milkman left the crates with our little bottles of milk to the left of that door until playtime when we got to drink them.

“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” ~ Tom Bodett

There’s another blue door to the right of those arched windows in the middle that isn’t visible in the photo, (but it is in the one further down this post.) That’s where Jean Owen and I had a fight! (Ok so not every memory was happy.)

Morning assembly

The building had partitions separating each classroom and every morning we would fold them all back to make one immense room for morning assembly. All the teachers and pupils would gather to sing hymns and say prayers.

The room to the left of the blue door was Mr Lynley’s classroom. He taught us English and music, and how to play the recorder with passion (not all at the same time).

The room on the right, behind the pole, was the geography classroom.

The front of the building was the playground

No devices for us!

We were desperate to get outside and burn off some energy. In winter, we’d make huge slides on the ice, sometimes running almost the entire length of the school, and we’d hope beyond hope that the sun didn’t come out and melt them before lunchtime—and that no one broke an arm or a leg!

The National School - winter.

The National School in winter – Photo from Stuart Williams on Flickr

In the summer we’d play skipping, hopscotch, tag or ‘What time is it, Mr Wolf?’ (The latter involved lot’s of high-pitched screams and laughter!)

The big arched window on the left was where either the infants or juniors learnt. I can’t remember which, as I never went in there. As we got older, we became much too cool to have much to do with the little kids! The school is now only a Primary School.

Behind the building were some prefabricated, more modern buildings. In one room, we learnt sewing and religious instruction (with the same horrible teacher—but again, not at the same time!)

In another classroom, we studied science and biology. The gym was in a more modern building further up the road and our playing fields were a good walk in the opposite direction.

One image can bring back so many memories. But why is this?

The human brain can process an image in just 13 milliseconds, which is 60,000 times faster than it takes to read a single word, and heaps faster than a one-liner from these church notices!

One reason is that our visual sense processes instantly, whereas our auditory (hearing) sense processes word by word. When you see the picture of my school, you can pick up a lot of information about it instantly; It’s ancient, it’s brick, and it has a rail fence around it (presumably to stop us escaping!)

It takes an eternity to process a description

If there were no pictures and you asked me to describe it, the chances of you imagining my school as it is in the photos are probably close to zero. Plus, you’d have to wait as I finish each sentence and then construct an image that you think represents what I said.

Your understanding also depends so much on your interpretation of each word. (And many words have several meanings!) If you hadn’t seen the photos, and I described the School as ‘ancient, made of brick etc.’ Would you have made the above image in your mind? You’d probably have fallen asleep from boredom after 3 descriptive sentences!

Spot the difference

Here’s another photo of the same school from even earlier times. Compare it with the more recent images above. What do you notice? Apart from the fact it’s in black and white—which also gives an indication of the school’s age—what else can you tell?

An even older view of the National School - Bloxwich.

An even older view of the National School – Bloxwich.

Did you notice the chimneys and the spire above the clock in the centre of the school? At some stage, they replaced open fireplaces with radiators.

A picture can create good and/or bad feelings

When I look at the picture of my old school, good feelings come up primarily because I loved going to that school. And, despite every school report reading “Could do better if she didn’t talk so much,” I eventually became Head Girl. Unbelievable really—there must have been a real shortage of talent that year!

The word School itself can produce wonderful or awful feelings (also known as anchoring), bringing up an image—or several images—in a person’s mind. I’ve worked with people for whom school meant shame, guilt, uncertainty, frustration and many other nasty emotions.

Photographs become triggers

Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, photographs trigger memories that anchor you back into physical and emotional states. So, think about this; why do you take photos in the first place? It’s usually because you want to remember all aspects of the experience; whatever sensory input you had at the time you took the photo.

Some images have a more universal impact

Those of us old enough to remember 9/11 can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the towers came down. Images and emotions become locked together.

This is because these emotions activate the limbic system, a part of the brain that processes emotions and drives behaviours. Part of my coaching work is helping people separate the images from the negative emotions, so they can regain emotional freedom and re-member without continuing to traumatise themselves.

Other, more positive universal images include faces, especially images of newborns or toddlers, which evoke nurturing instincts.

Stephanie Philp on her first birthday.

Aww! This is me, apparently taken on my first birthday.

Images have the power to transport us back in time

Maybe you see a photograph of a Victoria sponge cake. Instantly you’re transported back to childhood, and the delicious smell of freshly baked cake wafts through your memory. Or, like me, you saw a photo of your old school, or perhaps a class photo—and in your mind—you’re there once again.

So these are some reasons images are so important and why they’re worth a thousand words.

In the absence of visual input, we make stuff up

For example, before the internet… long… long ago, I’d talk to people on the phone—sometimes several times before I actually met them face-to-face. Almost inevitably, when people met me, they’d tell me I looked nothing like what they expected. So, I’d ask them what they expected—and they’d say they didn’t know!

I think I know though

They would hear me on the telephone and hear my Midlands/Kiwi accent. Then they’d imagine an English woman, however—in their mind—they represented that. Then, when I showed up with my dark skin and frizzy hair, you could see the disconnect in their face.

They’d obviously imagined me completely differently.

I’ve done this myself. When I was Human Resources Manager, I’d frequently speak to a woman who would help me recruit engineers. I imagined her as about 5 foot 10 inches (1.78 metres) tall, with long legs and long jet black and beautifully thick, shiny hair.

One day, she paid me a visit at work. I went downstairs to reception to greet her, to find the tiniest woman I’d ever met in my life. She could barely see above the reception desk! Lorraine is 4 foot 8 1/2 inches (1.44 metres) with very short blond, spikey hair. I couldn’t have been more wrong about how I’d imagined her.

We’ve been good friends ever since.

So what does all this mean for you?

Well, observing how images—both those you see in reality and those you make in your mind—impact your emotions is extremely useful. Do those images make you feel good, or are they causing you stress?

What if you change the images? How do those changes affect your feelings? You can also change any unwanted feelings by creating a positive anchor to ‘collapse’ any unwanted feelings. Please check out SHIFT coaching if you’d like some help with this.

So, is a picture worth a thousand words?

You be the judge.

P.S. Curious about the title image? This is what happens in Raglan when orca visit. The message goes out and we all race to the beaches to observe these magnificent creatures coming into the harbour for a feed of stingray.

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Tags: Communication skills, Language, Perception, Self-awareness


  1. Tanja

    I did like this post Steph, and not just because I got to see you at the age of one….sooooo cute indeed!! Your eyes haven’t changed a bit, still warm, deep, curious…maybe some more wisdom there now, too.
    Good reminder about how images and emotions can (and often are) mixed up and that they can be teased apart, so the memories are no longer emotionally charged. Thank you

    • Stephanie

      Thank you, Tanja! Glad you like my photo. 😀 And yes, I think it’s easy to forget that we have control over our emotions. Sometimes we could use a little help to tease the images away from the negative emotions, but it’s certainly doable and not complicated or difficult.

  2. Julie Adcock

    Aw Steph, you bought back my worst memory of the National….. The milk!
    In the winter it was frozen solid and had swelled and pushed the foil cap up by about an inch. The crates were then bought in to the classroom and placed in front of the big iron radiator, where it melted and dripped, until we were made to drink it half warm and half frozen. It was absolutely disgusting and I haven’t been able to drink milk since.

    A lovely memory of the National junior school was the beautiful rocking horse in our classroom. It had a real mane and tail and a leather saddle and bridle. These days it would be classed as an antique and worth a fortune, but we were allowed to groom and ride it. I’d imagine galloping across fields and jumping fences. Maybe it was those early days that instilled my lifelong love of horses. I think that must be my favourite memory of all of my schooldays. It was all downhill from there! 🙄🤣

    • Stephanie

      Hey Julie, I think you must have had evil junior school teachers to do that to you! Sounds traumatic at such a young age! I remember the milk being frozen in winter, but I didn’t mind that; it made it last longer! The rocking horse was obviously in that part of the building where I never went, and for juniors only! But both are great examples of how images (in your case the milk and the rocking horse) can bring back such powerful (good and bad) memories and affect our future lives.


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