The Visual Language of Comics: What comics can tell us about the mind (and vice versa)
Drawings and sequential images are an integral part of human expression dating back at least as far as cave paintings, and in contemporary society appear most prominently in comics. Just how is it that our brains understand this deeply rooted expressive system? I will present a provocative theory: that the structure and cognition of drawings and sequential images is similar to language. Building on contemporary theories from linguistics and cognitive psychology, I will argue that comics are “written in” a visual language of sequential images that combines with text. Like spoken and signed languages, visual narratives use a systematic visual vocabulary, strategies for combining these patterns into meaningful units, and a hierarchic grammar governing coherent sequential images. We will explore how these basic structures work, what cross-cultural research shows us about diverse visual languages of the world, and what recent neuroscience research reveals about the overlap of how the brain comprehends language, music, and visual narratives. Altogether, this work opens up a new line of research within the linguistic and cognitive sciences, raising intriguing questions about the connections between language and the diversity of humans’ expressive behaviors in the mind and brain.
Neil Cohn is internationally recognized for his research on the overlap of sequential images and language in cognition. Having started working in the comic industry as a teenager, he began making connections between visual narratives and linguistics as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, and went on to receive his doctorate in psychology from Tufts University working with the linguist Ray Jackendoff. He is the author of Early Writings on Visual Language (2003) and Meditations (2005), and the illustrator of We the People (with Thom Hartmann, 2004) and A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (by Ray Jackendoff, 2012). His most recent book, The Visual Language of Comics (Bloomsbury, 2013), introduces a broad framework for studying visual narratives in the cognitive sciences, and will be followed by an edited companion volume, The Visual Narrative Reader (Bloomsbury, 2015). Since 2012 he has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research in Language and then the Institute for Neural Computation at UC San Diego. His work is online at www.visuallanguagelab.com.