Thought Transference

I’ve written before about being a visual thinker, but a presentation by a colleague of mine this morning at work set me thinking about it again. I won’t go into the detail of his talk which was based on this talk at ACCU 2013. Suffice to say that he has a strong interest in understanding thought processes as they relate to software development in particular.

There are different styles of thinking. Some are visual; some are language-based. Some are grounded in rationality, others take soaring flights of fancy. A person who thinks in a particular way will find it difficult if not impossible to imagine how somebody with a different cognitive style thinks: I am completely unable to imagine thinking in words.

Most people appear to use a combination of verbal and non-verbal thinking. Purely non-verbal thinkers are a minority, although they are reportedly more common among the autistic population. Indeed one of the best known autistic women, Temple Grandin, is a purely visual thinker. She wrote this informative article about her own experience.

When considering cognitive styles I encounter this conundrum: how can a purely verbal thinker imagine concepts that transcend language? How can they hold something in their mind that they lack the vocabulary to describe? I do not know the answer to this.

Language is a tool for communication. It allows something to be transferred from one mind to another, but the process is imperfect, incomplete. It’s like emailing a photo of a scene, reducing all the sensory impressions and feelings to a collection of colored pixels. So much context is lost.

How can I describe a walk through woodland? I could take a picture, freeze one instant. I could describe the feel of the ground underfoot; the earthy, damp smell; the sound of the wind through the leaves overhead overlaid with the songs of birds and the zip and hum of insects; the play of the dappled sunlight through the canopy onto the undergrowth. I can see that walk in my mind even though I never experienced it directly in that exact form. But can I conjure those same thoughts in your mind?

Much of what I hear or read has an emotional impact that derives from my own experiences, my own personal set of likes and dislikes, my own moral sense. Shared culture means that there will be overlap between people depending on how much they have in common. But ultimately what I experience inside my own head is unique to me.

Which leads me, in a round-about way, to another attempt to use words to build a mental model in your mind of what it means to “think in pictures”. Even that phrase is misleading: perhaps I ought to call it non-verbal thinking. Because what I “see” is not just like an array of photographs.

Consider a simple mechanism like a door hinge. Suddenly in my mind I am holding a 3″ steel hinge. I am feeling the weight of the cold, hard metal; I am opening and closing the two halves, feeling the friction in the joint; I am seeing how the screw holes — three per side — are arranged and their edges countersunk. I am fitting such a hinge to a door, seeing the process of first removing the screws, removing the old hinge, aligning the new one in its place and then driving the screws in to hold it there.

Visual thinking, for me, is also spatial and temporal. I see objects in relation to each other, and I see how the objects and their relationships change over time. The models in my mind are not static but dynamic. Communicating them to others is difficult: it requires the use of visual metaphors and analogies to “real” examples. My visual representations must be translated into language. When speaking or writing that is typically English, when programming it would usually be C++. The process is the same, and over the years has become largely intuitive.


14 thoughts on “Thought Transference

  1. Hi Alex,
    Good post.
    Yes – this area is a continuing investigation for me and particularly in the light of putting together my workshop fo ACCU2014 which will be on imagination. I will carry on reading through Iain MicGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary’ to get more of a handle on this. There must be different styles I guess, but I have always considered myself to be more of a visual thinker too, but I am not sure I experience the dynamic behaviour of software purely visually, but then sometimes I think I do!

    • Thank you Charles. As an aside, I’d have liked to contribute more to the discussion following your talk, but it takes me too long to formulate the words that will adequately describe my thoughts for me to easily interact in real time. That, and the dynamics of group conversations are still a mystery to me.

  2. I think my dominant thought style is similar to yours. I think conceptually, but unlike your very vivid description, I often have only partial or fragmented concepts.

    I definitely don’t relate to the thinking in pictures idea because I rarely have a purely visual rendering of something. And that something is arrayed and loosely connected to all of the other ‘somethings’ that are similar to it. So I have a web so concepts that I need to translate into words.

    But I also think in words, thanks to my ridiculously big vocabulary, because as you said, words are sometimes necessary to conceptualize and work with abstract thoughts. This is a fascinating topic.

    • That’s very interesting, and such a visual description.

      Thanks to my interest in language and reading dictionaries I have also acquired a large vocabulary, but it has been letting me down more and more lately as I find myself struggling to find the specific word that I know corresponds to a concept I have in mind.

      I wish I could adequately describe the sensations associated with abstract thought: for me it is totally non-verbal which makes it difficult to put the process into words! As difficult as translating painting, music or dance into words.

  3. Oh Alex, I have been thinking about this for days now. This blog is such a wonderful treat for me to read. I was trying to describe the way I think and how I chose language (which is not very easy for me to do a lot of the time) to my therapist. She is trying to better understand Autistic individuals and the languages we use. And it is difficult to explain. I would love to share this blog you’ve written here with her. I think it would be very helpful to her. I am working on trying to explain my way of thinking and using language and it is surprisingly difficult. I am a visual thinker as I do see imagery and such, but I also visualize words but not all words. Just some. And I see colors and swirls with words and emotions. I have these layers and more layers that I have no words to describe and it makes conveying what I want to say seem so superficial at times because the depth at which I am experiencing what I long to say cannot be fleshed out into words that might help someone else understand. It’s kind of like the difference of singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or playing a piece with a full orchestra. I almost always fall short, very short, of the full orchestra that is in my mind and in my experience when it comes to sharing what it is that I’m thinking. Perhaps that is why I am so “long winded” when I write, as I’ve been told. Like what you said about describing your walk through the woodland. How do you capture all of it and put it into a language that others can understand. And since there are so many different languages or styles of languages and ways of thinking it is never inclusive to everyone. It always falls short somehow and in some way. Thank you for this post. I really loved it and it fueled my own fire to try to better figure out a way to explain which language and thought process I use.

    Blessings and hugs, Bird

    • It’s lovely of you to say so, Bird. As I said in an earlier comment, it’s difficult to put words to something that doesn’t involve language in your mind. You are welcome to share my post with your therapist.

      Bright blessings and hugs, Alex

  4. Pingback: The One Where I Talk About Why Talking is Hard | Musings of an Aspie

  5. I honestly am not sure if I see what you and others, here, are saying, but I too, cannot imagine how one doesn’t think in pictures. I read very slowly, because to comprehend words I have to convert them into pictures first. This can be very difficult at times. I often have to resort to a series of pictures, and then try to understand in chunks. Perhaps that is why I am such a keen observer; I need an enormous gallery in my brain.
    But it goes beyond pictures too. I think all the time, but that which I think about involves a lot of what I observe and feel and have applied through reading, but it is a kind of ‘knowing’, perhaps intuitively, that I simply cannot set free with words, at least not, as you say, nearly adequately enough.

  6. I know this is an old post, but I hope you are still reading the comments. I am an Aspie, and I am a purely verbal thinker. Every sound I hear, sight I see, smell, taste, feeling, or sensation I experience must have a label – a single word if possible. Every word that is spoken to me, I see in my mind as if someone has typed it on a typewriter. And I process these words (however they were originally sensed) one at a time. Each word also has a label, frequently several, such as: noun, verb, preposition, adverb, subject, object. Then these words are assembled in my mind so that they form phrases which each have labels: subject, predicate, prepositional, gerund, clause, idiomatic, literal, pragmatic, hyperbole. These phrases are then assembled into sentences, which are then labeled: thesis sentence, supporting argument, question, demand, declaration, exclamation, closing statement. Sentences form paragraphs with similar labels as sentences, and these all together form an experience for me.

    You asked how I can hold a thought in my mind, comprehend something that I cannot label. My husband has a phrase for that: he grins and says, “I see I broke your brain.” So I ask questions. Lots, and lots, and lots of questions. I study history, geography, other cultures. I have a HUGE vocabulary. I have built a very large frame of reference through reading, listening, and actual experience, so that I am able to put enough labels on an idea that it makes sense to me. I like to try new things, just so that I can catalog them in the like or dislike pile. I like to have all those labels tucked away, ready to pull out and share with someone who is talking about that topic.

    I also have discovered that learning new languages is very very simple for me. I speak English because I was born in America, but I speak Korean because a friend in fourth grade could not read English. I speak Spanish because many of my clients are hispanic. I speak German because I was curious about the language, and Latin and Greek because I wanted to understand English and Spanish better. I speak HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, PHP, several versions of SQL, C++, .Net, Python, Ruby, Drupal… Each has their own words, but all these languages, human and machine alike, have nouns, verbs, idioms, literals, declarations, questions. They are all the same.

    When you can see the sameness, it is not so difficult to understand a new concept, with time, patience, and the right questions. Does any of that make sense?

    I have a question for you: what picture do you see when I say “noun”, “verb”, “gerund”, “idiomatic”?

    • Thank you for this detailed and illuminating comment: it’s fascinating to learn about the mechanics of your verbal cognitive style.

      In answer to your question, there’s not a single image I associate with each of those words. Indeed, as I’ve written more recently, the phrase “thinking in pictures” doesn’t convey the totality of my experience. It would be more accurate to describe it as thinking in sensations (sight, touch, sound, smell, taste, emotion) that are non-verbal in nature.

      “Noun” is solidity, the sensation of holding something, a feeling of static mass, the color blue. “Verb” evokes motion and sound, flame-toned leaves carried on the wind, whirling around me.

      “Gerund”, being a much more abstract grammatical concept, doesn’t correlate with anything I can express in words. I don’t think about sentence structure, just as I don’t think about the sequence of muscle movements required for my fingers to type these words, so I find I have no need for such labels.

      “Idiomatic” as an adjectival form of the noun idiom has no separate existence, no distinction from its root form. Idiom is a cabinet in which a multitude of drawers hold prefabricated assemblages, like words as charms strung on a bracelet. Each drawer is labelled not with words but with the idea represented by the idiom(s) contained within. It’s also a book and a vast library/filing room–all of these at the same time, embodying the same idea.

      I hope this makes sense to you.

      • Thank you for your reply.

        A particular phrase you used evoked strong feelings of rightness for me. When describing the word idiom, you said “prefabricated assemblages, like words as charms strung on a bracelet.”

        Just… wow. That is exactly the way that I use pragmatic or idiomatic language. In every situation, there is a drawer, and generally there are several choices of bracelets (though, in my mind, it’s note cards with phrases written in the center). Given the “making a purchase” situation, I am aware a closing statement must be made after checking out and before exiting. So I open my drawer in my mind, neatly labelled “ending an encounter — seasonal — evening” and I see “Good night!”, “Happy holidays!”, “Have a great New Year’s!”, and other similar fripperies. I flip through the cards until I find a phrase that I haven’t used with this person before, or one that suits the previous conversation we may have had.

        And while I am not generally a visual thinker, I can clearly see a thin silver chain with plain silver discs with a single word engraved on each in my mind as you describe words as charms strung on a bracelet. It’s really a beautiful moment for me, when someone is able to help me to see what they are thinking. Thank you.

  7. Hi Alex,
    I am still trying to best appropriately advocate for my son, who is autistic. Although he is not a high articulation level, nor is writing something he excels at, he is absolutely smart, fascinating and I truly want to be able to learn how I can better help him. If I can better help him, then I can advocate better for him. I apologize for my run-on sentences, and while I haven’t quite offered what you have asked for, in terms of your presentation, I feel that it is very possible that my son may just be feeling at least some of what you have described here, therefore, I find what you are sharing to be enlightening. I am eager to advocate smarter for him, and to teach him to self advocate. He is 16, mainstreamed in a public school setting, with an aide, and has honestly done quite well! Language barriers are so hard for him. While he may not talk or write in a lengthy manner, that is, he likely could be thinking in a lengthy manner, for which I want to best help,and if possible, extract those thoughts a bit more. He is my world and I love him so much and I want to learn. Thank you for allowing me to email. Any help and or guidance would be tremendous. I believe you are remarkable!
    All my best,

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