A New Look at Visual Thinking
Creative ideas emerge when visual thinking meets verbal communication.
Posted February 16, 2016 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
People who don’t think visually often have a hard time imagining the mental lives of those who do. By thinking, I mean conscious planning, problem-solving, imagining, and reminiscing. Most mental processes occur subconsciously, but my research focuses on the lived experience of thought that varies from one person to another. In an early study of visual mental imagery, Francis Galton found participants who did not consciously experience visual mental images. “They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware,” he wrote, “and naturally enough supposed that those who affirmed they possessed it, were romancing” (Galton 1883, 85). This has been my experience, too: people often presume that others think as they do and are skeptical when they hear about people rotating life-like images, or living in mental worlds without visual scenery.
In the past four decades, especially in the past two, scholars from physics to poetry have argued for the existence and value of visual thinking. That psychologists have had to work so hard to prove its existence indicates how deep cultural prejudices against it have run. As a graduate student in Comparative Literature, I was taught that thought was language, and that people who disagreed were misinterpreting what occurred in their minds. I never accepted this, especially when I began teaching writing to freshman engineers. Since that time (the late1980s), behavioral and imaging studies have shown not only that visual thinking is “real,” but that it encompasses a wide range of skills.
Works such as Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures and Thomas G. West’s In the Mind’s Eye have revealed how crucial it is for teachers to cultivate visual thinking and adjust their methods for visually inclined students. New research indicates that we need to move beyond categorizing people as “visual” or “verbal” and consider the many different mental processes that visual thinking involves. In the 1980s, psychologist Vera John-Steiner defined visual thinking as “the representation of knowledge in the form of structures in motion; ... the study of relationships of these forms and structures; ... the flow of images as pictures, diagrams, explanatory models, orchestrated paintings of immense ideas, and simple gestures; ... work with schemes and structures of the mind” (John-Steiner 1997, 109). John-Steiner developed this definition based on dozens of interviews with creative people. Even then, she mistrusted the categories “visual” and “verbal” and avoided placing creative thinkers in either one. Like hers, my narrative research on creative professionals indicates that creativity can’t be tied to visual or verbal thinking. It often emerges when they interact.
In the past 10 years, cognitive neuroscientist Maria Kozhevnikov and her colleagues have been finding evidence that people who think visually rely on two distinct groups of skills. Those who lean toward object visualization excel at picturing scenes in rich detail and distinguishing shades of color. They often have excellent visual memories and process scenes holistically. Those inclined toward spatial visualization do well at judging distances, relative dimensions, and velocities and often process ideas in terms of schematic patterns (Kozhevnikov, Kosslyn & Shephard 2005, 710). These two sets of skills correspond to two parallel pathways with which human visual systems process information. The ventral stream analyzes visual details and colors and seems oriented toward identification and recognition. The dorsal stream assesses distances, directions, velocities, and dimensions and seems to prepare people for action (Kandel et al. 2013, 562-64). Interestingly, people good at verbal thinking often score about average on object and spatial thinking tests. Only those who excel at object or spatial thinking fare poorly on tests that demand other kinds of visual skills, so that there is a “trade-off” between object and spatial visualization (Kozhevnikov, Blazhenkova & Becker 2010, 29). Kozhevnikov’s group has produced strong evidence that there is no one visual thinking style.
Kozhevnikov and her colleagues have also obtained data showing that trained scientists tend toward spatial visualization, and visual artists, toward object visualization (Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov 2010, 23). It is not yet clear whether these professions develop people’s spatial and object skills, respectively, or whether people born with these inclinations gravitate toward professions that require them. Probably both are true, so that thinking is developed through inclination and practice in a complex feedback loop.
As a skeptic of any claim about human thought—and former president of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts—I would urge caution on associating any kind of work with one thinking style. Innovative science and art draw on every kind of thinking that human brains can produce. The great value of Kozhevnkov’s work lies in its demonstration of the wealth of skills visual thinking involves. The best way to make visual thinking real for those who doubt it is to reveal the rich mental worlds of those who use it.
Albert Einstein has long been cited as a visual thinker, but few have looked in detail at the way he described thought:
"What, precisely, is 'thinking'? When, on the reception of sense impressions, memory pictures emerge, this is not yet 'thinking.' And when such pictures form sequences, each member of which calls forth another, this too is not yet 'thinking.' When, however, a certain picture turns up in many such sequences, then—precisely by such return—it becomes an organizing element for such sequences, in that it connects sequences in themselves unrelated to each other. Such an element becomes a tool, a concept. I think that the transition from free association or 'dreaming' to thinking is characterized by the more or less preeminent role played by the 'concept'" (Einstein 1979, 7).
Einstein’s description indicates that visual thinking is active, not passive. Those who don’t use visual images to invent things might imagine that thinking visually means relaxing and watching images float by. Nothing could be further from the truth. Visual thinking comes in many forms, but in every case, it is hard work. It may involve the derivation of a new image that connects others, or the manipulation of an image that needs to change. In many cases, mental images move. Creative ideas emerge as images from different contexts “speak” to one another.
The scientists, artists, writers, and designers I interviewed reveal how greatly visual thinking can vary. Neuroscientist Hugh R. Wilson sees “diagrams in [his] brain” when he hears that one retinal ganglion cell contributes to the receptive fields of many cortical cells. He isn’t sure how anyone can understand how receptive fields work without using mental pictures (interview with the author 6-2-10). Cell biologist Barry D. Shur told me that during a conversation, “I have this little slideshow going on in my head, [and] each slide is a thought.” Shur defines thought as “the smallest construct that has some meaning to it,” and if this isn’t a visual image, he’s not sure what it could be (interview with the author, 4-1-10). Like psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who called visual perception “cognitive activity,” painter Mary J. Welty can’t separate seeing from thinking (Arnheim 1969, 5). As soon as she sees an object, she’s already thinking about how she’ll paint it. She notices where the shadows fall and how they affect the colors. For Welty, painting also means imagining how she can use visual cues to awaken imagery associated with other senses. When she paints a split-open orange, she wants viewers to see “those little sparkles” and smell the oranges that they are imagining (interview with the author, 6-29-10). For these creative people, visual thinking can mean using mental diagrams and snapshots to grasp ideas for oneself, and planning visual ways of presenting them to others.
Back in the 1970s, the cognitive style categories “visual” and “verbal” were set up as opposites. Like Kozhevnikov’s laboratory studies, my narrative research indicates the picture is far more complex. Not only do “visual” and “verbal” thinking lump diverse skills; they coexist in every mind, and creative impulses emerge when they interact. Being visually inclined may mean being able to describe and analyze images with words. When I asked neuroscientist Edward G. Jones why he thinks he’s visually oriented, he answered, “I’m really very good at putting into words what I’m seeing ... I can’t separate vision from words” (interview with the author, 6-15-10). Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures uses language masterfully to explain how visual thinking works. In Grandin and others, words touch off cascades of images as her visual and language systems interact (Grandin 2006).
Poet Natasha Trethewey has such a strong visual memory that when she used to study for high school tests, she visually memorized her notes and could read the answers off her mentally scanned “pages.” “It’s a picture that haunts me,” says Trethewey, reflecting on the way that she writes poems (interview with the author, 2-15-10). Creating poetry involves choosing words that communicate a vision so that readers can create related images. To record ideas that might be used in poems, Trethewey keeps a notebook of images—except that “the pictures are in words” (interview with the author, 2-15-10). Literary critic Elaine Scarry supports Trethewey’s view that many people read poems and stories in order to visualize. Well-written literature offers a “set of instructions for composition” for the mind, much as a musical score tells instrumentalists how to create music (Scarry 199, 244). Hugh R. Wilson, who uses mental diagrams to understand neurons’ interactions, loves to read but balks at bad writing. How does he know it’s bad? Because it “gets in the way of [his] visualizing” (interview with the author, 6-2-10).
By comparing the results of laboratory and interview-based studies, we can work toward understanding all the activities that visual thinking involves. To learn about everything human brains can do, we need both to respect and question experimental data. We also need to listen to each person’s account of the way her mind works, and approach these insights with the same combination of respect and critical scrutiny.
Arnheim, Rudolf. 1969. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Blazhenkova, Olesya, and Maria Kozhevnkov. “Visual-object ability: A new dimension of non-verbal intelligence.” Cognition 30 (2010): 1-26.
Einstein, Albert. 1979. Autobiographical Notes. Edited and translated by Paul Arthur Schilpp. Chicago: Open Court.
Galton, Francis. 1883. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: MacMillan.
Grandin, Temple. 2006. Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. London: Bloomsbury.
John-Steiner, Vera. 1997 . Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kandel, Eric R., James H. Schwartz, Thomas M. Jessell, Steven A. Siegelbaum, and A. J. Hudspeth. 2013. Principles of Neural Science. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
Kozhevnikov, Maria, Olesya Blazhenkova, and Michael Becker. 2010. “Trade-Off in Object versus Spatial Visualization Abilities: Restriction in the Development of Visual-Processing Resources.” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 17.1: 29-35.
Kozhevnikov, Maria, Stephen Kosslyn, and Jennifer Shephard. 2005. “Spatial vs. ObjectVisualizers: A New Characterization of Visual Cognitive Style.” Memory and Cognition 33.4: 710-26.
Scarry, Elaine. 1999. Dreaming by the Book. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
West, Thomas G. 2009. In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics,and the Rise of Visual Technologies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.