Thinking in Pictures

By Dianne Loyet

Look at Language Differently

Those of us who (like myself) are in love with language tend to focus on words at the expense of other means of communication. Some even believe that verbal language is necessary for human cognition. Specifically, psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized that children first learn to speak with other people and only then develop the capacity for thought by developing an inner voice. Vygotsky’s theories have been quite influential even beyond the social sciences. According to Laura Otis in “A New Look at Visual Thinking,” in the field of comparative literature students “ . . . [were] taught that thought was language, and that people who disagreed were misinterpreting what occurred in their minds.”

Nevertheless, we do have some fairly articulate descriptions of visual rather than verbal thinking. Albert Einstein, in his Autobiographical Notes, described a process of creating a series of images. Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University has explained several types of visual thinking in a series of books about autism. In general, her descriptions have been considered illuminating and are treated with respect. However, a recent interview of Dr. Grandin by David Marchese of The New York Times Magazine revealed (at least on the part of the interviewer) some amount of skepticism about the idea that visual thinking is possible.

In the transcription of the interview, Marchese seems somewhat hostile to Dr. Grandin. She declined to talk about vaccines except to state that she has been vaccinated against Covid-19 and the flu. Nevertheless, Marchese repeatedly attempted to get her to talk about vaccines and the now-refuted research linking vaccines and autism.

Regarding visual thinking, Marchese first asked how a visual thinker thinks about abstractions such as moral questions. Grandin’s response was “I have to convert it to a picture with a specific example. . . As I’ve gotten older and loaded more and more pictures into my mental database, then I can search that database — sort of like Google for images. So when I think about moral things, I see them as little video clips. . .”

Marchese went back to the question of visualizing abstractions several times. At one point he said, “I understand how one could visualize something like a more humane slaughterhouse. But how do you visualize the moral aspect of something that might be harder to see, like, say, the negative ecological impacts of the industry?” Grandin’s response to this question was to provide an explanation of how she has thought about the (abstract) concept of the ecological impacts of the cattle industry through the (concrete) problem of preventing overgrazing.

Clearly, Grandin did not convince Marchese that her “visual thinking” was equal to our conventional notion of “verbal thinking.” He seemed to accept that she can visualize a concrete problem, but he seemed doubtful that it is possible to consider abstract ideas without words.

I find his conclusion erroneous. Psycholinguistic research makes it clear that thought and language are not the same thing. Actual conscious thought occurs at one level in our brains and then gets converted into speech, whether that speech is uttered aloud or not. So whether you have an inner voice that talks to you (as I do) or an inner video monitor displaying images, it’s still an interface between yourself and your actual thoughts. Neither interface should be equated with the thoughts themselves. That being the case, why is one such interface superior to another?

I also find it somewhat appalling that Marchese questions the ability of someone with a PhD to consider abstract ideas. It is not possible to write a master’s thesis, much less a dissertation, without the ability to think hypothetically. Does Marchese think the University of Illinois conferred some “different” kind of doctoral degree on Dr. Grandin?

Most of us would like to understand visual thinking to a greater degree, and Dr. Grandin has done more than most to make that possible. However, there is a good reason that she does so mostly in books: it’s complicated and takes time to describe. While it’s understandable that Marchese would like Grandin to share some of that experience in his interview, it’s unfair of him to expect as much as he clearly did. It’s the equivalent of a deaf journalist asking that a hearing person explain sound in a brief interview.

The misleading title of Marchese’s interview of Grandin was “Temple Grandin Wants Us to Think Differently About Kids Who Think Differently.” I hope those of us who love verbal language will do a better job than Marchese of appreciating other ways of thinking.