What Is Visual Thinking?
When I was born in 1947, the medical profession had not started applying an autism diagnosis to children like me. I was exhibiting most of the behaviors now fully associated with autism, including lack of eye contact, temper tantrums, lack of social contact, sensitivity to touch, and the appearance of deafness. Chief among my symptoms was late speech, which led the neurologist who examined me when I was two and a half years old to conclude that I was "brain damaged." I've since learned that a good deal of my behavior at the time (tantrums, stuttering sounds, screaming, and biting) was connected to the frustration I experienced due to my inability to talk. I was fortunate that a lot of early speech therapy eventually helped me gain speech, but I still had no idea that not everyone thought like me, or that the world could be roughly divided into two kinds of thinkers: people who think in pictures and patterns (more on the difference later), and people who think in words.
Word-based thinking is sequential and linear. People who are primarily verbal thinkers tend to comprehend things in order, which is why they often do well in school, where learning is mostly structured sequentially. They are good at understanding general concepts and have a good sense of time, though not necessarily a good sense of direction. Verbal thinkers are the kids with perfectly organized binders and the adults whose computer desktops have neat rows of folders for every project. Verbal thinkers are good at explaining the steps they take to arrive at an answer or to make a decision. Verbal thinkers talk to themselves silently, also known as self-talk, to organize their world. Verbal thinkers easily dash off emails, make presentations. They talk early and often.
By default, verbal people tend to be the ones who dominate conversations, and are hyper-organized and social. It makes sense that they are drawn to and tend to succeed in the kind of high-visibility careers that depend on facility with language: teachers, lawyers, writers, politicians, administrators. You probably know some of these people. The editors I've worked with over the years have all been verbal thinkers. I've noticed that they strongly prefer to work sequentially, meaning they are linear thinkers and need to connect thoughts in a beginning-middle-end sequence. When I gave my editor a few chapters of this book out of sequence, she had a hard time working with them. They didn't line up in her mind. Pictures are associational, sentences go in order. Logic for her was lost without verbal order, and she needed me to present my ideas in an unbroken sequence she could follow.
Visual thinkers, on the other hand, see images in their mind's eye that allow them to make rapid-fire associations. Generally, visual thinkers like maps, art, and mazes, and often don't need directions at all. Some visual thinkers can easily locate a place they've been to only once, their internal GPS having logged the visual landmarks. Visual thinkers tend to be late talkers who struggle with school and traditional teaching methods. Algebra is often their undoing, because the concepts are too abstract, with little or nothing concrete to visualize. Visual thinkers tend to be good at arithmetic that is directly related to practical tasks, such as building and putting things together. Visual thinkers like me easily grasp how mechanical devices work or enjoy figuring them out. We tend to be problem solvers, and sometimes appear to be socially awkward.
When I began to study cattle behavior, as a graduate student in animal science at Arizona State University, I still did not know that other people did not think in pictures. It was the early 1970s, I was in my twenties, and word-based thinking remained a second language to me. My first major breakthrough in understanding that people have different ways of thinking came when I was trying to figure out why cattle sometimes balked when they walked through chutes. I've written and talked about this experience many times: it was the eureka moment that defined my approach to working with animals and launched my career.
The cattle handlers at the time resorted to yelling, hitting, or pushing the animals through with electric prods to keep the line moving. To experience a cow's-eye view, I jumped down into the chute. Once inside, I saw what kinds of things were halting the cattle in their tracks: shadows, a slant of sunlight, a distracting object such as a dangling chain, or even something as simple as a rope draped over the top of the chute caused them to stop. To me, getting inside the chute was the obvious thing to do, but none of the cattle handlers had thought to do it, and some of them thought I was nuts. Looking at the world from the cattle's point of view was a radical idea when I first started out in the field, yet it became the hallmark of my approach to working with all animals.
I have worked with the cattle industry for many years to improve the way cattle are handled, and I've consulted with zoos and other animal-handling facilities to help unlock other questions of animal behavior. When I wrote about this in Thinking in Pictures, I believed that my connection with animals, especially prey species like cattle, was on account of my autism. I believed we shared a flight response when threatened. I understood their fear. In some ways, I related more to animals than to people.
I came to realize that my visual thinking has a component that contributes to my ability to see things that other people miss. I notice details that are amiss or faulty, sometimes dangerously so, an awareness I'll elaborate on in the chapter on disaster. I didn't just see that slant of sunlight or chain in the chute; these things jumped out at me. When I walk into a room, I immediately see anything that is off-kilter, the way a verbal thinker will pick out a misplaced comma or a typo in a sentence. The stuff that shouldn't be there or is slightly off jumps out.
It turns out that this ability has roots in both autism and visual thinking. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist and researcher in cognitive neuroscience and autism at the University of MontrŽal, and his colleague Sylvie Belleville have worked with many people on the spectrum. Their research encompasses studying perceptual processing abilities. In one study, they administered a series of tests to a patient known as E.C., who was a savant (more on savants in a later chapter). E.C. could draw from memory in perfect proportion, with great spatial detail. Mottron observed, "Autistic subjects are known to detect minor modifications in their surroundings more rapidly than normal, and to fixate on small morphological details." Mottron later conducted another study looking at visual and verbal thinkers using more complex visual tasks to locate perceptual functioning. Here, too, visual perception played "a superior role in autistic cognition."
Uta Frith is the pioneering developmental psychologist who helped pave the way for autism to be viewed as a cognitive condition and not the result of frigid mothers (referred to at the time as "refrigerator mothers"). In an early study, she and Amitta Shah compared how autistic people, "normal" people, and those with intellectual disabilities would complete a task where colored blocks were assembled into different patterns. They found that autistic subjects, "regardless of age and ability, performed better than controls."
I don't think it would have occurred to me to jump in that chute if I weren't a visual thinker. I had to see things from the cows' point of view. To me, it was the most natural response in the world. Then again, I still believed everybody thought the same way I did, in a series of associated photo-realistic pictures or in short, trailer-like films playing in my mind. Just as verbal thinkers had a hard time understanding visual thinkers like me, I had difficulty understanding that verbal thinkers existed. I didn't know about the work of researchers like Mottron and Frith back then. It would never have occurred to me that you could study and quantify visual thinking or that there was a name for it. Since then, I've given a lot of thought as to why this is the case.
Visual Thinking in a Verbal World
The fact is, we live in a talky culture. Verbal thinkers dominate the national conversation in religion, media, publishing, and education. Words fill the airwaves and the internet, with preachers, pundits, and politicians taking up most of the real estate. We even call commentators "talking heads." The dominant culture favors verbal people; theirs is a language-filled world.
Psychologist Charles Fernyhough is director of the Hearing the Voice project at the University of Durham. His book The Voices Within describes the pervasive and multiple ways and reasons that people talk to themselves: to motivate, self-focus, regulate mood, direct attention, change behavior. In essence, to become conscious. As we'll see, even highly verbal thinkers do visualize, but information mostly comes to them in the form of language. Yet Fernyhough, like many, falls prey to a certain bias in reporting on his research. He contends that thinking is primarily linguistic, more closely "tied up with language than it initially appears to be." He acknowledges that imaging is involved, along with sensory and emotional elements, but "they are only part of the picture." While it's true that I talk to myself, sometimes even out loud when I'm concentrating really hard on a livestock-design project, my mind is not a raft on a sea of words. It's an ocean of images.
Most children connect language to the things in their lives at a remarkable rate. Speech comes naturally to verbal people. A toddler picks up, in addition to words and syntax, the intonations and expressiveness in a parentÕs language. Many visual thinkers on the spectrum, however, must learn to adapt to the dominant culture. They donÕt understand that the rest of the world communicates thoughts and feelings through words. Language does not come naturally to us. We struggle to master it, as well as how to modulate our voices with the right intonation, pitch, and tone. I learned to modulate my voice through close observation of the way verbal thinkers speak. It did not come naturally. It is not innate. I still struggle with remembering long sequences of verbal information. Sometimes jokes go over my head, especially if they are delivered rapidly or involve wordplay. To understand the joke, I have to convert the words to images. If the joke includes a verbal leap or strange syntax, I probably won't get it.
For a long time, I mistakenly believed that all people with autism were visual thinkers. As it turns out, some people on the spectrum are highly verbal. But according to psychologist Graham J. Hitch and his colleagues at the University of Manchester, all children exhibit an early propensity toward visual thinking. He studied how children process information to see if they rely on visual rather than phonological cues in their memory. The results showed that in older children, visual memory is "masked by the more pervasive phonological component of recall," meaning that words soon paper over images, like one layer of wallpaper covering another. Gabriela Koppenol-Gonzalez, a psychologist and data analyst who has also tracked the ascendancy of language as children's primary means of communication, found that until five years of age, children rely heavily on visual short-term memory (STM). From six to ten, they start using more verbal processing, and from age ten onward they resemble adults with respect to verbal STM. As their verbal and visual systems develop, children become more inclined to verbal thought. But the researchers also reported on previous studies of STM in adults and concluded that, contrary to what one might assume, not all adults process information verbally first and foremost.
Psychologist Linda Silverman of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center in Denver has been working with gifted individuals, including many on the spectrum, for more than forty years. Their cluster of traits includes difficulty with reading, spelling, organization, and sequencing. Yet many of these kids could readily take things apart and put them together and solve complicated equations, though they would not be able to tell you how they did it. They tended to like calculus and physics and were good at map reading. Silverman's work has been in service of teaching different kinds of learners, acknowledging their very different brains not as a disability but as an asset. In a presentation about the differences in learning styles, Silverman flashes a slide showing a person with a tidy file cabinet and a person surrounded by messy piles of paper. The "filer" and the "piler," to use her terms. You probably know which one you are. What does it say about the way you think?
Silverman rightly points out that you can't make any definitive inferences about the messy versus the neat person in terms of intelligence, abilities, and so on, yet it's the messy people who tend to get stereotyped as lacking. When we compare a student with a perfectly organized binder and one with a backpack stuffed with papers, we generally assume that the organized kid is the better student and is smarter. It's possible that they are just better at school. The geniuses, as we'll see, are usually "pilers." Silverman also correctly notes that if you made the person with the messy pile organize those papers, he or she would never find anything again. Such people know where everything is. For them, the "mess" is organized. They see it in their mind's eye.
That is absolutely true for me. My office has messy piles of journal and magazine articles and stacks of drafts that look like a random mess. Yet the piles are not random. Each contains the source material for a different project. I could easily locate the right pile and find any paper I needed. Finding a specific paper in a messy pile might not be an indicator of genius, but it's definitely a clue to how the mind works.
Yet the benefit of the doubt always seems to go to the verbal thinkers. Even Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, falls prey to the same verbal bias that Fernyhough displays. In his book The Pattern Seekers, Baron-Cohen presents the fascinating theory that people with autism are responsible for much of the world's innovation. "These hyper-systemizers struggle with even the simplest of everyday social tasks, like making and keeping relationships, yet they can easily spot patterns in nature or via experimenting that others simply miss." This is an accurate description of how I think. But Baron-Cohen goes on to acclaim the paramount importance of verbal thinking, asserting that the cognitive revolution gave rise to "our remarkable human capacity for language." This idea dominates the history of human understanding: through some alchemical process, language is presumed to transform thought into consciousness, while visual thinking gets erased somewhere along the way.
Copyright © 2022 by Temple Grandin, Ph.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.