Visual Thinking

By Xoic · Dec 31, 2022 · ·
  1. I discovered Dr. Temple Grandin, who is an extremely visual thinker. She brings up some fascinating things in this video:

    I still haven't followed up on my earlier post about visual thinking, and I always intended to. This is getting me fired up about it again.

    I don't have the powerfully vivid imagery she seems to have, but I do get some visuals, and I can work with them in my mind, change them at will etc. I definitely do some of my thinking this way, probably especially when I'm drawing or painting. But I think I do much of my thinking verbally. Interestingly, I always get told my writing is extremely visual, and also that I include too much visual detail. This totally fits the profile—somewhere in there she said visual thinkers do tend to include a lot of (too much) visual detail. In fact my approach is to go ahead and write it that way, and then edit it down as required later. But when I think about a scene, I see it visually. Some scenes anyway, probably especially on my Beastseekers story when it's set in the woods, because I'm working from memories.

    Like her, I also had problems doing math, but I always did quite well in writing and English classes. I seem to move between the two modes.

    Another thing I've heard her talk about is that she made things when she was young. My sister and I did a lot of that too. There was a big storage space under the basement stairs where our mom kept craft supplies—paper towel rolls, brown paper bags, egg cartons, popsicle sticks and toothpicks etc. She also had a few books of crafts to do with kids, and each week (I think it was on Wednesdays) we would choose a craft and go to work, cutting and pasting (in the old-school sense), painting, sculpting, and etc. I also had toys like Legos, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, and others that involved spatial reasoning and construction. And I kept doing that kind of stuff when I was doing stopmotion animation. Building sets, making props and puppets, painting everything etc. And then you photograph it all. A lot of visual reasoning going on there! And a big part of what I always loved about stopmotion was how sculptural it was, like toys or statues come to life. And of course I also draw and paint. Yeah, I think it's fair to say I definitely think visually.

    I have the video playing now, and she just mentioned being an associative thinker rather than a linear one. I seem to be able to do both.
    Not the Territory likes this.


  1. Xoic
    What exactly is a mental image?

    In something I was reading a few days ago I ran across the philosophical concept known as a mental image. Usually they just say image, but I'm being specific. The term is used when discussing the imagination (note the first 4 letters), to distinguish between thinking done in words and the kind done in imagery. This stuff fascinates me, but it's always been difficult to find good info on, and I figured out why.

    I finally decided I needed to look into it so I could understand once and for all exactly what it means, so I hauled out a volume of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy I bought some time ago just for such purposes. I've hardly consulted it at all since I first got it and paged through a few of the volumes (there are 4). There's a large entry for Image (several pages), followed by one on Imagination, which I also read. It wasn't until well into the first entry (Image) that I found the good stuff. For the majority of the entry, things were left rather vague. I couldn't really tell if they were talking about word pictures or actual mental images, like you see when you dream.

    It turns out the reason all this confusion exists is because many people involved in philosophy are strictly verbal (word-based) thinkers, and apparently don't have mental imagery, or if they do it's minimal and they pay no attention to it. Those kinds of philosophers in fact always seem to denigrate visual thinking, partly because they suspect it isn't real, that people are just making this stuff up, probably also partly because they can't do it, so there might be some jealousy issues there. The same is true for many scientists, mathematicians, and etc, who just don't seem to think visually. Or I should say they're not Object visualizers, but Spacial-Pattern visualizers.

    So, it turns out that indeed, a mental image means a visual picture in your head, like when you dream. I mentioned 2 paragraphs back, it wasn't until near the end that I ran across the 'good stuff'—well, here's what I meant.

    Not only does mental imagery mean visual images, but it also refers, sort of obliquely, to the full range of other sensory inputs as well. Sound, smell, taste, and tactile sensations. Or rather the purely mental versions of them. Just like in a dream, those things exist in your mind too, and can be called up, remembered, imagined, and manipulated just like visual imagery in your mind can. But again, some people can't seem to do it, or only barely. So it's only among the philosophers who were capable of it that it ever got discussed, and many others scoffed. A majority of writing about mental image in the literature is actually not about visual imagery at all, nor does it include any of the other senses.

    It's very frustrating, when you're interested in a subject like this, that it can be so hard to find information about it, and that that information seems to be denied and mocked by a majority of scientists and philosophers etc, who tend to be verbal or (what did she call it? Spacial-Pattern?) oriented. Fortunately the Encyclopedia of Philosophy I have is pretty old. Otherwise most likely it wouldn't have included such information, which was at least somewhat known and accepted in the 30's and 40's, maybe the 50's and 60's as well, but seems to have largely faded since then as verbal thinkers have taken over.

    I don't remember offhand now if this was included as well, but from my own deep interest in dreams and a lifelong keeping of detailed dream journals and deep study into dreaming, I also know there are other types of sensations we experience in dreams (as well as in waking life) that are not widely discussed. These include things like a sense of forward acceleration, that you might feel in a fast car or while for instance flying in a dream (or a small plane). Or of spinning, tumbling end over end, or falling. Man, have I had some dreams of falling! Occasionally, in the really bad ones, there's a very strong sensation of being on the very edge of something (like the roof of a building or a cliff thousands of miles high) and being pushed or forced or somehow squeezed toward the edge inexorably. There's a great deal of fear involved (as you might imagine), and then usually a very powerful sense of falling that can last a very long time. One sensation I've never experienced in a dream though is hitting the ground. Something has always happened first, like I wake up, or at times I manage to turn downward momentum into sideways instead, and turn falling into flying. Once I fell right next to the wall, mere inches away from it, and at the bottom the ground sort of sloped gradually away in the form of a hill, and my fall followed the contour of the ground as if I were sliding along very slick glass an inch thick, just over the ground.

    Oh man, this got way too long! I'm gonna have to cut it into parts.
  2. Xoic
    Part The Second

    I bring these things up to demonstrate that the mind is capable of imagining in many different forms, besides just words and images. Through experimentation I've discovered I can call up and work with these other sensations just as well as I can with imagery, which is not entirely vividly. As I said in my earlier post on the subject, my visualizing skills at most times are weak. It's like looking out a window at night with the lights on in the room—you can dimly see a reflection of your face floating translucently in front of the landscape. That's actually a pretty good description of what my imagery usually looks like, though sometimes I can't get even that. At those times I can still work with what I call proto-imagery or pre-imagery, which is something like the idea of an image. I went into some detail about this in the earlier post. And at times I just talk myself through, using words to move the scene along. Often as I do that I begin to get the sense of pre-imagery forming, and sometimes it turns into dim imagery (dimagery?).

    But if I'm close to sleep it becomes very vivid. And I also start to lose the ability to control it. The closer I get the more danger there is I'll just fall asleep and be dreaming, but at least I can determine the early imagery.

    Yes, I know, standard science on sleep says we don't enter REM until something like 90 minutes after falling asleep, but as I said I've learned to pay close attention to dreams and near-sleep states (various states of altered consciousness or twilight consciousness), so I know that sometimes I can go directly into a dream even a little before I'm fully asleep. There's a strange sensation that accompanies it when that happens (it isn't often), something akin to forward acceleration, but I don't know quite how to describe it. So I was aware that sometimes you can enter REM even before you're asleep, and I had to search far and wide, but eventually I found corroboration for that fact. It can be triggered by sleep deprivation or certain other factors (I don't remember what now).

    The reason I'm talking about all this weird stuff is because this is actually the way to explore things like mental imagery or near-sleep states or dreams—by learning how to pay attention as you enter the state (usually we don't), and also how to remember the experiences until you can write them down. I learned much of this from books on lucid dreaming. Mantras are involved. It's amazing how powerful a mantra can be in trying to get your mind to do things it isn't used to doing (but that are fully within its capabilities). This kind of exploratory self-attention is in fact the best (if not the only) way to discover some of this stuff, and is exactly how it was experimented with and developed by the pioneers who wrote the books on it. I love this! We can all explore these strange worlds of imagination and dream experience!
  3. Xoic
    You put your right brain in and you shake it all about...

    A big part of the reason for the animosity of those verbal thinkers against the idea of visual imagery in the mind is due to the left brain. There's a great deal of literature supporting the idea that the left brain (logical, linguistic, linear) has a certain hostility for the products of the right brain (creative, visual, non-linear). It's one of the main subjects of the book The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. And as result, people who are predominantly left-brain oriented can be inimical to the ideas of right-brain thinkers. In fact they can get downright nasty about it at times. And, not suprisingly, mental imagery is a product of the right brain, while linguistic thinking is of the left. I don't know for a fact, but I'd venture to say the rest of the sensory-based thinking is also right-brain produced.
  4. Xoic
    I think all my big fascinations that I tend to write about on the blog are linked by this—they're all largely right-brain products, and associated strongly with the unconscious. Which I believe is right-brain led. Mythology, religion, mental imagery, mysticism. I believe mystics are very visual right-brain thinkers able to access the unconscious deeply. Jung was one of those, but in the modern age, and he explored the unconscious using those abilities, and connected what he found to religion and mythology.

    And now I'm starting to wonder if character-driven story might be more right-brain, as opposed to the more structured and perhaps logical plot-driven. I'm telling you, it's uncanny how many things turn out to be reflections of this central divide. Hah! I meant the divide betweeen right-brain and left-brain thinkers, but sure, it also refers the the actual divided brain as well.

    But I think, as Dr. Grandin said in the video, many people use some of both, probably leaning harder toward one or the other. I definitely do that.
  5. Xoic
    Just had a small epiphany

    I have a tendency, when I write here or on a blog,* to use boldface and italics and various formatting devices for words or phrases I want to highlight. I do it for what I consider important things (usually titles of stories or movies or names of important people, such as authors). I do it so people, including myself, can more easily find the imortant parts again later. It means they can be used like a reference work, like say a textbook, where you can easily find the important ideas at a glance.

    Well, I just realized that makes writing accessible to both
    • Visual thinkers, and
    • Verbal thinkers
    ... at the same time. It both reads and scans as imagery. Lol, and it just occurred to me, that's also what I'm doing when I make the big bolded headlines for these posts too. Making text into something like visual pattern that can be seen as imagery. Mind being low-key blown, in slow-mo.

    * By 'here' I meant on the message board. I forgot this is my WF blog—or as many may consider it my WTF blog. :supercool:
  6. Xoic
    What's happened to the textbooks?

    I've also noticed a tendency in textbooks, in recent years, toward a less visual format. They do still use boldface and a few other formatting devices, but often there are little to no graphs and charts and other visuals, and the layout itself is still much more like a story than a reference book (at least as I remember them from when I was in school). The important ideas that someone might want to find again later should be separated out and each either
    • Given a section to itself, or
    • Presented as bullet points
    But far too often it seems the books were put together and edited by verbal thinkers, so they run linearly rather than being chunked into sections, each about a different concept or idea. So you get a paragraph with no visual formatting that lists several important things, which my mind screams out deserve to be bulleted or each made a paragraph with a bold title.
  7. Xoic
    Yesterday, as detailed in a couple of the above posts, I realized it's more than just the visual. If you're a "visual" thinker, you have access to all the sensory inputs, plus the other inner senses, such as a sense of vertigo, forward momentum, falling, etc. But I didn't quite realize at the time what the implications of that are.

    It means you have access to essentially the full apparatus that creates dreams, but while awake, and it's mostly under your control. Though it isn't nearly as vivid (at least in my case) as dreaming is.

    Let that sink in for a moment.

    I think it explains certain things, like in particular:
    • Why I tend to write in great detail (visually and in terms of other senses at times)
    • Why I say my characters have a mind of their own
    • Why some of us find great value in using examples from movies or television shows in talking about certain aspects of story and others don't
    • Why some of us see rules as guidelines that can help you, while others see them as laws that must be strictly obeyed
    I plan to start breaking these down in more detail, probably tomorrow, unless I get a burst of gumption later tonight.
  8. Xoic
    How a visual thinker imagines a scene (how I do anyway)

    A movie involves only two senses—audio and visual. But a dream uses all of the senses, including the inner ones I keep mentioning, and can also include things like memories (real and false), a sense of urgency, a sense of dread, a sense of exhilaration, etc. And even a little snippet of a story-like idea, like 'I need to find my other shoe, get out of the bedroom, and find my friends before the killer dwarves release the poisoned air-eels on us all'.

    Of course, some of these don't apply directly to scenes you imagine while awake and thinking about your story. Actually, strike that. Yes, they do. All of them, now that I've thought it through. That means

    if you're a visual thinker, you can basically create a little dream-scene, largely under your conscious control, involving your characters, in a setting of your choice, and change any aspect of it to suit your taste

    It's a lot like certain video games that allow you to custom-design your character—dress them, change the hair length and color, etc, and then run them around and make them do whatever you want them to do. Except that you can also custom design the setting and everything else involved. I haven't seen many video games in a long time, you can probably do that by now.

    But here's the kicker.

    It isn't entirely under your conscious control. In my experience, the unconscious takes over certain parts of it. The conscious mind isn't powerful enough to run that level of apparatus by itself, it taps into the unconscious dream machine to some extent. It seems to work something like this—

    You have a pretty good idea what you want your two characters for this scene to look like, and their personalities/character traits etc, and you know you want them walking together down a street, the man with an arm around the woman's shoulders. Let's say it's an early scene, and you haven't totally firmed up your ideas about characters and setting yet.

    To a verbal writer who thinks in words and doesn't have much if any access to visual or other sensory apparatus, it's all done through the words on the paper—well, beginning of course with the words in the mind. This isn't entirely true, Dr. Grandin did say all of us have some access to visual and other sensory inputs, though for the verbal thinkers that's strictly limited and they don't use it much. And apparently they use ot mostly for things they're very familiar with, like their own house and pet etc. I'm conjecturing to a good extent here, because I have good access to both, and I don't really know what it's like to have strictly limited access to the things beyond words. But I can partly extrapolate from things people have said about the way they write.

    I imagine the two characters on a street. I have to think about what kind of street I want. Is it a city street, maybe like in downtown St. Louis, or maybe in the much smaller town I live in? Maybe it's the suburban street I live on, one I'm very familiar with and so can see in great detail? Since my current story is largely autobiographical, I'll go with that. It makes a huge difference, because I have a practically endless supply of details to choose from, so many that I need to be very selective and leave most of them out or I'll be over-writing drastically. Same goes for the characters, since they're my friends and myself. I've talked about this at some length on some of the threads about characters taking on a life of their own.

    And on those same threads I've heard from people who very strongly deny that characters can do any such thing. I've heard some of them say quite plainly that characters are nothing but words on paper, and they do precisely what you want them to do and nothing more.

    Damn, had to cut out almost 2,000 words to make it fit! Continued...
  9. Xoic

    I want to be as fair as I can, so I must state that I don't know exactly what they mean. It's possible some people got caught up in argument and overstated the case, this is easy to do when things get heated. But at any rate, it's clear for them things are very different than for me. From the gist of their comments, it seems to me their characters don't feel alive to them, and it's possible they don't really see them visually, but think of them (at least much of the time) as just a list of traits. In fact I've been all but accused of being schizophrenic for suggesting a character can do anything I don't force them to do. That said, I do of course have a large degree of control over what they do. I can start them walking down the street. But again, it's a lot like a video game. One of the ones I used to play a lot was Tomb Raider—the first two games on Playstation back in the day. You choose the direction Lara walks and can decide to make her jump, drop and roll, and certain other things, but once you've done that it's all up to the microprocessor to animate the action, and unexpected things can happen. That in fact is very much what it's like to imagine characters moving through a setting in my mind, except that the unconscious takes a lot more control over the characters and their choices than the video game tends to.

    The same is true for the setting. I can imagine my street, but I don't know every detail of it clearly, and certain areas are more familiar to me than others. The unconscious fills in details in those hazy areas, or I just see them in much lower resolution and have to imagine a house there. At times I might just drop in a house from somewhere else, maybe one I've seen in a TV show or something, or a friend's house, to fill in a blank space. This all makes it sound way more vivid than it actually is. I do see these things, but often it's fairly dimly, though at times it can become pretty vivid.

    One thing I think I do very differently from a verbal thinker is the way I describe the characters. I often see people saying how tall somebody is with numbers, like "John was six feet tall, and Sally stood just under five feet." I'm a lot more likely to get the same info across in a much more visceral and visual way by saying "Sally nestled her head against his chest as they walked, his strong arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders." This gives their relative heights without resorting to abstractions like numbers, and it also says something about their relationship at the same time, and gives a feeling. She's nestled and protected in his embrace. I can do it this way becasue I'm describing what I see in my mind, rather than taking info from a character sheet that lists their vital stats.

    When writers do that, I'm not sure if it's because they're verbal thinkers, or maybe some of them are just new to writing and don't know how else to do it. But many of the people I've had these discussions with are pretty experienced writers, who have been doing this for years if not decades.
  10. Xoic
    I welcome comments from anyone who considers themselves a verbal thinker and wants to describe how it works for them, compared to what I've written. I'm fascinated by this and want to understand it as well as I can. I wish I could just connect to somebody else's head, be them for a while, and understand how they think. But alas, it's not to be.

    I'd also be glad to hear from people with really vivid visual imagination. How does that affect your writing?
  11. Xoic
    In my particular case there are certain factors that have caused me to pay a lot of attention to the visual aspects when I'm creating a story. I've been a visual artist all my life, drawing since before I can remember. My dad was an artist and an architect, and I would see him drawing all the time, and he encouraged me to do it and taught me some things. Later in life I took up stomotion animation, where I had to build and paint everything that goes into the movie, and I was also photographing it, so I made every choice concerning where to place the camera, what lens to use, how much depth of field I want for a particular shot, how much sky will be showing, how dark or light do I want it to be, and etc. And I've become very well aware how powerful each of these choices can be in affecting the final outcome.

    My writing does tend to lean hard toward the visual, and also I include the other senses frequently. Not taste so much, but at times I do describe food in a powerful way, in scenes that call for it. There was a lavish banquet scene in my novel, set at a castle, and a parallel scene set in a small Canadian apartment where a displaced German man was living. This was a very dreamlike story, written on a lucid dreaming forum, and so I went pretty hard into surreal effects and strange dreamlike things happening. And I really laid on the details. In the apartment scene, the man had been visited by an android woman dressed as a Viking queen who had brought a seemingly endless cornucopia of wonderful German feasting supplies. He was a lonely man, who hated Canada and longed for his German heritage, and she was presenting herself as his fantasy woman and heaping everything on him to make him fall into her power. And it worked. I also wrote that there was a pile of CDs including many polka classics, Wagnerian operas, and Kraftwerk. So I indirectly alluded to sound/music, though we were seeing the aftermath of the big party and it was currently silent. Let me drop a little of that in real quick:


    I start to drift back and away from the computer monitor. Slowly, like a half-deflated helium balloon. Up to the ceiling corner of a small apartment. The only light comes from the monitor, which I now see is a notebook computer sitting on a kitchen table, and a large picture window opening onto a 3rd or 4th story view of a frozen snow-covered modern city. The sky is a softly glowing cobalt blue with a faint Aurora visible in the distance. Inside the apartment is completely trashed. Clothing scattered everywhere, bottles and plates piled here and there, signs of the aftermath of some massive celebration that must have happened the night before (I get a sense the cobalt sky is early morning rather than evening). There is no movement in the apartment and I still don't seem to have a body or be able to move under my own power at all, only look at the still image before me and think. I can't even close my eyes! So I begin to study the mess spread before me, and as I do a story begins to emerge. More of a mystery really, story implies that I can understand it...
    Food overload:

    Scattered all over the table and onto the floor and furniture I see platters piled high with knackwurst, sauerkraut and German potato salad, crusty breads, half-empty jars of various mustards and relishes, empty and half-empty bottles of German doppelbocks and lagers and a few improbably large and ornately decorated beer steins. There's a stack of CDs beside the stereo that all seem to be German polka music and Wagner operas. And one Kraftwerk cd.

  12. Xoic
    Reading about all that food can cause a physical reaction in the reader. You can't help it, there's a response. Your mouth can actually begin to water. Especially at mention of the savory or sour stuff, topping off with the mustards and relishes I think. Just seeing all the words can actually cause your mind to conjure up phantom tastes. And I've discovered if I concentrate on those sensations I can increase them. Same for smells, pleasant or uncomfortable sensations of materials against the skin such as soft warm fur gliding over your bare chest or your face, gritty concrete covered with gravel as you slide across it after crashing your bike (you're a small child). The sensations of lying on a waterbed as it sloshes and your body moves in rhythmic waves that begin to exert a pleasant hypnotic feeling.

    Each of these actually stimulates the areas in your brain associated with that particular sense, and if you're a highly suggestible person you can feel them pretty intensely. I've found if I imagine many tastes I like, one of them will often well up and take over and I'll develop a strong craving for it. Or on the flip side of the coin, when I had to do some dieting, I discovered when I'd see a commercial for some particularly delectable food that had me wanting to hit up the fridge, I could invoke something disgusting and immediately counter the craving. I settled on something my friend and I call the Maggot Rodeo. It's something he actually saw, I heard about it secondhand, but that's enough, trust me. His friend had buried some fish heads in his garden after hearing it's supposed to be great fertilizer, but what happened is they rotted and one day there was a terrible smell. They went out and looked, and apparently something had dug into the ground, a dog or cat or something, and now the rotting heads were half emerging from the dirt and there were big fat maggots writhing everywhere. Masses of red ants streamed all over everything, incuding the maggots. The ants swarmed right over them and were biting them and tearing them to pieces that they carried back to their nest.

    By imagining this grotesque feast I found I could invoke a strong sense of disgust that would literally turn my stomach, and any food craving would fade rapidly. The mind is a very powerful thing, and can be manipulated in many ways. It creates the way you feel at any given moment, and can change it drastically. You can take the lead in that, or someone else can, or you can just leave it to happen randomly. Yes, of course we live in an objective world (world of objects), but it's so strongly affected by the atmosphere and mood our mind casts like a magical spell, that it's hard to say which is more powerful. Intense fear can turn an ordinary setting into a nightmare. It can bring on a heart attack or crippling anxiety. All of this, just through the power of suggestion. The power of the mind.
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