Today our monthly Salon discussion group talked about a bunch of interesting topics, including the difference between verbal and visual ways of thinking.
I brought this subject up, saying that I've started to read a story in The New Yorker about Temple Grandin and how she uses her visual skills to come up with more humane ways of designing slaughterhouses.
(As a vegetarian, I don't think slaughterhouses can be humane, but if there's ways to reduce the suffering of animals, that's a good thing.)
Here's an excerpt from Thought Process, the story title in the print edition, which became How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking? in the online edition. Subtitle: Some people say their thought takes place in images, some in words. But our mental processes are more mysterious than we realize.
Grandin, who is on the autism spectrum, came to prominence in 1995, when she published “Thinking in Pictures,” a memoir that chronicled her years-long search for a way to put her visual and perceptual gifts to use.
She found a home in agricultural engineering, where she was capable of visualizing farm buildings from the animals’ perspective. Visiting a slaughterhouse where animals were often panicked, she could instantly see how small visual elements, such as a hanging chain or a reflection in a puddle, were distracting them and causing confusion.
“Thinking in Pictures” made the case for the value of neurodiversity: Grandin’s unusual mind succeeded where others couldn’t. In “Visual Thinking,” she sharpens her argument, proposing that word-centric people have sidelined other kinds of thinkers.
Verbal minds, she argues, run our boardrooms, newsrooms, legislatures, and schools, which have cut back on shop class and the arts, while subjecting students to a daunting array of written standardized tests. The result is a crisis in American ingenuity.
“Imagine a world with no artists, industrial designers, or inventors,” Grandin writes. “No electricians, mechanics, architects, plumbers, or builders. These are our visual thinkers, many hiding in plain sight, and we have failed to understand, encourage, or appreciate their specific contributions.”
In “Thinking in Pictures,” Grandin suggested that the world was divided between visual and verbal thinkers. “Visual Thinking” gently revises the idea, identifying a continuum of thought styles that’s roughly divisible into three sections.
On one end are verbal thinkers, who often solve problems by talking about them in their heads or, more generally, by proceeding in the linear, representational fashion typical of language. (Estimating the cost of a building project, a verbal thinker might price out all the components, then sum them using a spreadsheet—an ordered, symbol-based approach.)
On the other end of the continuum are “object visualizers”: they come to conclusions through the use of concrete, photograph-like mental images, as Grandin does when she compares building plans in her mind. In between those poles, Grandin writes, is a second group of visual thinkers—“spatial visualizers,” who seem to combine language and image, thinking in terms of visual patterns and abstractions.
We talked about Grandin's observation that schools tend to favor verbal thinkers. One person said that when he was in high school, the students who took shop classes were looked down on by language-oriented verbal thinkers like him.
I agreed, saying that I felt the same way. Yet now my wife and I are thrilled if we can find a plumber or electrician willing to come to our house and fix something on short notice.
On the plus side, a discussion group member who does substitute teaching in the Salem-Keizer School District said that vocational education is getting more attention, and that the district is working to meet the needs of students who are more into visual thinking than verbal thinking.
What I find fascinating is how each of us only has directly experienced one style of thinking: our own.
So it's easy to believe that those who use a different style are either miracle workers or mentally deficient -- whereas the truth is that we're all just doing what our diverse brains lead us to do, no judgment required.
I remember a skilled woodworker who rebuilt our deck shortly after we moved into our house in 1990. I never saw him make a sketch or write down a plan. He had what seemed to me an almost magical ability to construct a structure intuitively, given what must have been his high visual skills.
Keith, a.k.a. The Garden Poet, could do the same thing with landscaping. Like the guy who rebuilt our deck, Keith didn't make any sketches or plans. He came up with design ideas in the course of doing the landscaping work.
My wife and I learned to be surprised, always pleasantly, when we'd return home and see what Keith had created while we were gone. His mind also was decidedly in the visual style of thinking.
Me, I'm strongly verbal. But I told our discussion group that I've always been able to visualize concepts as if they were objects floating in the sky of my mind, rearranging themselves into various patterns as I ponder some subject I want to talk or write about.
All kinds of thinking styles need to be valued by society. As Grandin said in the excerpt above, mechanics, builders, and other visual thinkers are just as important as scholars and writers who favor verbal thinking.
Though I suspect that almost everybody utilizes a blend of visual and verbal thinking. It's great that schools appear to be recognizing this to a much greater degree than in the not-so-good old days when I was in high school in the 1960s.
Which brought up a distressing memory just now. I ended up being the salutatorian of my graduating class of 1966, thanks to Keith Glentzer who had much better math and science skills, becoming valedictorian for that reason.
When I took biology, the teacher took a special glee in bringing in wildflowers that we had to name. I was terrible at looking at a wildflower and coming up with its name -- even though I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where most of the wildflowers came from.
I was verbally proficient, but visually handicapped. I almost got a "D" in biology because I simply couldn't remember the names of the wildflowers. (I still can't do this.) The teacher thought this was amusing, as did my classmates, since I had a reputation as a brainy student.
Which was generally true. But throw a verbal thinking person into a visual thinking pond, and they'll struggle. Same applies to visual thinking people thrown into a verbal thinking pond, which is what our schools have been historically.