How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?


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Jun 11, 2023

How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?

By Joshua Rothman I was nineteen, maybe twenty, when I realized I was

By Joshua Rothman

I was nineteen, maybe twenty, when I realized I was empty-headed. I was in a college English class, and we were in a sunny seminar room, discussing "For Whom the Bell Tolls," or possibly "The Waves." I raised my hand to say something and suddenly realized that I had no idea what I planned to say. For a moment, I panicked. Then the teacher called on me, I opened my mouth, and words emerged. Where had they come from? Evidently, I’d had a thought—that was why I’d raised my hand. But I hadn't known what the thought would be until I spoke it. How weird was that?

Later, describing the moment to a friend, I recalled how, when I was a kid, my mother had often asked my father, "What are you thinking?" He’d shrug and say, "Nothing"—a response that irritated her to no end. ("How can he be thinking about nothing?" she’d ask me.) I’ve always been on Team Dad; I spend a lot of time thoughtless, just living life. At the same time, whenever I speak, ideas condense out of the mental cloud. It was happening even then, as I talked with my friend: I was articulating thoughts that had been unspecified yet present in my mind.

My head isn't entirely word-free; like many people, I occasionally talk to myself in an inner monologue. (Remember the milk! Ten more reps!) On the whole, though, silence reigns. Blankness, too: I see hardly any visual images, rarely picturing things, people, or places. Thinking happens as a kind of pressure behind my eyes, but I need to talk out loud in order to complete most of my thoughts. My wife, consequently, is the other half of my brain. If no interlocutor is available, I write. When that fails, I pace my empty house, muttering. I sometimes go for a swim just to talk to myself far from shore, where no one can hear me. My minimalist mental theatre has shaped my life. I’m an inveterate talker, a professional writer, and a lifelong photographer—a heady person who's determined to get things out of my head, to a place where I can apprehend them.

I’m scarcely alone in having a mental "style," or believing I do. Ask someone how she thinks and you might learn that she talks to herself silently, or cogitates visually, or moves through mental space by traversing physical space. I have a friend who thinks during yoga, and another who browses and compares mental photographs. I know a scientist who plays interior Tetris, rearranging proteins in his dreams. My wife often wears a familiar faraway look; when I see it, I know that she's rehearsing a complex drama in her head, running all the lines. She sometimes pronounces an entire sentence silently before speaking it out loud.

In the recent book "Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions," Temple Grandin explains that her mind is filled with detailed images, which she can juxtapose, combine, and revise with verve and precision. Grandin, an animal behaviorist and an agricultural engineer at Colorado State University, has worked designing elements of slaughterhouses and other farm structures; when tasked with estimating the cost of a new building, she looks at her plans, then compares them in her mind with remembered images of past projects. Just by thinking visually, she can accurately estimate that the new building will be twice or three-quarters the cost of one that's come before. After the pandemic began, she read a lot about how medications can help our bodies fight COVID-19; as she read, she developed a detailed visual analogy in which the body was a military base under siege. When she thought about cytokine storms—events in which the immune system becomes over-activated, causing out-of-control inflammation—she didn't conceptualize the idea in words. Instead, she writes, "I see the soldiers in my immune system going berserk. They become confused and start attacking the base and lighting it on fire."

Reading Grandin's book, I often found myself wishing that I were more visual. My mental snapshots of growing up are flimsy—I’m never quite sure whether I’m recalling or imagining them. But Grandin easily accesses "clear pictorial memories" of her childhood, complete with "three-dimensional pictures and videos." She vividly recalls "coasting down snow-covered hills on toboggans or flying saucers," and can even feel the lift and dip of the sled as it bumps down the slope; she effortlessly pictures the delicate three-stranded silk she held between her fingers in embroidery class, in elementary school. If her mind is an IMAX theatre, mine is a fax machine.

In the early twentieth century, novels like "Ulysses," "Mrs. Dalloway," and "In Search of Lost Time" asked us to look inside ourselves, at our own minds. Grandin's book, similarly, directs our attention to what William James called "the stream of consciousness"—the ongoing flow of thoughts in our heads. "Our mental life, like a bird's life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings," James wrote. His aquatic and avian metaphors have a decorous quality; they decline to over-specify what's going on in our minds. Grandin's writing does the opposite, describing with striking concreteness what's happening in her head and, possibly, yours. Her precise descriptions accentuate differences between minds. In a 1974 essay titled "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?," the philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that we’d never know, because "bat sonar" differs so profoundly from human vision as to make it unimaginable. Grandin and I aren't that far apart, but I struggle to imagine having a mind as extraordinarily visual as hers.

At the same time, Grandin and I have many of the same ideas. We both understand cost overruns and cytokine storms; we arrive, by divergent routes, at the same destinations. How different do our minds really make us? And what should we make of our differences?

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.

Grandin proposes imagining a church steeple. Verbal people, she finds, often make a hash of this task, conjuring something like "two vague lines in an inverted V," almost as though they’ve never seen a steeple before. Object visualizers, by contrast, describe specific steeples that they’ve observed on actual churches: they "might as well be staring at a photograph or photorealistic drawing" in their minds. Meanwhile, the spatial visualizers picture a kind of perfect but abstract steeple—"a generic New England-style steeple, an image they piece together from churches they’ve seen." They have noticed patterns among church steeples, and they imagine the pattern, rather than any particular instance of it.

Grandin likes the idea that there are two kinds of visual thinkers, because it helps make sense of differences between like-minded people. It takes visual skill to engineer a machine and to repair it; the engineer and the mechanic are both visual thinkers, and yet they differ. In Grandin's account, an engineer is likely to be a spatial visualizer who can picture, in the abstract, how all the parts of the engine will work, while the mechanic is likely to be an object visualizer, who can at a glance understand whether a ding on an engine cylinder is functionally consequential or just cosmetic. Artists and artisans, Grandin suggests, tend to be object visualizers: they can picture exactly how this painting should look, how this finial should flow, how this incision should be sewn up. Scientists, mathematicians, and electrical engineers tend to be spatial visualizers: they can imagine, in general, how gears will mesh and molecules will interact. Grandin describes an exercise, conducted by the Marine Corps, in which engineers and scientists with advanced degrees were pitted against radio repairmen and truck mechanics in performing technical tasks under pressure, such as "making a rudimentary vehicle out of a pile of junk." The engineers, with their abstract visual minds, tended to "overthink" in this highly practical scenario; they lost to the mechanics, who, in Grandin's telling, were likely to be "object visualizers whose abilities to see it, build it, and repair it were fused."

In seventh grade, I won the egg-drop competition in shop class, constructing a basket-and-parachute contraption that enabled my egg to survive being thrown off the second-story roof of my school. But I’m quite sure that I am not a visual thinker. Grandin's book includes excerpts from the Visual-Spatial Identifier, a yes-or-no test designed by the psychologist Linda Silverman to divide verbal people from visual ones:

Do you think mainly in pictures instead of words?

Do you know things without being able to explain how or why?

Do you remember what you see and forget what you hear?

Can you visualize objects from different perspectives?

Would you rather read a map than follow verbal directions?

Visual people tend to answer yes to more of these questions; I answer no to almost all of them. Other tests in the book make it even clearer how much mental distance separates someone like me from someone like Grandin. Maria Kozhevnikov, a cognitive neuroscientist, has created tests to distinguish object visualizers from spatial visualizers; in one of them, the Grain Resolution Test, subjects are asked to judge in their minds the relative size and density of different objects. Imagine a pile of grapes. Are the grapes bigger than the spaces between the strings on a tennis racquet? Grandin reports that, when she took this test, she clearly saw, in her mind's eye, "the grapes being squashed because they were too big to fit through the spaces between the racquet strings." I came to the conclusion that the grapes were bigger—but my mind isn't clear-eyed enough to picture the grapes actually being squashed.

The imagistic minds in "Visual Thinking" can seem glamorous compared with the verbal ones depicted in "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It," by Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist who teaches at the University of Michigan. Kross is interested in what's known as the phonological loop—a neural system, consisting of an "inner ear" and an "inner voice," that serves as a "clearinghouse for everything related to words that occurs around us in the present." If Grandin's visual thinkers are attending Cirque du Soleil, then Kross's verbal thinkers are stuck at an Off Broadway one-man show. It's just one long monologue.

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Psychologists who ask people about their phonological loops find that they’re used for all kinds of things. Loops are a kind of memory scratch pad; they’re where we store a phone number before we write it down. They’re also tools for self-management. Young children learn to direct their emotions by talking to themselves, at first out loud and then silently, often channelling the admonishments or encouragements of their parents. ("Don't break it, Peter!" my four-year-old son said recently, as he tried to connect some Legos.) We use our inner voices to monitor our progress toward our goals—"almost like a tracking app on a phone," Kross writes. Researchers have found that goal-talk is pervasive in inner speech, with objectives popping up out of nowhere, like notifications on a screen. "Come on," we might tell ourselves, while trying to unstick a kitchen drawer. "You can do it! Also—remember that doctor's appointment. Now, back to the drawer!"

In the early twenty-tens, a British anthropologist named Andrew Irving went up to about a hundred random New Yorkers and asked them if they’d spend some time saying everything they were thinking into a small voice recorder. "An element of performance might have come into play," Kross concedes. Still, Irving's transcripts have the ring of truth. People used their inner voices to muse on attractive strangers and curse the traffic; often, they "dealt with negative ‘content,’ much of which sprang up through associative connections." One woman says, "I wonder if there's a Staples around here," before thinking suddenly about a friend's cancer diagnosis; she talks to herself about the bad news and then, just as suddenly, gets back on track: "Now, is there a Staples down there? I think there is." A man reflects on a broken relationship and gives himself encouragement: "Clear, totally clear. Move forward." It's easy to get stuck in your loop: monologues can be insistent, and some people succumb to circular, negative inner talk—what Kross calls "chatter"—and end up "desperate to escape their inner voice because of how bad it makes them feel." One of Irving's subjects can't stop wondering if her boyfriend, who is out of town, has died in a bus accident or run off with someone else. Kross tells the story of Rick Ankiel, a baseball player who had to leave pitching for the outfield because his inner voice wouldn't stop talking about "the individual physical components of his pitching motion."

People with inner monologues, Kross reports, often spend "a considerable amount of time thinking about themselves, their minds gravitating toward their own experiences, emotions, desires, and needs." This self-centeredness can spill over into our out-loud conversation. In the nineteen-eighties, the psychologist Bernard Rimé investigated what we’d now call venting—the compulsive sharing of negative thoughts with other people. Rimé found that bad experiences can inspire not only interior rumination but the urge to broadcast it. The more we share our unhappiness with others, the more we alienate them: studies of middle schoolers have shown that kids who think more about their bad experiences also vent more to their peers, and that this, in turn, leads to them "being socially excluded and rejected." Maybe there's another reason my dad, when asked what he was thinking, said, "Nothing." It can pay to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Kross's bottom line is that our inner voices are powerful tools that must be tamed. He ends his book with several dozen techniques for controlling our chatter. He advises trying "distanced self-talk": by using "your name and the second-person ‘you’ to refer to yourself," he writes, you can gain more command over your thinking. You might use your inner voice to pretend that you’re advising a friend about his problems; you might redirect your thoughts toward how universal your experiences are (It's normal to feel this way), or contemplate how every new experience is a challenge you can overcome (I have to learn to trust my partner). The idea is to manage the voice that you use for self-management. Take advantage of the suppleness of dialogue. Don't just rehearse the same old scripts; send some notes to the writers’ room.

Thinking in pictures, thinking in patterns, thinking in words—these are quite different experiences. But do thinkers themselves fall into such neat categories? In the nineteen-seventies, Russell T. Hurlburt, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, came up with the idea of giving people devices that would beep at certain times and asking them to record what was going on in their heads at the sound of the beep. In theory, if they responded quickly enough, they’d offer an unvarnished look at what he called "pristine inner experience"—thought as it happens spontaneously. After spending decades working with hundreds of subjects, Hurlburt concluded that, broadly speaking, inner experience is made of five elements, which each of us mix in different proportions. Some thoughts are rendered in "inner speech," and others appear through "inner seeing"; some make themselves felt through our emotions (I’ve got a bad feeling about this!), while others manifest as a kind of "sensory awareness" (The hairs on my neck stood on end!). Finally, some people make use of "unsymbolized thinking." They often have "an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include the experience of words, images, or any other symbols."

Reading this description a few years ago, I felt at last that I had a term that described my mind: it's not "empty"; my thoughts are just unsymbolized. But Hurlburt's work suggests that it's a mistake to ascribe to oneself a definitive cast of thought. Most people, he's found, don't actually know how they think; asked to describe their minds pre-beeper, they are often wildly off the mark about what they’ll report post-beeper. They’re prone to make "faux generalizations"—groundless assertions about how they think. It's easy for me to assume that most of my thinking is unsymbolized. But how closely have I examined it? In truth, the textures of our minds are subtle and variable. There's a reason James Joyce needed eighteen chapters to describe the mind in "Ulysses." Even within a single head, thinking takes many forms.

Quantum physicists confront a problem with observation. Whenever they look at a particle, they alter and fix its quantum state, which otherwise would have remained indeterminate. A similar issue afflicts our attempts to understand how we think; thinking about our thinking risks forcing it into a form it does not have. In 2002, at an academic conference about the study of consciousness held in Tucson, Hurlburt debated this problem with Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher who is a well-known skeptic about our ability to describe what's in our minds. In a book called "Perplexities of Consciousness," Schwitzgebel points out that, during the nineteen-fifties, most people said that they dreamed in black-and-white, while in the nineteen-sixties they started saying that they dreamed in color. Surely, he argues, the colors of our dreams didn't change; what changed was the ubiquity of color film. It's tempting to say that, in reality, people dream in color—to suggest that people in the fifties were wrong about their dreams, and that people in the sixties were right about them. But Schwitzgebel thinks it's a mistake to categorize dreams one way or the other. "We should also consider the possibility that our dreams are neither color nor black-and-white," he writes. Dreams are unreal, and might not lend themselves to being described during waking life. In describing them, we give them a fixity they may not have.

After the Tucson conference, Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel published a book together, "Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic." The book is a dialogue built around eighteen moments in the mind of a beeper-wearing recent college graduate named Melanie. Hurlburt believes that it's possible to figure out what's happened in Melanie's head. Schwitzgebel thinks that a lot of what we say about what happens in our minds is intrinsically untrustworthy, because, in a sense, thinking is too dreamlike to be described. Ultimately, he suspects that "we may be fairly similar inside, though we answer questions about our experience differently."

The book is open-ended: it's up to us to judge who's right. Take Beep 2.3—the third beep on the second day that Melanie wore her beeper. Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel recount Melanie's experience:

Melanie was standing in the bathroom and looking around, trying to make up a shopping list in her head. At the moment of the beep she had a mental image of a white pad of paper (the same writing tablet that she uses to write shopping lists) and of her hand writing the word "conditioner." Her hand in the image was in motion, and she could see the letters coming out from the tip of the pen. At the precise moment of the beep, the letter "d" (the fourth letter in "conditioner") was coming out.

At the same time, Melanie was saying in her inner voice "con-di-tion-er," slowly, in sync with the word as she was writing it in the image.

Also at the same time, she was aware that her toes were cold. This was a noticing or sensory awareness of the coldness that was present in her awareness at the last undisturbed moment before the beep. It did not seem to involve an explicit thought process.

There was, evidently, quite a lot going on in Melanie's mind at Beep 2.3. Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel debate what she has reported. Could she truly have been aware of all these things at the same time? Schwitzgebel has doubts. And yet in the nineteen-nineties Hurlburt used his method to interview Fran, a bank teller who described her mind as frequently filled with "as many as five or ten" visual images, all overlaid and occurring simultaneously, as in a multiple-exposure photograph. A battery of tests suggested that Fran might be right about her unusual experience: at the bank where she worked, Hurlburt writes, the tellers were always counting stacks of bills, and "Fran irritated her coworkers by repeatedly initiating conversations while counting, causing them to lose count. The simultaneous tasks of counting and conversing were impossible for her coworkers but simple for Fran."

Melanie's thought stream is funny, unsettling, layered, and rich. At Beep 3.1, we learn that "Melanie's boyfriend was asking a question about insurance letters." Her focus, however, "was not on what he was saying but on trying to remember the word ‘periodontist.’ She was thinking ‘peri-, peri-,’ to herself," in an inner voice that might also have been "slightly visual." Later that day, at Beep 3.2, Melanie was walking toward her car, "sensing, roughly, its big black shape" but mainly experiencing "a feeling of ‘fogginess’ and worry," of being "unable to think with her accustomed speed." At the moment of the beep, Melanie "was in the act of observing this fogginess," which seemed to exist "behind the eyes, involving a heaviness around the brow line." Just before Beep 6.4, she was throwing out some dried-up flowers. "I was thinking that those flowers had lasted for a nice long time," she tells Hurlburt. "It was just kind of an idle thought that was inner speech." She notes that at the exact moment of the beep she was hearing not the words themselves—"They lasted for a nice long time"—but "the echoes" of the words in her head.

Melanie's careful attention to her mind is inspiring; it's as though she's her own Molly Bloom. After reading Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel's book, I tried to emulate her by attending even more closely to my pristine inner experience. Did I, too, hear my thoughts—Get back to work! Put down your phone!—echoing in my head? Was I observing my feelings even as I felt them? How much could happen in my mind at the same time? I knew with certainty that I never wrote down anything on a visualized mental shopping list. But it remained difficult to say exactly what I did—perhaps because my thoughts are so often "unsymbolized," or because I didn't have a psychologist guiding me, or because, as soon as you start to think about your inner experience, it's no longer so pristine. Hurlburt would say that describing one's inner life is hard. Schwitzgebel would say that our inner lives are not necessarily describable. On a deep level, he contends, our own thinking is a little like bat sonar. We’ll never know what it's really like.

Our thinking is mysterious to us. I ask my wife my mother's question—"What are you thinking?"—all the time, and on one level it's easy to answer: we can spend all day talking to each other, sharing our thoughts. But on another it's unanswerable. Simply by expressing our thoughts, we change them. To describe our thinking is to domesticate it. This is why communicating with other people is both hard and interesting, and why knowing your own mind can be such a difficult, diverting task.

If we can't say exactly how we think, then how well do we know ourselves? In an essay titled "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity," the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that a layer of fiction is woven into what it is to be human. In a sense, fiction is flawed: it's not true. But, when we open a novel, we don't hurl it to the ground in disgust, declaring that it's all made-up nonsense; we understand that being made up is actually the point. Fiction, Dennett writes, has a deliberately "indeterminate" status: it's true, but only on its own terms. The same goes for our minds. We have all sorts of inner experiences, and we live through and describe them in different ways—telling one another about our dreams, recalling our thoughts, and so on. Are our descriptions and experiences true or fictionalized? Does it matter? It's all part of the story.

Stories aren't real, and yet they’re meaningful; we tell different stories about our minds, as we should, because our minds are different. The story I tell myself about my own thinking is useful to me. It helps me think, by giving me a handle on my mind when thinking gets slippery. The other day, I got stuck on a problem that troubled me. So I went for a swim, hoping to think it through. I wore a wetsuit against the cold water, and at first focussed only on the sensation of cold, and on steadying my breathing. But eventually I warmed up and relaxed. I treaded water a little way out from shore, buoyed by the waves, and prepared to think about my problem; I turned my mind toward it while I watched a seabird float nearby. Nothing happened for a while. I watched the bird, the clouds, the silver water. Then I sensed a thought in need of expression, as I’d known I would. I cleared my throat while the bird flew away. ♦