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Reflections on thinking

Iwas 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.

Joshua Rothman