I like to think about how we think. It’s a thing.

Ok, so I’ve been getting increasingly curious about what goes on in people’s heads when they read. It all started when someone assumed that “voice” mattered to me in books. At the time I mostly just looked at them quizzically because I didn’t have the words, but it seemed to trigger a curiosity that just won’t quit.

When I ask people, the answers tend to be a mix of “hearing” the words they are reading, and “seeing” images of what’s going on. I hadn’t thought to ask if those images are more like photographs or more like movies, but I’m interested in that too. (side note: words are in quotation marks because I am not trying to indicate hallucinations, only ways we think about what we are reading)

Much of my curiosity was wondering if I’m different from other people. What I’ve gotten so far indicates that I’m a little bit different, but maybe not by much. See, when I read, there is no “voice.” Or at least, I don’t like it when there is. If I’m reading something that is, for whatever reason, hard for me to process, sometimes I resort to “saying” the words in my head as I’m reading. It slows me down and I consider it a terribly inefficient way to read.

When I am reading something particularly engaging, however, it’s different. For one thing, there is no voice, which is delightful. As other people, I do get images in my head. I don’t know what they are like for other people, but mine are incredibly rich. Damn near movie quality rich. If I am REALLY into a book, I will actually lose conscious awareness of the words entirely. I will disconnect from the world and be in this other world, in the book, experiencing what the characters experience. It’s very immersive. For me, the mark of a well-written book is all about the ease at which this happens, or just how thoroughly it does.

Thinking about what happens in people’s heads when we read transitioned fairly smoothly into wondering how people think. This is a very old ponder for me – I remember being a child and wondering about the nature of a deaf person’s thoughts, though I was too young at the time to be able to properly articulate my question (I tried. I was accused to believing that deaf people don’t think).

I have read a few things by Temple Grandin, and how she apparently believes that different people have different ways of thinking. Word thinkers, picture thinkers, etc. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as all that, but I do believe that there are different ways of thinking and that different people may tend to one way of thinking or another.

I don’t know if word-thinking is actually the most common way of thinking, but it certainly seems to be the most acknowledged. Years ago I once was talking to a friend of mine about verbal thinking. Specifically, I commented that a particular person seemed to be very much a verbal thinker. Her response was “Isn’t everyone?” She was really quite shocked when I answered “Well, no.” Apparently it hadn’t ever occurred to her that thoughts could take a form other than words. That was when it really sunk in, why so many people think that if you don’t have words you must not have thoughts. They believe that words are the ONLY way to have thoughts.

I have word thoughts. I also have image thoughts. And concept thoughts. I rely mostly on concept thoughts. This blog post, for instance, mostly lived in my head as a concept until I actually started writing it. I had a few key words and phrases scattered through, attached to concept thoughts, but most of these words only happened as I’ve been writing. That’s how I write and frequently why I write; writing is how a concept turns into words for me.

This also gets into something that you might have guessed by now – written language is, for me, fundamentally different from spoken language. Or at least, I process them in ENTIRELY different ways. Trying to connect written language to spoken language is actually a rather laborious process for me, so it’s not something I care to do unless I have to. Reading is most pleasurable when it is least like listening.

I’m still curious, just for the record. What goes on in your head when you read? What structure or form do your thoughts take in your head?


Filed under ponder

5 responses to “Ponder

  1. Thanks for writing this post! “How people think” is something I also think about a lot (“but how?”… just kidding;-) and which I have wanted to write about for a long time, still pondering how to do it.

    For me, it also started with reading books and articles by Temple Grandin (especially “Animals in Translation”) and beeing deeply puzzled that she thinks that “thinking in words” is the most common way to think, and “thinking in pictures” the autistic way. To start with, I am not even sure what “thinking in words” mean. Thinking in text? but that is visual, after all. Thinking in the sound of words? That does not sound efficient at all. I do realise that some people say they think in words, but if I begin to ask into it, it usually turns out that the words are just a suppelement to the whole context of their thoughts, their concepts of the situations – which is primarily visual. It may take people a while to realise it, because it is something they take for granted and haven’t always defined as “thoughts”, but it is the majority of thoughts, “sentences” are like the conclusions or “creme on top of the cake”. Meta-thinking is very hard; it is very hard to see one’s own thought when one is used to taking them for granted, because they are there all the time, processing the worldand drawing conclusions automatically.

    My gut feeling is that most people think in a combination of sensory concepts, perhaps with a smaller or higher proportions of “verbal statements” in the mix, but primarily visually most of the time. I am certain people have preferred thinking styles, e.g. some people may be predominantly auditory thinkers (thinking in sound patterns) and some may need physical involvement to understand concepts, but I also think to a large extent that the “fabric of thoughts” or mix of thinking style depends on the situation and the type of mental processing it requires.

    For example, imagine a person who “only think in words” try to drive a car in traffic! The amount of verbal thoughts required to process that situation verbally would be like hundred football field filled with books towering on top of each other! What person would even be able to think that fast, as to push that many words through his/her mind in order to make decisions in a timely manner while driving in traffic! Obviously, traffic requires predominately visual thinking all the time, albeit a few thought “word sentences” here and there won’t do any harm. Since the majority of people in Western societies (or at least here in Australia) have a driver’s licence – it is considered unusual to not have one so much as it is usually expected as standard ID – it follows the majority must at least be capable of predominant visual thinking in some of their everyday situations.

    I have much more to say about this topic, will come back later or take it up on my own blog… I am still looking for Grandin’s reference as to why she thinks verbal thinking is the norm. I am planning to read “Thinking in pictures” for that reason (I have only read the animal books). I recently saw a YouTube interview with her where she was directly asked by the very neurotypical interviewer what precisely she means by thinking in pictures and how it differs from “normal thinking”… like his own way of thinking,which he would also say is visual. She joked that that’s probably why he is in TV and not radio, but didn’t answer the question. She was then asked to give some examples of how she thinks, and the examples she gave sounded like totally normal associations to the interviewer’s cue word. I think she is wrong in her assumptions about how normal thinking differs from autistic thinking, or perhaps “thinking in pictures” doesn’t mean just thinking visually, but I haven’t found anywhere where she explains precisely what she means by pictures then. I thinks there is so many signs in both the words themselves and the tasks humans excel at, that human thinking is usually predominantly visual and anyone who can’t do advanced visual thinking is the one who has a severe problem in society (which some exceptions – in some environments it may not matter)

    Donna Williams have also written a very interesting article about “kinestetic thinking” (I think it was) questioning Grandin’s assumptions that autistic thinking = visual, and there was an interesting discussion about this topic in one of the comment tracks on “musings of an aspie” long ago. I will link to them and the video later or tomorrow when I get on my computer (this is my tablet).

    Very interesting discussion, I hope many more people will join into it and share their reflections & thinking styles.

    • Here are the links I was talking about:

      – Donna William’s post:Not Thinking in Pictures (really good article IMO)

      – Some of the comment track of this “Tuesday Test” post by Cynthia Kim.

      – and this interview with Temple Grandin is where the interviewer asks what precisely she means by thinking in pictures:

      (apart from that the interviewers are a bit annoying asking stupid questions, just ignore that)

  2. merelyquirky

    How you described being immersed in the world you read about: that is exactly how it is for me (if the book is well written).

  3. A

    When I read, I hear a voice reading the words. If I want to visualize what I’m reading, then I have to do so deliberately but I can usually – particularly if it’s fiction – do an okay job of visualizing. The voice I hear is sometimes my own but, more frequently, is the voice of the person I am reading. If I’m reading fiction, then the voice I hear is an invented voice of the character. When I read your piece, even though we’ve never met and I’ve never heard your voice, I heard a female voice that my brain invented. The process of inventing a voice isn’t deliberate for me. I saw what I assumed was your Facebook picture on the side under the “Follow” button and then read your piece in an automatically invented voice that is assigned as your own.

    My take on reading is different from yours but that’s maybe because we read differently. Since everything is spoken in my head and frequently spoken in these different character voices, I like writing that is conversational, maybe more informal. It’s very, very difficult for me not to say in my head what I’m reading.

  4. Thinking is a mixture of complex processes. I do hear a voice when I read, I can’t imagine not. But the voicing of the word triggers images, tastes, sounds, smells and touch. Words are shorthand. If I think of an apple, I see it, then taste, then hear the crunch and smell it. If I had to visualise the apple just on its own with no cue, it’s more difficult. The sense that is most important for my thoughts is touch. A long time, a mentor helped me get a sense of how I think by imagining myself on a beach and the first things I notice. It’s a good exercise. I notice the wind then sand, the scent of the water, then seagull cries before I see or hear people. I hadn’t realised how tactile and kinesthetic I was in my thoughts.
    Touch helps me cement things more in my hand, my thoughts on things I’ve never touched are vaguer.