Thinking in Pictures: Pros and Cons

Thinking in Pictures: Pros and Cons

Whenever I think about something I visualise it. This isn’t some conscious process; it’s just how my mind works.

With any new concept I come across, if I can form a mental image I can understand it. On the flip side, if I can’t see it in my mind’s eye I generally can’t get my head around it at all. When programming I have become very adept at seeing the structure of software. It’s not just a static picture but a dynamic visual model. It’s something like not just watching an animation but scripting, drawing and directing it all at the same time. I find this gives me an intuitive grasp of software systems and I tend to have a gut feeling for those aspects that aren’t well built.

This visualisation also helps me navigate but only if I have travelled a route before. I find I can run through the journey in my mind. However I can rarely remember details such as street names, junction numbers on the motorway or even in some cases the names of towns I pass through! I have lived at my current address for nearly ten years and I still can’t name roads even within half a mile of home. But I don’t get lost because I can “see” the routes in my mind. It’s like Google Street View crossed with a SatNav but without needing to carry some gadget around. It’s a right bugger though when anything changes. If, for instance, some building is knocked down and something else built in its place I can lose my bearings for literally months afterwards. I seem to have trouble remembering how the scene looks now as opposed to how it used to.

I hate it when they move stock around in the supermarket: I’ll write my shopping list out in the order that the items appear as I traverse the aisles. And then I get there and something has been moved since the last time so it’s not where it should be and I start to overload. I don’t handle changes to my routine well at all.

Similarly when I’m trying to remember something I might be able to “see” whatever it is, but can I always put the words to it? Not likely! Not usually a problem when it’s just me because I obviously don’t need the words but I’m stumped if I’m trying to tell somebody else about it. This leads on to another pet hate of mine: when manufacturers change the packaging of some item that I buy regularly such as toothpaste or pre-packaged food. I’ll go to the usual place in the store and I won’t see what I’m looking for because it now looks different. So now I don’t know whether they’re out of stock or I need to look for something different. Either way it means a change which is a Bad Thing. Something like toothpaste or shampoo is particularly bad: if I can’t find my usual product I get overwhelmed by the dozens of almost identical choices on offer. I take it as a deliberate act by the manufacturers to make life difficult for me. It’s as if they’re forcing me to change my routines, and I start to overload again.

I’m getting better at handling it. I no longer tend to have a meltdown in the middle of the store, but my wife is  very used to me ranting about the stupidity of having 50 different kinds of toothpaste, and how such-and-such a store have got it in for me and the only reason they have moved the salad section, sold out of meat & potato pies or discontinued my regular brand of garlic sauce is to upset me personally. I don’t rant at anybody, it’s more of a monologue. The ranting is my safety valve: it lets me handle the stress of the situation before it overwhelms me.

So, there you have it. Despite the drawbacks I wouldn’t change this visualisation aspect of my mind. It allows me to do certain things very well and I can’t imagine life without the images in my head.

4 thoughts on “Thinking in Pictures: Pros and Cons

  1. I can relate to your upset about stock being moved around in stores. Here where I live they seem to make a habit out of it. And I find it very unsettling. Luckily our small local supermarket have never done it since we moved here – just thinking about walking in and seeing everything changed makes me anxious! The area where my visualization sometimes causes problems is figurative language. I understand figures of speech perfectly, but have such strong visual reactions to the literal meaning of the words that I sometimes find it hard not to laugh inappropriately.


  2. Yes, I have the same reaction to figures of speech. I find some of the literal images that pop into my head to be so vivid and yet so opposed to the intended meaning that, as you say, it's hard not to react. At its best my mind can conjure up such a breathtaking picture that all I can do is focus on that and I don't notice anything else around me.Unfortunately most of the stock phrases people use just invoke stock images in my mind and I'm so used to them that I hardly notice them any more. I wish they would be more creative in their use of language because I actually enjoy experiencing novel combinations of literal picture against figurative meaning.


  3. This is an interesting one for me. I think in pictures too but because I'm so private I have often developed the wrong association. For years I thought hair salons were called delicatessens and I still have problems with this association because I can remember the exact hair salon which triggers the confusion. I once mixed them up in public and suffered excruciating embarrassment but I couldn't correct myself because I became instantly mute. I would love to know if this has ever happened to you (I'm really hoping I'm not alone on this one)?


  4. Sorry, I can't say that I recall that ever happening to me. I find my images are less specific in that I get either a synthesis of a number of concrete examples or a collection of instances from memory. I guess this mitigates against the occasional incorrect image by drowning it out among a set of more appropriate ones.


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