Abstract Pictures

Abstract Pictures

I’ve written before about being a strongly visual thinker. While this can involve the obvious triggering of mental pictures – snapshots if you like – as a direct result of words and phrases, sounds, smells or other sensations, my experience goes far beyond this simple interpretation.

C is for Cat


Aside from being a gratuitous cat picture (scores high for cuteness), this image serves to illustrate the simplistic view of visual thinking: akin to a child’s picture book that associates a concrete noun with a visual representation of that entity. This is indeed the most basic level of visual thinking: hear or read the word – “cat” in this case – and see a picture of a cat in the mind’s eye.

This is all very well as far as it goes, and it does introduce the concept to those people who don’t think in the same way. But there is much more to thought than just a collection of concrete entities, and so I will move on to another aspect: visualization of movement.

“And Yet it Moves!”

The first step beyond static pictures is to introduce motion. This is straightforward: in the real world things move and change over time. Continuing with my cat theme; unless it has had an unfortunate meeting with a taxidermist, a real cat does not sit motionless 24×7. So we need to imagine it doing “cat things”: stretching, washing, playing with a fluffy ball, lapping water from its bowl, scratching at a post and so on. With all this in mind we move from thinking about one instance – a cat – to a more abstract notion of catness that may be applied more generally. If you’ll forgive the pun, we’ve gone from a cat to a category.

My Own Private Street View

Another aspect of motion involves travel, moving from one place to another. Google Street View is a great analogy for how I see it, but years before that kind of thing was even possible using technology, I would visualize a journey such as “going to the shop” as if I had filmed it on a previous occasion and was now watching it back. This kind of visualization coupled with a good visual memory – for places if not other things – is a great help if I’m heading someplace I’ve only been to once before. I just correlate what I’m seeing in front of me with what I can see in my mind. Of course since Street View came along I have been able to make use of it to see routes before I ever go there in the flesh, which saves a lot of effort trying to navigate from a map while driving.

In terms of visualization, going somewhere is not so different from doing something such as making a sandwich: again it is like playing back a recording. So now we are visualizing processes – things are getting more abstract.

“It’s Worse Than That, It’s Geometry Jim!”

Simply relying on memory to furnish images would be rather limiting. What we need if we are to step beyond this slide show/VCR model of visual thinking is the ability to create new images: something like a sketchbook or whiteboard. And this is exactly what a visual imagination can provide.

Let’s imagine something simple: a square. Picture it drawn on a sheet of paper. Now add another square next to it so that the edges join like squares on a chess board. Add another two so you have a row of four adjacent squares. Now add two more squares, one on each side of a square at one end of the row so you end up with a T shape. Cut away the paper around the edges of the T and then fold the shape up at a right-angle along the edges of each original square so that it forms a cube: if you’ve got this far then you’ve got some ability for thinking visually. I find this kind of thing easy to do; so easy in fact that 2- or 3-dimensional geometry becomes as straightforward as mental arithmetic.

I use geometrical visualization to understand mathematics and associated concepts. Solving equations is equivalent to finding intersections on a graph; complex numbers become points in 2D space. In computing, my “special interest” and day job, data structures and algorithms become animated diagrams, like flow charts on steroids: visual models of processes. Software as flowing shapes.

You Can’t Get There From Here

It’s all been positive so far, but there is a rather large elephant in the room. Everything abstract is derived from or analogous to concrete entities. It all comes back to things that can be seen. But what about truly abstract concepts? Things that cause physical sensations such as heat, roughness or sourness elicit images of situations that cause those sensations, so heat could be standing in sunshine on a summer’s day, or being close to a fire. My problem is when there are no physical effects and no real-life situations in which I have experienced the concept. Emotions are a particular problem area for me: I am aware that there are far more distinctions, shades of emotion according to the dictionary definitions, than I am able to relate to my own experiences.

Consider the spectrum of meanings in words relating to happiness. I’ve colored these to illustrate that they can be thought of as sitting at different points along a scale:

at peace, content, cheerful, happy, elated, blissful, ecstatic

I know intellectually that these words describe different degrees of feeling but I can’t distinguish them in relation to my own emotional states. I don’t identify nearly as many points on the scale:

at peace, content, cheerful, happy, elated, blissful, ecstatic

The effect of this is that I get the same mental response when I consider “happy” as I do when I consider “elated”. I get the same images, imagine the same situations. It is analogous to color-blindness. I also suspect that this is connected to my difficulty reading emotional states in other people.

Beyond Words

There’s just one final facet of visual thinking that I need to explain. Because I’ve been presenting everything in this written medium, I’ve been giving the impression that words are of primary importance. This is not the case: when I say that I think in pictures it is literally true. I start with the visual representation and then translate that into words (or the equivalent mathematical expressions, programming language, diagrams or whatever else depending on the domain). I sometimes have a problem, especially when speaking, where I struggle to find the words for what I am thinking – and because I’m not thinking in words I find it difficult to describe in alternative terms.

I hope this has given a flavor of what it is like to have a strongly visual-oriented mode of thinking. I’d be interested to know how other people’s experiences match up to mine.