Thought Transference

Thought Transference

I’ve written before about being a visual thinker, but a presentation by a colleague of mine this morning at work set me thinking about it again. I won’t go into the detail of his talk which was based on this talk at ACCU 2013. Suffice to say that he has a strong interest in understanding thought processes as they relate to software development in particular.

There are different styles of thinking. Some are visual; some are language-based. Some are grounded in rationality, others take soaring flights of fancy. A person who thinks in a particular way will find it difficult if not impossible to imagine how somebody with a different cognitive style thinks: I am completely unable to imagine thinking in words.

Most people appear to use a combination of verbal and non-verbal thinking. Purely non-verbal thinkers are a minority, although they are reportedly more common among the autistic population. Indeed one of the best known autistic women, Temple Grandin, is a purely visual thinker. She wrote this informative article about her own experience.

When considering cognitive styles I encounter this conundrum: how can a purely verbal thinker imagine concepts that transcend language? How can they hold something in their mind that they lack the vocabulary to describe? I do not know the answer to this.

Language is a tool for communication. It allows something to be transferred from one mind to another, but the process is imperfect, incomplete. It’s like emailing a photo of a scene, reducing all the sensory impressions and feelings to a collection of colored pixels. So much context is lost.

How can I describe a walk through woodland? I could take a picture, freeze one instant. I could describe the feel of the ground underfoot; the earthy, damp smell; the sound of the wind through the leaves overhead overlaid with the songs of birds and the zip and hum of insects; the play of the dappled sunlight through the canopy onto the undergrowth. I can see that walk in my mind even though I never experienced it directly in that exact form. But can I conjure those same thoughts in your mind?

Much of what I hear or read has an emotional impact that derives from my own experiences, my own personal set of likes and dislikes, my own moral sense. Shared culture means that there will be overlap between people depending on how much they have in common. But ultimately what I experience inside my own head is unique to me.

Which leads me, in a round-about way, to another attempt to use words to build a mental model in your mind of what it means to “think in pictures”. Even that phrase is misleading: perhaps I ought to call it non-verbal thinking. Because what I “see” is not just like an array of photographs.

Consider a simple mechanism like a door hinge. Suddenly in my mind I am holding a 3″ steel hinge. I am feeling the weight of the cold, hard metal; I am opening and closing the two halves, feeling the friction in the joint; I am seeing how the screw holes — three per side — are arranged and their edges countersunk. I am fitting such a hinge to a door, seeing the process of first removing the screws, removing the old hinge, aligning the new one in its place and then driving the screws in to hold it there.

Visual thinking, for me, is also spatial and temporal. I see objects in relation to each other, and I see how the objects and their relationships change over time. The models in my mind are not static but dynamic. Communicating them to others is difficult: it requires the use of visual metaphors and analogies to “real” examples. My visual representations must be translated into language. When speaking or writing that is typically English, when programming it would usually be C++. The process is the same, and over the years has become largely intuitive.

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.

Loneliness Redux

Loneliness Redux

It was John Donne who wrote in 1624, “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe”. Can’t say I disagree with this – the more I build protective walls around me, insulating myself from the world at large, the more lonely I feel. Humans are social animals and merely going through the motions, only interacting superficially, does not involve any connexion with others. I find I need some contact but I’m shut away.

The keep stands fast, ringed by its moat,
Secure, yet isolated.
Defending me from close approach;
Connexions subjugated.

All who try to find a portal,
Some water-gate unguarded,
Can only beat against stone walls
With which my self’s surrounded.

Fear builds these walls, fear of getting hurt, fear of censure or ridicule. These fears seem to feed on depression, growing stronger until they overwhelm me, forcing me to withdraw and take refuge behind the reinforced barriers of my mental “panic room”.

The trouble is that once those doors are closed, once the shutters come down, there is a coldness as my links to those around me are severed. Feelings are dulled and remote, like outside sounds heard through a closed door. In here I am safe from danger but also disconnected from positive influence – a dilemma.

Perfect isolation
Brings a deathlike stillness.
Colorless desert; expanse
Of infinite emptiness.

How to resolve this? It is paradoxical that in my loneliness I feel a need to be alone, to get away and be by myself for a while. To regain my balance, rebuild my strength and, hopefully, recover my happiness. Because at the moment I am down. Have been for some days or weeks now – not quite sure how long.

The blighted trees were once so green
But now stand gray and twisted.
My woodland haven, tranquil scene,
Destroyed, demolished, blasted.

I feel exhausted. There are reasons – I know what they are but not how to resolve them.

Solitary inmate; my prison
Is of my own making, no less
Secure for that. I hold no keys
That will unlock these cold steel bars.

Outside my cell the corridors
Are silent, no guards to patrol.
My small cell lost in this fastness.
I cry out; echoes fade to naught.

Trying to find some inner peace is difficult right now. I try to recall times of happiness and comfort such as walks in the countryside, views across lakes to distant hills and forests – but instead I find I am transported to exposed rocky slopes with the cold wind howling around me as the rain lashes down and thunder rumbles ominously in the distance. I am a long way from shelter and the day is rapidly drawing to an end to leave me on my own in the stormy night.

Trudging endlessly through the long night, the search for a place to rest seems a Sisyphean task. But I cling to the hope that the storm will abate, a new day will dawn and I will at last find a place to lay my head. To cast off my weariness and return to the light.



One of my work colleagues, having read my post Music and Mood, asked me whether I had ever seen Disney’s Fantasia – in particular the abstract animation accompanying Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. He was curious to know whether my mental images would match the animation at all.

I hadn’t seen the picture at that point, but have since watched most of the segment in question. The short answer is that the images it conjures up in my mind do not match those in the movie at all. In fact the mismatch was so great that I stopped watching because I found the animation distracted from the music rather than complementing it; however I did find an audio recording of the piece played on a pipe organ which I found much more satisfying than the orchestral version because of the purity of tone.

It is somewhat curious to me that what is essentially an abstract piece of music – there is no evidence that Bach intended any narrative in his composition – should inspire concrete images in my mind’s eye. The opening bars bring into being a darkened landscape, hills rolling to the horizon, the scene widening. And then as that powerful chord is built up the sun rises above the far horizon, flooding the bucolic land with its warm golden brightness. As the piece progresses there is movement as flowers spring up out of the ground, streams and waterfalls cascade and great towering trees thrust skywards, propelled by the strength of the deep bass notes.

There is a lot of detail and movement in my images, especially those that are produced by rapid sequences of notes – this is in complete contrast to the simple nature of the animation in Fantasia, where the complexity of the music is not matched by the visuals. There are odd moments that begin to show promise but they still fall far short and I am left with a feeling of dissatisfaction because the combined experience of music and video ends up much less involving than the music alone.

Visualizing Emotions

Visualizing Emotions

Feeling emotions means seeing myself in different settings, each reflecting – to me at least – the nature of the sensation. This is obviously a consequence of a visual mode of thinking: my conscious identification and comprehension of my emotional state is driven by my recognition of the specific mental imagery.

To feel happiness is to take to the air, flying through the limitless skies with velocity in proportion to the degree of pleasure. Happiness is a strong, bright yellow like the summer sun, daffodils, buttercups or gorse flowers.

As happiness shades into ecstasy or excitement then the flight becomes aerobatic: swooping, twisting and turning through the air. There is an invigorating surge of glittering bubbles like swimming through the fizz of champagne.

In contrast, sadness is a leaden dullness, an unrelieved monotony of gray emptiness. Little or no motion, no possibility of escaping gravity’s pull that tethers me to the ground. Everything moves so slowly as if mired in a morass, and it takes such effort to overcome the inertia.

As sadness deepens into despondency and despair, so the gray darkens, chasms opening beneath my feet as I slip down, deeper and deeper into the abyss with what faint light there is steadily diminishing overhead, dwindling and fading to a point that eventually becomes imperceptible from the gloom all around. Add hurt – pain – to this and the edges become hard and sharp, pressing in on me, trapping me in their constrictions before piercing into and through me as the intensity becomes unbearable.

Fear is cold; a blue/white arctic landscape through which the wind blows relentlessly, sculpting the ice into faerie castles with towers like scimitars, and whipping the snow up into blizzards. As I begin to panic I am picked up by the wind, and left falling endlessly, arms thrashing in vain as I try to slow and stop my irresistible descent.

Anger is a curious one. Other people speak about “seeing red”; however I cannot honestly say that red is associated with the feeling for me. Anger is a huge black and silver steam locomotive, belching smoke from its stack and spouting prodigious jets of steam from its pistons as it speeds, unstoppable, along gleaming straight steel rails, wheels flashing so quickly that they are just a blur, making the very earth tremble with its immense power and trailing an immense white plume back along its path. This thundering titan seems to me to be the embodiment of dreadful might.

And finally, calm – serenity, peaceful solitude – is walking through woodland on a balmy summer’s day, sunlight filtering through the lush green canopy to project dappled shadows on the gray/green/brown tangle of the undergrowth. Not another person around; it is just me and the creatures of the woods – birds fluttering among the branches, squirrels bounding sinuously up trunks and along the limbs. Perfect natural harmony all around me.

The Pictures Are Better

The Pictures Are Better

There’s a well-known saying: “I prefer radio to television. The pictures are better.” I would say the same goes for reading, perhaps even more so. When I’m reading a book I am seeing the events unfold in front of my eyes, hearing them too – immersed in the world of the story. It’s so engrossing because it’s an active involvement – I’m creating the scenes, directing the action according to the script of the book. In contrast watching television is a very passive activity – just sit back and absorb somebody else’s vision. That is one reason I often find television to be far less engaging.

Don’t get me wrong – I watch some television, probably more sports and news than anything else. I watch movies and enjoy some of them, even those like Master and Commander where there is plenty of scope for disappointment because I’m familiar with the books on which they were based. I don’t much like going to the cinema – it’s because being in a strange environment among a crowd of unfamiliar people makes me uncomfortable, but I occasionally watch movies at home. Occasionally as in once or twice a month, if that. Reading, on the other hand, is something I do every day.

Opening a book is like opening a door to a different world, one where anything might be possible. Yes, it is blatant escapism – that’s rather the point of it for me. The real world is often badly-adjusted for my sensory and cognitive needs. But when I’m in one of the worlds that I enter through the pages of a book I am in full control of my experiences: I create – imagine – all the sensations I experience in there. I know it’s not real and that’s part of its attraction – I know there’s nothing in that world that can hurt me. Provoke various emotions, yes – excitement, pleasure, sadness, apprehension – but not actually hurt me. It’s a safe environment in which to feel those emotions.

As I read the story I progressively refine my mental image of the setting, starting with a fairly generic off-the-peg one and adding new details, altering existing ones, until what I have in mind meshes with my interpretation of the descriptions in the book. I borrow elements from the props cupboard of my existing memories, tweak them a little and introduce them to the building scene. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice in previous posts I have trouble when it comes to picturing faces. So the characters in my mental worlds are almost faceless – there’s no detail to their features. I don’t find this remarkable or unusual because I am exactly the same with my memories of people in real life.

If I make a conscious effort I can imagine facial details in isolation – like elements of a photo-fit that has been taken apart. A scar on a cheek, green eyes, aquiline nose, swarthy complexion – I can see each of them in turn but can’t fit them together to produce a single image of a face. I recall details of the faces of people I know in the same way – as collections of isolated features. But I can’t generally picture a complete visage. It’s as if the whole face is out of focus and the only way I can discern detail is to concentrate on just a part of it.

I find it ironic in a way – here I am with my wonderful visual mode of thinking and my almost-photographic memory of places I’ve been… and I can’t even clearly recall the faces of most of my work colleagues whom I see almost every day, let alone invent faces to populate the worlds of my books.