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How do you think? Confessions of a Nonverbal Thinker

The IMA Blog team welcomes new author, Linda Duke, Director of Education.

When I was very young, I had a special sense about written numbers. It’s hard for me to access that now, through all the years of education devoted to making sure I understood numbers in a standard way. But I still have a feeling about that early relationship, and sometimes I wonder how it might have developed if I hadn’t learned to be ashamed of it and to ignore it.

Here’s what I can recall: I knew the shapes of the numerals as indicators of the distinct characters of each. Though my sense for some of them has slipped out of reach, in the way dreams do, I can still feel the stronger personalities. The numeral five was intimidating in appearance, but in actuality quite sweet. Seven was both stern and judgmental. Eight had complexity and depth – and eight led to a painful collision with my first grade teacher, Miss Logan. She taught us to write eight with one continuous figure-eight line. Soon after, she exhorted us never to write it as one circle on top of the other – an idea that had, frankly, not occurred to me.

Once I heard about this forbidden way of making the image, I badly wanted to try it, to find out why it was seductive and wrong.  I hunched over my practice sheet to try what sounded to me like an ingenious alternative. The hurtful rap of a ruler on the back of my head shocked and scared me. I could hardly believe she caught me in the act so quickly and easily. Miss Logan’s efficient suppression of dissent gave me, early-on, the impression that privacy and experimentation had no place in the classroom.

Back to the personalities of numbers: you might think it’s just as well that this idiosyncratic notion of numerals having distinct natures signified by their visual forms was scared out of me. Even in first grade it was beginning to raise some dauntingly complex dimensions of arithmetic. What kind of psychodrama might be the sum of 8+7? If 5 were subtracted from 9, what interpersonal consequences would that equal? Left unmolested, I wonder if I might have been able to craft an alternative way of working with numbers that allowed me to derive answers that approximated my classmates’. I’ll never know. As it is, I developed a serious case of math phobia and went on to do poorly in math classes throughout my schooling – with only the slight exception of geometry, to which I was timidly attracted. It is only in middle age that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am actually fascinated by mathematics as logic, and by the more philosophical implications of mathematics, rather than the computing tasks. I’ve also noticed that the concept of numbers having “natures’ isn’t entirely far-fetched when one considers mathematics as a system for describing relationships and processes.

My early sense about numbers may be one indication of something it’s taken me years to notice about myself: I believe I am a primarily a non-verbal thinker. Until I reached this hypothesis, I thought everyone thought approximately the same way.

Several years ago, I began asking my colleagues in the art museum education department how they thought – not what they thought, but how. Were they conscious of thinking in words, for example? I started this line of questioning because I realized that I was completely unable to describe or explain my experience of thinking. Of course I could mentally use words. If I needed to craft a statement of some kind and make decisions about the most effective wording, I could certainly rehearse the possibilities in my mind and make a choice. However, that would be a particular situation, very different from my ordinary, day-to-day thought/language processes. Truth be told, I had to admit that in my on-going mental life, words don’t play a part. In ordinary conversation, I do not plan or even know what words will come out of my mouth. I would even go so far as to say that the times I have jotted notes for a talk or to teach a class have led to my most lack-luster presentations. The notes always flummox me.  It’s taken me a while to trust myself, but I now feel that I am better off speaking “spontaneously.”

But back to the question about thinking that I posed to my co-workers: Most people seemed taken aback by the question and several mentioned that they had never considered how they thought. Upon reflection, quite a few said that they were conscious of words and sentences going through their minds. Several said they “heard” their thoughts as an on-going voice inside their heads. One person described being vaguely aware of punctuation in his thoughts! Another described dreams in which she read the narrative and conversations in a way that reminded her of the bubbles over the heads of comic book characters.

It was difficult to cover my own surprise at these revelations. Even now, as I type this anecdote into my laptop, I wish I could form the ideas on this screen with my hands. I wish that you could take them in with a probing – or a playful – gaze, rather than following various linear sentences to various open or dead ends. I don’t think with words.

How do you think? Can you describe your experience of thinking? Please let me know. I think others will be interested as well.

Filed under: Education

13 Responses to “How do you think? Confessions of a Nonverbal Thinker”

  • avatar
    Chuck Lawrence Says:

    I must agree, I have always associated characteristics and personalities with written numbers, and later to letters of the alphabet. I remember when first seeing the Hindi alphabet, thinking such letters were filled with ancient power and wisdom, the curvacious Arabic script seemed fluid and easy going, and the points of Hebrew letters seemed alive and all powerful with flame. I alwys have thought, however, that all individuals do indeed create such associations, and thankfully having never been reproached for such experimentation, encourage it within my own third grade students. It is amazing the stimulating writing a student can generate when directed to explain the interaction when for example, “R first met E”!

  • avatar
    Linda Duke Says:

    Chuck, how great that you encourage your students to explore ways of considering the marks on paper that comprise alphabetic and numeric systems! I do think that the human mind constantly “calculates” the meanings of sensory experiences. Images on paper are just the start! What is the “sum” of red, sunset sky plus a rising coolness from the earth plus the smell of smoke in the air? In my view, the “sum” or outcome of those kinds of experiences can be an aesthetic meaning, not a logical deduction – a whole-person way of knowing, rather than a systemized one. I say “can be” because I think our culture teaches us not to give value to (or even note) such meanings because they are not logical. Perhaps this is one reason our culture has had so much trouble sustaining several kinds of holistic systems: health and environmental spring to mind.

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective as a teacher!

  • avatar
    Elaine Peters Says:

    For as long as I can remember, I have thought in terms of music. I have a sound track in my head running almost continually, with either the last song I have heard, or some accompaniment running beneath a group of images. It started to make more sense to me when my mother described how she put me to bed as a little kid….my crib was across the room from the piano. We would play a couple of tunes on the keyboard, then she would lay me down. The fresh songs were still running through my mind as I started to get more and more sleepy. And as I slept the music fragments became the background of my dreams.
    Now, many years later, a musician, I can read music and practice simpler pieces in my mind without my fingers ever hitting the keys. Some music comes to comfort me when I have troubles. Music has formed a bond with my thinking to such a degree that I memorize lyrics to ballads with an ease that surpasses my ability to memorize straight poetry unaccompanied by music. Once I learn a piece, it doesn’t leave. And I have been able to play the piano by ear since the age of two, and to put a name with a sound (a skill called perfect pitch) since my earliest days. Much like your fascination with numbers, I was a child who had a favorite note, and would seek it out to hear it much as you assigned personalities to numbers.

  • avatar
    Linda Duke Says:

    Your reflections are truly fascinating to me, Elaine. I do not have any formal education in music, but my informal musical experiences may be the factor that allows me to empathize very much with you description. My father was a tenor and had a fairly serious avocation as a soloist at weddings, funerals and in musical programs performed at churches all over the Chicago area. I grew up to the background sound of his bedroom practices; he sang along to a tape-recorded accompaniment for hours each night and on weekends. That sonic backdrop to my childhood, perhaps more than the performances I attended, left a strange affinity for music in my brain! Unhappily, without the education to sort it out, I am usually tongue-tied when called upon to discuss music.

    How interesting that you felt attracted to a particular note! It almost seems as though it served as a kind of home-base for you, musically. I’d be very interested to know if that attraction has continued to play a role in your adult life as a musician.

  • avatar
    Ina Says:

    I am a writer (non-native English, so please forgive me lack of fluency), so I should think verbally. It is usually not the case. Usually I think in videos, with music, sound, smell and emotion attached. I had a hard time to put them onto paper. Words come to me with music and rhytm, so it is pretty easy for me to rhyme, even in foreign languages. Often I struggle with an imagined concept or a scene that I’d like to put in words, but if I can’t hear the rhytm, it can’t be verbally expressed. That’s why when I write, I can be quite expressive (people say I have the gift of efortless writing – they are of course horribly wrong). However when I speak, I often stutter or begin from the middle, or get stuck with too many pictures and not enough words. Impressions I can only get close to describing, and that’s why I learn to express myself in writing all my life, though I can do it pretty well.
    I guess I am not a real non-verbal thinker, really, though both components are there. Ortography is easy for me – I just feel the right way, and non-verbal thinkers usually don’t. I’m visual, but not really spatial. The “feel”, the “shade”, “colour” or “taste” of what I want to express can be so frustrating to communicate, though.

  • avatar
    Linda Says:

    Ina, Thanks for your interesting message. Just last night, over dinner at the American Academy in Rome where I am enjoying a short residency as an Affiliated Fellow, the discussion turned to synaesthesia. Here’s how Wikipedia defines this term:
    Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), “sensation”—is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. [1][2][3][4] People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

    In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored,[5][6] while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities.[7][8] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[9][10][11] Yet another recently identified type, visual motion → sound synesthesia, involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker.[12] Over 60 types of synesthesia have been reported by people,[13] but only a fraction have been evaluated by scientific research.[14] Even within one type, synesthetic perceptions vary in intensity [15] and people vary in awareness of their synesthetic perceptions.[16]

    I had never thought of myself as a synaesthete until last night’s discussion. You seems to describe some similar modes of experience. I agree with you that this isn’t an either/or situation. I love words and langauges even though I am increasingly conscious of my non-verbal process. I do understand your sense of frustration in trying to find the words, but I find the attempt to find them highly rewarding, sometimes even revelatory.

  • avatar
    Cindy K Says:

    Hi there! I have recently become very aware of the way in which I think and upon doing a google search I stumbled upon this story of yours about how you think without words.

    I’m very fascinated by the concept of thinking without words and I wonder how I came to think in this way. Have I always thought this way? How does thinking in this way effect the ways that I speak or my ability to write?

    Would it be possible for you to answer those questions for me about yourself? In order to better understand my own mind, I think it’d be great to hear from someone else who thinks in the same way.

    I don’t remember that I ever had a special relationship with numbers in the way that you described but I’ve always had this “comfort” derived from the number 2 or 22 which at one point turned into an even number OCD where all things had to be an even number but I’ve since overcome that even number problem. The number two has been very “comfortable” for me since I was a young child, though, and I wonder why.

    There are certain things that just “feel right”.

    I never ever think in words unless I am having a conversation with myself, and even then it sometimes goes without words. I’ve tried to describe my thought process to other people but they don’t seem to understand.

    I’m incredibly great at pattern recognition and things like word searches and the game Boggle because I don’t see things as words but as a combination of letters that are part of a bigger picture.

    When I’m speaking to someone I find it difficult to articulate things “on the spot” because I have to translate my non verbal thoughts into spoken words. I think, because of this, I am a great writer because this drives me to always need to find the “perfect” word to explain exactly what my thoughts are trying to portray. It’s frustrating when I can’t find a proper word. Sometimes I wish I could just transfer my thoughts to other people. Words don’t grasp the full meaning.

    For an example of my thought process: I was a few minutes ago talking to a friend and told her that she reminded me of the “last shadow” bird creature in the movie Avatar. She asked me how they related and I explained to her that it wasn’t a composed thought but that the bird creature popped into my mind and I just “felt” a connection to her and my mind thought without words the connections/similarities between my friend and this bird creature. It just came to me as a picture at first followed by a feeling and a sense of connection, all without words.

    Is that similar to how you think?

    Sorry this was so wordy. I tend to be very winded.


  • avatar
    Linda Says:

    I agree that having to translate thoughts into words can instigate more deliberate use of language, in both writing and speaking. I can also imagine it causing “speechlessness” when ideas are complex and words aren’t easily found. Thanks for writing and sharing your perspective!

  • avatar
    James D Says:

    I thought entirely non-verbally until I was in my mid-twenties, then I lost it. I remember finding out my friends thought in words and being genuinely disturbed. At around the same time I started to think in words I became a bit neurotic and even socially phobic, which I never was before.

    Probably because in attendance with this change I was also now imagining/rehearsing/planning future conversations a lot (didn’t happen previously), i.e. not ‘living in the moment’.

    I now have a hard time thinking anything without an internal conversational element, with the other ‘virtual’ party being myself (in which case an active participant) or someone else (silent). Since my mental life was a lot less complex (but no less capable) before this change, I’m currently trying to get back to my former state. Wish me luck. :-p

  • avatar
    Stephen Swift Says:

    Dear Linda et al,
    I have recently become interested in non-verbal thinking. As a maths and science high school teacher for all my adult life I have been aware of different modes of thinking, but these haven’t really impacted very much on my approach to teaching and learning. I was aware that one of my sons is a ‘geometric’ thinker. Although I was aware of this it didn’t occur to me that the mis-match between his school performance and intelligence could be a result of the dominance of verbal communication at school. I very recently became aware that my wife is a non-verbal thinker when I was assisted her with an application for an award where it was necessary for her to couch some of the application in education-theoretical terms (She is an economics lecturer at university). She was having difficulty writing the material, so after talking fro a little while I started typing what she had indicated on screen. She asked me ‘how do you do that?’ in a somewhat amazed voice and after we talked further we realised that I thought in words but that she didn’t. She said that when she wrote academic articles she had to translate her thoughts into words in order to write an article or indeed to write anything.
    My vague recollection is that about 10% of people do not think in words, but most of us do. On Christmas day two my children were with us, and my elder daughter’s partner was also in attendance. I know that he is very intelligent and very creative, but that he also did fairly poorly at school. Guess what – he is also a non-verbal thinker.
    In contrast to these two males, my wife has coped very well with standard educational practices, and I now wonder if males who are also non-verbal thinkers have a harder time than females, as it has become known in the last few years than females have a greater natural ability with words than males anyway. Perhaps there is something about the brain that allows female non-verbal thinkers to cope better than males. My wife also says that it is getting harder for non-verbal academics as more and more, you are required to write applications for grants to do research.
    I worry that some of our best talent is being frustrated by our school systems. PS I am also an experienced author of school mathematics textbooks and have now retired from teaching at school.

  • avatar
    Linda Duke Says:

    What an interesting post! I was especially fascinated by your suggestion that female non-verbal thinkers fare somewhat better in standard educational systems than male. Evidence in my own experience supports this.

    Lately I have been thinking a lot about ways of understanding the world, especially, the more holistic, interconnected ways that prevailed for millennia and that are preserved in some indigenous cultures today. The ancient sciences for healing, understanding the natural environment, and developing as a human being are now called shamanism. I wonder if it isn’t accurate to say that those ways of thinking and knowing stand in a distinctly different relationship with language from what is common in mainstream Eurocentric cultures today. There is a thoughtful book by David Abrams called The Spell of the Sensuous in which the author proposes a different effect for alphabetic languages in this regard. He describes the distinctive thought processes required to process alphabetic languages, as opposed those used with writing that has maintained a pictographic basis (such as Chinese characters). There has been some interesting comparative research on dyslexia that finds it to be quite rare (and probably altogether different) in China.

    I recently wrote a chapter for a book to be published this spring by the UK organization Museum Identity (Museum Learning: knowledge, ideas and inspiration, Gregory Chamberlain, editor)in which I argue that museums should intentionally embrace a responsibility to nurture visual and other non-verbal ways of knowing, but also, in their programming, commit to strengthening connections between these understandings and language.

    This past year HBO produced a film biography of the respected animal scientist, Temple Grandin, a genius and a person with autism. Dr. Grandin has devoted her career to designing more humane livestock handling and slaughter facilities. Through her various books (Thinking in Pictures, Animals in Translation, Animals Make Us Human), Dr. Grandin has perhaps done more than any other writer to enlighten us about non-verbal thinking. The film has won many awards and features Dr. Grandin’s actual drawings. But I run on … so many thoughts triggered by your post, Stephen. Thanks for sharing your observations. Linda

  • avatar
    Claudia Says:

    I think in images mostly,color,light and feeling. I use words on paper to help me organize my thoughts because you need organization to get things done. I can’t say it’s working so well. The words are more specific of detail and dissect the “thoughts”. I think it’s a huge advantage to think in something other than words because language is limiting,but it’s more difficult to do things(other than art or music of course) because you need to translate things to “liner” organized steps. See what I mean? I know what I’m talking about but I can hardly explain myself.
    Thanks for a great article.

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