Words or Pictures or Neither

From The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford:

The part of thinking that’s easy to handle is the part that works by analogy with speech. Thinking in words, speaking our thoughts internally, projects an auditorium inside our skulls. Dark or bright, a shadow theater or a stage scorched by klieg lights, here we try out voices, including the voice we have settled on as the familiar sound of our identity, although it may not be what other people hear when we speak aloud. But that is the topmost of the linguistic processes going on in the mind. Beneath the auditorium runs a continuous river of thought that not only is soundless but is not ordered so it can be spoken. For obvious reasons, describing it is difficult. If I dip experimentally into the wordless flow, and then try to recall the sensations of it, I have the impression of a state in which grammar is present – for when I think like this I am certainly construing lucid relationships between different kinds of meaning, and making sense of the world by distinguishing between (for a start) objects and actions – but thought there are so to speak nounlike and verblike concentrations in the flow, I do not solidify them, I do not break them off into word-sized units. Are there pictures? Yes, but I am not watching a slide show, the images do not come in units either. Sometimes there’s a visual turbulence – rapid, tumbling, propelled – that doesn’t resolve into anything like the outlines of separate images. Sometimes one image, like a key, will hold steady while a whole train of wordless thoughts flows from its start to its finish. A mountain. A closed box. A rusty hinge.

I was very happy when I read that passage; apparently I’m not the only one who thinks that way after all. I keep seeing things about thinking in words vs. thinking in pictures; every time, I hope there will be some mention of the type of thinking that is neither words nor pictures, but words and pictures are always presented as the only two types of thinking, as if there can be no other option. But to me, neither of those are entirely natural. I can translate my thoughts into words, or into pictures, but that’s not the way they start out.

I used to assume everyone thought this way – that when people’s thoughts were in the form of words or pictures, they had been translated into that form. But the more I read, the more I think I’m wrong about that, and my type of thinking is fundamentally different from the way most people’s minds work.

Or do other people just not notice the translation process? That’s a possibility, too. A lot of the time the translation is automatic; if I come up with a story idea, the idea will form itself into words almost as soon as I think of it, or if I’m wondering where a particular book is, I’ll see a vague fuzzy image of my bookshelf with one area seeming more important than the others. But the original untranslated thought is always there in the background. It could be that other people just don’t notice the process of translation, but I don’t tend to think that. I don’t have the right to contradict what other people say about what goes on in their own minds. They know their own minds better than I do. So if other people say they think in words or pictures, they probably do.

Why is the possibility of a form of thinking that isn’t words or pictures never mentioned, though? Is it really that unusual?

4 thoughts on “Words or Pictures or Neither

  1. Julia

    I had someone get extremely upset with me when I was 17 and answered, “Neither” to his question, did I think in words or in pictures?

    I can take thoughts and put some of them into words. Sometimes the words just don’t happen. And what isn’t going into words isn’t pictures, either. It’s incredibly difficult to communicate these thoughts, but they are there in my head, and existing as neither words nor pictures.

    It’s a relief every time I find someone who says “neither” in answer to that question. Such a relief. Thank you!

  2. Texanne

    Interesting question. For me, an idea envelops me. I can see the setting and characters all around me. Ideas can make me feel cold, scared, angry–anything at all.

    No, you are not weird. Unless, um, I am weird, too.

    Happy New Year, Enraptured. :)TX

  3. Mel

    This is fascinating to me… I’m one of the thinks-in-words folks, and it has been a wild revelation to me to have images show up here and there in meditation. I wonder if this type of thinking is the underlying base of what us words&pictures people experience – like you say, maybe I just don’t notice the translation process? I would guess that if I never really thought in pictures, and that seems to be possible, that this other type could be possible as well (for me, clearly it is for you!) Are you very intuitive?

  4. flurry

    I’m the same kinda, thinking neither really words or pictures (although I can think in those forms if i try). It’s more a flow feeling, feeling those sensations and ideas. Or maybe even thinking in symbols and concepts.


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