Visual thinking or how the Neuroscience will enhance your brain

Being a programmer working on Scientific Visualization, I am fascinated by visual thinking,whatever this means.The problem is, from the scientific point of view, that there is no way to record and to show the "movies" in our brain.
Visual Thinking is about thinking with mental images.
Scientific Visualization is about representing data graphically.This representation should allow the researcher to gain a better understanding and insight into the data.
I can easily describe verbal thinking since I can put it in words and record it. But if I say that I think in pictures and try to describe it in words, what does this mean exactly? I am using words to explain it. Of course I can make drawings to explain it, but again I need words to clarify what I mean.In the end writing about visual thinking, seems to be completely unscientific.Either visual thinking doesn't exist (at most we can label it as a special case of verbal thinking) or it exists but there is no way to measure it, what is for science the same that saying that it doesn't exist.

The neurologist Ian Robertson in his book "The Mind's Eye" argues that the "cold network of language" has destroyed our ability to think in pictures. For example:if you are able to describe the experience of eating an apple, the real experience has been lost, replaced by an abstract and cold verbal description.What you remember and describe is more or less a pale shadow of the real thing, an abstract categorization.

Mirror neurons allow us to simulate and understand other people behaviour unconsciously

[Added April,4 2007] It seems that simulation of other people behaviour is hardcoded in our brain in a set of neurons called mirror neurons. This system encode all possible actions that we can do. When we do these action these neurons fire BEFORE we do the various motor acts necessary to complete something. It is, as if, we use simulation to guide our action. Viceversa, when we look another doing the same action, the same neurons fire as if we can effortlessy simulate any human behaviour in our head. This is obvious to us when we look at a sport event and we unconscionsly repeat the movements done by the player we are watching. Action observation is done by an effortless action simulation."On this view simulation and empathy constitute fundamental, prereflective (unconscious) coupling of self and other at the level of the lived body, a coupling, moreover, which is not voluntarily initiated (Thompson, Evan. "Empathy and Consciousness.") "

When less is more

[Added June,13 2006] Transcranial magnetic stimulation seems to have found why some autistic people are so good at counting things. You remember the scene in Rain Man where the main character is able to count instantly the number of toothpicks spilled onto the floor.
It seems that by switching off some left-hemisphere areas, all of us can get very good at counting things (in this case blobs on a computer screen). Which areas were shut off by TMS? Probably the areas that let us see pattern in the world around us.By switching off these areas, the brain counting centre is forced to work on raw sensory data.

They have seen the film running in our brain

[Added February,27 2006] Or at least in the brain of a mouse.
When a mouse goes through a maze with some neurons wired, it is possible to see that each maze part will make some specific neurons fire. Now comes the surprise. When the mouse will get to some interesting place with food, it will rehearse the way followed. This can be seen by the sequence of fired neurons where the neurons corresponding to the places last walked are fired first. It is like replaying the movie of your experiences in reverse. Instead during the sleep the maze walk is followed in the right order starting from the beginning.

Can our image in the mirror heal us or make us more ill?

[Added November,1 2005] I suffer from a kind of allergy which manifests itself as itching and skin rashes . I had the suspicion that such rashes are made worse just by looking at them. So , I tried this time, to avoid entirely looking at the itching part and imagine the part to be with normally appearing skin. In my opinion this has made the healing more fast. Of course this is only an anecdote and doesn't mean nothing scientifically speaking. But now I have found this
article on how an image in the mirror can cure you. The thing seems to make sense and also opens a lot of possibilities like some virtual reality application. In this case you use a computer generated image that by responding to your actions can fool the brain and help healing some ailments where the brain is one of the main causes. Like, for example, the pain in ghost limbs.

Some people must "think with images" because they don't master language

Some people must "think with images" because they don't master language: for example children and patients with autism . There is a compelling description of such "visual thinking" by Temple Grandin, that was able to get a Ph.d. but has never really mastered verbal language because of autism.
Also dyslexics seem to excell in visual thinking because of their reading problems.

Thanks to the work of neurologists that use brain imaging equipment to see what parts of the brain are involved in some activity, it is now possible to state some hard facts.

We see images and we are able to analyze them quickly to act in everyday life. That's something that we share with animals. The amount of information that we process through the visual channel is fantastic and up to now , no computer however big, can compete with us in this task.
Another fact is that we are able to store images and remember them later.Although we don't know exactly how images are stored and then remembered,the amount of information that we are able to store is again fantastic: for example you can easily see in your life thousands of movies and, when you see them again, remember many scenes.
Another fact: the quality of remembered images can vary a lot from something very vague to a vivid copy of the original.In this case we have the so called eidetic images.

there is no doubt that language and verbal thinking are more or less the essence of being human.But what is the price that we pay for it?

There is no doubt that language and verbal thinking are more or less the essence of being human.But what is the price that we pay for it? Part of this price is that,once we have language, we tend to categorize and give a name to everything. This means that we ignore everything that doesn't fit in our categorization, being de facto blind and deaf to many stimuli coming from reality. Surely we lose the capacity to remember those vivid images called eidetic which have great realism. The "images" that we remember are often only verbal categorizations.

As soon as we discover verbal language we start playing with it and learn quickly verbal thinking.Probably ,before language, our "thinking" is made only by images. But then it's like an inner voice starts speaking in our brain : it will continue all life speaking about every experience we have and every feature of reality.
We translate almost everything in words giving a name to everything.We prefer words to images because it is more easy to control words than to control images.

this can be seen in dreams where we must think with images and the images can become quickly scaring

This can be seen in dreams where we must think with images and the images can become quickly scaring transforming themselves in a nightmare.
This happens also during the day:it is easy for "alien" images to interfere in our reasoning. This problem can become dramatic for people that have had some traumatic experience.
This problem normally doesn't exist with words.

Anyhow everyone can voluntarily engage his mind in imagining things more or less visually but we seem sometimes to lack the capacity to control our imagination. Where in verbal language we are in complete control, imagination can overwhelm us and we are with no guide. Anyhow by using some ideas that come from Computer Science but especially new discoveries coming from neuroscience ,it is possible to establish about "visual thinking" some concrete facts that start to clarify the situation.

seeing a scene and imagining the same scene seems to make the same neurons fire.

For example:it is by now a proven fact(they use medical imagery for this) that seeing a scene and imagining the same scene seems to make the same neurons fire. This has some important consequences:the first one being that our brain can simulate any experience with mind's eye.This gives us the capacity to rehearse something in our brain and can be used(and is used currently by athletes) to improve our performance at some task.
My own experience about this comes from computer programming:when I know very well the code of a piece of computer program,I am able to run it in my head and to discover the reason of some bug.Normally these mental test runs are done almost unconsciously during the night.But first I have to collect all available data about the bug and then I go doing something else. Usually the morning after a good sleep the reason of the bug becomes clear.

a program is the description of a kind of "play" that develops in a space called the computer memory

For people that aren't computer programmers, I must explain that although a program is written in words, it is in fact the description of a kind of "play" that develops in a space called the computer memory. The "actors" are called "objects" and each object is created by another object and lives in its space in computer memory until it is destroyed. The objects interact by sending "messages" each other.It is like a complex ballet and you must be sure that everything develops in the correct way to reach the wanted result. This check is done in part with test runs in the computers and test runs in my brain.If you want to experiment what I mean , just try this little experiment.
Visualize a few playing cards of the same seed but not ordered. Then try to find , by moving the cards in your head, a set of moves that let you order them : you are rehearsing a sorting algorithm.
At this point some definitions are necessary:

Imagination,mental imagery,seeing in the mind's eye,visualisation is an experience that significantly resembles the real experience but with no perceptual stimuli ( .It occurs in all sensory modes:so we can speak about auditory imagery,visual imagery, etc...

it is as if we have two brains that look at the world in different ways and only the left brain is able to name what we see.

Another proven fact about visual thinking is that, although normally external images are processed by both brain hemispheres, the two hemispheres process them in different ways.For example this capacity to name everything comes mostly from left hemisphere.How do we know? With a famous experiment done with "split brain" patients (i.e. the two hemispheres cannot communicate because the connection has been chirurgically cut).
If you show an image of an object to the right hemisphere (for this the patient must look at the image from a single eye with the light hitting only the part of the retina connected to the right hemisphere) the patient recognizes the object but isn't able to give it a name. It is as if we have two brains that look at the world in different ways and only the left brain is able to name what we see.

The way we draw things can say a lot about our visual thinking.

As a consequence of this experiment, let's just imagine the following scenario:if we could switch off the part of the left hemisphere that controls the verbal language, how we would see the world? There are in fact some experiments that can study just this:
  1. See what happens to people with a left-hemisphere stroke.
  2. Try to switch off temporarily some part of left-hemisphere with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).
  3. Study with brain imaging if there is some technique that can obtain this switching off just by practicing it. For example: it is possible that some meditation techniques or the hypnosys work in this way?
There are reports not confirmed that the second technique can change completely the way we draw objects. In fact the way we draw things can say a lot about our way of reasoning and especially our visual thinking. It is a well known fact that the way children draw changes completely with age becoming worse and worse as they become fluent in verbal language.Also some autistic patients have a remarkable ability to draw things in a realistic way. It seems that,after language acquisition,we see things in some idealized and very simplistic way:instead to draw the horse that we have in front of us, we prefer to draw a stylized horse, a kind of very simplified mixture of all horses that we have seen in our life.
It is interesting to note that our ancestors would draw in the caves very realistic animals but stylized hunters.

Another interesting consequence of this left/right brain specialization, is : it is possible that some methods for remembering things, work well because they enhance the communication with the right hemisphere? I have thought for example about the method sometime suggested of writing a word with the left hand.

The verbal language in connection to visual thinking, becomes our programming language: it helps us running simulations in our brain.

When we learn language, we discover soon its power concerning images recollection. Before language the only way to bring to mind's eye a horse is to see a real one or something that reminds us a horse. After language learning it is enough for us to remember the name "horse" and we can see the real one.So the language serves a powerful and almost "magical" purpose: it enables us to play at will our movies.This is evident when we read a novel:in some way this experience is like seeing a movie.It can be sometime better than seeing a movie. This is well known by directors of horror movies : you can scary more the moviegoers by not showing the crime but letting them imagine it . For example in one of the most scaring horror movie "Seven" the director never shows any crime being done but let's the spectator imagine all the awful details with a detailed description of the crime's scene.

In conclusion it seems to me that the relationship between spoken language and visual thinking is the same relationship that we have between a programming language and the images produced by a visualisation application of the same. The verbal language in connection to visual thinking, becomes our programming language: it helps us running simulations in our brain. This is something impossible to an animal. For example a cat , when sees someone going towards the refrigerator, gets excited and probably is "seeing" the open refrigerator full of food. We humans with spoken language, can start anytime and anywhere a "simulation" and see ourselves opening the refrigerator , taking the food, ... To run this simulation far away from the refrigerator the language is essential.

it can be easily understood by people with different languages and cultures

Some images are so poweful that they can change our life: at least this is what is reported in the biography of some famous peoples.For example Jung but also saints and scientists.
Some religions and also some ideologies, seem to be based on a few images (the cross, the swastica, ..).
If visual thinking really exists, then it has a feature that makes it superior to verbal thinking: it can be easily understood by people with different languages and cultures. (By the way , this can be easily seen with deaf people sign languages:altough different cultures have different sign languages, a French sign language speaking individual that goes to Japan can learn Japanese sign language in a few days.)

The representation is always arbitrary

In scientific visualisation the computer is used to represent data.The representation is always arbitrary and is selected in such a way that we can understand what is behind the numbers so we can take the appropriate decision based on them. Also the images produced by the brain are in some way arbitrary and they are appropriate only if they can help our survival. But this means that other representations of the world are possible provided they fulfill the purpose of making the world understandable. So, it is possible, that by using only the mind's eye without the verbal language control, we can reach a state in which we see reality in completely different way.This can perhaps explain magic thinking or also the fact that during meditation people report a different way to perceive the world. Or perhaps what Carl Jung calls synchronicity .

This has been considered as a proof that these mental images are "real"

It is not entirely true that we cannot see the movies that play in our brain from the outside.A famous experiment has in fact caught the brain in the act of manipulating an image.In this experiment you have to solve a problem that requires a rotation of an object's image in order to give the correct answer. The scientists discovered that the time to get the answer from people is proportional to the amount of the rotation you must do on the object's image. This has been considered as a proof that these mental images are "real":i.e. we process a pictorial representation of this image and not some propositions about the image .Image and Brain by Stephen M. Kosslyn is the definitive reference about this subject having been written by the same scientist that did the original research.

"2001,A Space Odyssey " is a kind of experiment in Visual Thinking.

Movie directors have a chance to show the movies going on in their head.And also they have the possibility to create a rudimentary grammar of the visual language. In general ,studying a movie, gives an idea of what is the interdependance of verbal language and images.For example a movie like Kubrik's "2001, A Space Odyssey " where the director decided to take away verbal explanations of what's going on, is a kind of experiment in Visual Thinking.
This interdependance of verbal language and images is also apparent in some ways of presenting written text: for example a text presented in printed form and also in hypertext form is more than a linear sequence of words; it is text overlayed in a spatial scenario.We can think about it also in visual terms with the book as a house, the chapters as rooms, the paragraphs as pieces of furniture and pictures as drawings on the walls.


Mental imagery in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Maintained by Giuseppe Zito:
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