( Completed: 2011)
Thinking with Images, Thinking with Words
Debates about how people think can lead to angry, emotional stand-offs as people defend what they regard as crucial aspects of their identities. Across a wide range of fields, some scholars maintain that human thought is verbal by nature; for them, an idea that cannot be expressed in words is not developed or coherent. Others, from the arts and humanities as well as the natural sciences, insist that images can be thoughts, offering their own experiences as evidence. Since examples of visual and verbal thinking are so often personal, both visually and verbally oriented individuals have had trouble convincing others of the validity of their thought styles.
This multidisciplinary project will bring together some of the latest findings of neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, philosophers, linguists, and literary scholars on the visual and verbal aspects of human thought. The “soul” of the project, however, will be qualitative research: interviews with scientists, artists, designers, and other innovative individuals across a wide variety of fields. Interviewees will be asked, for instance, how they learn, what interests them, how they have “gotten” one of the best ideas they ever had, how their thought styles have worked to their advantage and disadvantage, and what they believe that thought is - at least, in their own minds.
The working hypothesis of the project, based on the results of the first 28 interviews, is that individuals vary enormously in their thought styles, but that people harm themselves when they classify themselves as visual or verbal “types.” Besides revealing how differently people can think, this research is suggesting that mental development never ceases and that rather than following their “natural” inclinations, many successful individuals have built careers by entering the fields that most greatly challenge them.
“Reconnecting Visual and Verbal Thinking,” Keynote Address, Missed Connections, Graduate Humanities Forum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, February 2010.
“Sensing Knowledge,” Roundtable: Does Art Produce Knowledge? Can Science Produce Art? Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, Atlanta, GA, November 2009.
“Translating Science: Sounds, Words, Images, and Knowledge,” International Society for the History of the Neurosciences, Berlin, Germany, June 2008.
“The Epistemological Value of Translation,” European Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, Berlin, Germany, June 2008.
“The Science Fiction of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” Cell Biology Department Seminar, Emory University, March 2010.
“Manufacturing Monsters: The Experiments of Professor Higgins and Dr. Moreau,” Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, University of Regensburg, June 2008.
“Visual and Verbal Creativity,” Visualizing Nature, Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences, Ischia, Italy, July 2007.