Thinking with Images, Thinking with Words

Thinking with Images, Thinking with Words

Laura Otis

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 brought 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, was qualitative research: interviews with scientists, artists, designers, and other innovative individuals across a wide variety of fields. Interviewees were 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 project argued 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.

  • “The Lab as a Literary Creation,” Infectio Research Group, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Oslo, September 2005.
  • “The Rules: Knowing and Speaking Literature, Science, and History,” ‘Knowing Nature’ Lecture Series, University of Oklahoma, April 2005.
  • “The Synergy of Literature and Neuroscience,” International Association for Philosophy and Literature, Leeds, UK, May 2003.
  • “The Common Ground of Literature and Science,” Haragan Lecture, Texas Tech University, April 2003.

Funding Institutions

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Emory University