Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions

Image of Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions
Release Date: 
October 11, 2022
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

Temple Grandin doesn’t write captivating prose. A reader who needs to be entertained may miss out on what Grandin has to offer. Readers who persevere will learn a lot, such as that our original mental processing was based on images. As we began naming things, our verbal ability was applauded. Our visualization became less important. Over time, our verbal processing may have become our dominant thought processing system.

When speech is delayed, as is often the case in autism, visual processing remains primary. Einstein did not speak fluidly until age seven. He later wrote, “Thoughts do not come in any verbal formulation. I rarely think in words at all. . . . The psychological entities that serve as building blocks for my thoughts are certain signs and images, more or less clear, that I can reproduce or recombine at will.”

Elon Musk described his thinking in these terms. “It seems as though a part of the brain that is usually reserved for visual processing—the part that is used to process images coming in from the eyes—gets taken over by internal thought processes. For images and numbers, I can process their interrelationship and algorithmic relationships. Acceleration, momentum, kinetic energy—how these sorts of things will be affected by objects comes through very vividly.”

Unlike Einstein and Musk, most Americans, Grandin fears, are verbal mind dominant. If so, verbal processing can be lost. In his book The Master and His Emissary, British psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist explains that the visual mind can recognize both itself (the master) and the verbal self (the emissary), but the verbal mind cannot. The verbal mind can only recognize its own existence. Grandin is on solid ground when she says, “The greatest obstacle in understanding visual thinking is knowing it exists.”

Grandin fears verbal dominance puts the United States at a disadvantage compared with countries that reinforce visual thinking. She says, “we fail to encourage and develop the talents and skills of people who think in different ways. . . . The loss of skills in this country terrifies me.”

Verbal thinkers need to understand that words are not the whole ballgame. When catching a baseball, an outfielder does not think, “I need to go three feet left, back up two feet, raise my glove, and after 1.738 seconds, squeeze my hand, as that is the time the ball will reach the pocket of my glove.”

Compared with visual processing, verbal thinking is slow. But a visual thinker may be slow on the uptake when being given directions. This is because the words they hear must be translated into images to be understood. Then, their visual thinking must be translated into words in order to respond verbally.

A visual thinker may be unable to maintain eye contact. Their eyes move off center when producing the images they must create in order to think. If the person speaking to them is a verbal thinker, they may question the honesty of the “shifty-eyed” person who is thinking visually.

Grandin says there are two types of visual thinkers. One type visualizes an object and associates it with similar objects. An associative visual thinker might become an artist, draftsperson, or musician. The other type visualizes dynamic relationships between objects. A dynamic visualizer might become an inventor, a pilot, or good at hitting baseballs.

Dynamic visual processing—because it involves cause and effect— incorporates reality testing. Static visual processing lacks built-in reality testing. When something is vividly imagined, the person may automatically believe what they have in mind is accurate. As we say, “seeing is believing.” This may why Grandin, when obviously mistaken, is sure she is right.

For example, Grandin believes animals feel fear. Joseph LeDoux, a leading neuroscientist, also believes animals feel fear. But as a scientist, LeDoux is reluctant to assert what he cannot prove. Some animal researchers use the term “fear” more loosely. Their less careful use of the word is taken by Grandin as proof LeDoux is wrong.

Similarly, though she is not an aviation expert, Grandin is sure she knows the cause of the 737 MAX crashes. She says she “sees” what caused the crash. She does not seem to appreciate that what she “sees” in her mind’s eye is imagination. What she imagined is not what caused the crash. Yet, because of the type of visual processing she excels at, what she “sees,” she believes.

She believes organizations can benefit by having an autistic person involved in analysis and decision-making. A person on the spectrum, she says, is likely to “see” problems others are unaware of. Grandin discredits herself by overselling this idea. She claims various disasters— California wildfires caused by power lines, Deepwater Horizon, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi—could have been prevented if only a visually oriented person, a person with autism, had been consulted.

Readers who can overlook her outrageous claims may be able to find a reasonable level of value in Grandin’s advocacy of visual thinking. Though what we see with our physical eye can usually be relied on, what we “see” in our mind’s eye needs to be examined before being accepted as fact. This book could have benefitted from editorial scrutiny of Grandin’s thinking prior to publication.