A couple of years ago, I gave the students in one of my adult writing classes an assignment—for the next class, they were to bring in a short piece, 1-3 pages, of something that they had difficulty writing. Maybe dialogue, maybe first-person point of view, maybe a fight scene (fight scenes can be quite challenging). The first student who read, John, had a page-long description of a tree-covered mountain and a path that cut through the trees. It was well written, and I could easily envision—as well as hear and feel—what he was describing. When he was done, I asked him why he had chosen to write a description. What was difficult about that for him?
He sighed and said writing that one page had been incredibly tough. He has, he said, trouble picturing things that he wants to describe. Therefore, he tended to avoid writing any sort of description. Another student chimed in and said he had the same problem. Writing descriptions of anything was a struggle.
Intrigued that both men had the same problem, I asked, “Do you think in words or pictures?”
Startled, they thought about it, and then both said they think in words.
“So no wonder,” I said, “that you can’t ‘see’ something in order to describe it.”
Probably most people don’t consider this words or pictures difference. I didn’t until I was having a conversation with my parents—this was about ten years ago—and my father was describing something he had seen when he had worked in Korea. I had no trouble envisioning what he was describing, but my mother had to tell him to slow down, to repeat certain details.
“I think in words,” she said. “It takes me a long time to create a picture of what you’re talking about.”
This was the first time I recalled hearing about these different ways of thinking. I did a little research, and discovered that 60 percent of people, more or less, think in pictures. The rest think in words. It’s not that simple, of course. A brief cruise around the Web, via Google, finds such information as the author Temple Grandin, who is autistic and a highly visual thinker, raising this issue in her book Thinking in Pictures. Psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman breaks the percentages down more specifically: less than 30 percent of the population are strongly visual, 45 percent use both visual and verbal thinking, and 25 percent think mostly in words.
I was reminded of all this last week when I took one of those online tests that presumably ferret out deeply held prejudices and biases. Initially, I was tested on my ability to sort certain pictures into one of two categories, then to sort certain words. Then I had to sort an erratic mix of words and pictures. When a picture appeared on the monitor, I reacted quickly. When it was a word, I felt my brain stutter to process the word. My reaction time was slower. I’m talking fractions of a second here, but I was aware of the difference.
This is not to say I’m a slow reader. I’m not. But I confess to being dreadful at playing Scrabble.
Obviously, you can write whether you think in pictures or words. My mother, who thinks in words, has written several wonderful books, but so has Temple Grandin, who thinks in pictures. But I have to wonder how much impact the different ways of thinking have on a writer. My student John certainly found that thinking in words was a detriment when it came to creating and describing settings; whereas for me, I relish writing—and reading—a good description, of putting on the page a scene that I can clearly see in my mind.
So how do you think, words or pictures?