Objects and Spaces (Finding Your Model, Part 3)

The difference between Object and Spatial visualizers, and why it matters to your Chess.

The first person to propose the idea that each of us is either a Visualizer or a Verbalizer was British psychlogist and researcher Frederic Bartlett in 1932.

For 60 years, this research was picked up and put down by various scientists, labeling it simply too difficult to measure. Everything is so subjective. How could they possibly tell for sure what people do in their own minds?

(This is the exact issue any research into Chess visualization/conceptualization encountered in that same period.)

Finally, in the 1990s and 2000s, the floodgates opened. With modern neuroimaging technology, several breakthroughs in decyphering brain anatomy, and clever work from researchers, we’ve had insight after insight after insight. We know way more now than we ever did before.

Many studies have confirmed that people naturally prefer either visual or verbal methods to process information. Linda Silverman showed us the labels “Visualizer” and “Verbalizer” are not binary categories, but instead ends of a spectrum.

The next step forward has been pioneered by Maria Kozhevnikov out of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Her work tells us something fascinating:

Not all Visualizers are the same.

There are, in fact, two distinct types of Visualizers.

Brain scans show us that the areas of the brain for processing visual information are divided into two systems. They are physically, anatomically different pathways in the brain.

One system processes visual information about objects, such as shape and color. It’s focused on “what” something is. It identifies faces of people you know, recognizes landmarks that help you navigate when you’re driving. This is the Object system.

The other system handles information about location and space. It’s all about “where” something is, and how the location of this something relates to other somethings. It’s your sense of distance and direction, your recognition of patterns. This is the Spatial system.

These systems fire when we see the world with our actual eyes, and they deeply affect how we “see” in our mind as well.

Kozhevnikov, in a series of studies in 2005, gathered a group of people she had identified as natural Visualizers. She then had them complete mental tasks to test their abilities in object-based and spatially-based tasks.

If all Visualizers were the same, they would score a standard spread of results. Most people in the middle, a few at the ends. Like a normal bell curve.

That isn’t what happened.

After the first set of object-based mental tasks, Kozhevnikov found that some of the Visualizers absolutely nailed it, while others performed horribly.

Their performance was either excellent or dismal. If someone were grading them like at school, some of the subjects would have received an A+ and others a D-.

When the Visualizers moved on to the spatial tasks, the same thing happened again.

Some Visualizers got an A+. Others got a D-. But the groups were flipped!

The people who got the D- for the Object tasks went on to get an A+ for the Spatial tasks.

And the ones who got the A+ for the Object tasks flunked out with the Spatial tasks.

No Visualizer was strong with both abilities!

They each got a superpowered version of one, and a weakened form of the other.

If the world consists of Visualizers and Verbalizers, then Kozhevnikov identified two distinct groups in the latter category: the Object Visualizers, and the Spatial Visualizers.

“Object Visualizers see the world in photo-realistic images,” Kozhevnikov wrote in her conclusion to the study.

They tend to be the designers, architects, fine artists, and mechanical engineers. Think Leonardo Da Vinci or Steve Jobs. Temple Grandin, mentioned in Part Two, is an Object Visualizer.

In Chess conceptualization, an Object Visualizer will likely be drawn toward seeing a full, detailed board in their minds. It might be a particular board that’s important to them, maybe the one they use online, or some generic board their mind invented. But they’ll tend to see the whole thing at once, as if looking at a photo of the position.

It might be 2d or 3d, animated or static. It doesn’t matter. But the Object Visualizer will have a strong picture of some kind.

Kozhevnikov described Spatial Visualizers as “see(ing) the world in patterns and abstractions.”

They tend to be our musicians, programmers, statisticians, and scientists. Think Mozart or Steve Wozniak.

A Spatial Visualizer will likely see their mental Chessboard as a collection of patterns and “lines of force” (to use the popular visualization phrase). They may not see individual pieces on individual squares, but they’ll have a sense of the energy each of the pieces directs over the board.

Spatial Visualizers are also more likely to break their mental board into layers, like those of an image in Photoshop. They might see the patterns of square colors in one layer, the pawn structure in another, the kingside pieces in a third layer, the rest in yet another layer. They might flip through these layers in their minds like someone changing channels on a TV remote.

These are just examples to give you an idea of how these two types of Visualizers differ. Don’t take these as the way a Visualizers’ mental board “should” look.

If you are naturally a Visual thinker, you will be either strong with Object visualization or strong with Spatial visualization. It’s very unlikely that you have both.

If you are on the Verbal side of the spectrum, you likely have a level of visual ability (unless you have aphantasia) but are generally more comfortable leaning on your inner monologue than your mind’s eye. Traditional visualization advice may have previously seemed very unnatural for you.

And there’s an infinite gradient between each of these.

All this information over the past three weeks probably feels like a lot. It certainly felt like a lot to write it! So let me boil it down.

Everything you’ve read in this series about psychologists, studies, and spectrums, Visualizers and Verbalizers, Objects and Spatial abilities, is to serve two purposes.

First, it’s to show you that there are so many ways to conceptualize in Chess. We’re all different, and we all have different minds.

There’s a lot of bad information out there about what visualization/conceptualization is and what it should be. It’s well-meaning, they’re trying to help. They’re just caught in the top-down bias: assuming everyone else’s brain works the same way theirs does.

No matter what you’ve read or heard elsewhere, the only thing that matters is finding what your brain wants to do. That’s all.

Don’t copy me, don’t copy Hikaru, don’t copy your coach, don’t copy anyone. Their brains are theirs. Mine is mine. Yours is yours.

The second purpose for all of this is to give you context for what’s to come.

Over the final two parts of this series, I’ll take you through a version of a process I use in my coaching sessions to help my students find the way their brain wants to work.

When you do find what your brain wants to do, trust it. It knows best.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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