Pictures and Voices (Finding Your Model, Part 2)

Some people think in images, others in words. Which are you?

There are few voices more influential and distinct in the world of thinking and education than Temple Grandin.

This legendary woman has revolutionized agriculture, been a beacon of light and inspiration for people with autism, had a movie made about her life, and popularized a whole subset of psychology research into styles of thinking and learning that had previously gone unnoticed.

It’s in her book Visual Thinking from 2022 that I first stumbled on to many of the insights and research that underpin my current work on Chess conceptualization.

She wrote that “the world could be roughly divided into two kinds of thinkers: people who think in pictures and patterns, and people who think in words.”

Some people use images to navigate the world and make sense of complex information. Others use words and language, relying on their internal monologue.

To get a quick sense of which you are, Grandin recommends what she calls the IKEA test.

Here’s a scenario for you. You go to the store and buy some flat-pack furniture. You get it home, crack it open. You’ve got your screwdriver and your hammer ready. You’re ready to build.

Would you prefer to follow clear written instructions or look at clearly illustrated pictures?

In Grandin’s experience, your answer indicates a lot about what kind of thinker you are. It’s not always an exact match, but it lines up more often than not.

I’m a written instructions guy. Very much so. Unfortunately, to avoid translation issues for their international products, IKEA leaves words out of their instructions entirely.

My wonderful partner, who is far more visual in her thinking than I am, loves building IKEA furniture. She flows through it so easily, rarely making a mistake. The pictures all make sense to her and she has no troubles.

But I always end up with something back-to-front or upside down. A screw in the wrong spot, a damaged piece somewhere. It always comes out looking a little janky. And I always come out frustrated.

If I just had the instructions clearly written out, I’d be great. But trying to parse and understand those images does my head in. I invariably screw it up somewhere.

I don’t think in pictures. I think in words. I navigate, process, and understand the world verbally. I read a lot. I write a lot (as you can tell). I listen and I talk a lot. Words are how I make sense of the world.

My internal monologue, my self-talk, is the primary force in my head.

Many people, like my partner, are far more visual. Visual thinkers understand and navigate the world using images and movies in their minds.

They tend to make rapid-fire associations between things. They often have a strong sense of direction, lean toward the visual arts, mechanics, engineering, and music. And they tend to pick up patterns easily.

A visual thinker will walk into a familiar room and immediately notice the one thing that’s different about it.

A verbal thinker will instantly spot a typo or misplaced comma in a block of text.

(Annoyingly, as any writer will tell you, verbal-thinker or otherwise, we all have a blindspot for typos in our own writing.)

These natural modes of thinking aren’t just some recent pseudo-psychology either- they are physical, biological traits.

A 2015 study out of Japan by researcher Kazuo Nishimura had subjects complete various mental tasks and discovered a “significant correlation between an individual’s subjective ‘vividness’ of mental imagery and activity in the visual area (of the brain).”

Neuroimaging techniques showed that visual thinkers were creating mental images during these demanding cognitive tasks, while the verbal thinkers relied on their self-talk.

Another study in 2019 by Qunlin Chen in Chongqing, China, placed Visual and Verbal thinkers under an MRI scan and had them complete various mental tasks requiring memory and creativity.

The study showed that Visual thinkers, when presented with mental tasks, have more activity in the right side of the brain, while the Verbal thinkers had greater activity in the left side of the brain.

During the same tasks, different parts of the brain were activated for different people.

We are each hard-wired for a particular kind of thinking. And we naturally use that kind of thinking whenever we’re presented with a challenging mental activity. Chess conceptualization is no different.

If you’ve followed my work for a while, you’ve seen the below image of the conceptualization spectrum, based on the work of researcher Linda Silverman, a few times.

The Visual-Verbal Spectrum. 33% of players are strongly visual. 30% lean towards visuals. 12% lean towards verbal methods. 25% are strongly verbal.

Most of us will have some mix of visual and verbal thinking methods, but there’ll be a clear preference. A default mode. One side that does most of the heavy lifting, and the other that adds a little assistance here and there. Then there’s some of us that are strongly one way or the other.

It all works. No one spot on the spectrum is inherently better for Chess than any other.

(The “abstract visual memory” that Alfred Binet incorrectly concluded all great players have is likely a mid-spectrum Visual model. That goes a little way to helping explain Binet’s mistake, as this is also the section of the spectrum into which the highest percentage of the population falls.)

I’m a mid-spectrum Verbalizer. My self-talk is my lens on the world. But I can create mental images when I need to. They can even be reasonably detailed sometimes. But they only serve to add color to the mostly verbal thinking I do.

My conceptualization model when I calculate or play blindfold relies on verbal recognition of moves, verbal methods for calculating details like diagonals and square colors, and vague mental images of relevant sections of the board here and there when I need them.

There is no coincidence here. My ideal conceptualization model for Chess aligns completely with my natural thinking style.

Whenever I force my brain to conceptualize any other way, it takes a lot of extra effort and I’m far less clear on what’s happening. Many adult improvers live in this suboptimal state, trying to force a mental model for Chess that’s unnatural for them.

If you’re among them, the rest of this series should help.

Next time, we break down the two distinct types of Visualizer.

If you’re naturally a Visualizer, the next part will be critical for you. If you’re naturally a Verbalizer, it should still be interesting, and offer some new insights and perspectives.

I only learned about this next element of visual thinking recently – and I’m very excited to share it.

See you then.

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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