How we think - You need to face the truth!

how we think

Do we think – in language, visually or both?

We take a quick look at the evolution of how 'thinking' happens. Some people think there is an internal voice, others believe we think in pictures, and some think it is a combination of both.

The problem arises because we as a society are under the belief that language is the factor which decisively affects and structures what and how we go about the process of thinking. It is the vehicle/means of the thinking process. Thinking is only possible through language. No language, no thought - really?

The belief is that by having language as the means of internal thinking, we make our cognitive processes more rational. We create structure and logic through verbal or written communication, and this makes thinking the highest order of achievement - this is according to recent history. But we now know better.

Let us quickly consider the details.

Language as thought

The idea that thinking is a mental language has been the underlying principle and belief of our educational system. The better our vocabulary, the better we are as learners and productive members of society. Other forms of thinking, such as visual thinking, have been actively discouraged.

This belief has roots in behavioural psychology. John B. Watson (1878-1958), had a significant impact on our educational system. John believed in the supremacy of language as the proper and only way to think. Watson also proposed that writing is the correct way to express our thoughts.

He was not interested in thought, cognition or internal consciousness. He felt it was a waste of time to understand how the mind works, and strongly advocated that psychologists should focus only on the real and measurable world. His thinking has dominated most of the 20th century.

think in language

Vision as thought

There were disagreements despite this dominant point of view of language. In 1969, Arnheim published a critical book called Visual Thinking. This ground-breaking book has become the gold standard for educators and cognitive scientists who disagreed with the notion that there is an internal language with which we process our thoughts. Arnheim argues that thinking is primarily a visual process, and the representation of knowledge is in the form of dynamic structures. 

He argued that language is a social construct. It is conservative and leads to impoverished expression. It is limiting and cannot explain how amazing our thinking is. The explanation of our thinking as 'language' does not do justice to the richness of how we thing.

In contrast, images are free of conventions and dictionaries. They are powerful means to explore and create meaning that does not yet exist, and they are the powerhouse of pure creativity. Their plasticity frees the mind to 'see' the not seen. In contrast, language is constraining.

There is another belief, proposed by Anne Roe that some people rely on language and others on visual thinking as their mode of thinking. Gary Walter, reported by G. R. Taylor, found that 15% of the population think exclusively in visual terms and 15% in verbal terms. The remaining 70% use a mix of verbal and visual. This segmentation of the population has been reinforced by many over the past decade. This opinion is particularly prevalent in the 'visual-spatial learning style' school of thought. The question is, is the correct?

vision to think

Both vision and language as thought

Recent research has found that all humans use both' language' and 'visual' modes of thinking, not just a segment of the population. Amit (from the Harvard Medical school) found that humans use visual thinking as well as internal language - irrespective of their profession, gender or background. The proportion of one model over the other depends on context and difficulty of the tasks.


At SenseCatcher, we accept and work within the mixed-mode point of view. It is not only in line with current research findings, but it is also the way we believe thinking takes place. All of us have the natural ability to think visually. Visual perception is the dominant faculty (80-85%) of the brain. Visual thinking is ingrained deeply in 'the mind'. Gardner points out; language is a symbol system and constitutes the thinking process. Thinking is visual; we were using images to communicate long before we learned 'language'.

vision and language

The above statement is vital to understand, and as a result, we can take full advantage of this new understanding to make better decisions and solve problems in novel ways - more effectively.


We think in images, and language is nothing more than the means to communicate those thoughts.

Steven Pinker, the cognitive psychologist and scientist, confirms that we do not think in language or words. We think in images and language is nothing more than the means to communicate those thoughts. He explains that due to the new technologies, scientists can look into the brain of animals that do not have language. To illustrate his findings, he describes how babies, before they can talk, 

have a sophisticated awareness and understanding of the world. Babies can predict how objects will behave – what will fall or not, what objects will pass through other objects etc. This is also true for animals that do not have language. They use visual thinking; not language to think.

Vera John-Steiner argues that the debate between us thinking in language or images is because we can study writing, but not mental images. Language is a highly convenient form of expression. In comparison, pictures are hard to standardize or even define.

We have dictionaries for language, but no dictionary for images. The suggestion is that language is structure and images are the essences of thought. In Notebooks of the Mind, Vera John-Steiner interviews over 50 experienced thinkers, analyze their journals, letters and scientific records, and concludes that thinking is visual. Language is an integral part of the mind, but its function is to communicate, articulate and connect those thoughts.

The reason we may have the impression that we use an internal language is that language articulates the images, combines them and tells the stories between them. It is the means, not the thought.

Because language is measurable, we presume we think in language because that is what is measurable, easily articulated, vocalized and made tangible. There is a whole system of visual processes that occur in our thinking. Still, because they are complex and interconnected, the most straightforward mechanism we have is language to describe the thought. Still, it is only able to describe the tip of the iceberg of our thinking. Many times we might be saying something and then correct ourselves – 'that is not what I meant'. We say this because the thought is complex and visually-dense with meaning and nuances. Because it is linear, language as the describer has limitations and often needs many reiterations to attempt to describe the visual thought.

Images are the content of our thoughts, regardless of where they are generated.

                                         (Antonio Damasio)

Watch this TED video by Damasio – although it is about consciousness, it makes new references to the neuroscience discoveries of our brains. We include this iabout Watson's position mentioned earlier about his disregard for consciousness. We think it is essential to be aware of and worth pondering on the fact that we are visual thinkers where 'language' is the 'facilitator' of thinking.



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