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Visual thinking, picture thinking, visual/spatial learning or right brained learning is the common phenomenon of thinking through visual processing using the part of the brain that is emotional and creative to organize information in an intuitive and simultaneous way.

Thinking in pictures, is one of a number of other recognized forms of non-verbal thought such as kinesthetic, musical and mathematical thinking. Multiple thinking and learning styles, including visual, kinesthetic, musical, mathematical and verbal thinking styles are a common part of many current teacher training courses.

While visual thinking and visual learners are not synonymous, those who think in pictures have generally claimed to be best at visual learning. Also, while preferred learning and thinking styles may differ from person to person, precluding perceptual or neurological damage or deficits diminishing the use of some types of thinking, most people (visual thinkers included) will usually employ some range of diverse thinking and learning styles whether they are conscious of the differences or not.

Concepts related to visual thinking have played an important role in art and design education over the past several decades. Important literature on this subject includes Rudolf Arnheim's Visual Thinking (1969), Robert McKim's Experiences in Visual Thinking (1971), and Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979). Contemporary literature includes In The Minds Eye (1997) by Thomas G. West, Upside Down Brilliance (2002) by Linda Silverman, and The Einstein Factor (2004) by Win Wenger.

Theoretical basis

A variety of different authors, theories and fields purport influences between language and thought. Many point out the seemingly common-sense realization that upon introspection, we seem to think in the language we speak. A number of writers and theorists have extrapolated upon this idea.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in linguistics

(i) the strong version states that language determines thought and that linguistic categories alone limit and determine cognitive categories. In 1969 the premise was rejected when a study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay used a color terminology study to completely discredit the Whorfian strong construct.

In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker proposes the following: if we are not born with language, how can we be engineered to think in words alone? In 1981, Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize for his split brain research: the right [non-verbal] hemisphere, he concluded, is indeed a conscious system in its own right – it perceives, thinks, remembers, reasons, wills and emotes, all at a characteristically human level. The left and right hemisphere may be simultaneously conscious in different, even mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run in parallel. Research which builds on Sperry's Nobel Prize-winning split brain research is reinforced by anecdotal evidence, which supports the premise that different architectures lend themselves to one of the channels, at the expense of the others. Einstein's personal history as an academic outsider from an early age, a self-confessed visual thinker, and a lifelong advocate of educational reform lends credibility to this hypothesis.

Today, applications of visual thinking are varied. They include the stock market, law and order, advanced math, aeronautical engineering, architecture and design, and memory and learning. More prosaically, visual thinking contributes to quotidian activities such as driving, flying, navigating, playing chess, catching a ball, calculating speed trajectory time, and even subtle changes to one's everyday language.

In the field of Cognitive therapy, founded by Aaron T. Beck, it is claimed that human emotions and behavior are caused by internal dialogue. We can change ourselves by learning to challenge and refute our own thoughts, particularly a number of specific mistaken thought patterns called "cognitive distortions." In NLP [linguistic programming], the skillful use of language "patterns" are used to influence not just your own thoughts and behavior, but those of others. NLP is a controversial discipline, and it would be fair to say that the general public is uneasy with what is perceived to be subliminal manipulation. Founded by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, NLP draws on hypnotic techniques to render subjects suggestible. NLP is particularly popular with the business community and pressure groups. As a business tool, NLP throws up parallels with the mind control research of Pavlov, Sargent and B. F. Skinner, whose work on conditioned responses in human reflex and reinforcement places little value on free will.

Less widely known is the fact that NLP has branched. It was originally conceived to accelerate learning. Human systems are broken down into visual, action and acoustic channels. These NLP ideas have been recycled by Fleming, whose VAK learning styles model is directly derived from NLP. What you see, what you hear and what you do are identified for each channel, and the message personalized.

Supporters of Galton, who advanced the idea of hereditary intelligence, disagree. Galton influenced Burt whose work on standardization of psychological tests led to the introduction of IQ testing, bringing Burt into contact with eugenics. Burt was educated in Stratford upon Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, a town steeped in the tradition of the written and spoken word. His possibly fraudulent research poured oil on the troubled waters of an already divisive area. Intelligence is intelligence, it is understood, a fixed constant measurable by the one test to rule them all, if you are good at one aspect of the test you are good at at all aspects of the IQ test. Gardner's multiple intelligences theory rejects this premise, areas of competence are just as likely to be mutually exclusive as reinforcing. It is Gardner argues, the test that is flawed. A more nuanced argument anchors itself in learning styles and the nature of communication. A facility with language unquestionably confers systemic bias. Education and the work that leads to, creates feedback loops. In today's society distinct from Burt's the link between IQ and education has weakened, but the idea of educated and intelligent has become synonymous, interchangeable; reinforced by verbalizers being better able to internalize information, advocate systems and design jobs that monetarily reward strengths, a cycle that is self-perpetuating.

'Theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words. According to Kreger Silverman, of the 30% of the general population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percentage would use this style over and above all other forms of thinking, and can be said to be 'true' picture thinkers like Albert Einstein.

Eidetic memory

Eidetic memory (photographic memory) may co-occur in visual thinkers as much as in any type of thinking style as it is a memory function associated with having vision rather than a thinking style. Eidetic memory can still occur in those with visual agnosia, who, unlike visual thinkers, may be limited in the use of visualization skills for mental reasoning.

Psychologist E.R Jaensch states that eidetic memory apart of visual thinking has to do with eidetic images fading between the line of the after image and the memory image. It is suggested that a fine relationship exists between the after image and the memory image, which causes visual thinkers from not seeing the eidetic image but rather drawing upon perception and useful information. As stated earlier, individuals diagnosed with agnosia, may not be able to perform mental reasoning. Possibly,one of the reasons as to why individuals are not able to identify the eidetic image, as clearly as possible.


See also: Dyslexia

Individuals use a variety of learning styles or strategies, among these are auditory, kinesthetic and visual-spatial learning, which are associated with the sensory organs (receptors), sensory system and sense, respectively ears with hearing, eyes with sight, skin, limbs and bodily movements with touch and body gestures. Research suggests that dyslexia is a symptom of a predominant visual/spatial learning from the earliest studies, circa 1896-1925 by Morgan (1896), Hinselwood (1900) and Orton (1925). Morgan used the term 'word blindness,' in 1896; Hinselwood expanded on 'word blindness' to describe the reversing of letters and similar phenomenon in 1900s; Orton suggested that individuals have difficulty associating the visual with the verbal form of words, in 1925. Further studies using technologies (PET and MRI) and wider and varied user groups in various languages support the earlier findings. Visual-spatial symptoms (dyslexia, dyspraxia, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) and the like) arise in non-visual and non-spatial environments and situations; hence, visual/spatial learning is aggravated by an education system based upon information presented in written text instead of presented via multimedia and hands-on experience.


Visual thinking has been argued by Temple Grandin to be an origin for delayed speech in people with autism.[1] However, picture thinking itself is only one form of "non-linguistic thinking" which includes physical (kinaesthetic), aural (musical) and logical (mathematical/systems) style of thought.[2] Among those whose main form of thought and learning style is a non-linguistic form, visual thinking is the most common, while most people have a combination of thinking and learning styles. It has been suggested that visual thinking has some necessary connection with autism. However, given that current statistics by the National Autistic Society UK put the incidence of ASD around 1 in 100 people[3] and that up to 60%–65%[citation needed] of the population think in pictures, it cannot be concluded that visual thinking has any necessary connection with autism. Moreover, unless those with autism have sensory-perceptual disorders limiting their capacity to develop visual thinking, such as visual agnosias or blindness since infancy, many people with autism, just as many non-autistic people, are equally likely to think in pictures. As visual thinking is the most common mode of thought, it might be expected that the incidence of visual thinking in the autistic community may be reflective of that in the general population, being around 60%–65%[citation needed] of the general population.

Spatial-temporal reasoning or spatial visualization

Visual thinkers describe thinking in pictures. As approximately 60%–65%[citation needed] of the general population, it's possible that a visual thinker may be as likely as any human being to also have good spatial-temporal reasoning or visual spatial ability without the two having any necessary direct relationship. Acute spatial ability is also a trait of kinesthetic learners (those who learn through movement, physical patterning and doing) and logical thinkers (mathematical thinkers who think in patterns and systems) who may not be strong visual thinkers at all. Similarly, visual thinking has been described as seeing words as a series of pictures which, alone, is not exactly the same phenomena spatial-temporal reasoning.

It has to be understood however, that the reasoning employed here uses the fact that these 60 to 65%[citation needed] percent of people are people who "strongly" or "sometimes" use thinking in pictures, but also use other forms of thinking. They think in pictures almost to the exclusion of other kinds of thinking. Such persons, real "picture thinkers", make up only a very small percentage of the population. Thus the "controversy" described above might be moot when considering this.


Research by Child Development Theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words. According to Kreger Silverman, of the 30% of the general population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percentage would use this style over and above all other forms of thinking, and can be said to be 'true' "picture thinkers".[4]

Contrary to the apparent lack of interest in visual thinking in the US, in the Netherlands there is a strong and growing interest in the phenomenon of 'true' "picture thinking", or "Beelddenken" as its called in the Netherlands [1]. As a result from increased media coverage during the last few years, there is an acceptance of its existence by the general public,[5] although criticism remains from some Dutch psychologists and development theorists.[6] Since its discovery a decade ago, a significant amount of empirical evidence in favor of its existence has been discovered, and much research is being done on visual thinking a Dutch nonprofit organization named the "Maria J. Krabbe Stichting Beelddenken" [2]. They've also developed a test, named the "Ojemann wereldspel", to identify children who rely primarily on visual-spatial thinking, in which children are asked to build a village with toy houses and then replicate it a few days later.

Information processing in visual thinking

Thinking visually is often associated with the right half of the brain. The visual-spatial learner model is based on the newest discoveries in brain research about the different functions of the hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, analytical, and time-oriented. The right hemisphere perceives the whole, synthesizes, and apprehends movement in space.

Picture thinking could be called "non-linguistic thinking," and people who do such information processing could be called "visual thinkers". It involves thinking beyond the definitions of language and has many personal referents to meaning which cannot be translated.

Picture thinking involves different categorization than verbal or linguistic processing. Linguistic thinking involves categorization of thought in defined, linear forms. It is serial, and it concentrates on detailed parts in the stimulus. Visual thinking involves categorization which is parallel and holistic. Though linguistic thinkers often feel that visual-thinkers concentrate on detail, in fact this occurs because of the extreme memory of picture thinkers. Much of the thinking of children in the preoperational stage (2-7 years of age) is visual. It is hypothesized that autistic people get stuck at this stage of information processing.

Dimensions of picture thinkers

In psychology, picture thinking is often confused with dyslexia, and it is true that people who 'think in pictures' often have difficulty with learning to read, but not all picture thinkers suffer from the normal symptoms associated with dyslexia. Some autistics think in pictures.

Symptoms that most picture thinkers do share are:

  • Thinking with the meaning of language in terms of multidimesional scenarios of the ideas and concepts, as opposed to the sound of language.
  • Thinking at a subliminal rate of 32 concepts per second, as opposed to the 6-7 words per second experienced by typical verbal-sequential thinkers, thus appearing to intuitively come to conclusions that are very hard to reach by using typical linear reasoning.
  • Problems remembering abstract chains of letters, like names.
  • Difficulty in explaining concepts they have invented.
  • Writing in a very convoluted style.
  • Natural ability to 'quick read' whole sentences instead of word for word, but when asked to read out loud what they have read they often use other words than what is actually written.
  • Ability to remember exactly the location and relative position of objects they have placed somewhere.
  • Difficulty gauging time as it passes.

Characteristics of visual thinking

What a picture thinker is or does is still debated, but some research has been done in the Netherlands where picture thinking is called beelddenken. In particular, the Maria J. Krabbe Stichting is doing research (see link below). Researchers there have developed a method of detecting picture thinking in young children by using the so called "the world game" (het wereldspel).

Picture thinkers, as the name indicates, think in pictures, not in the linear fashion using language that is normally associated with thinking. Of course this is a simplification as a complete picture thinker would not be able to use language.

Picture thinkers can come to conclusions in an intuitive way, without reasoning with language. Instead, they manipulate with logical/graphical symbols in a non linear fashion; they “see” the answers to problems.

Picture thinkers are often inventors, architects or electronic engineers.

The book The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D. Davis and Eldon M.Braun describes the relationship of picture thinking to dyslexia. Another book, Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin, focuses on the role of picture thinking in autism.

The book Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner by Linda Kreger Silveman says that one-third of the population thinks in images, and suggests to develop appropriate learning methods, in order to fulfill the talents of visual-spatial learners.

Some statistics

Accoring to L.K.Silverman's research for over two decades, there is a high confidence (over 80%) that:

  • At least one-third are strongly visual-spatial.
  • One-fifth are strongly auditory-sequential.
  • The remainder are a balance of both learning styles.

Of that remainder (who are not strongly visual-spatial nor strongly auditory-sequential):

  • Another 30% show a slight preference for visual-spatial learning style.
  • Another 15% show a slight preference for auditory-sequential learning style.

This means that more than 60% of the students in a regular classroom learn best with visual-spatial presentations and the rest learn best with auditory-sequential methods.

Among gifted students, the proportion of visual-spatial learners may be much higher. In one small sample, more than three-fourths of the gifted students preferred visual-spatial methods.

A mixed blessing

Although picture thinking offers many unique capabilities, in practice many picture thinkers have had a hard time adapting to the demands of a world with predominantly linguistic thinkers.

In the Netherlands most of the teachers are slowly becoming aware of the unique problems picture thinkers face, and are starting to recognize these children. This is important because these children need extra help with some of their lessons, and an understanding of the challenges these children face helps to give them the right kind of support.

List of people with visual processing

  • Nikola Tesla was a Croatia born Serbian inventor and physicist: discussed in depth picture thinking in his seminal document The Problem of Increasing Human Energy, his abilities including operating fully functional models in his mind, may possibly have had Asperger's syndrome;

Furthermore verbal thought is not of primordial help for people who are specialised in professions requiring instant visualisation such as air traffic controllers or detectives, or other professions requiring quick links and spatial awareness such as architects, engineers, and many artistical branches using pictures of the eyes and the ears.

See also


Further reading

  • Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner; by Linda Silverman, Ph.D.
  • In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity; by Thomas G. West

External links

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