Afternoon Inquisition

AI: How do you think?

Sorry this is late. I was off forming a nonprofit corporation this afternoon and having connectivity issues… and I’m actually not even being sarcastic! But I’m totally using that as an excuse.

On Thursday, Skept-Artist posted this in the Quickies comments:

And to put it in terms that we’re already using: When I read, it’s like a lecture, I have to really concentrate to ‘picture’ the places, characters, etc. When I imagine talking to someone or having a conversation, it’s all words, no image. When I daydream, it’s mostly images, even if someone speaks during it. It plays out like a movie. When I’m drawing or painting and my mind really wanders, it’s like a cacaphony of all of the above.
If I try to ‘listen’ to music in my head, I can hear it almost as perfectly as if I had my headphones on.
This is the only way that I can describe the sensation of ‘thinking’. Look at the way we describe it to each other. We have to refer to other things. This makes a lot of sense to me. I always wonder, ‘is the way I see green, the same way you see it?” I mean, most of us can agree on what ‘green’ is, but is it different in any way?
Personally, I think, for the most part, it IS the same. This becomes especially apparent to me when mixing paint and asking for a second opinion. ‘Is this color too warm? Do I need to grey it down?’ If these subtle distinctions can be made using two sets of eyes and they come to the same conclusions, I would guess, in general, that green is green.

He later said that he would be interested in hearing how the rest of the community forms their thoughts… I said I’d ask you guys on his behalf

What is your thought process like? How do you think?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. When I think I sometimes think linearly and sometimes not. It’s very situational and it’s also a mood thing. I think my htought processes are a bit different from most because I suffer from chronic severe depression and that really colors the way things work in my head. I can sometimes “predict” the way I’ll react to or think of something. In other words I kind of know what a decision will be before I actually make it. It’s weird, but yeah, that’s how it works. Of course, dealing with the issues I deal with I suspect I’m a tad more introspective than the average person and think more about how I think and feel than most do.

  2. The way thinks look depnds on what species you are. What looks one color to a dog looks like another to a human. What I wonder is what color is it really? Color depends on what sort of sun we have, how our brains transfer the information and other variables. Color is fluid. Most people do think in terms of a narrative or a movie since that is what we are most familiar with, a story. Pictures, smells, conversations.

  3. It seems like the issue of thinking styles (visual, verbal, etc.) is a somewhat separate one from whether the internal states of different people correspond consistently. On the second matter, slightly off-topic for the AI, my viewpoint is perhaps a bit colored (please pardon the pun) by my family background: my mother is a painter while my father is red/green colorblind. Thus, there are gradations of color which my mother and I can see (she was trained to and I grew up with her) but my father can’t. However, I don’t know of any instance in which my father can perceive a difference that my mother and I can’t. It appears that we can readily agree on our perceptions, except for the difference in resolution (My father has a smaller set of colors he distinctly recognizes, but can perceive all the same frequencies of light). So, is my green the same as his green? I think both yes and no, since my green is a subset of the field he calls green (he’ll call green something that I’d call yellow-green, say).

  4. @Elyse: Thanks for that! Once I compile everyone’s answers to the question, I will finally be able to calibrate my mind control device.
    (Seriously though, I’m really interested to see how folks answer).

  5. I tend to think in images too, and especially when I’m reading they can be very elaborate. In reading fiction my brain automatically creates a house that is either my grandparents, the one I lived in until age 3 or my friend’s house from Grade 3. My house can add stairs to a bungalow or move rooms around, but it’s basically the same house. Always one of these houses (unless it’s like a pioneer tale, in which case it’s like Little House on the Prairie). People in stories are mostly people with no faces (not creepy, just I don’t picture faces well).
    I’ve wondered about colour as well, especially the male vs. female perception. I remember reading that women can recognize many more shades of green than men, possibly dating back to the gatherer role that many women used to feed their families. They’d need to know which plants were safe, what bloomed when, and so on, knowledge which men didn’t need, for the most part. So to infuriate many males, make him describe “teal”!
    While I tend to think in pictures, I prefer words. To be honest, I prefer reading the transcripts of videos here than watching the videos, though often tone is lost.
    I love listening to music, and prefer my own images to videos, generally. However, I can’t usually recall tunes or songs by memory. And if another song is in the background, forget it! Very jealous of my guitar playing husband who can play songs by ear in a really short period of time (he once figure out the Law and Order theme during the opening credits). He probably has a soundtrack to his thoughts (I should ask him!) that I don’t.
    When I’m emotional or tired I also have a very hard time making my mouth say what I’m thinking. My husband has learned to tolerate long gaps in my conversations while I search for the word “supper” or something. I don’t know what it says about thought processes, but it is brain related!
    Good post question!

  6. I have a hole in my memory when it comes to colors. I remember most things in black and white unless I make a conscious record of its color. Even then I don’t remember a picture of the item in color. I remember the words, e.g., “the hat is red,” the same way I might remember a non-sensory charcteristic about something, e.g., “She is smart.”
    I’m not sure that makes sense to anyone living outside of my head.

  7. When I read novels, it takes me a while because I tend to picture everything that is happening, not purposely, it just happens. I also like to write short stories, and often before writing them I will see a scene, or the whole story, in my head as an episode of the Outer Limits, or Twilight Zone. I do have trouble finishing them.

    I seem to think a lot in images, and for that matter learn best with images, which is probably why I prefer looking at map than having someone tell me directions, or listening to a GPS unit. I very rarely think in words. I wonder if that is why I sometimes have a hard thinking of the right word to use a times, and names, I’m terrible with names. Although thinking in images does make it easy to remember where you’ve seen a actor/actress before.

    But yeah, very visual learner/person. I love movies and graphic novels for that very reason.

  8. I am an engineer and I like to joke that I can not think at all without a pencil in my hand but it really is not a joke. The truth of the matter is that if I am trying to solve any non-trivial problem, I really do need the pencil. I need to draw a sketch and if the thing I am thinking about isn’t concrete enough to draw, I need to doodle. So many younger engineers work completely without paper. You can not even find a pencil on their desks. I don’t understand how they do it. It is surely some limitation of my brain but I have survived to be an old woman in spite of it.

  9. I’m an intense thinker. Sometimes, I really get the feeling I live more in my head then I do in real life. It doesn’t help that I have bouts of depression. I find I think a lot with my senses and my feelings. “I feel therefor I am” type of thing. But when I’m thinking, or reading something, not only to I picture things, but I feel and hear them too. I tend to overthink things. I constantly recall memories, analyse those memories and draw new information out of it. Another example of how I overthink things is when someone tells me something simple, but I interpret it in such a complex way I end up not really understanding the original message. I’m always frowning. I also have a social anxiety disorder. So when I’m with people and I start getting nervous, sometimes it feels like.. I’m not really thinking at all.

  10. @Glow-Orb: I’m the same way. Unless I specifically make the effort to remember a colour, it does not get “recorded” in my brain. I remember one time being asked about my grandfather’s new car, that I saw only the day before. I could describe it exactly, and what we did as we walked around it, examining it. But when asked the question “and what colour was it?” I was stumped. In my head the image was just grey.

  11. I think in a dancing smurf interpretive dance sort of way with very loud polka music playing in the background. This technique seems to work best for me at around 3am. In fact, it seems I get so much work done because if I focus hard enough on a particular project I can stop the damn music from playing.

  12. In general I don’t know how I think. It just happens. I know I tend to remember words as sounds because of the mistakes I make in writing. I could never be a painter because I can’t recall things as images to save my life.

    What I find fascinating is the transition from a dreaming state to a waking state. It’s quite challenging to remember the actual disconnected and fragmented content of a dream and not the narrative my waking mind wants to turn it into.

  13. The funny thing about this is that it never occurred to me that other people don’t think in language. I think in words… and I think everything twice. Not like back to back thoughts, but as if my brain were feeding the words to another part of my brain and then that second part was saying them out loud. The best way I can describe it is the way you think a word before you say it, then you say it. I can stop my brain from re-dictating the word by literally thinking out loud. If I say the word out loud, my brain doesn’t need to repeat it as if I were saying it. Same thing as when I write… writing works in the same way as speaking, but is far less efficient at keeping up with my thoughts.

    I was reading these responses to my husband while in the car tonight. We had a long conversation about it… looking back it ultimately sounded like the kind of thing that is usually discussed while the incense is burning… about 20 minutes before someone suggests a run to Taco Bell for nachos.

    One thing we talked about is the fact that I always found it so strange that so many people are poor writers. I couldn’t understand how it’s so hard to just write what you’re thinking. If you read what I write (and you all do, obviously) it’s pretty close to being a transcript of my thoughts. I write how I think. I think in complete sentences, in complete thoughts, in the words as I would say them. That makes it pretty convenient when I have to write those thoughts down.

    I’ve always understood that visual artists thought in much more vibrant and vivid pictures than I did. They kind of have to. You can’t create an image that you can’t “see”. But I never thought that people could think without words. I never imagined that your visual thoughts existed in a language vacuum.

    That’s so freakin’ cool.

    What a great question, Skept-Artist! Thank you!

  14. Mostly, I think via mental pictures. For example, when I try to shuffle math equations, I imagine the equation and my mind makes an animation of it. And if I try to recall stuff, I don’t automatically try to retrieve it. That is too much of a hard work. Instead, I go through a step by step process of getting there. And if I try to write, I imagine the sentence and how it sounds like if I read it aloud, except I don’t read it aloud.

    Yeah, dreams are strange. When I am dreaming, the sequences of events seem connected like a narrative. But when I wake up, and think about how things happened, it is very nonsensical. It seems like the dream arrived from Point A to Point B in a butchered manner. For example, once I was dreaming that I was going around a city. Well, I don’t know how I got from the subway to the top of a building. Strangely enough, I didn’t find it strange in the dream.

  15. @Elyse: The funny thing about this is that it never occurred to me that other people don’t think in language. I think in words… and I think everything twice. Not like back to back thoughts, but as if my brain were feeding the words to another part of my brain and then that second part was saying them out loud.
    That makes perfect sense to me. That is exactly how I experience vocalizing thoughts.
    Your post really rings true for me. My boss has ‘accused’ me of writing the way I talk. And I’ve tried to brush up on that (as far as business-y stuff goes). I now revise much more than I used to.
    And your statement about artists being more visual thinkers is something that always bothered me. Not because I think it’s untrue, but because, compared to my peers, I’ve always seemed to myself, I don’t know, less of a visual thinker. But I have a crazy vivid imagination. Sounds like a contradiction, but (in my head) it isn’t. I have sort of a hard time explaining it.
    But thanks for using this for an AI. It’s endlessly fascinating to me to hear about the thought processes of others.

  16. This is really interesting. @Elyse I think in a similar way to you. Nearly always in full sentances and I usually bounce those thoughts around at least twice. I’m really conversational in my head and always place myself right in the middle (making me bad for fence sitting in arguments since I put myself in everyones shoes). Although I can be very self critical so I’ll often find once I’ve spoke/ranted at someone I’ll then pick apart everything I said then kick myself for not phrasing it better or saying something I shouldn’t have or not saying something I should have. Funny thing how brains work.

  17. I think almost entirely visually (too many adverbs?). When I dream it’s visual, when I read, I see it happen (which slows down reading fiction, I’d imagine). When I listen to music I put together a little video in my head if I like the song. When I read technical material I interpret it in terms of other images and motions that I understand (algebra becomes a little dance of symbols, for example).

    When I listen to people say something, I remember what they say if I remember what they were doing physically when they said it (for example, I remember something Rebecca says if she does her thing of leaning toward the camera with one side of her face and raising her eyebrows). If I only hear the person speak, I must either imagine their mannerisms or actually visualize the words as though they were typed out in my mind, or I don’t retain anything. I don’t follow podcasts or talk radio very well.

  18. Pretty much all my thinking is both in “hearing” words/sounds and “seeing” images. Even when I’m coming up with ideas for new art or jewelry projects I don’t just “see” it but I have a little commentary going on materials, size, the tools I’ll need, etc. The real fun bit is that in certain situations I swear I can smell what I’m thinking about. Not just food either but for example if I think about the horse I had Stormy I can almost smell that mix of equine sweat and vinegary fly spray we used on him in the summer.

    I have full sensory dreams which I don’t know many people who talk about their dreams that way so I don’t know how common it is. Mostly when people talk about dreams it’s what they see and hear but I can smell, taste and feel touch in my dreams. I’ve even felt pain in my dreams which is a bizarre experience and usually wakes me up.

    Not sure if I’ve mentioned this here before but despite the fact that I work in art I have a serious visual impairment. I’m legally blind in my left eye and the vision in my right eye can only be corrected to about 20/100 (which by the way is not legal to drive in my state). I have this impairment in my dreams and day dreams too. When I’m reading and have that little movie going in my head, if a character is looking out across a great distance I picture it blurry, I can’t help it my brain just can’t wrap itself around non-blurry binocular vision since I’ve never experienced it.

  19. Well, when I read I can almost always picture everything in my head. I almost never actually see the words (if that makes sense?).
    I can carry on long conversations with myself, imagining how someone with another idea might respond to me (this comes in handy when trying to figure out possible weaknesses in my arguments). Then there are times when I think best by just not thinking. I cancel out all the noise, simplify the problem into as few words as possible, then just wait. I zone out, let my mind work on the problem in the background, then pull it to the front when it’s ready. I’m not saying it’s the best strategy for brand new problems, but if it’s a problem I’ve come across before, or if it’s similar, then it usually works.

  20. I think in a mixture of words and images. But I always think in images when I daydream, read novels and listen to music.

    I am a visual learner and mostly think in images but I cannot hold an image or memory in my mind very well. I get lost going to places I’ve been before, I won’t recognize someone if I see them in a new context, and I constantly forget everyday words.

    I need close captioning when I watch something or I will miss a lot of what is said.

    Also, sometimes the images in my head get distorted against my desires. Like I won’t be able to keep a person from growing larger and larger. When this happens it feels like I cannot control it.

  21. Words. And when on English language sites like this, in English.
    I rarely think in images, and when I do they’re sketchy and fleeting. I can remember (random pick here) Hans Gruber’s face as he plummets to his death, but I can’t “see” it in my mind. That is, there’s a very wide gap between how I perceive images live, and as memories.

  22. I believe I’m a kinaesthetic learner, which means I don’t think in words (unless I’m think about something word-based like a story or conversation) or pictures (unless its something I’ve seen before), but rather as pure processes. I remember a path from A to B not as directions in words or images of landmarks but just as the physical tasks I have to take to get there.

    Unfortunately it makes it a little hard to communicate my ideas sometimes unless I have access to a specialised language, like mathematical notation if I happen to be communicating a math idea.

  23. Pictures are a rarity in my head. They take a good deal of concentration and sometimes I’ll lose focus and they’ll distort wildly and I won’t be able to get them back. Occasionally images will flood my head in response to something, but it needs to be a pretty strong trigger.
    When I daydream it’s all screwed up. It’s vaguely like I’m imagining an image, but usually it’s even vaguer than imagined images.

    My thoughts are mostly in words. Along with the occasional image, I will have somewhat frequent sounds and rare smells. Once or twice I’ve had imagined touches as well.

    Also, I tend not to remember dreams, nor dream about the seemingly standard things: falling and flying mostly. The one dream I had about flying was lucid.

  24. I think in straight language. Very few images – I find it hard to picture things except in a wireframe sort of way or if I’m just on the edge of sleep, when everything goes a bit ’60s.
    I’ll add something I haven’t seen anyone mention yet, though: characterisation. When I’m thinking about a problem, I play it out as an argument or a lecture in my head. I will pick a person I know, or a celebrity or a character from a book and discuss it with them. If I’m working on a programming issue, for example, I might teach a friend in detail about what I’m doing, which means I end up spotting flaws early because I’m dumbing it down. I will be speaking in the voice of whoever I think should best be teaching and replying in the voice of my friend. It’s so ingrained that when I what to express something that I feel my friend would have said, internally I use their voice while constructing the sentence.

  25. Working as an artist I often forgo thinking and embrace intuition. Above all else my work should feel right.

    Which is why I enjoy the scientific method so much. It satisfying to be able to achieve reliable, reproducible results — something that’s hard to do in art.

  26. @Elyse: One thing we talked about is the fact that I always found it so strange that so many people are poor writers. I couldn’t understand how it’s so hard to just write what you’re thinking.

    Have you ever experimented with different writing methods? I find that my writing is a little different if I use longhand versus a keyboard. When I write longhand I get longer to think so the language tends to be a bit more crafted. A few years ago I started using speech-to-text for writing. Oh my goodness. It’s a completely a completely different person. Not better or worse. Just different. It’s very direct. Unadorned. Much like the way you write. My guess the brain gets used in different ways that shows up in the output.

  27. @davew: Cool question, Dave. I’ve always wondered if the age of typing has changed not just how we write, but how we think.

    I’m so much faster and more fluid typing than I am hand writing. Making corrections is so much easier, too.

  28. patterns. of any kind. sound/sight/texture/moods/etc.
    agree that it depends on situation.
    memory is in general also patterns, there is a scarcity of concrete details.

  29. I think I think in words for the most part, and hear what I think is my own voice in my head. Then I actually hear a recording of my real voice and go, “Agh! Is that me?” Also, I tend to think in short, semi-connected bursts of ideas… until I zone out and go into a long rambling monologue or even dialogue that may have one or two decent ideas in it.

    When I really have to concentrate on a problem, I think in manipulatable 3-D models, but it takes some concentration, and I usually have to try and draw it out as well to help me.

    I’m amazed how people think so differently! I guess I never really thought about that before…

  30. I tend to think in words, pretty much as they would appear on a page. I can ascribe images to these words, but most of my thinking is pure English language, without direct input of images.

    The exceptions are direction and music. With direction, I tend to have a mental map of the area, with some places vague if I’m not familiar with them, but mostly just a map with key points and connecting streets/paths/trails (provided nothing has changed, I can still navigate my way around three Boy Scout camps, and numerous old neighborhoods).

    With music, I think in words if they’re in English, or tones and shapes if it’s not or non-vocal. If you remember the first bit of the old Fantasia, where things are mostly abstract, that’s what my experience of music tends to be like… very beautiful and moving, but mostly abstract images.

  31. I guess the easiest way to explain how I think is I think like TV. When I hear stuff, I imagine watching it. When I listen to music, I imagine a scenerio where someone would be singing it. When I read stuff, I imagine it as a movie. My brain is a projector onto the backs of my eyes.

  32. Verbal, almost entirely. Very few images. Anything of emotional importance comes with a complete, flowing narrative, in (relatively) good English. My memory is the same: I have a very poor memory for faces, or places, but the story about how something happened? I’ll have that for years.

  33. I read in pictures, dream in colour and do mathematics by hopping from A to M to Z [always ‘show your work!’ – but I did…]

    In leisure moments, I think in tangents. I am fortunate that the Biophysicist can follow these random word associations/memory flashes/new ideas.

    I have a wretched memory for names, which can be embarrassing when one encounters an old, albeit casual, lover, but vivid memory pictures: I can clearly remember my nursemaid trying to bargain with a passing shepherd boy for a lamb when I was four, and that was very long ago. [Oh, the anticipation! The lovely feeling of the fleece! The warm cuddly thing nosing my face!]

    When I “think” in another language, I don’t think in English-to-X, I think in whatever I’m speaking. I seldom remember whodunnit when revisiting a previously read mystery novel; I suspect that’s less of a brain blip than a not-an-important-fact-to-put-into-LTM-storage. I see exploded diagrams in motion.

    @glassdirigible: I have never understood how my ex, an artist, could refer to his russet-coloured bag as “my red bag” or his grey jacket as “my blue jacket”. He thinks better in pictures – when I sent him out with a sketched grocery list, he would always return with everything on it; when I wrote down what I wanted, he’d always miss two or three items.

  34. Until a couple of years ago, I always assumed that when people spoke of picturing something in their minds, that it was meant as a figure of speech. When I found out that most others can actually see images in their minds, it was deeply shocking. Aside from dreams, there is never anything akin to an image in my mind.

    Everything is entirely verbal. There is a constant narration inside my head, and I’m an intensely curious person who likes to think about what I see; this makes my internal experience something like a super-IMAX version of a David Attenborough film. It’s wonderful and quite fascinating, all the time.

    Still, it would be nice to be able to simply conjure up actual images at will. What on earth do entirely visual thinkers ‘see’ when confronted with nonsensical abstractions such as Chomsky’s ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ ?

  35. I don’t remember anything that people tell me (bad with names, bad with lectures), unless I can associate it with a visual. Ideally, I learn by experience, followed by seeing or reading. When I read, I see the events in my mind like a movie. I think one of the reasons I have a terrible time with chemistry and microbiology, but not ecology and animal biology is that I can’t see how things work directly. Ditto with math. I still take several seconds to work out basic math equations and rely heavily on what my computer and calculator tell me for statistics.

    The only exception is music. I can memorize music very quickly, and I always remember how it sounds, not what the notes look like. I’m teaching someone now who is exactly the opposite – can’t hear the music at all – and it’s a real challenge for us both.

  36. I seem to think in multiple formats and styles. My mind makes metaphors, analogies and bad puns without being asked and I can change subjects in a conversation…, anyone want to go for a bike ride?

  37. If I’m making somthing I can get incredibly focused. Carpentry, writing, working on a film effect, all of these things can absorb me to the point where I lose all track of time.

    The rest of the time I’m scattered. I can rarely finish a book straight through, usually I put them down halfway through and pick them up three years later. I collect ideas like magnets in a box, they rattle around and after a while a bunch of them connect in a way that surprises me.

  38. Years, and when I say years, I mean decades, when I worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, I was asked how I thought. I didn’t know what that meant at the time..

    “Do you think aurally, visually or spatially?”.

    “Ummm, not sure, which is which?”.

    ” Well, do you hear voices or do you see the things you are thinking?”.

    ” Yes.”.

    “Okay, do you think spatially?”.

    “What would that entail?”.

    ” Well, when someone tells you how to change an oil filter, for instance, do you tell them, make a sketch or do you make a gesture showing how to do it in space?”.

    ” Gesture, I suppose.”.

    ” What are you doing here?”.

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory ca. 1982.


  39. Instead of words or images, I consider ideas a collection of abstract entities with information moving between them. This pattern of thought, seems beneficial to software design and mathematics. Once, I was asked to create a graphical display that looked like a chalice and changed in response to music. Instead of visualizing the chalice, I wrote the formula that described the chalice. Then determined how the music would be turned into numbers, used to perturb the surface. Then I tweeked the parameters until I liked what I saw.

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