Visual Thinking: Coming Full Circle
"Just after the invention of the Phoenician alphabet, words and pictures went their separate ways...Each had its own vocabulary...its own department in the university...You were either a word person (most of us) or a picture person"
-Robert E. Horn, Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century
The Phoenician alphabet dates back to about 1050 BC. About 500 years later, in Socrates’ time, an oral tradition was still firmly in place and the written word was still new technology. Books were looked upon with skepticism and Socrates himself noted these limitations:
One could not customize one’s message in a book as a speaker could.
Books were not interactive as was dialogue.
One couldn’t take the conversation further by asking the presenter questions.
But books were here to stay. With the printing press (1440 A.D.) came rapid advances in literacy, which led to a dominance of left brain strengths, values and leadership. (Language, along with logic and mathematics, is a left brain process.) By the end of the 20th century, reading, writing and analytic skills were exalted and heavily emphasized in the academic world. Over time, what had been direct eye-to-brain experience came to be translated from eye to words and then to the brain.
Learning by formula and book often replaced learning by doing, by direct eye and hand experience. Visual thinking and sensory, hands-on learning were considered old-fashioned, primitive, non-professional—for laypersons or children.
In engineering, the standard approach to understanding how things worked changed from using the mind’s eye and direct experience (a la Orville and Wilbur Wright or Steve Jobs) to using formulaic, analytic approaches. Applied, working knowledge of the material world and how things fit together was de-valued and gave way to academic, theoretical models. Numbers and words held more weight than intuitive undertanding, or the ability to see patterns, hold an integrated, holistic view, and think things through.
Extreme emphasis on linear thought and specialization has left holes in our broader understanding. But Thomas West, author of Thinking Like Einstein, sees the pendulum swinging back. Starting around the year 2000, signs of a shift away from abstract numbers and formulas, back to our visual, non-verbal roots have been observed. And computer visualization technologies have been a major player. Visual models (previously in clay or other materials, now in computer generated 3-D graphics) can detect patterns and relationships that formulas cannot.
Brain science suggests that creative achievement in the sciences often comes from visual/spatial reasoning, a type of intelligence that has been undervalued in the highly verbal and analytical left brain world. In an interesting trade-off, those who are particularly gifted in this area are significantly more likely to have dyslexia or other learning disabilities involving language, as did Einstein. These patterns run in families over generations, indicating a possible genetic thread.
While dyslexics may be marginalized in the academic arena, in the business world, they may excel. They often have what it takes to envision, anticipate and conceive solutions better than sequential thinkers. Non-linear thinkers may have more ability to think ahead of the pack, and see from others’ point of view. Their inclusion in work groups can help prevent groupthink, the ‘eddies of thought’ that that stop forward movement in organizations.
Visual thinkers often struggle with written information their whole lives, and develop skills for honing in on the essential while filtering out what’s not. Until now the primary strategy for dealing with information overload has been to narrow one’s focus and specialize. As we have seen, this leads to specialist myopia—an inability to see larger patterns or the whole overview. But since mathematical and scientific theories emerge as patterns of patterns, seeing the big picture is a critical skill even in primarily left-brain disciplines.
Einstein’s best ideas came to him through visual models, and only later did he attach words and formulas to them. As he got further immersed in the academics of mathematics and physics, left brain processing may have actually hindered his creative genius. As science writer, Stephen Jay Gould put it, “Our attraction to images is both primal and pervasive. Writing, with its linear sequencing of ideas, is a historical afterthought in the history of human cognition.”
Images combined with text teach (and sell) more effectively than the same elements shown separately. It naturally re-integrates our senses with our thought processes.
Seeing and eye-hand movement ground us in physical intuition, muscle memory, the body’s own wisdom. Moving images have a kinesthetic relationship with moving muscles—again integrating senses with thought processes.
In the 1900’s, industrial strength machines displaced muscle power. Now semi-intelligent machines are poised to take over many math and language tasks. Meanwhile the uniquely human gifts of perspective and originality that visual/spatial thinking skills can bring to the creative process may be gaining recognition and value. Visual thinkers see things differently, and see things that others do not see. Joining the strengths of visual/spatial, right-brain thinkers with those of verbal/analytical, left-brain thinkers could take civilization to places we’ve never been before.
RECOMMENDED READ: Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization, by Thomas G.West