Thursday, March 31, 2016

Modes of Thinking

One of Robert Heinlein's characters declares that conscious thought is like the display window in a calculator, showing the result of a process that goes on underneath, in the preconscious or unconscious mind. I think he's probably right; nevertheless, most people (as far as I know) do experience thinking as a conscious procedure. Suzette Haden Elgin often wrote about "preferred sensory modes" in learning and interacting with the environment—some children learn best by sight, others by hearing, some by touch. (And the last group suffers a distinct disadvantage in our public school system.) Likewise, people seem to have different "thinking modes."

I've always been highly verbally oriented. In my early years, I took it for granted that "thinking" MEANT "formulating thoughts in words." Mental verbalization, "talking to yourself," was the only process I recognized as thought. It was quite a revelation to learn not everybody's mind works that way. C. S. Lewis, one of my idols and certainly a brilliant wordsmith, was a strongly visual thinker. He said all his fiction began with "pictures." THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, for example, sprang from an image of a faun carrying packages through a snowy forest. Lewis described his writing technique as something like "bird-watching." Various "pictures" would appear in his mind, and eventually he would sense that a group of them belonged together as part of a single narrative. Only then would the conscious work of devising a plot to link them begin. Only after Aslan "came bounding" into Narnia did it occur to him to include Christian content in the story (contrary to the popular belief that he intentionally set out to write "allegory"). Animal scientist Temple Grandin describes herself as so much of a visual thinker that words are her "second language." I'm so much the opposite, so non-visual, that I have trouble connecting faces with names and, in movies, telling characters apart if they look similar. This tendency also means that as a writer I struggle with creating vivid descriptions.

It's clear to me now that verbal thinking and even abstract thinking aren't the only processes that can legitimately be classified as "thought." Aren't animals thinking when they solve problems, even if they don't have the capacity for abstract thought? When our dog extracts a treat from a hollow toy or a cat bats at the swinging closet door until she can wiggle inside, they are clearly acting from intention, not trial-and-error. So I have to label their mental processes "thinking," even if that definition contradicts the narrower assumptions I used to hold.

How can we be sure of recognizing "thought" among extraterrestrial aliens who may not think anything like the way we do?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. If you look up developmental psychology you will find references to different types of thought. Without going into detail, I will mention only that some of what you wrote above is discussed in detail there.

    I don't know if I could describe my own thought process, probably partly because I am not operating on just one level or even the same level at all times. Parts of stories could be profoundly abstract while another part comes from 'concrete operations' - do this to get that. Etc. Still, a nice post over all.

  2. It's true that different people favor different modalities for thinking, but it is also true that the thought process we are aware of is a tiny fraction of the thought that goes on. Though not all thinking takes a linguistic form, I would not discount the idea that other animals have language, and that some of their thoughts do take a linguistic form. Think about what Bow does when he spells out a request or what Alex the Parrot did, when he had to use placeholders for some sounds he could not make while he practiced a word. That is very analytical, and it shows an understanding of the phonemic principle. How could he have such an understanding, if language was not a part of his mental arsenal?

  3. Keep in mind this is a co-blog where different people post on different days. I post on Tuesdays mostly about writing craft and how to blend science fiction with Romance genre.

  4. I suspect each person has a dominant mode of thinking but also exercises other modes on occasion, just as a person whose main "sensory mode" is vision also learns through the other senses to a varying extent. About animals -- it was quite a surprise to me when I came across the fact that parrots don't just "parrot" but actually use words in the proper contexts. So maybe they do have some sort of language module in the brain (as we apparently do). Dolphins, from what I've read, seem to have language.

  5. It is fairly well established that the brain builds synapses in response to experience, so I'd expect whatever language using bias you start with, it can be changed by trauma, experience, and emotional shock. The primary human survival trait is adaptability.