Science describes a continuum between two modes of thought: verbal or visual, inner-voice or quiet mind. Which mode(s) do you use?
It all started with a Tweet
Link #3 in the post, Curating the Internet: Science and technology digest for February 1, 2020 discussed the phenomenon of an internal narrator that is involved in thought for some, but not all people.
It all started with a viral tweet that said,
Fun fact: some people have an internal narrative and some don't
As in, some people's thoughts are like sentences they "hear", and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them
And most people aren't aware of the other type of person
After reading that tweet, one surprised blog author took a survey of his Instagram connections and found that 91 people reported the presence of a sort of internal narrative in their thoughts while 18 reported its absence.
From there, it was picked up by Open Source notable, Eric S. Raymond, who said that his own perceptions include a mix of narrated and non-narrated thought. In particular, Raymond wrote that he was aware of thoughts that contained,
(1) the roaring flood of free association, which I normally don’t observe; (2) the filtered pre-verbal stream of consciousness, ... that is my normal experience of self, and (3) narratized head-voice when I’m writing or thinking about what to say to other people.
Thinking visually or thinking verbally
Against that backdrop, I added that I have long been aware of different styles of thinking because of some conversations that I had with a friend back in the early or mid 2000s.
One point that came up in those conversations was that my friend was confused by a distinction I drew between "thinking" and "feeling". To her, those two concepts meant the same thing. To me, they are very different. Only thinking involves a narrated voice - or for that matter - any cognition of sensory perception at all.
Another point that came to light was a difference in our ability to visualize things. This is hard to describe, but as I understand it, my friend was able to perceive images in her mind or imagination, without actually seeing them in the physical world. This is something that I have never been able to do.
In my earlier post, I also noted that I have long-suspected that this difference in thinking styles between visual or verbal is part of the reason why some people (visual thinkers) are so put-off by the there/their/they're class of spelling errors (which I have to struggle to avoid). Since then, it also occurred to me that there's another class of errors that always grab my attention. In particular, the incorrect substitution of words like "well" and "good" hits me like nails on a chalkboard. So now I'm thinking that perhaps there is a corresponding class of language error that is more noticeable to verbal thinkers.
I also noted that my inability to perceive images seems bizarre, because my inner narrator uses words like "there" or "that", and I know what it means, even though I have no perception of whatever the object of referral is.
Today, I thought I'd take a few minutes to learn more about what science has to say about this. Here's what I found.
Full spectrum, not binary
The first article I found was, Scientists explain the viral ‘internal narrative’ phenomenon. This article referenced the same viral tweet, and went on to provide more examples of people who make use of each mode of thinking.
According to Curtis Reisinger, it is often not either/or between the modes of thinking. Instead, it is common for people to make use of both modes in varying degrees. He also notes that the "little voice" can be harmful or useful, and suggests that people should avoid overthinking it.
A second article that I found, An asymmetrical relationship between verbal and visual thinking: Converging evidence from behavior and fMRI is behind a paywall, so I could only read the Abstract, which says:
Humans rely on at least two modes of thought: verbal (inner speech) and visual (imagery). Are these modes independent, or does engaging in one entail engaging in the other? To address this question, we performed a behavioral and an fMRI study. In the behavioral experiment, participants received a prompt and were asked to either silently generate a sentence or create a visual image in their mind. They were then asked to judge the vividness of the resulting representation, and of the potentially accompanying representation in the other format. In the fMRI experiment, participants had to recall sentences or images (that they were familiarized with prior to the scanning session) given prompts, or read sentences and view images, in the control, perceptual, condition. An asymmetry was observed between inner speech and visual imagery. In particular, inner speech was engaged to a greater extent during verbal than visual thought, but visual imagery was engaged to a similar extent during both modes of thought. Thus, it appears that people generate more robust verbal representations during deliberate inner speech compared to when their intent is to visualize. However, they generate visual images regardless of whether their intent is to visualize or to think verbally. One possible interpretation of these results is that visual thinking is somehow primary, given the relatively late emergence of verbal abilities during human development and in the evolution of our species.
On one hand, this puzzles me, because I am basically never aware of any visualized images inside my mind, but this seems to imply that everyone uses visual modes of thinking all the time.
On the other hand, however, it does seem to be consistent with Raymond's description, as if there's a sort of a hierarchy, where sensation is the basic layer, and that's covered by thought in the visual paradigm, and internal narration happens at the highest layer of abstraction.
So in this case, it seems that Twitter got it right, sort-of. The original Tweet that started it all phrased it as an either/or, where people think one way or the other. In reality, it seems that many people actually use both modes of thinking in differing degrees.
And now, the obvious discussion question. What mode(s) of thinking do you use?