In “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions,” Temple Grandin identifies a continuum of thought styles that’s roughly divisible into three sections. On one end are verbal thinkers, who often solve problems by talking about them in their heads or, more generally, by proceeding in the linear, representational fashion typical of language. (Estimating the cost of a building project, a verbal thinker might price out all the components, then sum them using a spreadsheet—an ordered, symbol-based approach.) On the other end of the continuum are “object visualizers”: they come to conclusions through the use of concrete, photograph-like mental images, as Grandin does when she compares building plans in her mind. In between those poles, Grandin writes, is a second group of visual thinkers—“spatial visualizers,” who seem to combine language and image, thinking in terms of visual patterns and abstractions.
Grandin proposes imagining a church steeple. Verbal people, she finds, often make a hash of this task, conjuring something like “two vague lines in an inverted V,” almost as though they’ve never seen a steeple before. Object visualizers, by contrast, describe specific steeples that they’ve observed on actual churches: they “might as well be staring at a photograph or photorealistic drawing” in their minds. Meanwhile, the spatial visualizers picture a kind of perfect but abstract steeple—“a generic New England-style steeple, an image they piece together from churches they’ve seen.” They have noticed patterns among church steeples, and they imagine the pattern, rather than any particular instance of it.
The imagistic minds in “Visual Thinking” can seem glamorous compared with the verbal ones depicted in “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It,” by Ethan Kross. Kross is interested in what’s known as the phonological loop—a neural system, consisting of an “inner ear” and an “inner voice,” that serves as a “clearinghouse for everything related to words that occurs around us in the present.” If Grandin’s visual thinkers are attending Cirque du Soleil, then Kross’s verbal thinkers are stuck at an Off Broadway one-man show. It’s just one long monologue.
People with inner monologues, Kross reports, often spend “a considerable amount of time thinking about themselves, their minds gravitating toward their own experiences, emotions, desires, and needs.” This self-centeredness can spill over into our out-loud conversation. In the nineteen-eighties, the psychologist Bernard Rimé investigated what we’d now call venting—the compulsive sharing of negative thoughts with other people. Rimé found that bad experiences can inspire not only interior rumination but the urge to broadcast it. The more we share our unhappiness with others, the more we alienate them… Maybe it can pay to keep your thoughts to yourself.
Kross’s bottom line is that our inner voices are powerful tools that must be tamed. He ends his book with several dozen techniques for controlling our chatter. He advises trying “distanced self-talk”: by using “your name and the second-person ‘you’ to refer to yourself,” he writes, you can gain more command over your thinking. You might use your inner voice to pretend that you’re advising a friend about his problems; you might redirect your thoughts toward how universal your experiences are (It’s normal to feel this way), or contemplate how every new experience is a challenge you can overcome (I have to learn to trust my partner). The idea is to manage the voice that you use for self-management. Take advantage of the suppleness of dialogue. Don’t just rehearse the same old scripts; send some notes to the writers’ room.
If we can’t say exactly how we think, then how well do we know ourselves? In an essay titled “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that a layer of fiction is woven into what it is to be human. In a sense, fiction is flawed: it’s not true. But, when we open a novel, we don’t hurl it to the ground in disgust, declaring that it’s all made-up nonsense; we understand that being made up is actually the point. Fiction, Dennett writes, has a deliberately “indeterminate” status: it’s true, but only on its own terms. The same goes for our minds. We have all sorts of inner experiences, and we live through and describe them in different ways—telling one another about our dreams, recalling our thoughts, and so on. Are our descriptions and experiences true or fictionalized? Does it matter? It’s all part of the story.