Internal visualization (mind's eye), theoretical systems, and belief

  • #1


So I have a question or two that I've wondered about for a while and am hoping that this is the right forum to (maybe) get some answers.

The thing I've been wondering about is how important the visualization process is in dealing with more abstract, theoretical problems, especially as it relates to mathematics and physics, in particular cosmology. What I'm really curious about is to what extent visualization is used as the basis for formulating such things as string theory, the many worlds hypothesis, and other really complicated ideas based on, shall we say, more esoteric bits of math, at least to a lay scientist such as myself.

Does the analogy or math come first, or do they come about in tandem, and if so, which is the main driver (if any)? Would it even be possible to come up with such a theory without the ability to visualize some sort of geometric-spatial analogy? I am completely ignorant about this, as I've never really been able to engage with theoretical physics, and suspect that my inability to visualize has something to do with this. I'm interested in both your own understanding, as well as what you may know about the individuals who originated such theories.

Edit by mentor: Sorry we don't allow this.

I'm trying to determine if this question, which doesn't seem to be addressed by the current psychological research (whose focus has been primarily on learning and performance), is one worth pursuing further. The assumption is always made that people are able to visualize without further investigation. I suspect that how well -- or even if -- a person is able to visualize things in their mind fundamentally affects the way they conceive of reality and the beliefs that creates. In this case, the belief revolves around cosmology and, more broadly, math and physics. In my case, my across the board score would be 1.

Thanks in advance. I'm very curious to hear from you all.

NOTE: I posted on here because this question doesn't necessarily fit into other categories. The closest I can think of is cosmology, but it's a bit more general than that. I can move it there if people think it belongs there.
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
Does hearing a sound similar to "woo ... woo ... woo ... woo ..." count as "imagery"? :devil:
  • #3
  • #4
The people you really need to ask, though, are the formulators of these theories. There is an interview with Einstein where he was asked about his process which you might be able to find, Feynman left a few scattered reports, and Tesla reported a prodigiously literal ability to visualize, which he describes in detail in "My Inventions." There's that famous Kekule story about how he dreamt of a snake taking it's own tail in his mouth...there are probably lots of others I haven't read.
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  • #5
The importance of visualizations in learning relates to the tendency for humans to use spatial metaphors to understand things. We learn to have both awareness of space and our position and kinetics with respect to our environment through various systems such as our muscle spindles (that detect how stretched muscles are) to our vestibular system (detecting our motion in space) our auditory system (detecting the location of sounds).

Primates (including humans) have larger visual areas than their immediate ancestors and their behavior demonstrates more reliance on visual sensory data* so it's not surprising that our brains can efficiently decode and analyze visual signals.

Translating abstract concepts to the visual domain is practically mandatory for expressing scientific ideas. It's embodied in one tool that you will see readily used in most scientific journals: the graph. We take concepts like energy, voltage, and force and compare them against another variable like mass, time, or space itself and we do so in the visual domain. We introduce mathematical functions on plots, and we express correlation between other abstract variables with them, interpreting their relationship with the position and shape of a line on a graph.

*see Evolutionary Neuroscience by Jon Kaas for more details, he has this chapter avialable online:

Here's some psych/neuro literature about using space to think: [Broken]
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  • #6
The importance of visualizations in learning relates to the tendency for humans to use spatial metaphors to understand things.
You brought this up in that music thread a while back: we speak of some tones being higher than others, and we actually place high tones physically above low tones when we notate music. What's actually a matter of relative speed is conceived of as a spatial relation.
  • #7
Yes, the SMARC effect. One of the links above refers to the SNARC effect (M vs. N is musical vs. numerical).

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