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Medical Thinking purely in words, how this works

  1. Dec 30, 2010 #1
    I am very curious about how people think in words alone for a long time and am hoping that some of you here can enlighten me on this topic. When i try to investigate the subject almost all that i come across are articles on how people think visually which for me is normal and therefore of little interest.

    About eight years ago i knew a man who said that he thought purely through words, that as he thought script would appear in his mind's eye and that images never appeared for him. This dumbfounded me. I had no idea before then that another human could have such fundamental differences in thought processes, and the difference, from my perspective, is so huge as to appear alien. Since then i've been very curious as to how people think through words alone, how common this is and how this effects emotional/cognitive/memory function. Although i have often asked people since how they think i have only ever met one person who described thinking in the same way as Simon and he was immediately defensive about the subject. (Probably because i was looking at him like he was a prize specimen!) It probably doesn't help that i work in an art college and that all of my friends are creative types, although i am also wondering whether Irish people think more visually than other nationalities as this is where i live and the "word thinkers" are (i think) so rare here.

    So can anyone help me out? How does this work? Does your inner monologue appear as text? How do you imagine mathematics? Is it by seeing the symbols themselves? Do words appear closer or far away according to emotional impact? Do the words have a colour? How many words appear at once and does the field behind have any quality? Do emotional words appear different to each other?EG Is anger bigger or closer? Are memories also in words or do they have images? Can you remember sound/voices? Can you also remember/imagine music? If you do is it holistic sound or just the voice? When daydreaming do you ever lose awareness of your surroundings?

    If there are other questions that i've left out dive in and ask.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 30, 2010 #2


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    There is certainly variation in the vividness of people's mental imagery - a bell curve probably. But it would be safe to say that all humans think using the interplay of words and imagery. Here is a short column I wrote a few years back which touches directly on your query.

  4. Dec 30, 2010 #3
    Here is an interesting question for someone who 'only thinks in words'

    You have lost some very familiar object, such as your wallet or purse. Perhaps it is brightly coloured, but it certainly has a distinctive image.
    Describe your thoughts as you search for this object, lifting cushions, opening drawers etc.


    I freely admit to carrying a mental picture when doing this. It certainly helps to know I am looking for, say, a black rectangular box so that I can reject all white rounds etc. However this technique has played false on occasion when my memory of the lost object has let me down.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2010
  5. Dec 30, 2010 #4
    I notice that when I'm tired, lying in bed and listening to music, I find that my thoughts become more visual and less linguistic. As I fade into sleep, I sometimes find myself thinking very clear thoughts without words, although most of the things I think throughout the day is with words. If I have a problem I need to work out, I use words. Only as I fall asleep to I think of solutions in terms of images.
  6. Dec 31, 2010 #5
    Personally, I find I become more talkative in my brain at night. For most of the day, I think in moving pictures+words. I dunno if that's normal for other people, but it's conditioned for me. Sometimes classes are so boring I start to watch movies in my head I've seen a billion times. My brain's got surround sound, awesome stuff. And an instant replay button. ;] I find though, solving physic's is a lot easier with this motion picture way of thinking. But logic puzzles, like the Monty Python make more sense with motion picture + words + a lot of instant replay + cross examination.

    I think though, thinking in words is a lot logic based, x makes sense, therefore y makes sense. A lot more linear. Which makes me think people who think in words could be more organized. Maybe math makes more sense to them to, because it's quite logical.
  7. Jan 3, 2011 #6
    Thank you for the responses. It's great to get some feedback on this subject!

    I find myself that mathematics stops making sense when i can't see in my mind what i'm solving, similarly for physics, so i'm not sure if logical thinking necessarily goes with thinking purely through words. One advantage that i could see would be not being distracted by day dreaming/too many ideas spontaneously arising. But then again maybe not. Maybe wordier people day dream in wordy ways.

    Does anyone dream without images? The example of the psychology professor is a fascinating one given the importance placed on dream imagery in psychology. Did this man also dream in words? Do words carry far more emotional weight and flavour or emotional import for this man than for the rest of us?

    When attending classes in Buddhism i came across a meditations that relied heavily on visual imagination. One is linked to the increase of compassion. The first step is you imagine people that you love surrounding you and thus feel compassion and love naturally arise within you, so is there a link between compassion and visual imagination? A basic quality of empathy is to imagine yourself in the other persons position. How is this possible when one cannot imagine visually? I wonder the same about cruelty. If someones visual memory is poor does this mean that they would be less troubled by guilt? This comes to mind as well because the first man that i met like this was trying to increase his own compassion. It seemed though that he was kind and patient so maybe there is no connection.

    Does having a poor visual recall enable people to overcome trauma more quickly than those who may be tormented by vivid visual details? One hypnotist i remember reading treats patients who have suffered trauma by asking them to remember the event but imagine it first from outside as though they are observing themselves. Next he asks them to imagine it but as if it were in black and white, then seen from a distance. Each time the patient does the emotional impact of the memory is lessened until it no longer creates a traumatic response.

    The bell curve idea makes sense, but still i wonder how many individuals make up the "word only" end of the curve.
  8. Jan 5, 2011 #7
    Consider that all of your previous conscious thoughts including images and word thoughts are stored in readiness for a comparison with the external world as it is imbibed through the present moment. Indeed you have the entire universe as you have so far experienced it, stored in your unconscious, this includes all words for things. The experiences that were stored with a high impact or via great repetition are the most significant or distinct part of this unconscious universe. Your personality traits being the most distinct memory set. Upon interfacing with the external world your unconscious makes an instantaneous database comparison and presents to you images and words that most closely match the data that is arriving. So the words and thoughts you have about this external moment are never actually made by the external world. They are always your view, or creation of the external world the instant after your unconscious mind has processed it. Your thoughts are a solution made following an increasingly accurate algorithmic process. The more closely timed this solution is to the arriving data, the more certain we are of what we're seeing or thinking. Though the fundamental truth is, we are never in the 'present' moment at the conscious level. We are always one step behind the processing machine that is our unconscious. So your word thoughts are only the product of a subliminal algorithmic process that is so quick that we falsely experience our word thoughts as being accurate and in the current moment. So word thoughts are a finite solution that are created as 'current' reality is compared to the astronomical database held unseen to each of us. This 'solution' is the last part of the sequence but it is important that word thoughts 'sees itself' as 'in the present' or the game is up. So word thoughts (or any conscious thoughts) are a reaction and can never be the truth, merely a representation of it, an image. It is the same for everybody. No one can be absolutely right about anything at the conscious level. Conscious thought is just our personal truth, that is all. The thing that stops us seeing back into this mechanism is emotion. That is, if I were to relinquish my reliance on my word thoughts as being an accurate portrayal of reality, I would face the fearful realm of irrationality, or madness. We fear this, but why? We were each highly irrational in the early stages of life. Most of us were happy then. Though for 'adults', we fear affect and emotions. Yet they are simply more deeply held algorithms that exist to inhibit regress each time the fundamental irrational basis of our word thoughts is nears the surface. Among other things, we commonly experience this rejection of regression as a fear of 'being wrong'.
  9. Jan 5, 2011 #8
    No one that I've asked has admitted to thinking only in words (i.e. in complete sentences of a natural language), but here is a thesis by someone who claims to.

    SILBY, BRENT (2000). Revealing the Language of Thought.

    Silby characterises his thought as internal speech rather than internal reading. Just as we might find it hard to believe that anyone's thoughts could consist entirely of subvocalisation, he dismisses the claims of "normal people" to be able to think nonverbally. For example, he attempts to explain away Einstein's explicit statement that his creative thought was primarily nonverbal, and bases his theoretical argument on the assumption that, in spite of our claims to the contrary, we really do all think in words.

    He gives an example of how his thoughts might run if he arrived at work having forgotten to bring coffee:

    Again, referring to Wittgenstein:

    Reasons for caution. As a philosopher, and someone who has studied and thought hard about the issue, he isn't a naive witness to his own experience, and may have an emotional stake in this particular view, a view incompatible with the possibility of nonverbal thought. The fact that he dismisses or tries to theoretically explain away reports of nonverbal thought makes me wonder whether he might also be downplaying aspects of his own experience which conflict with his theory.

    Whether this is the case, though, I just don't know. If he really did think as he describes, that could motivate his belief that other people are deluding themselves when they say they're different.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2011
  10. May 21, 2011 #9
    Finally a place where this is discussed! And I see that the conversation was started by a person with a more neurotypical brain. Otherwise the people that have this problem use put more weight on finding a solution/reason or other people that have the same problem.

    I've had my inner dialogue for as long as I can remember. I guess tediousness was the reason I started talking to myself as though there were several little me inside my brain.
    I have little or no ability to create or represent images in my mind. If you ask me to imagine a red ball I will not be able to see a red ball, I will only imagine the properties of this said red ball and then focus my eyes on perhaps the floor and stating to myself: "There Is a red ball there". Either that or I will become frustrated that I cannot visualize the colour "red" (or any other than black).
    I can however navigate streets in my mind. Although I cannot see the street, I can somehow 'feel' myself moving along the street.
    Hm. It's like I'm drawing the image of the memory, line by line, behind a thick black curtain. Hard to explain. And hard to understand for most people that can visualize.
    However I've recently been investigating the properties of this disability and I can't refute the possibility that it has something to do with Alexithymia. I fit into Alexithymia like a glove. Because those that have it have an impairment to imagination. I also cannot remember emotions, but if you tell me to show an emotion I will be quick to respond. I cannot remember voices either, just pale imitations. If I listen to a song in my head I can only focus on one instrument at a time which usually results in mixing all the instruments together and then alternate between lyrics and instruments, not both.

    You asked how I calculate maths? Well.. I don't see any numbers. I just tell myself: "two plus two equals four", that's it. But this also means I can't calculate something big because I have a short short-term verbal memory. So, for example, I can calculate one thing and then store the answer, move on, calculate another answer, and then add both answers. That is if both calculations are Very simple. Otherwise the answer for the first calculation gets mixed up in the constant verbal flow. A strategy I have for that is that I repeat the answer every 2 seconds or so.

    So I do pretty much everything with the voice inside my head, and that's the voice that's imitating singers when I remember the songs I listen to. I have a hard time keeping songs in my head though, they fade quite fast.

    Also. I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but when I watch a movie I often mix up actors. Similar actors look the same to me if they aren't in the same frame together. And when I ask the ones I watch the movie with, if they think they look alike, they can say things like "well they do have the same hair style" or "they've both got beards in the same colour".

    When I daydream I use to lose awareness of my surroundings yes. But I usually stare into the ground or into a table when I do. And the daydreams consists of me verbally imitating several people, perhaps a scene from a movie. So the thing I lose most awareness of is sounds. I stare into the ground or a table because I have to concentrate quite a bit to daydream and I'm easily interrupted by visual stimuli. When I sit on a bus, I rather watch the forests flying by the window than trying to daydream, even if the ride is for hours.
    Well that is when I'm trying to immerse myself more into the daydreams. What I do most of the time though is philosophising which doesn't demand as much concentration, it's just talking.. with my other 'persons'.

    These were just my thoughts at the moment. Not a comprehensive story of how I have it, there is surely more to it. I hope it's of interest to someone.
  11. May 21, 2011 #10
    I know this is an old thread, and this is only a tangential topic, but it's been something I've always wondered about:

    For those of us who think mostly in words, and have conversations with ourselves, do you refer to yourself as "you" in your thoughts? When I am thinking through an issue, trying to clarify something to make a decision, or just planning my day, I talk to myself (in my head) as if I'm outside myself. The voice inside my head has a conversation with my "self" and talks to the "self" in the second person.

    A while ago, I decided that this is strange, so I tried to stop, with minimal success. I tried to think thoughts like,
    "I need to remember the milk." instead of "You need to remember the milk."

    Anyone else do this? Thanks.
  12. May 21, 2011 #11


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    I "think" (heh heh) that there's a fundamental problem with the word 'think'. One thing we don't 'think' about very often but that dominates a lot of our 'thinking' is how we perceive space.

    Space is not just visual. Space is very somatic sensory, too. There are neurons that can detect the velocity and position of your muscles and skin receptors that can map the direction of sensory stimuli (a brush with a leaf gives you a sense of direction of motion, you can tell that wind has direction without seeing it). The ears act as direction and distance detectors (each ear's response eventually meets at the superior olivary nucleus for coincidence detection, iirc) give you the azimuth and the amplitude (and anecdotally the frequency spectrum) of a sound gives you the distance.

    Your friend probably refers to 'thinking' as the language stream of consciousness. I think most people experience that, but surely, most people thinks in other ways too, probably in different ratios as different parts of the brain compete in different ways in different people.

    But even much of our language is dominated by spatial metaphors. We describe emotions as up and down (and their corresponding effectors: uppers and downers). We think of time spatially, we plot variables spatially to understand functions and numbers and physical relationships. We are on the inside, the environment is on the outside. We're all shook up, beating around the bush, and http://knowgramming.com/examples.htm" [Broken]. We also think of music spatially (higher notes, lower notes).

    the semantic part of the brain and spatial part of the brain (temporal and parietal lobes) are fused at the temporoparietal junction, crucial to our differentiating the "inside" (self) from the "outside" (environment).

    This is not to say that space is the difference, the fundamental, the panacea to consiousness, etc, etc. Just that our sensory memory of space (and time) play an important role in how we think about things we can't directly sense.
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  13. May 21, 2011 #12


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    yes. internal dialogue is normal, to me. I don't consider the voice that says "you" to be me though, it's usually criticism or praise. Of course, I know it's my brain making these criticisms/praises, but my brain does a lot of things without my permission, like breathing, managing my heart and digestive system, and other chemosensory calculations. I don't even have to think "noun-verb- uh... adjective..." when I talk anymore, my brain does it all for me, I just have to have a general idea of what I'm going to say (to paraphrase Christoph Koch).

    But of course I'm my brain, too, I don't really understand exactly where my limitations are though. Which parts of my brain are me at what time? Or are particular spatiotemporal structures of my brain more likely to house my consciousness? Information theory?

    not sure what the neural correlation is for inner dialogue. I've heard about something between wernicke's and broca's areas ('the speaker and the listener') which tend to be abnormal in schizophrenic patients.
  14. May 21, 2011 #13
    Very interesting points. I sometimes wonder about that, too. Who am I? In other words, which part of me is the self and which part is external? Obviously, everything going on inside my brain comes from me, but it often seems that there is some part of the brain that is more central to my identity than others. The voices in my head come with varying degrees of "me-ness."

    In a sense, the part of my brain that operates subconsciously and tells me to breath, pump my heart, etc., is not really the me that I identify with. It's not unique, and is not part of my thought patterns. But the part that criticizes/praises the things I do is somewhat controlled.

    In short, it's an interesting question, but I really don't know what I'm talking about and have no idea what the answer is.
  15. May 21, 2011 #14


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    All humans have to internalise an inner voice as part of the socialisation that makes them human. So it is normal.

    Speech structures all our thoughts, but mostly it happens at a habitual, skeletal, barely obvious level. However, if we want to clarify, then we must make it more overt again - addressing ourselves more distinctly, sometimes even talking aloud.

  16. May 21, 2011 #15


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    I wonder how people who claim to think only in words would think about (elementary Euclidean) geometry. Or if they could do so at all.

    For example if I think about of remember Euclid's proof of Pythagoras' theorem (Elements I:47) I "see" the diagram (without the letters naming the points) and "see" the sequence of congruent triangles that forms the logic of the argument, without explicitly naming anything. As a (not very exact) analogy, what I "see" is like silent movie explaiing the proof.

    On the other hand, for me the written words of the proof in the "£lements" are meaninless without a diagram, even though they are (or at least, are intended to be) a complete description of how to draw the diagram and reason about it.

    The idea of being able to solve a geometrical problem of this type without visualising a diagram seems highly improbable. I wonder if anybody thought to do this type of test on the psychology prof.
  17. May 23, 2011 #16
    For me it's quite simple. To solve the problem I start to sketch on a sheet of paper and write down things beside the sketches, things that I need to remember or use while I solve the problem.
    So, I'm sort of doing it like you, only I'm putting the visualizing part on a sheet of paper instead of in my mind. It's slower, but it works.

    I think the left part of our brain is the one that involves most of the things we consider our identity. I often use to think that there are two persons inside my head, one belonging to the left hemisphere (which I consider is me, which is doing most of the talking, or all) and one belonging to the right hemisphere. The reason I tend to think like this is because I often feel like there are two forces inside me battling for the control of the body we are sharing.
    Funny thing is. Some patients, where the bond between the two halves has been severed, may experience the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome" [Broken]. This feels strongly related to the idea that there are actually two 'wills' inside us. One that is verbal and logical, and one that is more primal, emotional and instinctive.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  18. May 23, 2011 #17
    I would imagine that it's all based on how associations were made for the person. Different experiences have different associations. The sense that you use to think in is the one with the strongest association with the particular experience. Think about an essay you wrote, you probably "hear" the words in your "mind." Then think about riding a bicycle or driving a car, you probably don't "hear" any words and instead "see" or even "feel" the actions you perform while riding or driving. Now think about a first person shooter or an action oriented video game, you probably "see" and "hear" the game as if it's right in front of you, almost like you're in the game, but you probably don't "see" yourself moving the mouse or controller around.
  19. May 24, 2011 #18
    Are you suggesting that thinking in 'audio' is just circumstantial and that all people are able to think in images?
  20. May 24, 2011 #19
    Yes. It's all a matter of how we were raised. We're already able to think both in audio and in images depending on what we think about. We can think in smells, tastes, and tactile sensation too but in a much more limited fashion. It's the most salient sensation in an experience that determines how we think about that experience. However, the sense that is most salient in a given experience differs from person to person based on biology and previous learning. The most salient sensation in language, for most people, happens to be sound. If you were born deaf or with autism, things would likely be different.
  21. May 24, 2011 #20
    I was writing a lot of stuff in a response to you, and it suddenly hit me that you're just kidding. Because you are right? I mean, no one can be that ignorant and dismissive. :D That's just crazy. But good joke though.
    So, on to more serious discussions, what were we discussing?
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