How differently do people think?
March 6, 2005 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Richard Feynman described thinking as basically just talking to yourself. Then a friend told him to picture a part of a car and then asked him how he explained to himself what the part looked like. He then realized that you can see when you think as well. Then later on he tried counting up to 60 and seeing how accurate his perception of time was. He usually counted to around 48 by the time 60 seconds had gone by. Then he figured that he could count pretty much all of the time and not get distracted, but he couldn't talk and count at the same time. (+)

When talking with one of his friends he brought up his problem, and his friend told him that he could talk and count at the same time. He did it by watching the numbers fly by in his head. Try counting both ways if you dont know what I mean. This got me to thinking about how other people think. Some people say that when they see a word, some of the letters are different colors, or numbers are different colors. Does this happen to you? Do succesful artists see something in their mind that facilitates the painting process, and if people that can't paint as well (me) know the process of of how good painters paint, can I maybe start painting a whole lot better? What are some ways that you think while doing random actions?
posted by pwally to Human Relations (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Most of my thoughts are random abstract shapes, thoughts, vibrations, essences, and intuitions that I can never express, much less pick out of the whole cesspool of thought that is my mind. That said, most of the words and numbers I think of sort of end up as this general glyph in my mind, not exactly any particular font, but moreso a cloudy notion of the general shape of the words and numbers themselves. I can never really pick out what color they are--they're essentially colorless. That doesn't mean greyscale, there's just no color assigned in my mind at that point. At least that I can visualize at this moment. It changes, really.
posted by angry modem at 2:42 PM on March 6, 2005

I'm definitely more like Feynman than his friend, in that I can't talk and count at the same time, but I can read (or do other visual things) and count at the same time. I don't know anything about painting, but I do tend to mentally see colors in association with musical keys and tonal variation. A couple of people I know who are bona fide classical musicians (not me, I'm a hobbyist), and especially those who write a lot of music, say they see the same thing. The weirdest thing is that almost everyone I know who does this sees C major as sort of a dark, bright red, although other keys are more variable.

I don't associate colors with any other kind of thinking. For what it's worth, I'm usually a pretty visual person -- I tend to remember things I've read by "seeing" the text on the page. Not always, but often.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 2:47 PM on March 6, 2005

Heh -- okay, I'm more like Feynman in the way that he mentally counts, not, like, being a Nobel Prize winning physicist or something. I should re-read what I'm about to post.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 2:49 PM on March 6, 2005

some of the letters are different colors, or numbers are different colors

That's called synesthesia. I notice a lot of that in my thinking (smells/sounds/colors associated with numbers, words, places, names, or letters).

My conscious thinking is highly verbal and sounds like a running conversation; but when it has to do with things that exist in the concrete world, it's underlaid with much quicker visual thought.

I also count without meaning too -- I count every repetitive motion: steps walking, stairs, broom sweeps, foot taps ... most of the time I don't notice, but when I catch myself at it I realize that my mind is quiety doing it all the time.

I've read Feynman's work too, and the descrption of his thought experiments is indeed fascinating. Not to mention the question of whether you could swim in Jell-O.
posted by Miko at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2005

The term for seeing colors for numbers and the like is synesthesia. Lots of people experience it a little bit. Famous artists most famously. When I was a kid, every new year had a specific color and three-dimensional font in my head. So 1983, 1984, 1985 all had different shapes, colors, attitudes even. I think I got as far as 1989, then I wasn't a kid.

preview: I'm on Miko's page
posted by airguitar at 2:54 PM on March 6, 2005

I "see" in my head a printout -- actually, sort of like one of those scrolling LED message boards -- of any spoken or sung words that I hear. Always have. It's kind of cool.

Not sure if that's what you're looking for, though ...
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:56 PM on March 6, 2005

When reading, I often hear a voice in my mind reading the text. The character of the voice changes depending on what I'm reading; reference works, for instance, have a neutral, slightly metallic-sounding male voice that speaks quietly. If I'm reading fiction, the voice changes sex according to the speaking party and the narrator, and can sound like almost anything. I don't always hear that; if I'm reading quickly or just glancing at something, I don't hear much of anything.

If I'm trying to spell something, I'll see it appear on a page in my mind, just as if I were typing it. The letters are uniformly one color. The only kind of synaesthesia I do involves music and colors - certain albums have a particular color or colors associated with them for no real reason.

And for plain old thinking, I usually have a conversation with myself in hushed undertones, all internally.
posted by staresbynight at 2:58 PM on March 6, 2005

Dr. Wu, I should have been more specific in what I am looking for, sorry. I want to see how other people think about simple things so that I can try and emulate them and maybe start thinking more efficiently. Theres no right or wrong answer though, just want different perspectives.
posted by pwally at 3:08 PM on March 6, 2005

I've been wondering how others think too.

My thinking process seems to involve explaining to an anonymous someone whatever I'm considering. And often reexplaining it as if they're a sceptical listener. I always seem to be trying to make a case for myself.

I've been thinking of my thought processes in terms of the way people speak about conversations: in that some talk about ideas, others about things and still others about people. Because my thought processes often take the form of trivial conversations with some imaginary friend, are they at a lower level than those of a person who thinks in abstract ways about ideas?
posted by TimTypeZed at 3:16 PM on March 6, 2005

I think pretty exactly like Feynman. I'm bad at mental visualization, and I'm almost totally incapable of visualizing things in color. I used to be even worse, but I actually started training myself in mental visualization, and I've gotten better. For general thinking, it seems kind of like my consciousness is roaming around a graph of connected concepts, and periodically bringing a few ideas into like the verbal parts of my brain, where I have a conversation with someone else. I think in ideas, and it works well for me. Always have, don't know how I started.
posted by JZig at 3:21 PM on March 6, 2005

I tend to remember things I've read by "seeing" the text on the page.

Me too, and occasionally I can remember where a line was on the page.

I also associate a book with the environment I read it in. This summer, I read A Clockwork Orange during lunch breaks at Tim Hortons, invariably over a turkey sandwich on a croissant. Now, every time I hear of that book, I get hungry for a croissant.
posted by NickDouglas at 3:30 PM on March 6, 2005

My thoughts came as visual words, as if on a typewriter, when I was young (post-reading, obviously, but I have no memory of the time before). After some years, I noticed that I'd switched over to hearing them.

Since you ask specifically "How can I think differentLY and perhaps better"; I've noticed that I read faster (maybe 30%) and better with a song in my head, because it keeps me from needlessly subvocalizing what I'm reading, which can be the rate-limiting step.
posted by Aknaton at 4:08 PM on March 6, 2005

When doing math or logic work, I have a bizarre internal sense of movement and things fitting together. If I had to locate it I'd say behind my chest or in my chest. Then I know the answer.

I've never ever figured out painting. Shapes I can visualize in my mind, rotate, etc. very well, and this helps when I navigate, because I keep track of which direction I'm facing on a map of, say, NYC or the US, in my mind. I don't remember the details, just generally where I am within the limits of the area I'm thinking of, where I'm going to, and which direction I'm in relative to the direction of my target. This manifests as a feeling of mentally focusing on whichever direction the target is in relative to my body. Serves very well.

When in class, I predict what the prof will say next, write it down, then zone for a bit. If the prof said that, I'm golden, if not I re-do (I use a laptop making this process easier, but it works similarly in your head).

When I think about things to do, if I'm in a peaceful state or rushed, I'll think in the meanings of words, rather than words. If I'm trying to work through something hard, I'll think in words, same if I'm way stressed out and need to focus in even if normally it wouldn't be a hard subject. Often I'll find I'm reverberating words - so I'll "hear" the word in my mind, but at different levels - first as a sense of meaning, then at a "higher" level as a word, sometimes with an echoing effect. Seems like it's got the affect of cementing an idea or making it easier to retrieve later.

Also I'll often "place" different ideas or plans in different areas in front of me, using spacial relations to think about how plans/ideas/people/whatever fit together.

Great question, answers should be very interesting.
posted by lorrer at 4:17 PM on March 6, 2005

Aknaton: If I keep a beat going I get the same thing, enabling to read in "chunks" and meaning instead of via hearing words in my head. Great for textbooks when the slow novel-mode isn't optimal.
posted by lorrer at 4:19 PM on March 6, 2005

Occasionally I think with words, but more often it's with wordless intentions (often in relation to encountering something new and choosing what emotion to react with; I'll have a number of impulses run through my head and pick one). And then sometimes I think in wordless but also emotionless intentions, usually in planning things errands like e.g. a trip to the grocery store: I might remember simply an image (the storefront) or it might be sort of a slideshow or movie clip of me going to get specific things.... All of which makes it rather difficult if things don't go as planned: if someone asks me to explain what I'd expected, it takes awhile to verbalize it.
posted by Tuwa at 4:22 PM on March 6, 2005

I should have checked on preview for new comments....

I have a similar experience as lorrer's on searching for solutions: when trying to work out a problem (math/logic/mystery/motivation) I notice I tend to squint and look up and my eyes go right-left-right-left, but I have no idea what's going on in my head. It's all very murky then; I'll have words stopping things or indicating key relations ("because," "maybe," etc.) but aside from that it's mostly shapes and scenarios and feelings, testing how different things fit together until I stumble on one that seems right. And then I'll have to verbalize it, examining it as I do so, making sure it's all logical. And if it's not, it's back to that earlier process that's mostly intuitive and nonverbal.
posted by Tuwa at 4:30 PM on March 6, 2005

Almost all my memories seem like photographs. Recent memories have more motion, but older memories are just soundless snapshots. Certain smells trigger very strong images.

When reading fiction I visualize the scene. I don't read word-by-word, but paragraph-by-paragraph. By that I mean my eye seems to pick out the important words of the paragraph. Obviously I miss some details, but I retain the images very well. I've read this way as far back as I remember. I did very well in classes and always tested well for recall and comprehension.

With mathematics it is more fuzzy. I internalize most multiplication very quickly. For example, if you ask me What is 17 times 14 I hear "170 40 68 238" then answer "238."

I hope that is something like what you were looking for.
posted by ?! at 4:38 PM on March 6, 2005

Wow. I am an intensly verbal thinker, to the extent that I used to think people were lying when they said they didn't think in words: I thought they just didn't want to admit what they were thinking when they said they coudn't explain it.

Generally, I have the semiotic word construction of signifier and signified in my head at once, on two different tracks. Usually, I only pay attention to the signifier, which when I consider what it looks like is in roman type, something with a small x-height. But I don't tend to consider what it looks like. I have always worked better with music on, as it shuts up one track.

For idea formation, I tend to interview myself. This works well because it makes me seem extraordinarily articulate, as the ideas are only created in expressable form. No searching for the right word in front of people.

For navigation, I look up and plan out the route before I go anywhere, noting streets parallel to those I want in both directions. Though I write the basic directions down, I never look it at them because by telling myself how it goes, I've memorized it. This method works well.

I don't know if this will help you be more efficient. I tend to be more efficient than others I know, but that may be because it's a bit of a fetish.
posted by dame at 5:12 PM on March 6, 2005

There's basically much two levels when you're thinking about or recalling something sensory, IMO, though I don't know how this is formally termed. For visual, for instance, there's imagining, like envisioning an apple; and then there's visualizing, where you can actually see it like a real object. Of course there's overlap but there seems to be a difference in quality in that merely imagining seems to not interact with your normal vision (or hearing, etc), it takes place "somewhere else" and is usually not as vivid.
posted by abcde at 5:22 PM on March 6, 2005

I had an interesting experience when, about ten years ago, I lived in Brazil and spoke Portuguese exclusively. (I was born and raised in California and spoke only English previously). When learning the language I went through the process of translating the word in my head semantically/visually: I "saw" the word printed and then mentally "read" the translation. I thought that speaking a second language would be simply the ability to lookup and read very quickly in my head.

Then, after about a year in Brazil, I realized I no longer did that. Ever. My internal language was no longer English; it was no longer language at all. I would "see" instead concepts as abstract unidentifiable forms and colors, and then verbalize it in what seemed the best at the time. When I returned to the United States, I went through the process in reverse.

I have not spoken Portuguese consistently in over a decade, and have somehow lost that pure abstract mental imagery; now it's a liminal space between the abstract and the semantic/visual.

FWIW, I can't count and do anything at all. But I do think best (and feel strangely comforted) when I'm pacing in an irregular circuit.
posted by terceiro at 5:43 PM on March 6, 2005

Wow this is all pretty interesting. Its hard to analyse how you think. I think almost exclusively aurally, ats all just a series of voices in my head :) When counting its all just the words and they seem to come from no-where, I dont "see" anything in my head. When doing a sum also, its just voices and the answer comes from nowhere. maybe im not looking deep enough but i think thats all that is there. I think this makes it difficult to count and talk at the same time, theres just to many words in my head. I can sort of imagine that if numbers werent so verbal it would be easier.
Its sort of wierd because I think of myself as very visual, I work as a designer/animator person. But I think when im doing visual/geometric/conceptual stuff I have to conciously turn it on.
Again its very hard to analyse how you think when your not thinking about how you think.
posted by phyle at 6:49 PM on March 6, 2005

Like dame I'm a verbal thinker. I have an internal dialogue (my voice) going all the time. Sometimes it won't shut up so it's hard to sleep. When I'm reading it's my voice again, but the tone will change depending on what I'm reading.

I can visualize a red one or a green c or a scene from my past or even a scene I make up. I don't see anything unless I'm actually thinking about a specific thing.
posted by deborah at 6:57 PM on March 6, 2005

For me, four has always been blue, three has always been red, seven has always been yellow, five orange, eight black. For a while I thought that I was having some odd crossover with billiard balls, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

My spatial and pattern senses are also really good. I may not be able to quote you something I read verbatim, but I can remember where on the page it occurred, and I always remember where I left off a book by, uh, geography on a page rather than the content. I have a freakish memory for patterned information, like phone numbers.

I have a hard time remembering people because I remember someone's red hat or paisley tie more than I remember their Roman nose; so when I see them next and they've changed clothes, I may not be able to attach them with a name.

Brain's a funny thing.
posted by socratic at 7:23 PM on March 6, 2005

I explain and rationalize things much like TimTypeZed does. I can spend hours having a conversation with a real or imaginary friend in my mind, if only to understand the topic better myself.

I navigate much like dame does. Once I write down the directions and look at the map, I don't look at the directions again. I also intentionally get myself lost on a regular basis so that I can find new routes.

That seems to be where the similarities to the other posts end.

I don't think visually (I can't even describe features of my own family members without memorizing them), or in English. Nor do I have any synesthesia, unfortunately. I very rarely have dreams with visuals. I can solve complex logic problems in my head, but I can't tell you what color shirt you are wearing if I turn around.

On the upside, I can work with computers with my eyes closed. I've coded entire web sites in PHP/Perl, and I have no idea how they work. With enough sleep deprivation I can write almost anything, be it in code or English. Awake, I can handle some basic debugging and I don't make too many grammar errors, but my writing is uninspired.
posted by bh at 8:03 PM on March 6, 2005

This is fascinating. The visual thinkers like ?! are the most alien to me, because I cannot for the life of me call up a mental picture. This used to weird me out, and still kind of does: I cannot visualize my own mother's face, nor the face of my boyfriend who just walked out of the room five minutes ago. I have vague ideas of what they look like, but I can only describe them in words, not images. I know my mom has a small forehead, but I can't see her forehead if I close my eyes. I can just tell you it's small.

Oddly, I think this makes me draw well, but only if what I'm drawing is right in front of me -- I don't have much mental preconception of what things should look like, so I just draw them as they are. But if you ask me to draw something without a model, it's awful -- it's stick figure art.

I used to participate in spelling bees when I was a kid, and I'd have to have Silly Putty with me on stage -- it was almost like I was handling the letters, setting them all in a row as I said them.
posted by climalene at 8:29 PM on March 6, 2005

This is a really neat question, and it's interesting how people respond differently. I'm also intensely verbal, and like climalene and JZig, I can't visualize things at all. Which is why my memory is triggered by words and descriptions rather than specific events. Which is a little frustrating because it's as if I have all the information in my brain, but i have no internal triggers for the memories.

I often think that I have multiple tracks of thought going at once, but unlike some of you putting on music doesn't quiet them down at all. It just makes all of them avert to the music.

I want to hear more if multilinguallity, and how visual people treat words, and language.
posted by stratastar at 9:13 PM on March 6, 2005

I guess I'm an intensely visual person. I see all concepts and ideas as things in space and manipulate them like this.

Responding to someone else's interest, I even charted a diagram of how I see numbers in case anyone is interested.
posted by vacapinta at 9:26 PM on March 6, 2005

I think I have, for the most part, a pretty standard verbal form of cognition-- My thoughts are "heard" monologues (or dialogues). if they reach a high level of cognition, often it comes in the form of an argument or reasoned explanation.

I think what's more interesting (and inexplicable) is that many of my memories are tied strongly to a specific location and time, often without any obvious relationship. Many things I have read movies I've watched or video games I have played have definite locations-- for example Zelda is my a hall in my High School, Dragon Warrior is the house of one of my little sister's friends (Not that I often think of Zelda or Dragon Warrior).

Yesterday, I was trying to remember when I had read an article, but couldn't place it, because the memory of that article is tied to an apartment I lived in 4 years ago (I read the article a year ago, I don't know where).
posted by cosmonaught at 10:20 PM on March 6, 2005

Ponderfilter, indeed... I can tell you that when I write, I feel like I'm dancing. There's an almost joyous feeling I get when I string words together to make ... colors. Not really colors, but I have intensely colorful (in the literal sense) associations with almost everything written.

When I paint, on the other hand, I have intense associations of ... well, of intersections of forms. And not the ones on the canvas. Visual representation is, to me, almost entirely disorder intruding on structure. If I'm laying out a document, even one pixel can cause strong feelings of disharmony.

When I think normally, I hear an internal monologue - in my voice - but when I think deeply ... lordy ... it's almost like Venn diagrams in my head.. intersections of shapes, colors, concepts-as-shapes (etc.) that lead to a synergy of sorts. For example, if I try to think about four dimensions (the best I can approximate is a cube expanding over time: length, width, depth, and delta), the thought is intensely black and white, with metallic edges and rasping sounds.

Occasionally, I can successfully think of things from the smallest level of organization to the largest, but only in relative terms: I zoom in or out from something I can conceptualize. Very, very visual.

I can only imagine what this would be like if I did drugs.. heh.
posted by socratic at 11:03 PM on March 6, 2005

By the way, this is the most involving and fascinating Askmefi thread I can remember. Shame that it'll fall off the page some time.
posted by socratic at 11:05 PM on March 6, 2005

My thinking process has deteriorated in recent years (due to medications). It used to have a strong verbal component but is now predominantly non-verbal. There is a sensation of grasping without the content of the grasping being expressed either visually or verbally. But I do have easy access to simple words (which I will often misuse when I can't find the right word), so sometimes here and there, words will pop up as I'm thinking, but there will be many gaps where the important and complex ideas flow--kinda like our president. I have heard people say (in my academic environment) that if you can't clearly express what you are thinking , then it is muddled in your head. Not true in my case. My comprehension skills far exceeds my ability to articulate. To help myself overcome this I have started collecting words and phrases (my sources include mefi threads actually) which I will then use to make up my own sentences.

But here is something that speaks more to the point of your question: With verbally expressed thoughts, I find that representing them spatially with respect to one another helps me a great deal in recollection and idea organization and synthesis. I have flow charts going in my head and in each box is a verbally expressed idea. I once handed out notes on Kantian Ethics organized in this fashion to my students. When I met up with a student for help before the exam, she seemed to access and traverse the information rather efficiently as a result of having it compartmentalized and connected with boxes and arrows in her head.
posted by crack at 11:07 PM on March 6, 2005

If I'm trying to solve a difficult problem or construct a detailed action plan, I tend to bundle thoughts and arrange them in an imaginary space that floats in the air above and in front of me. The imaginary space is square and flat to start with (like a clear blackboard) but it changes shape according to what goes into it. The bundles each need varying amounts of empty space around them. The more important an idea is, the more space it gets.

I sometimes think in sentences or phrases but rarely in words or other small units, and when I do it really slows me down. It's like I've got a subconscious filter that prioritizes and groups thoughts for me.

Math has no artistic appeal to me whatsoever. Writing does, and it falls into the same category as painting. Numbers feel cold to me but letters are warm. I have strong visceral reactions to words based on the way they look and sound; their meanings are of secondary importance.

I'm a good speller and always figure out difficult words by picturing the letters in my head. As a kid, when I was uncertain about spelling a word I would physically write it in the air above the paper first.

My thoughts are rarely conversations, except when I'm really nervous about a public presentation or important meeting. Then I tend to "rehearse" what I want to say, over and over. The repetition tends to be calming at first but after awhile it starts making me more nervous, and I have to exercise or listen to music in order to stop the hamster-wheel feeling.

The idea of thinking in conversations ALL THE TIME makes me feel seasick. And I just realized that my mental conversations are both silent and non-visual. I have no idea how this can be true, but it is.
posted by naomi at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2005

Oh, naomi, that's a good point about the bundling. I definitely do that with complex thoughts, but each bundle just gets a word; nothing spatial.
posted by dame at 9:51 AM on March 7, 2005

Fascinating stuff. Here's an additional wrinkle: Ever since I can remember, throughout my childhood, numbers and letters all had gender. That is, I never assigned any to them, it just seemed that some numbers/letters were boy and some were girl (I know, I know, this either explains, or is just another symptom of, my obsession with gender construction). They also had somewhat distinct personalities - some were brassy, some shy, some pompous, some warm, etc. and some of them had specific relationships with others (always their neighbors - e.g. 6 and 7). It was as though I had read a story about all of them and internalized all this information, though I'm pretty sure such a story never existed. Today I can still remember almost all of the M/F breakdown, but the personalities are a lot hazier for me.

I dunno if anyone else had anything like this, and I wouldn't be surprised if not. But I thought I'd add it as a related concept after reading this great thread.
posted by soyjoy at 12:52 PM on March 7, 2005

Yes! Numbers have gender and personalities for me, too, and there are relationships as well. I think I can remember most of the genders still, too. I doubt anyone's still reading this thread...but wow, soyjoy, I can't believe you brought that up.

I wonder if there are any common themes for people who have this -- do numbers have inherent gender?

Actually, two minutes of research confirms that this is indeed a recognized phenomenon. Cool.
posted by climalene at 5:28 PM on March 7, 2005

Okay I did not bother with the 2 minute research but here are some of my gender assigments: 1=M, 2=smart F, 3=ditzy or lively F, 4=nice looking young man, 5=school marm. H and 8 should get married.

I'll stop now.
posted by crack at 9:01 PM on March 7, 2005

Wow, I never even thought to Google such a thing - I guess it's not something that's been in the forefront of my mind over the past decade.

Oddly, also, crack, not a complete match but pretty damn close! 1 is probably a given for anyone living in modern Westernized society; and yeah, 2 is one of my favorite personalities; I have three as a male, more ditzy than lively. A little phlegmatic, I guess. 4 and 5 pretty spot on, to the point that 5 often seems to have to scold 4 about something. Whereas 6, who really should pay more attention to the self-posessed example of 5, is tragically attracted to 7, who is of course a complete pompous jerk. OK, I will also stop. But thanks for chiming in on that - so I'm not so crazy, or if so, there are also other people so crazy!
posted by soyjoy at 11:05 PM on March 7, 2005

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