Thinking In Pictures — recommended reading on the autistic experience

In my research for my book, Parallel Mind, I have found the inspiring work Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. I quote it and her article, My Mind is a Web Browser: How People with Autism Think. below. Both may be found on her site:

I have long been interested in the brain, in perception and in awareness. My book Parallel Mind is about nurturing creativity and about the relationship of creativity to the wholeness of the whole individual; I talk about the way the normal brain functions, and how the holistic, picture-thinking right brain, can be integrated more effectively with the verbal, logical left brain. It is a long-standing scientific tradition to discover the typical of anything by studying the atypical. Therefore autism and asperger’s syndrome is fascinating to me.

I first learned about Temple Grandin when I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Dr. Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks is one of my heros, and one of the people I hope to meet someday: a brilliant neurologist, he treats his patients as complete human beings, not as interesting biological abnormalities. His books are marvelous studies of the range of human experience. I was not able to put the book down and finished it in a single session late one night.

Temple Grandin is a high functioning autistic; an innovative engineer, scientist and lecturer. She has devised humane slaughter facilities by envisioning the world from the cattle’s perspective. Oliver named his book after an anecdote taken from an interview with Temple. She said that she had to study faces in movies to understand emotions: in autistic people the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala is not connected with other brain processes, as in the “normal” brain. In other words, she can separate her thoughts from emotions, while the average person’s thoughts are colored and “grounded” with emotional associations. In fact, the emotional life of the average person is intricately intertwined with perception and memory.

“The amygdalae (Latin, also corpus amygdaloideum, singular amygdala, from Greek αμυγδαλή, amygdalē, ‘almond’, ‘tonsil’) are almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions, the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system … In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdala perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events … Many studies have focused on the connections between the amygdala and autism.” — definition of Amygdala,

Professor Temple Grandin says that she often feels like “an anthropologist on Mars” when dealing with others, “Non-autistic people seem to have a whole upper layer of verbal thinking that is merged with their emotions. By contrast, unless I panic, I use logic to make all decisions; my thinking can be done independently of emotion. In fact, I seem to lack a higher consciousness composed of abstract verbal thoughts that are merged with emotion.

Researchers have learned that people with autism have a decreased metabolism in the area in the frontal cortex that connects the brain’s emotional centers with higher thinking (the anterior cingulate). The frontal cortex is the brain’s senior executive like the CEO of a corporation. Brain scans indicate that people with autism use problem-solving circuits in social situations. Unlike non-autistic people, the emotion center in their amygdala is not activated, for example, when they judge expressions in another person’s eyes.”

I find what she says is absolutely fascinating because I can identify with her: She says she thinks in pictures; so do I, but I am also very verbal. I like to say that my real specialty is translating from the pictorial right brain to the verbal left brain and visa versa. According to scientific research this would mean that the white matter in the brain which connects the two sides is very developed in someone like me. I developed the ability to “translate” between right and left hemispheres when I became a graphic designer and teacher of art and design.

In the well-tested tradition of sink or swim, when I decided to become a designer, I had to quickly learn how to communicate on all levels. Originally trained as a fine artist, I was suddenly forced to translate my intuitive, artistic right-brain work into something that would make sense for my left-brain clients. I also had to learn to organize or “clump” information/text into logical units so the entire piece would make sense. I think of this as a left brain function because it has to do with the verbal and logical part of design; the right brain organizes disparate elements together as well, but they tend to be visual information.

Artists intuitively learn do this by using similar visual elements to link things: in a static design, one may use the same color for the accent and a different color for the elements belonging to the background or structural elements. That way the viewer knows what is of greater importance, or what is in the “foreground”, so to speak. In an interactive piece, I might use an accent color, special shape or motion to call attention to the interactive element, so that the user surmises that that element is special: a “button” for his use in navigating the site. I like to call this “coding the page”, or developing a language within the piece, that the user learns effortlessly, without being aware of it. A good interactive designer will subtly educate the user in this “language of action”, so that the design of interface becomes “transparent” and the site becomes easy for the user to use.

One may argue that iconic written languages use a similar kind of visual communication, because they use pictorial elements reduced to stylized icons to communicate ideas. In this way, their thought processes may be more akin to visually strong autistics. An iconic language may be said to be a language consisting of primarily “nouns”, in the sense that everything referred to has a literal, concrete origin reduced to an abstract symbol. In contrast, the languages which use the alphabet are composed of abstract letter forms, and therefore difficult for someone who only thinks in pictures. The reason why this is hard to comprehend for a literal person — a person whose language is only “nouns” — is because it is, at base formed of an abstractions. So, any new concept being, by its very nature, an abstraction (as all things are new concepts to the young), is doubly hard to understand.

The exclusively visual person, such as Temple, is forced to “ground” any new abstract concept — and this includes, for her, any familial grouping — with a literal picture from her personal experience. Dr. Grandin speaks of keeping files or tapes of each instance of a group in her head. From the instances, she finally forms a group (the abstraction). This is the opposite of the typical creative process, which goes from the abstract concept to the realization — from the general to the specific. An artist will start out, properly, drawing a simple egg shape for the face and later flush out the detail.

So, when the artist works, she first uses the holistic right brain that recognizes abstractions and generalities, and then jumps to the detail-oriented left brain to fill in the specifics. By contrast and analogy, Temple has to build her recognition of a face from assembling the details, one by one, until she can see that it is a face. She has to have enough experience of all kinds of eyes, noses and mouths to recognize them as belonging to categories of those elements, and then know that they belong on a human face.

An artist will often use similar shapes in a kind of familial grouping of elements. This “metaphoric” visual thinking is often conducted at a preverbal, often nearly unconscious level. A designer will intentionally group families of shapes together to allow the user to draw a desired conclusion. The artist knows this common non-verbal cultural language of symbols, associations and metaphors by experience, and uses this visual (often emotional) language to communicate with others who have the same cultural language.

So, in order to more effectively communicate as a designer, I learned to use both sides of my brain to appeal to people on both sides of their brains. I use colors, textures, shapes, and emotional associations to appeal to their right brains, while I use text, logic and structure to communicate with their left brain. Employing these techniques in graphic design is analogous to being able to communicate in two different languages at the same time: it is extremely powerful, as evidenced by advertising that appeals to both emotions and logic.

I was told by a woman with asperger’s syndrome that the typical female brain has more white matter than gray matter. The male brain is more likely to have more gray matter than white, connective matter. Dr. Grandin compares the white matter in the normal brain to the cables connecting computers between different departments of a corporation. “Scans of autistic brains have indicated that the white matter in the frontal cortex is overgrown and abnormal. Dr. Courchesne explains that white matter is the brain’s “computer cables” connecting up different parts of the brain while the gray matter forms the information processing circuits. Instead of growing normally and connecting various parts of the brain together, the autistic frontal cortex has excessive overgrowth much like a thicket of tangled computer cables.

In the normal brain, reading a word and speaking a word are processed in different parts of the brain. Connecting circuits between these two areas makes It possible to simultaneously process information from both of them. Both Courchesne and Minshew agree that a basic problem in both autistic and Asperger brains is a failure of the ‘computer cables’ to fully connect together the many different localized brain systems. Local systems may have normal or enhanced internal connections but the long distance connections between the different local systems may be poor.”

“When I wrote Thinking in Pictures I thought most people on the autism spectrum were visual thinkers like me. After talking to hundreds of families and individuals with autism or Asperger’s, I have observed that there are actually different types of specialized brains. All people on the spectrum think in details, but there are three basic categories of specialized brains. Some individuals may be combinations of these categories.

1. Visual thinkers, like me, think in photographically specific images. There are degrees of specificity of visual thinking. I can test run a machine in my head with full motion. Interviews with nonautistic visual thinkers indicated that they can only visualize still images. These images may range in specificity from images of specific places to more vague conceptual images. Learning algebra was impossible and a foreign language was difficult. Highly specific visual thinkers should skip algebra and study more visual forms of math such as trigonometry or geometry. Children who are visual thinkers will often be good at drawing, other arts, and building things with building toys such as Lego’s. Many children who are visual thinkers like maps, flags, and photographs. Visual thinkers are well suited to jobs in drafting, graphic design, training animals, auto mechanics, jewelry making, construction, and factory automation.

2. Music and math thinkers think in patterns. These people often excel at math, chess, and computer programming. Some of these individuals have explained to me that they see patterns and relationships between patterns and numbers instead of photographic images. As children they may play music by ear and be interested in music. Music and math minds often have careers in computer programming, chemistry, statistics, engineering, music, and physics. Written language is not required for pattern thinking. The pre-literate Incas used complex bundles of knotted cords to keep track of taxes, labor, and trading among a thousand people.

3. Verbal logic thinkers think in word details. They often love history, foreign languages, weather statistics, and stock market reports. As children they often have a vast knowledge of sports scores. They are not visual thinkers and they are often poor at drawing. Children with speech delays are more likely to become visual or music and math thinkers. Many of these individuals had no speech delays, and they became word specialists. These individuals have found successful careers in language translation, journalism, accounting, speech therapy, special education, library work, or financial analysis.” — Dr. Temple Grandin

Read Dr. Temple Grandin’s articles at:

Dr. Oliver Sacks site:

I highly recommend any books by these two distinguished scientists and authors.

— copyright 2007 Aliyah Marr



3 Replies to “Thinking In Pictures — recommended reading on the autistic experience”

  1. Quote:
    “Non-autistic people seem to have a whole upper layer of verbal thinking that is merged with their emotions. By contrast, unless I panic, I use logic to make all decisions; my thinking can be done independently of emotion. In fact, I seem to lack a higher consciousness composed of abstract verbal thoughts that are merged with emotion.

    Interesting how she discribes her thought process as “lacking” when many would say that it epitomizes the direction towards which, human thought should be (and currently is) striving: “absolute rationality”. However, as she implies, absolute rationality is a gross filter on human communication. A huge amount of information is conveyed via emotions and their physical manifestations. We could lose the ability to be sympathetic with one another if we pursued rationality to the extreme; one of the greatest gifts of mankind. Grandin is in the unique position to give us some valuable perspective into the VALUE of our current preoccupation with “manifest rationality”.


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