Thinking Visually

Thinking Visually

Thinking Visually

Thinking Visually


Language is a marvelous tool for communication, but it is greatly overrated as a tool for thought. This volume documents the many ways pictures, visual images, and spatial metaphors influence our thinking. It discusses both classic and recent research that support the view that visual thinking occurs not only where we expect to find it, but also where we do not. Much of comprehending language, for instance, depends on visual simulations of words or on spatial metaphors that provide a foundation for conceptual understanding.

Thinking Visually supports comprehension by reducing jargon and by providing many illustrations, educational applications, and problems for readers to solve. It provides a broad overview of topics that range from the visual images formed by babies to acting classes designed for the elderly, from visual diagrams created by children to visual diagrams created by psychologists, from producing and manipulating images to viewing animations. The final chapters discuss examples of instructional software and argue that the lack of such software in classrooms undermines the opportunity to develop visual thinking. The book includes the Animation Tutor(tm) DVD to illustrate the application of research on visual thinking to improve mathematical reasoning.


Language is a marvelous tool for communication, but it is greatly overrated as a tool for thought. Because we are constantly exposed to language, we believe that thinking verbally dominates our lives. Thinking visually, if it occurs at all, is hiding in the shadows.

It is easy for me, as a psychology professor, to see why people would place much more emphasis on verbal thinking than on visual thinking. Universities have Departments of Linguistics. They do not have Departments of Visualization. Psychology curricula include courses in psycholinguistics. They typically do not include courses in visual thinking. There are many books on language. There are relatively few books on visual thinking.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that many books on thinking have emphasized verbal thought. Robert Sternberg at Tufts University is one of psychology’s foremost experts on intelligence. His book with Talia Ben-Zeev, Complex Cognition: The Psychology of Human Thought (Sternberg & Ben-Zeev, 2001) provides an impressive coverage of many topics including concepts, knowledge representation, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, language and thought, human and artificial intelligence, creativity, expertise, development, and teaching. Complex Cognition is primarily a book about verbal cognition. The term spatial visualization in the subject index refers to only a single page, the term visual is used only as an adjective for the word mask, and the term image is not even listed in the index.

Yet, it is easy to generate examples of visual thinking if we pause to reflect. A baby who remembers that his mother hid his toy under a blanket is thinking visually. An investor who tracks the price of a stock on a graph to determine when to buy or sell is thinking visually. A scientist who studies the structure of molecules is thinking visually. An interior decorator who coordinates the colors in a room is thinking visually. A fashion designer who creates a new dress is thinking visually. An athlete who mentally simulates an action before executing it is thinking visually.

Some of the most impressive achievements of humanity have resulted from visual thinking. Einstein achieved his remarkable insights into the nature of space and time through mental simulations. He imagined himself traveling through space alongside a beam of light while viewing idealized physical bodies including clocks and measuring rods. Although Einstein’s thought experiments are the most famous examples of the power of visualization in scientific discovery, there are many other examples of how scientific thinking involves visual thinking. Highpowered visual thinking also occurred for other scientists such as James Watson and Francis Crick as they constructed molecular models of the structure of DNA. Words such as insight and imagination reflect the power of visual thinking.

Great architecture is also a product of thinking visually. One example, Fallingwater, is a remarkable home that was built in the woods of Pennsylvania.

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