Which One Is the Real World? Photo by (2010) Luna TMG

Which One Is the Real World? (2010) Luna TMG


It is possible to have thought without words.  If I think about having an ice cream sundae, I see a picture of it in my mind before I think of the word “ice cream.”  In fact, I see many different specific sundaes such as mocha chip ice cream at the Denver Airport or a spumoni sundae with chocolate sauce I had at an Italian restaurant. As I write this, I am now reliving childhood experiences with ice cream. When I was about eight, I spent a big portion of my money on a double decker lemon and raspberry sherbet ice cream cone. As I was crossing the street and taking the first delicious lick, both scoops of ice cream fell into the middle of the pavement.  When I was eight, that was a disaster.

As I wrote the word “disaster”, the Google search engine in my mind went to the “disaster” file.  I saw a picture of the BP oil rig on fire and the Japanese nuclear power plant with the top of the building wrecked.  If I pause on a word, I can jump to a new file in my mind. When I stop in the word “file” I see an income tax form and then I jump to seeing a box that I use as a file for manuscripts.  The next image I see are scenes from an old movie called The Ipcress File.

I Can Control the Search in My Mind

When I design equipment, I can control the images and run my mind like a virtual reality computer system. I have sat in design meetings and sketched out design ideas as the other members of the design team talked.  As they discussed ideas, I ran virtual reality simulations in my mind.  When they came up with conveyor designs that would not work, I said, “That will not work because the conveyor will jam.” I would see it in my mind.

I can let my mind jump from category to category or I can keep my “Google” image searches within a keyword category.  As I write, I opened a magazine and randomly picked a word. I will then demonstrate how I can either let my mind wander or stay in a keyword category. I closed my eyes and used my pen to point to the word “imperfections” in a magazine. If I stay in the imperfection category, I can see sunspots on the sun, spots on a water glass, and a cheap, broken DVD box that is so fragile that it will break if you barely touch it. At this point I can either stay in the imperfections file or go to another keyword such as “stay” or “touch”; which are words I just wrote.  In the “stay” file, I see a large black dog who has been told to “stay” and a “stay” that stiffens a sailboat sail.

A Shock to Learn That My Thinking Was Different

When I wrote my book “Thinking in Pictures” in 1995, I was shocked to learn that my thinking was different.  I thought everybody’s thoughts were in photo realistic pictures.  I learned this when I asked other people about church steeples.  It was a revelation to learn that many people get a vague generalized image.  I see only specific photo realistic steeples.  They flash up into my memory like a series of PowerPoint slides.  The HBO movie did an excellent job of showing how my visual thinking mind works.

Word Thinkers Are Vague

I get continually frustrated at how vague most people’s thinking is at autism meetings. Parents and teachers expect me to solve a problem that a child is having with the most vague information. They will often ask me, “How should I handle problems in the classroom?” It is impossible to provide an answer until I ask enough questions so I can make a video in my head of what the child is doing.  Is he/she a 3-year-old or a 15-year-old? I find I have to ask lots of questions in order to troubleshoot and provide a helpful answer. How a teacher should handle a tantrum in a 3-year-old is totally different compared to methods to stop rude behavior in an older child.  If I tried to provide an answer based on only the first question, it would be impossible to provide helpful suggestions. The single question, “How should I handle behavior problems in the classroom?” provides no information on the child’s age or what the behavior problem is.

Visual Thinking Important in the World

Visual thinking is not limited to people with autism.  Many non-autistic talented people are also visual thinkers.  Visual thinking is a continuum from people like me who can play movies in my head of equipment I have designed to people who visualize only still pictures.  Most people, if they force themselves, have some degree of visual thinking.

Today’s educational system is neglecting the visual thinker.  It is the visual thinker who can fix any car or figure out how to build something. Visual thinkers can see things that are not always obvious to other people.  When I read about the Japanese nuclear power plant, it seemed unbelievable to me that they put their emergency generators that power the emergency cooling pumps in the basement.  If I had toured that plant, I would have looked at the seawall and then looked at the generators in the basement and made a movie in my mind of a tidal wave breaching the wall and drowning the generators. Drowned generators were a major cause of the meltdowns.

It is not stupidity that caused the engineers to fail to see this.  It is a lack of visual thinking.  A visual thinker would not have made this mistake.  I am not capable of designing a nuclear reactor, but I am more capable than many people of visualizing things that could go wrong.  It takes a mathematical pattern thinking mind to figure out how to build the reactor, but a visual thinker can easily predict scenarios that can cause major problems, such as stuck valves, confusing similar looking controls, and emergency generators placed in a location where they could be ruined with water.  At my TED talk in 2010, I talked about the value of different kinds of minds. The different kinds of minds need to work together.

Our educational system is making a grave mistake when it devalues visual thinking.  Due to budget cuts, all the hands-on classes are being removed from many schools.  Art, sewing, and carpentry were classes I excelled at.  I would have been lost without them.  These types of classes also teach valuable problem solving skills and resourcefulness.  Visual thinkers are needed to solve tomorrow’s problems.


Would you like to learn more about Temple Grandin? Visit her website at templegrandin.com

You can also see and hear Dr. Grandin at her TED talk:

For a totally different first-person perspective on autism, see the video “In My Language,” posted on YouTube by .

From the author:

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.


One Response to What Is Thinking in Pictures?

  1. Another insightful article by Dr. Grandin! Many thanks to her for helping us explore our own minds by describing hers. Also, thanks to Mnemopress for picking the work of Luna to illustrate the article. Luna is a French photographer with autism, whose autistic fixation on reflections powerfully influences her work. I am excited to see her photographs included here. People wanting to know more about Luna can read about her here and purchase copies of her work here.