Visual Thinking

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From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2019 the animal behaviorist Temple Grandin was admiring the gleaming new equipment at an American meat-processing plant when she discovered the intricate metal structure had been sent from the Netherlands in more than a hundred containers. “I stood on an overhead catwalk and looked at all the complicated conveyors and exclaimed to no one, ‘We don’t make it anymore!,’ ” Ms. Grandin recalls in “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions.” The “it” in her exclamation refers to various kinds of engineered products. The realization partly inspired her to write this book.

In other hands, a book of this title might have comprised cutesy pop-psych pronouncements on how to tap into the hidden powers of mental imagery, in yourself and others. That’s certainly an element here, but Ms. Grandin has also written an indictment of America for its witting or unwitting dismissal of those hidden gifts.

“The first step toward understanding that people think in different ways,” Ms. Grandin writes, “is understanding that different ways of thinking exist.” She distinguishes between those who think primarily verbally and those who think visually. Verbal thinkers proceed sequentially, while visual thinkers form webs of graphic associations. Drawing on the work of the neuroscientist Maria Kozhevnikov, Ms. Grandin divides visual thinkers into spatial and object visualizers. The former think in abstract patterns, the latter in photorealistic images. These three types define not strict cognitive categories but a continuum.

Ms. Grandin laments the loss of hands-on school activities that develop and reward visual thinking. Growing up, she enjoyed woodshop, embroidery and theater-set building. Today, preparation for standardized tests has replaced not only such experiences but many extracurriculars and field trips. But big standardized exams may not predict professional success as well as we think: In one study, performance on a standardized high-school math test had no correlation with performance on a complex real-world quantitative task.

Among the curricular offenders, Ms. Grandin aims her ire at algebra. She’s a visual-object thinker—she flips through thoughts as though scrolling through Instagram—and enjoyed trigonometry but couldn’t manipulate algebraic x’s and y’s. Problems with math kept her out of certain disciplines. “Now I teach veterinarians,” she writes, “but I couldn’t get into veterinary school. The reason? I got screened out.”

Challenges continue as students enter the work world. In looking at our country’s manufacturing dilemma, Ms. Grandin acknowledges “a conflagration of complex political and economic forces,” but focuses on “something more tangible—the loss of essential technical skills.” She cites a 2021 report from the Associated General Contractors of America that said that 61% of contractors have too few qualified workers. At a cultural level, we have “a certain snobbery about the trades,” Ms. Grandin writes, and “a cherished belief in unlimited potential” that channels students toward four-year colleges, where they are assumed to have the time to explore their options.

Many visual thinkers, including Ms. Grandin, are on the autistic spectrum. A U.K. guide for employers, “Untapped Talent,” points to the strengths often found among those on the spectrum, including reliability, memory and attention to detail, and recommends accommodations such as quiet spaces and clear instructions. Ms. Grandin suggests to neurodivergent workers that they improve basic skills like manners and forgo resumes for work portfolios—what she calls her “thirty-second wow” technique.

. . . .

Excellence at one type of thinking, of course, often means a shortfall elsewhere. In one study, dyslexic children outperformed others on a creativity test. History presents numerous examples of people successful in object-visual or spatial-visual thinking who showed autistic-like traits, at least when young, including Michelangelo, Albert Einstein and Elon Musk. Notably, we sometimes explain their visual genius in the context of some other deficit, highlighting the privileged place of verbal thinking in our society. “We would never say of a great writer,” Ms. Grandin observes, “that his or her literary gift compensates for poor visual or mathematical skills.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

3 thoughts on “Visual Thinking”

  1. It’s irritating to AGAIN see a major publication dismissing a woman’s achievements.

    It’s DR. Grandin, not Ms. Grandin – and her credentials are amazing.

    Reducing everyone to Ms. or Mr. (which some publications do, claiming it minimizes bogus PhDs, etc.) lets the publication get away with not making a judgment, and has the effect of lumping everyone together, those with the scientific study with those who have internet-acquired ‘opinions’ they think equally valid.

    DR. Jill Biden has had to deal with this kind of bovine excrement, too.

    • In what discipline does Grandin have a PhD? Are men’s achievements similarly dismissed by major publications?

      And while we are at it, let’s address all those lawyers with a Juris Doctorate (JD) as “Doctor.” They need the support.

  2. My kind of book — I’ve read her work before and always find it (and her) very interesting. (With a certain whiff of “a little too close to home”, no doubt.)

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