It’s hard to describe thinking in pictures, because it’s not like looking through snapshots or image files. Intuition places them on a “screen” just in front of my ears that slices across my head vertically. (Think of an old-fashioned slide viewer.) There is no structure like that in the brain. That “plane” must be a construct that my brain has come up with to focus on the images.
The activity of seeing as a visual thinker cannot be like seeing with eyes: there are no eyes inside brain. It’s totally dark. “Images” are reconstituted from memory; visual memory is like one continuous steam from which snippets can be viewed, or discrete snapshots snatched. These images are not bound by a time sequence: one picture may elicit a related picture – related by color, time of day, object content, individual people, or any quality that indicates a pattern. These patterns are not cast in concrete, but appear and disappear, form new connections, or join other “themes.” I think this availability of non-linear connections is how much intuitive art arises; not art that seeks to duplicate an environmental structure or presents sentimental, socially-contrived stories and lessons, but which brings forth deep and ancient floodwaters, springs and wells of experience in human evolution. What is obvious is that beginning with the cave art of thousands of years ago, and continuing through the present, visual thinking has been vital to humankind. Long before words became indispensable social tools, the manipulation and application of images to understand the “real world” has been primary to human culture.
Arguments are often made that development of verbal language was the critical leap into the supremacy of Homo sapiens, the evolutionary path of whom emerges from the bumps and measurements of silent skulls by anthropologists – about 200,000 years ago. There is an embarrassing gulf between this ancestor, Archaic Homo sapiens and the first written examples of language that we have, dating to only 5,000 years ago.
Modern social humans look at this gap and assume that “language” means words; words mean concepts; advanced concepts are abstract, and that Archaic Homo sapiens (who more closely resemble Neanderthals than they do modern humans), conquered the world by using verbal language, because using words is (obviously) a more sophisticated, powerful, and “brainy” way to go. What a mistake!
All anyone must do to question the assumption of verbal supremacy, is to listen to government leaders and politicians endlessly argue the same impractical, fantastical claims of “knowing how to fix things” when they have no intention of doing so, and even if they were sincere, have no ability to escape the mire of language that entombs any possibility of real solutions. Social humans are embedded in a supernatural non-reality of verbal concepts, schemes and plans that defies understanding.
How did our ancestors become modern? What were they doing for the 190,000 years that passed before urbanization and agriculture produced modern social humans – a process brought about by domestication – neoteny?
A visual thinker can answer this readily: our ancestors were visual thinkers and learners. They may have used vocalizations when communicating over a distance; mimicked animal calls; invented tools to copy natural sound; that is, used sound like hunters do to this day. Mothers coo’d and comforted babies, and used vocalizations like a leash to keep children within safe boundaries. Strictly, these are animal communications.
From studies of so-called primitive peoples, most of whom have been polluted by civilized attention and all but exterminated, observation often includes that the tribe being studied were concrete, literal thinkers. Each object or phenomenon in their environment had a distinct name, with the physical variations of each having a name, such as the variety of words for states of snow and ice used by the Inuit. Names are not abstractions, but words attached to specific images. As an Asperger, I identify this as visual thinking.
In case you think I’m trivializing social communication, I’m not doing the trivializing: Social language is intended to be trivial.
The frustration a visual thinker experiences is that social typical thinkers are word people: communication is generic, not specific: “Have a nice day.” Humans living in complex natural environments could not survive on social communication. When your survival, and that of your family, depends on evading predators, acquiring food each and every day, and facing danger directly, each member is required to step up and fulfill his or her tasks; trivial will not do. Absolute trust, honesty and commitment are required.
This state of cooperation and loyalty is evident in the eternal “band of brothers” dedication that overrides the reaction to fear and danger in small groups of soldiers. And it is the transition from this high standard of behavior on the battlefield, to a fickle, treacherous and uncaring social regime at home, that causes a great deal of distress in soldiers, who found deep bond of caring in battle, and then lose that peak experience.
Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.
Asperger individuals are not alone in the practice of detailed and specific concrete language.
Washington Post article: There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’
Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.
For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, Krupnik documented about 70 terms for ice that mark such distinctions as: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese.
It is not just the Eskimo languages that have colorful terms to describe their frosty surroundings: The Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia, use at least 180 words related to snow and ice, according to Ole Henrik Magga, a linguist in Norway. (Unlike Inuit dialects, Sami ones are not polysynthetic, making it easier to distinguish words.)
The Sami also have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. These refer to such things as the reindeer’s fitness (“leami” means a short, fat female reindeer), personality (“njirru” is an unmanageable female) and the shape of its antlers (“snarri” is a reindeer whose antlers are short and branched). There is even a Sami word to describe a bull with a single, very large testicle: “busat.”
This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. “It’s a matter of life or death.”