A Plea for Visual Thinking / Rudolf Arnheim


A Plea for Visual Thinking

see also an interview with RA:  http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/rudolfarnheim.php

Rudolf Arnheim Reviewed work(s): Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Spring, 1980), pp. 489-497 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343105 . Accessed: 31/01/2013 13:04

Perception and thinking are treated by textbooks of psychology in separate chapters. The senses are said to gather information about the outer world; thinking is said to process that information. Thinking emerges from this approach as the “higher,” more respectable function, to which consequently education assigns most of the school hours and most of the credit. The exercise of the senses is a mere recreation, relegated to spare time.

It is left to the playful practice of the arts and music and is readily dispensed with when a tight budget calls for economy. The habit of separating the intuitive from the abstractive functions, as they were called in the Middle Ages, goes far back in our tradition. Descartes, in the sixth Meditation, defined man as “a thing that thinks,” to which reasoning came naturally (it obviously doesn’t!); whereas imagining, the activity of the senses, required a special effort and was in no way necessary to the human nature or essence. (The arts and technology are vital to human health and happiness -)

Note: We see the “elevation” of these narrow ideas about “a hierarchy of thinking” (that damn pyramid obsession again) in the denigration of ASD / Asperger abilities: (formal, old-fashioned use of language if language is present; echoing or copying (parroting) of language with an extensive “memorized” vocabulary, but without a “clue” to the “deeper meaning”  of language; an indictment of ASD / AS individuals as robots that are utterly lacking in imagination or creativity; as enthralled by boring subject matter (to social types) and above all, the failure to accomplish what has recently been elevated to the “highest level of cognition attainable, socio-emotional language, exemplified by: Have a nice day!

For “verbally deficient” autistics, this means an immediate judgement of low intelligence.  

So far, we have a very clear historical explanation as to why “visual-sensory thinking” got trashed, demoted and eventually designated as a “developmental disability” by American psychologists. This vital and creative cognitive process has vanished from the “acceptable human social repertoire” of “brain activity” in puritanical” American culture.  

The passive ability to receive images of sensory things, said Descartes, would be useless if there did not exist in the mind a further and higher active faculty capable of shaping these images and of correcting the errors that derive from sensory experience. (Exactly backwards to how thinking works) A century later Leibniz spoke of two levels of clear cognition.’ Reasoning was cognition of the higher degree: it was distinct, that is, it could analyze things into their components. Sensory experience, on the other hand, was cognition of the lower order: it also could be clear but it was confused, in the original Latin sense of the term; that is, all elements fused and mingled together in an indivisible whole. Thus artists, who rely on this inferior faculty (as do many top inventors and scientists), are good judges of works of art but when asked what is wrong with a particular piece that displeases them can only reply that it lacks nescio quid, a certain “I don’t know what.” (Intuitively, you “get it” or you don’t)

Yes, the Descartes – thing is nonsense. Just because a man is a genius is one field, doesn’t mean that he is an expert on everything; but NTs love authority and will believe without question what “great men” say. Our present predicament of relying on a “false pyramid of thinking” based on “dumb” (not reasonable) value judgements from (European white male) heroes of the past, has devastated the power of thinking “outside the box of verbal abstraction and generalities” in entire societies.

In our own time, language has been designated as the place of refuge from the problems incurred in direct perceptual experience; this in spite of the fact that language, although a powerful help to our thinking, does not offer in and by itself an arena in which thinking can take place. Thus the very title of a recent collection of articles by Jerome S. Bruner suggests that in order to arrive at knowledge the human mind must go “beyond the information given” by direct sensory experience. Bruner adopts the belief that the cognitive development of a child passes through three stages. The child explores the world first through action, then through imagery, and finally through language. 

The implication is, unfortunately, that with the arrival at a next level the earlier one falls by the wayside.

This is obviously untrue: adults retain modes of “thinking” from childhood stages. Magical thinking is the default mode of thinking for neotenic social typicals. Magic  “fills in” the gaps left by inferior sensory data and perception, supplying “fantastical” explanations for phenomena. Reasoning, critical analysis, and effective understanding of “how the universe works” (math-science) may be native to a few individuals, but must be taught and cultivated in the majority of children. This is a taboo in highly religious American culture. Reality-based thinking has been abandoned, even demonized, in American education – and for several generations – in favor of socially-promoted emotional narcissism that contributes to a very distorted social reality and description of “being human.” That is, a supernatural orientation is the result of developmental stagnation, and furnishes the status quo in religious, psychological and social engineering regimes. Neoteny is a fact of life for the modern social human. 

Thus when the child learns to go beyond a particular constellation directly given to his eyes, the ability to restructure the situation in a more suitable way is not credited by Bruner to the maturing of perceptual capacity but to the switch toward a new processing medium, namely, language. Thus language is praised as the indispensable instrument for essential refinements of the mind, toward which in fact, language is little more than a reflector.

To claim that “cognition” suddenly appeared out of nowhere, only with the “arrival of human verbal language” is idiotic and unbelievably arrogant! 550 million years of “arms race” evolution, but “sensory thinking” is inferior…

We are told by psychologists that “autistic” children are defective (low intelligence) due to two outrageous prejudices:

1. Lack of verbal language use, and/or failure to use language as prescribed (social scripts) is automatically a “sign” of defective development. (This overturns and discards 550 millions of years of evolution)

2. Superior sensory perception and processing, which are autistic strengths, are denigrated as ‘low-level’ cognition.

Since experts insist that perception offers nothing better than the fairly mechanical recording of the stimuli arriving at the sensory receptors, it is useful to respond with a few examples which show that perception transcends constantly and routinely the mere mechanical recording of sensory raw material. (I am limiting myself in the following to visual perception.) At a fairly simple level, the psychologist Roger N. Shepard and his coworkers have shown that visual imagination can rotate the spatial position of a given object when a different view is needed to solve a problem, for example, in order to identify the object with, or distinguish it from, a similar one. (I have noted previously that this type of “test” is a very limited and rule-based conception of what visual thinking can and does accomplish) This is worth knowing. But reports by artists and scientists indicate that visual imagination is capable of much more spectacular exploits. Indeed, the imagination of the average person demands our respect.

Let me use an example cited in an article by Lewis E. Walkup. The solution of the puzzle should be attempted without the help of an illustration. Imagine a large cube made up of twenty-seven smaller cubes, that is, three layers of nine cubes each. Imagine further that the entire outer surface of the large cube is painted red and ask yourself how many of the smaller cubes will be red on three sides, two sides, one side, or no side at all.

SEE Skipped TEXT

Far from abandoning our image, we discovered it to be a beautiful, composition, in which each element was defined by its place in the whole. Did we need language to perform this operation? Not at all; although language could help us to codify our results. Did we need intelligence, inventiveness, creative discovery? Yes, some. In a modest way, the operation we performed is of the stuff that good science and good art are made of.

Was it seeing or was it thinking that solved the problem? Obviously, the distinction is absurd.

In order to see we had to think; and we had nothing to think about if we were not looking. But our claim goes farther. We assert not only that perceptual problems can be solved by perceptual operations but that productive thinking solves any kind of problem in the perceptual realm because there exists no other arena in which true thinking can take place. Therefore it is now necessary to show, at least sketchily, how one goes about solving a highly “abstract” problem. For the sake of an example, let me ask the old question of whether free will is compatible with determinism. Instead of looking up the answer in Saint Augustine or Spinoza, I watch what happens when I begin to think. In what medium does the thinking take place? Images start to form. Motivational forces, in order to become manipulable, take the shape of arrows. These arrows line up in a sequence, each pushing the next-a deterministic chain that does not seem to leave room for any freedom (fig. la). Next I ask What is freedom? and I see a sheaf of vectors issuing from a base (fig. lb). Each arrow is free, within the limits of the constellation, to move in any direction it pleases and to reach as far as it can and will. But there is something incomplete about this image of freedom. It operates in empty space, and there is no sense to freedom without the context of the world to which it applies. My next image adds an external system of a world minding its own business and thereby frustrating the arrows that issue from my freedom-seeking creature (fig. ic). I must ask: Are the two systems incompatible in principle? In my … GO TO: 




Weird Colored Mud / Thanks to my brain and PhotoShop

Click on any image for slideshow.

Recent Anxiety / Visual Thinking Re-post


These observations continue to be valid…

Recently the clinic where I go for prescriptions and some therapy noticed that my 5-year review was last scheduled 10-years ago. So I went in for a two-hour “dredging up” of my entire life. It was a good thing too: the person who interviewed me last time was a fundamentalist Christian who got almost everything wrong. Not a good listener, plus she tended to reinterpret whatever one said as a plea to be “born again.”

The interview went well – a therapist to whom I can say anything and not feel “weird.” He knows that I have no memory for dates, but can rattle off vivid descriptions from visual memory. He likes this because the other Aspergers clients he has don’t talk  much at all. (Probably males?)

Not surprising to me is that often after a therapy session in which I talk about difficult events, anxiety sets in; not right away, but hours to days afterward. After many such occurrences I traced this phenomenon to visual memory. Words are different: I’m quite emotionally detached when talking. Words are tools, not “reality” – that is, they have no meaning per se. Images – that’s a whole different experience.

I think PTSD symptoms may be related. It seems to be sensory reminders that trigger the horrible experiences of those who suffer with it. Extreme trauma – sights, sounds smells are relived in the immediate present.

As far as Asperger anxiety, for me it’s the images that drag me back, out of the present and into the visual record of sights (and smells and noises sometimes). I’ve posted about this before: how visual memory is so real; detailed, dense and difficult to change. Timeless. This is a great benefit if one is an artist or a writer.

The tactic I have learned to use is to bring my focus into the present. Even doing mundane things like chores, sorting photos or doing yard work is effective. Or doing something visual and physical such as taking a walk in the countryside. Anything that reminds me that I’m “here” not “there.” Managing one’s experience of time is possible, but It took me a very long time to grasp the notion that it’s possible.

I used to imagine that someday anxiety would not be part of my life, but like many unpleasant aspects of life, I had to accept that it’s part of who I am.









Beauty and Curiosity / Instinct

Note: No words needed! Demonstration is superior for transmitting many skills and types of knowledge. “Human types” have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. Only the efficiency of the technology changes. 

This video is an example of how VISUAL CURIOSITY was key to how and why humans developed tools and other objects that enhanced everyday life. It wasn’t until very recently that “art” became separated from “craft.” That is, the cult of the artist, in which a “name” such as Picasso, adds millions of dollars in value to mundane objects (everything from actual paintings to wall plaques to mugs and T-shirts) is a product of economic power elitism. That object is MINE because I have the wealth to possess it.  The intrinsic aesthetic value of an art object is secondary to the social status of the owner – where they exist in the wealth hierarchy.  Modern people tend to project this social relationship backward; misapplying the word “art” to functional objects, whose aesthetic appeal is intrinsic to its function. The cave paintings found in Europe are attributed to “great artists” (male of course) when this is not the case. In modern social environments art is an approved function controlled and defined by an “elite” who select and interpret which “art” is socially useful and a “good investment.” The cave painters lived what they painted: it’s not abstract but descriptive; the animals are not alien creatures observed from afar. This art is personal: Beautiful because REAL animals are beautiful.

“In the beginning” it was visual curiosity that drove humans to learn about materials; to pick them up and absorb their physical properties – to break and bend and find applications through trial and error. This activity is inseparable from an instinct for beauty. The quality that set human species apart is intense curiosity that extends to the entire environment. We not only copied each other, we copied other animals:  how wolves hunt in a pack; how male birds attract females with outlandish colors and dances; how patterns camouflage fish, how rain is  captured by depressions in rock, how animals behave when a predator is near.

Homo habilis tools; indistinguishable from naturally formed chert fragments that I can pick up any day in my geologic neighborhood. Very sharp edges!

I walk frequently in an area littered with chert fragments that were spread by wandering streams millions of years ago, and which have been exposed by erosion. Despite weathering (wind scour), the sharp edges of recently fractured pieces (freeze thaw, concussion) are very sharp; one could select a few and butcher a small animal – crudely maybe, but the principle is there. Curiosity is enough to urge me to pick up slivers; the polished surfaces, dark color and odd shapes that stand out against the yellow dirt is “eye-catching” – a process in human perception that is unchanged. Add some trial and error with these and other stones and cobbles, and you’re on your way to being an effective predator, gatherer, inventor.

Everyday I see countless ways that early humans learned from what was simply in front of their eyes. My “neighborhood” is desert; few animals are out by day, but if I show up in early morning, on a muddy or snowy day, the number of animal tracks is astounding. Even with my feeble knowledge (which you can bet would quickly increase if I were looking for food) a source of “symbols” and “time” is apparent. These ideas are VISIBLE: specific tracks record an animal’s presence, even though it is “invisible” at this moment. Time can be seen in the spatial distribution of tracks, the medium of clay or sand, ice or snow, in the patterns of track overlays and in beginnings and endings.

For me, there is no discontinuity or “magic” in human evolution; no intervention by supernatural entities or aliens, because there is no need to resort to these props. Humans accumulated a working knowledge of many environments; that knowledge is both specific (tropical forest / mountain valleys) but also general, because the Laws of Nature apply to every environment. The rapidity of technical advancement depended on where you lived (you have to have resources) a few “little bit smarter” individuals, and the opportunity to beg, borrow, steal, or copy the tools, skills and materials in use by both animals and other people. Techno Culture makes our human world different to previous apes.


See also:

The Use of Tools by Human and Non-human Primates

A. Berthelet and J. Chavaillon



Trivial Pursuits / Words vs. Images Re-Post

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 and technology 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; that our supreme evolutionary path of emerges from the bumps and measurements of silent skulls by anthropologists. There is an embarrassing gulf between 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 abstract verbal concepts, because using words is the 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 the weather and nighttime sky. 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.

Cave art, Peche Merle, France 25,000 y.a. Black on white horses existed at the time. These are actual and specific horses, not "generic" horses.

Cave art, Peche Merle, France 25,000 y.a. Black on white horses existed at the time. These are specific horses, not “generic” horses. Visual thinkers are intensely observant of reality, and the realism of ancient art is documentary – actual events, people and animals. It is possible that the hands are signatures and that individual hands would be recognized as those of individuals, thus “names”

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 experienced a deep bond of caring in battle, and then lose that peak experience once they return to civilization.


“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete, the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”

–Mark Rothko






ASD Asperger Art Suggestion / Draw with Pastels

blue crystalwp

“Blue Crystal” 36″ x 30″


Pastels are manageable for anyone who has hand control problems, or ADD or ADHD tendencies. Pastels are quick and expressive and require no materials other than good paper, pastel sticks  and hands. A dust mask is a good idea. One can easily draw quickly at large scale.


“Running Cloud”


“Unripe Gourd”


Bonus Art Links / With ASD appeal? You tell me.






Kandinsky and Autism / Speculation from Brotherly Love blog

From: https://davisbrotherlylove.com/2014/02/12/wassily-kandinsky-synesthesia-autism-abstract-art-bauhaus/
I was relaxing this afternoon by trolling google images for art works that I would identify as “done by” ASD / Asperger types; the first image that matched my impression was by Wassily Kandinsky. I googled “Kandinsky and autism” and this post from Brotherly Love blog turned up. My interest (long delayed) is in the manifestation of ASD / Asperger visual perception in the creative arts, which is all but ignored, in favor of the opinion that ASD / AS types are confined to fields in science, maths and engineering. 

Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913

Black Lines Poster, 1913

Kandinsky and Autism

I’m reading The Bauhaus Group, by Nicholas Weber. I just finished the section about Paul Klee and started the one about Wassily Kandinsky.  Klee and Kandinsky were friends and were professors at the Bauhaus at the same time.

Kandinsky’s urge to express his feelings

Several of the passages about Kandinsky, at the start of the section struck a chord with me.  First of all, Kandinsky “crav(ed) to express his feelings through art…” (Weber, N.F. The Bauhaus Group New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2009 pg 210). He turned from replicating nature in his art, to abstraction. “Abstraction ‘put an end to the useless torment of the useless tasks that I had then, desire their unattainability, inwardly set myself. It cancelled out this torment and thus my joy in nature and art rose to unclouded heights… To my enjoyment is added a profound sense of gratitude.’” (Weber, N.F. The Bauhaus Group New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2009 pg 210)

Kandinsky’s sensorium

Kandinsky also commented about how sensations struck him. “My soul was kept in a state of constant vibration by other purely human disturbances, to the extent that I never had an hour’s peace.”  (Weber, N.F. The Bauhaus Group New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2009 pg 210).  Again, Kandinsky comments, “Everything ‘dead’ trembled. Everything showed me its face, its innermost being, its secret soul, inclined more often to silence than to speech – not only the stars, moon, woods, flowers of which the poets sing, but even a cigar butt lying in the ashtray…” (Weber, N.F. The Bauhaus Group New York, Alfred A. Knopf 2009 pg 210).


This might remind some of you of the manifestations which could occur in autism, ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. That Kandinsky had this kind of sensory relationship with the world might not be coincidental. It so happens that Kandinsky was a synesthete. Synesthesia is a phenomenon whereby a stimulus to one sense triggers sensations in other modes of perception. For instance, the color red might trigger the synesthete to hear a middle ‘C’ frequency, or a taste might trigger tactile sensations (as in the book The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic).

Simon Baron-Cohen, autism researcher, noted that synesthesia is more prevalent in the autistic population than in non-autistic individuals. He concludes, “The significant increase in synaesthesia prevalence in autism suggests that the two conditions may share some common underlying mechanisms. Future research is needed to develop more feasible validation methods of synaesthesia in autism.”  (Baron-Cohen et al.: Is synaesthesia more common in autism? Molecular Autism 2013 4:40.)  This is not to say that autism is prevalent in synesthetes. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been studied.  It should be heartening to know however, that hypersensitivity can be directed in such a way that offers solace to the individual and pleasure to others.

It is humanity’s fortune that Kandinsky was able to channel what must have been an overwhelming sensitivity into his artwork. We are all the richer for it.



A few images with personal appeal: they remind me of Navajo Sand Painting

Wassily Kandinsky Tutt’Art@

Wassily Kandinsky Tutt’Art@

Clouds are important to a plain landscape / Re-Post



Clouds are important to a plain landscape; those familiar shapes that skate above

the horizon, trailing shadows that examine the featureless plateau;

extracting details that cannot be seen on a clear day

and thereby adjusting our foolish estimates of near and far.

Any stranger who trifles with our two-part scheme of land and sky risks losing

the outer world: the fate of isolation is best embraced as a gift

that one could not have known was waiting in Wyoming.