Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Do the Mundane Think in Prose?

Do you tend to think in strings of words or in successions of images? (You probably think you know the answer to this question. I'd wager that you don't, but let's bracket my outrageous skepticism for today.) Russ Hurlburt (with Chris Heavey and Sarah Akhter) claims that those who think primarily in inner speech tend to be (among other things):

- above average in logical capacity,
- good at planning sequential operations,
- unimaginative, focused on prosaic facts,
- narrow-minded and overconfident,
- less interested than others in relationships and artistry.

Those who tend to think primarily in images, on the other hand, Hurlburt claims, tend to be

- energetic, optimistic, impatient, and fast-talking,
- creative and visionary,
- self-absorbed and poor at seeing things from another's perspective.

These bold claims (along with some caveats and disclaimers) can be found in Chapter 14 of Hurlburt's just-published book with Chris Heavey. Hurlburt, Heavey, and Akhter hint at some ways in which these different characteristics might follow from features of sentences (logical, sequential, matter-of-fact) vs. pictures (rich, vivid, depicting possibilities), but the main basis of their claims seems to be Hurlburt's decades of experience interviewing people about their everyday thoughts and experiences as sampled by a random beeper. Hurlburt, Heavey, and Akhter also describe a few other types.

I find at least two interesting matters to contemplate here: (1.) The potential truth of these claims, and how we can evaluate their truth or falsity. And (2.) my own jumble of defensive reactions. How easy it is, too, to get this defensive rise out of me ("I'm not unimaginative and narrow-minded!"), though of course Russ isn't claiming that everyone who tends to think in words has these traits. I recall my own occasional visual images. Maybe I'm the perfect blend of speaker and imager? Maybe some folks' inner prose (mine!) carries more than others'? Even before I accept the truth of Russ's claims, I find my self-image shifting defensively in reaction to it.

The mere utterance of generalities about groups, by anyone, tends to engage our defenses -- even when we have excellent reason to be skeptical of the claims. I think I'm now completely immune to horoscopes, but the visceral defensive reactions vanished only years after my intellectual dismissal of astrology. Likewise, two years ago, I read some Nazi-era portrayals of the personalities of different racial types, and (I blush to confess) I found myself having similar defensive and self-congratulatory reactions. Is it just me? How can my self-image and my thoughts be so easily commandeered by what I know to be ungrounded utterances!

Maybe Russ is right. I'm not saying his claims are entirely ungrounded. It does seem plausible that differences in the dominant form of one's stream of conscious experience would both reflect and cause differences in cognition and personality. We can and should investigate the matter more thoroughly. And maybe then I'll just have to buck up and accept my aloof logicistic mundaneness -- and you your impatient egoism!


Anonymous said...

I heard of a study which concluded that whether people think in images or words is strongly influenced by the language they speak (if I remember correctly Chinese native speakers use images more then English speakers). If this is true then Hurlburt's claims are likely false, since people from China are about the same as people in America when it comes to the traits he points out, given the same socio-economic background and the same level of education. Perhaps there is some other factor that influences a person to use words instead or images (or images instead of words) that causes the traits he has highlighted (such as increased education).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd be interested in seeing that study, Peter, if you can dig up the reference!

As I alluded to in the post, I tend to be skeptical of self-reports on such matters, so one hypothesis I would definitely consider here is that Chinese-speakers, for cultural reasons, are morely likely to regard themselves as thinking in images than we are, whether they really think in images more than we do, or not.

The idea that higher education might incline one to think more in words (that would be my guess), is an interesting thought. In higher education we continually expose ourselves to strings of words and are rewarded for our fluent production of words. Might this alter the very phenomenology of our thought? (And if so, shouldn't we get the participants' informed consent first? ;) )

B. Michael Payne said...

Another disagreement: Can't you think of pictures that are linear, logical, uninteresting etc (i.e., New Yorker cartoons); and can't you think of sentences that are illogical, associative, rich, vivid etc (i.e., Samuel Beckett's, Shakespeare's).

To think that so-called mental processes can be typified under a rubric which itself isn't typical is to say nothing, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Eric, two thoughts:

(1) On your defensive reaction - it seems to me that people's readiness to take on board these sorts of categorical prototypes as self-descriptive (and I agree it's a real phenomenon) is connected to people's eagerness to be categorized by things like the Briggs-Myer taxonomy, or by the endless "Which superhero/Powerpuffs girl/Star Trek character/Muppet/Aqua Teen Hunger Force character/operating system/file extension/theologian/Greek goddess/Nigerian spammer (to take the top 10 off Google) are you?" quizzes. Speculating wildly, I'd say that there's a desire for self-knowledge in the sense of an overarching self-narrative going on here. (The "which charcter" quizzes are thus especially interesting, since I think one major component of our engagement with fiction in general is as a tool for the crafting of self-narratives.) It would be interesting to see if people with strong ideological commitments (and hence a pre-established self-narrative) experience this phenomenon differently. (Less? Because they've got their self-narrative in place already? More? Because they're the sort of people especially desirous of self-narrative?)

(2) On the words v. images question, I fiddled a bit with the following thought experiment. Start singing a song to yourself (internally, without actually saying the words out loud, and without the song playing externally). Then, as the song goes on, start thinking about something else. My own phenomenological diagnosis, of which I am extremely distrustful, is that as I start thinking, I think in words, but without being aware (or very aware?) of them *as words* - there's no clear "internal vocalization" going on. As the thought progresses, the singing "fades into the background", and then at some point I'm shocked into realizing that I am internally vocalizing the words of my other line of thought. Then that line of thought recedes into the background, and the song is foregrounded and explicitly internally vocalized again. I don't know quite what to make of it, but it's a bit tempting to conclude that linguisticized thoughts can multi-thread and that linguisticized thoughts needn't be fully consciously accessible. Of course, I was theoretically inclined toward both of those ideas already.

For the record, I think in strings of words (how could one possible have a thought like "Had John not doubted that most of the linguists admired their teachers, he might have realized that Elizabeth already knew that someone feared that everyone was awake" without strings of words?), and am definitely unimaginative, focused on prosaic facts, narrow-minded, and overconfident.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael! I do wonder how much accuracy there is in these characterizations of speech and imagery. How does one measure the richness of visual image and compare it to that of a sentence? A real stumper! Sentences can be full of associations, connections, hints, nuances of inflection; images can (I think) often be very sketchy and impoverished (often in ways pictures and photographs aren't).

I've been enjoying your recent comments quite a bit, Bargaining Sheep! I think you're right about the personality quizzes. Another contributing factor might be our desire to fit into positive conceptions, categories, and groups as defined and thought of by other people (regardless of the real legitimacy of those categories), for social and self-conception reasons.

Part of what you're saying about linguicized thoughts might connect with Hurlburt's strange-sounding idea that a thought can be "in words" without being in an inner voice or auditory image or visual image of words of any sort -- no words experienced, but still experienced as linguistic in form (if I understand him aright).

There's little good written on inner speech. Hurlburt is a rare (and too neglected) resource.