The Tyranny of Our Thinking Styles

This weekend, I've been enjoying Jacques Hadamard's The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, and I reached his section on "Psychological Incomprehension", where he confesses that "(1) the psychology of different individuals may differ in some essential points; (2) that, if so, it may be almost impossible for the one to conceive the state of mind of the other."

There is more truth to this, than we realize. There are many reasons for this, of course, including the fact that insight and visual, spatial, symbolic, and other types of imagery are not fully conscious and not easily described in words. Also, it's only recently that technology has been able to visualize these processes with brain scans.

A few short excerpts: "For instance, Professor Claude Levi-Strauss...sees, as I do, unprecise and schematic pictures which, moreover, have the remarkable character of being three-dimensional. Also asking a few chemists, all of them reported absolutely wordless thought, with the help of mental pictures."

What Hadamard struggled to comprehend were how some people could think exclusively in words. The psychologist Ribot found that some scientists were of a "typographic visual type...(whereby) even the words 'dog, animal'...were not accompanied by any image, but were seen by him as being printed. Similarly, when he heard the name of an intimate friend, he saw it printed and had to make an effort to see the image of this friend."

He goes on to brood, "I even feels some uneasiness when I see that Locke and similarly John Stuart Mill consider the use of words necessary whenever complex ideas are implied. I think, on the contrary, and so will a majority of scientific men, that the more complicated and difficult a question is, the more we distrust words, the more we feel we must control that dangerous ally and its sometimes treacherous precision."

Verbal thinkers definitely have the advantage in their roles as teachers (which is more easily downloaded, a text or picture file?), but it's worth our while to think more about the tyranny of our individual thinking styles, and the bias that can result if we don't consider how differently our students may think from us.

It's like the picture below from an older study looking at the differences between men and women navigating through a virtual maze (BTW, it was later found that different areas of brain were activated depending on whether a route vs. birdseye strategy of navigation was taken, and not totally dependent on gender). If I don't do it that way, your way seems strange or hard or incomprehensible.

p.s. In order help students discover the tyranny of their own thinking styles, we're starting to reformat and are adding lesson plans for students.

Spatial Navigation
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Children Think in Pictures, Teachers Think in Words


  1. From the link at Zenpundit, I thought perhaps there would be a discussion of, "THIS SENTENCE IS WRONG." but I enjoyed reading this anyway.
    No one in particular, just passing through...

  2. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Very interesting, but what does "women minus men" and "men minus women" mean?

  3. Researchers usually take the sum of the brain signals for a group and subtract out the other group - to compare sites and intensity of signals.

    This is a crude comparison and obviously affected by individual differences within groups.