Creativity for Non-Visual Thinkers, People with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities, Aspergers etc.

"A thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words." - L.S. Vygotsky

Had an email last week from someone with a nonverbal learning disability - and he asked us a great question...that given that visual imagery seems to be so important in creative work, was there hope for NLDer's in the Conceptual Age? Of course! We apologize for not giving as much attention to non-visual thinking on this blog (part of the reason is our interest and large clinic population of dyslexics), so we'd like to correct this slight right now.

Verbal thinkers tend to have less trouble than visual thinkers in conventional K-12 school tasks... but if visual perceptual and organization problems also exist (e.g. nonverbal learning disabilities), more struggles await them in their adult years, driving and reading maps, reading the emotions of their co-workers, bosses, and family members, and keeping their home and work life organized.

The two most important factors we have seen in these individuals' success relate to metacognitive ability -an ability to reflect about their own thinking processes, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses (build on strengths, accommodate weaknesses) and external supports (helps when needed from loved ones - parents, siblings, spouses, professionals, business partners) if and when needed.

We know and have learned of many highly (and sometimes exclusively) verbal thinkers working in various diverse occupations - academia / research, law, business, education, writing, science, math, and computers and engineering. Many of the most successful verbal thinkers capitalize on their strong memories, pattern recognition, reasoning and analytical abilities, and eye for detail.

Verbal thinkers tend to wrestle with ideas through talk, debate, or writing. Brainstorming may take place through conscious chains of deductive thinking, word play or conscious manipulation of words (e.g. drawing verbal analogies),or even verbal brainstorms (e.g. freewriting)in which loosely associated words, digressions, phrases, etc. are written down to open ideas up about a problem or question. impression.

How common is it to not be able to make images? A number is hard to generate as a continuum seems to exist in individuals' image-making ability. At least when we have asked, there always seem to be at least a few people who report that they are unable to make images in non-selected groups of 100.

Some people who don't have pictoral visual images also tell us that although they never get "snapshot" pictures, they do have non-visual imagery (auditory, somatic/ kinesthetic) or strong associations (e.g. feelings emotions, spatial / symbolic representations)that are integral to their thinking style.

Interesting, there was once intense debate over whether visual imagery exists and has a functional importance in the brain(for more, see this). Presumably one the most strident advocates of the anti-imagery position, cognitive psychologist Zenon Pylyshyn, did not have pictoral imagery:

"It is argued that an adequate characterization of "what one knows" requires the use of abstract mental structures to which there is no conscious access and which are essentially conceptual and propositional, rather than sensory or pictorial, in nature. Such representations are more accurately referred to as symbolic descriptions than as images in the usual sense. Implications of using an imagery vocabulary are examined, and it is argued that the picture metaphor underlying recent theoretical discussions is seriously misleading, especially as it suggests that the image is an entity to be perceived." (from What the mind's eye tells the mind's brain)

fMRI of causal reasoning
Employment for people with Aspergers Syndrome
Book: How to find work that works for people with Aspergers Syndrome
Book: Choosing the right work for people with autism or aspgergers syndrome


  1. This is a comment from a visual thinker. (I have to be a visual thinker because I don't understand what it means to be "unable to make images." Really? Are there folks who don't make images?!) I also have this feeling that I am jumping into a conversation that has been going on for a while, and I only overheard bits and pieces. Bear with me pls.

    I got out of this blog the idea that verbal thinkers may have difficulties with perception and organization that stand in the way of standardized, conventional learning AND be creative thinkers also. So far so good?

    I'd like to hear more on the contrast between visual and verbal thinkers, and the continuum between them.

    When I re-read my own question, I can't tell if it is way too naive or way too profound. Both, probably, all at once. It is as if I were one of my students, earnestly asking for an explanation of the difference between metaphor and metonymy. Yikes! Where do I start? And how can I come up with an answer that will satisfy BOTH the student and myself?

    Well, maybe a more productive question would be to ask in what ways the distinction between visual X verbal thinkers helps understand kids? or understand the nature of the different difficulties that some kids have with standardized teaching?

    I'd better stop. The second version of the question seems to have become just as broad and unhelpful as the first.

    Thanks for listening,


    1. Anonymous11:40 AM

      Get a ping pong ball, some silly putty, and a pack of colored markers used to write on whiteboards.
      Cut the ping pong ball in half and put half the silly in each half, you have to experiment to get the thickness/coverage right.
      Sit next to a lamp, close your eyelid and 'look' at the light shining through your eyelid.
      Hold half of a ping pong ball up and look at the light shining through.
      Use the markers to experiment with the color until you get a good match with the 'color' of the light you see when you 'look' at the light through your eyelid.

      I first came up with this when I figured out I don't see pictures in my head, as apparently most people can. I wanted to see if I could find a difference between my eyes shut and my eyes open. The answer is no difference, for me.

      I then found out this 'device' was useful when talking to friends about our differences in perception when it turned out that they found it difficult to stop 'seeing' pictures with their eyelids closed when 'looking' at a light through their lids and had better success looking through the ping pong ball half's.

      All of them reported good results when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine they are in an empty theatre looking at a white lit screen. Imagine a rose being projected onto the screen, red petals, green stem, brown thorns. Something I can describe but not do.

      The closest I can come to 'seeing' a mental image is closing my eyes, think about the picture, and getting words in return.

      I have read college level since the 3rd grade.
      Mom taught me to read phonetically when the school told her I was retarded.
      I developed the ability to read a whole word by reading the first syllable myself, this increased my reading speed and also gave me my first 'hallucinations' when I would 'see' an inappropriate word which changed upon rereading.

      I injured my head twice in as a child, falling out of a tree and a couple of years later slid into a metal post at high speed, which resulted in damage to my temporal and occipital lobe.

      Sorry for the data dump, I only started putting some of these pieces together a couple of years ago and am still working my way through the implications.

  2. It's funny how often this comes up - we've had colleagues come up to us and say - "Really? can people really make distinct picture images?...I can't imagine any thought without words." I would say a majority of people have some images - but they seem to vary a great deal in terms of their vividness. And of course, so people (kids as well as adults) have no image-making ability at all.. we had one young girl say, "My teacher always says "Make a picture in your mind..." I can't! I have no idea what she's talking about.

    The presence of visual and verbal thinking extremes may not necessarily mean 'disease'. The verbal thinkers are likely to think the visual thinkers are a bit slow in the language department, while the visual thinkers are likely to think the verbal thinkers are a bit slow in the visual department. Who should set the standards? Psychologists? Don't think so - many psychologists seem to lean toward verbal thinking, in our informal experience...

    The most dramatic example of different clusters of visual vs. verbal thinkers came when we gave a teaching seminar for K-12 Jewish schools - the teachers who had the youngest children had the highest incidence of exclusively visual thinking, the middle school group had the highest group of exclusively verbal thinking (the school system heavily emphasized logic and argumentation in the middle school years) and the high school teachers had a fairly significant balance between visual and verbal thinking.

  3. This is an interesting post, I myself am getting dug into the neuropsychology side of learning disability.

    What I am seeing, is two broad categories, very much going into these two sides. In fact, looking into some of the history, Dyslexia was originally identified as ANY type of difficulty in reading, and when subtypes were investigated (while there are many variations) there are 2 or 3 groups.

    One is a group with dyslexia who show up in the early grade-school years who seem to have difficulty understanding that the shapes of the letters represent phonetic sounds. Once they get that piece of visual information tuned, they tend to go "off-radar" as far as special education goes.

    The second group, comes later, and they seem to have difficulty phonetically decoding words - what I believe we call Dyslexia today. They really start falling behind in reading when words get difficult to memorize visually.

    There is a group or two more depending on whose study you read, which tends to be made up of a combination of the above two groups, and these kids seem to have a lot of difficulty overall.

    I am one of the kids in the first group, who most likely have some type of nonverbal learning disability, be it Asperger's or the actual NLD syndrome. Since their reading difficulties tend to disappear, they get forgotten about, and few people see their other deficits, such as understanding non-verbal communication, which probably stem from their difficulties processing visually and their overall organizational problems.

    Just wanted to, an a probably overly verbose way, say it is really great to see people talking about a broad idea of assets and deficits... I suspect our hyper-focus on specific syndromes and symptoms has slowed progress in the long-run.


  4. Wow! This is all new to me! I was just reading Temple Grandin and was stumped when she said she was different because she is a visual learner. Don't we all think in pictures?
    So I did a search on visual vs verbal thinking and ended up here.
    I am a 60 y/o cowboy - who holds an MBA. I read constantly, and convert all those words to pictures. I also write constantly - converting the images of my day to words. What does that make me?
    My mother-in-law makes constant comments that suddenly tell me she is a verbal thinker - maybe thats why I can't understand the way she thinks!

    I have a very analytical mind, and have always been baffled as to why so many people fail to use logic - and had categorized them as "emotional" vs "cerebral". Is that something different?

    I'd sure like to correspond with anyone who can illuminate me - or guide me to illumination - on this subject. It astounds me that I have lived this many years without ever hearing of this concept!

  5. This may be an old blog post and perhaps nobody will see this, but I've decided to contribute to the discussion regardless. I guess I would be considered a "verbal" thinker as I do not have the capability to form images in my mind. I've recently made this realization after speaking with friends and colleagues about how they process information. Many of them are able to "picture" information and experiences, which I realized I do not have the ability or understanding necessary to do.

    I've always struggled with mathematics and art, I'm not sure if there is a correlation there or not. I have however always been strong in language, and am considered by many people I know to be fairly articulate.

    So how does my mind process information? I guess it works categorically. My mind is filled with arrays and variables that contain specific pieces of information about a concept. These could be lists of attributes, experiential information, facts or conclusions. It's almost like a very large filing cabinet, though much more abstract. When I remember an experience, the elements of the experience are reconstructed (I believe) based on the information that is contained and associated with it. I, in essence, construct it the memory with all of the little factoids I've retained as parts.

    As we speak, I do not have the ability to picture the face of the person sitting next to me, though I understand certain things about him. I could list 100 different attributes about this person, but am unable to visualize them. This has some interesting consequences, I constantly mistake actors/acresses in movies as someone else due to shared attributes.

    Regardless of this, I do know what it is like to think visually in some form. Last week I woke up in a lucid dream state and for about 10 seconds had vivid visual images flash through my mind uncontrollably for the first time. It was an incredible experience, and I wish that I was able to use my "mind's eye" in the way that I experienced in that lucid sleep state. Unfortunately aside from that lone experience, my mind's eye is completely blind.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kurt. We found it very interesting how you file bits of information in categories. When we once gave a talk to a large group of Jewish Day Schools, we asked how many people there didn't ever have visual images. There were several. All of them happened to be in the middle schools, which apparently emphasize debate and argumentation.

    We've talked to people who have trouble picturing faces because they have prosopagnosia (more common than most people think - 1% of the population) or they have limited visual memory... if it is a memory overload thing, a face can be recalled as sort of a scrolling movie - making several passes over a face.

    Sometimes when we talk about visual images, people recall the scene - but it's not exactly pictoral, it's more immersive and spatial, like standing in a scene. When you talk to people about it, sometimes they start off saying it's a picture, then think harder about it and aren't sure - because the images are vague.

    Your lucid dreaming episode is interesting too. It could be that as you perceive more pictorial / sensory wholes, your mind's eye will become more active.

  7. I offer something to systematically stimulate and improve visual image generating ability and language ability. For free--just want feedback. I'd love to help a talented but rebellious and bored teenager learn them. I'm confident that it would be the most educational experience ever for such a person.