Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers - Pictures vs. Words / Literal Films

There's a viral video channel on Youtube that beautifully illustrates the writing problems of visual thinkers. Youtube maven Tobuscus has made literal versions of video game and movie trailers.

What looks good in pictures, can really look pretty silly in print (see Assassin's Creed or Harry Potter trailers below).

But these problems are exactly the problems that visual thinkers struggle with as they try to put vivid pictures and sensory impression into words. At some level of understanding there is overlap, but there are great differences as well. Until these very visual thinkers learn words and phrases that evoke vivid sensory imagery, they will be terribly frustrated by what they can put down on paper.

Einstein's reflections on his nonverbal way of thinking are well known ("The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanisms of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily combined.") As are many others like Nikola Tesla ("He was conscious of certain phenomena before his eyes which other people could not see. He envisioned objects and hypothetical situations and day dreams with such reality and clarity that he was uncertain whether they did, or did not, exist. When these visions became so real, he confided his dilemma to his sister, who tried to help him distinguish the real from the imaginative."- Lightning in His Hand [Hunt and Draper]).

This imagery might seem to be wonderful to have and as a general rule, many of us will lose it as we become adults, but like many differences, the gift is not without its burdens - and the school years, one of the greatest burdens for strong visual thinkers is that what they say may seem overly simplistic and jumbled.

At left, a study that shows that the meanings of words and pictures seem to converge onto a similar language areas in the brain, but also there are areas that remain distinct.

The Visual-Verbal Divide is much more common than educators seem to think. It may be we see this difficult especially often because of our interest in dyslexia; we can't tell you how many times that wonderfully bright visual thinkers are thought to be somewhat simpletons because their words convey so little of the richness of their understanding and experience.

A Few Quick Tips for Helping Visual Thinkers with Writing:

1. Check out Gerald Grow's article.
2. Elaborate - Recognize that what you frequently need to do is help with elaboration. What do you see? What is the scene? Are there feelings or sensory details that you can put into words (thesaurus!)
3. Audience - Remember your audience - what haven't you told them? Because visual thinkers may be so into a story, they may forget that there's an audience that is relying only on what was said. Often if you read through a young visual thinkers skimpy writing sample, you can point to every sentence and say, "What do you mean by this word? What do you mean by that word? etc."
4. Mindmap, then Sequence. Because visual thinkers may be in their story, they aren't thinking about a  conventional introduction, middle, and end. Instead they may write like a web, relating characters and events, but not forming a logical narrative.
5. Visual Modes of Expression and Dialogue   Use visual modes of expression like film, drawing, and diagramming. For storytelling, visual thinkers who are 'in' a story may be able to express themselves more naturally in first-person dialogue than third-person narration.
6. Be Patient   Young visual thinkers are classic late bloomers. Yes, there are ways to help, but it's also a good idea to understand big picture view of their growth and development

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Vivid Visual Thinkers
Visual and Verbal Learners
How Irrelevant Visual Images Can Confuse Visual Thinkers
Visual Thinking, Imagery, and the Brain


  1. Anonymous9:38 PM

    Can't thank you for this post enough! I'm a grown visual-spatial learner, and raising one, maybe two. My youngest is so competent and well-rounded (1st grade age 7) it's not clear if her primary processing mode is visual-spatial or not, whereas my oldest, 4th grade, told me when he was maybe only 6 that he wonders whether other people "can see the pictures in my brain." (which ones, dear?) "The ones behind my forehead."

    I *know* about VSL, I know what it means, I have read much on the subject, yet still I've been stumped by my 4th grader's challenges with writing this year.

    (Sidenote: would love it if you wrote about or could point me toward the great math divide issues with VSL - as he's struggling through the barrier between concrete math that he can do in his head and the hard work of crunching numbers to do long division, with a semi-incomplete multiplication table in his head.)

    This gave me a big aha and I'm going to pass it along to his teacher, as I think this will help us both understand better how to guide and help him to elaborate and to put the right kinds of information down depending on what the assignment/audience needs.

  2. I agree with Karen Smith, Many thanks. Very good blog.

  3. LOL - movies begin as a verbal blueprint (script).