How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?

Illustration by Miguel Porlan

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by for The New Yorker. To read the complete article, check others, and obtain information about subscription rates, please click here.

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Some people say their thought takes place in images, some in words. But our mental processes are more mysterious than we realize.

I was nineteen, maybe twenty, when I realized I was empty-headed. I was in a college English class, and we were in a sunny seminar room, discussing “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” or possibly “The Waves.” I raised my hand to say something and suddenly realized that I had no idea what I planned to say. For a moment, I panicked. Then the teacher called on me, I opened my mouth, and words emerged. Where had they come from? Evidently, I’d had a thought—that was why I’d raised my hand. But I hadn’t known what the thought would be until I spoke it. How weird was that?

Later, describing the moment to a friend, I recalled how, when I was a kid, my mother had often asked my father, “What are you thinking?” He’d shrug and say, “Nothing”—a response that irritated her to no end. (“How can he be thinking about nothing?” she’d ask me.) I’ve always been on Team Dad; I spend a lot of time thoughtless, just living life. At the same time, whenever I speak, ideas condense out of the mental cloud. It was happening even then, as I talked with my friend: I was articulating thoughts that had been unspecified yet present in my mind.

My head isn’t entirely word-free; like many people, I occasionally talk to myself in an inner monologue. (Remember the milk! Ten more reps!) On the whole, though, silence reigns. Blankness, too: I see hardly any visual images, rarely picturing things, people, or places. Thinking happens as a kind of pressure behind my eyes, but I need to talk out loud in order to complete most of my thoughts. My wife, consequently, is the other half of my brain. If no interlocutor is available, I write. When that fails, I pace my empty house, muttering. I sometimes go for a swim just to talk to myself far from shore, where no one can hear me. My minimalist mental theatre has shaped my life. I’m an inveterate talker, a professional writer, and a lifelong photographer—a heady person who’s determined to get things out of my head, to a place where I can apprehend them.

I’m scarcely alone in having a mental “style,” or believing I do. Ask someone how she thinks and you might learn that she talks to herself silently, or cogitates visually, or moves through mental space by traversing physical space. I have a friend who thinks during yoga, and another who browses and compares mental photographs. I know a scientist who plays interior Tetris, rearranging proteins in his dreams. My wife often wears a familiar faraway look; when I see it, I know that she’s rehearsing a complex drama in her head, running all the lines. She sometimes pronounces an entire sentence silently before speaking it out loud.

In the recent book “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions,” Temple Grandin explains that her mind is filled with detailed images, which she can juxtapose, combine, and revise with verve and precision. Grandin, an animal behaviorist and an agricultural engineer at Colorado State University, has worked designing elements of slaughterhouses and other farm structures; when tasked with estimating the cost of a new building, she looks at her plans, then compares them in her mind with remembered images of past projects. Just by thinking visually, she can accurately estimate that the new building will be twice or three-quarters the cost of one that’s come before. After the pandemic began, she read a lot about how medications can help our bodies fight covid-19; as she read, she developed a detailed visual analogy in which the body was a military base under siege. When she thought about cytokine storms—events in which the immune system becomes over-activated, causing out-of-control inflammation—she didn’t conceptualize the idea in words. Instead, she writes, “I see the soldiers in my immune system going berserk. They become confused and start attacking the base and lighting it on fire.”

Reading Grandin’s book, I often found myself wishing that I were more visual. My mental snapshots of growing up are flimsy—I’m never quite sure whether I’m recalling or imagining them. But Grandin easily accesses “clear pictorial memories” of her childhood, complete with “three-dimensional pictures and videos.” She vividly recalls “coasting down snow-covered hills on toboggans or flying saucers,” and can even feel the lift and dip of the sled as it bumps down the slope; she effortlessly pictures the delicate three-stranded silk she held between her fingers in embroidery class, in elementary school. If her mind is an imax theatre, mine is a fax machine.

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Joshua Rothman, the ideas editor of, has been at The New Yorker since 2012.

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