Why Visual-Spatial Thinking Isn't a Thing

Ragette, a friend and frequent reader, hates hearing that there's "no such thing as right-brain thinking."  She says:

In Dr. Bolte Taylor's insight..she describes the right brain as "in the NOW, picture and kinesthetic oriented." That is so strange, because, that is EXACTLY how I had to teach my 3 year old son, who could not answer hte question, "What is your name?" who didn't know the difference between "yes" and "no," who in fact had no functional language except to name nouns (which could be visualized pictorially")...We literally used a curriculum of daily presentation of non-noun words (using Catherine Maurice's book, Behavioral Interventions for Young Children with Autism, if I remember the name correctly) which showed him in black and white representational pictures (PECS symbols from his speech therapist) for two hours a day over a year.  That's 700 hours of therapy, besides the speech and OT he got at school for 6 years. By age 10, he was able to talk somewhat freely without using memorized scripts (from T.V. shows he watched repeatedly to teach himself language) or echolalia.
It bothers me considerably when people say there is no left brain/right brain preference or difference. You are saying, what I did for my son was useless, his difference does not exist. Harumpf.

Well, obviously his difference exists, and it sounds like what she did for him worked, but I'd still say that "left brain" and "right brain" as most people talk about them is a myth.  You know, stuff like this:

Wait, how can I believe these seemingly contradictory things?

To me, there are actually two issues here.  The first is whether the thinking style we call "right brain thinking" exists.  The second is whether it stems from differences between the right and left brain.

In this post, I'm going to talk about a related thinking style that's a little easier to pin down than "right brain thinking," and probably a little closer to how her son thinks: "visual-spatial thinking."  The arguments I'm making about it are almost identical to what I'd say about "right-brain thinking," though, except that right-brain thinking involves creativity and artistic ability too, and is thus even messier.  In the second post, I'll get to the brain science.

Visual-spatial thinking has been most intelligently discussed by Howard Gardner and of course, Temple Grandin.  Perhaps its most passionate champion is Linda Kreger Silverman, head of the Gifted Development Center.  She became interested in what she calls "visual-spatial thinking" because

Around 1980, I began to notice that some highly gifted children who took the top off the IQ test with their phenomenal abilities to solve items presented to them visually or items requiring excellent abilities to visualize.  These children were also adept at spatial tasks, such as orientation problems. Soon I discovered that not only were the highest scorers outperforming others on visual-spatial tasks, but so were the lowest scorers.  

Here's how she differentiates visual-spatial learners from everyone else (who she dubs "auditory-sequential learners"):

Auditory-Sequential Thinkers
Visual-Spatial Thinkers
Thinks primarily in words
Thinks primarily in pictures
Has auditory strengths
Has visual strengths
Relates well to time
Relates well to space
Is a step-by-step learner
Is a whole-part learner
Learns by trial and error
Learns concepts all at once
Progresses sequentially from easy to difficult material
Learns complex concepts easily and struggles with “easy” skills
Is an analytical thinker
Is a good synthesizer
Attends well to details
Sees the big picture, may miss details
Follows oral directions well
Reads maps well
Does well at arithmetic
Is better at math reasoning than computation
Learns phonics easily
Learns whole words easily
Can sound out spelling words
Must visualize words to spell them
Can write quickly and neatly
Prefers keyboarding to writing
Is well-organized
Creates unique methods of organization
Can show steps of work easily
Arrives at correct solutions intuitively
Excels at rote memorization
Learns best by seeing relationships
Has good auditory short-term memory
Has good long-term visual memory
May need some repetition to reinforce learning
Learns concepts permanently; is turned off by drill and repetition
Learns well from instructions
Develops own methods of problem solving
Learns in spite of emotional reactions
Is very sensitive to teachers’ attitudes
Is comfortable with one right answer
Generates unusual (perhaps she means multiple?) solutions to problems
Develops fairly evenly
Develops quite asynchronously
Usually maintains high grades
May have very uneven grades
Enjoys algebra and chemistry
Enjoys geometry and physics
Learns languages in class
Masters other languages through immersion
Is academically talented
Is creatively, mechanically, emotionally, or technologically gifted
Is an early bloomer
Is a late bloomer

As the variety of abilities and behavior in the table suggest, "visual-spatial thinking" is a cluster concept (follow the link for explanation).  And her story perfectly illustrates how cluster concepts develop.  A clinician notices a set of traits that occur together in a lot of people, and suspect these characteristics have a tendency to cluster together.  The clinican gives it a name.  If others recognize the new cluster, they will start to think of it as a thing out there in the world (like malaria is a thing, and not just a diagnosis).  If the cluster concept becomes powerful enough, as "introversion" and "extraversion" have, people may even have trouble thinking about the component traits independently and apart from the cluster.

Linda Silverman includes many traits I've never seen anyone else associate with visual-spatial thinking (such as learning better actively than passively, being bad at rote memorization, being a late bloomer, and developing asynchronously--all traits I, personally, associate with twice exceptional people whether or not they have spatial gifts).  If we take those out and boil the list down to its essential elements, the cluster concept "visual-spatial thinking" consists of the following traits:

1. Visual and/or spatial talent, relative verbal weakness ("Spatial dominance").
2. Strong visual processing, relatively weak auditory processing ("Visual thinking").
3. A tendency to see everything about a topic at once, often using intuitive leaps, rather than thinking in sequences of small steps ("Holistic").

Some people--probably those who inspired the cluster concept in the first place--do have all of these characteristics.  But not everyone with spatial dominance has stronger visual than auditory processing, and some are sequential thinkers (for example, Temple Grandin in Thinking in Pictures imagines a sequence of every dog she's ever seen when she encounters the word "dog," she doesn't see all the pictures at once).

An aside:  It gets more complicated still, because visual and spatial talent actually dissociate in most people, perhaps because they occur on separate visual pathways, and most people strong in one are relatively weak in the other.  Furthermore, one could divide "visual" and "auditory" into how one best takes in information versus how one processes the information one has already received.  For example, I usually hear my thoughts as if an internal voice were talking, and I can't picture a detailed, realistic image.  But I understand and remember what I see much better than what I hear.  One could call me an auditory thinker who prefers visual input.  But for ease of understanding, let's put these caveats aside for now.

In visual terms, here's how people actually divide up:

Spatial Dominance:

“Visual-Spatial Learner”

Verbal Dominance:

Me, probably
“Auditory-Sequential Learner”

Now, it's possible that there are more "visual-spatial learners" than other spatially dominant types, and more "auditory-sequential learners" than other verbally dominant types.  That's an empirical question which I've never seen asked. And the consequences of not asking, of just assuming every visually or spatially gifted kid you meet will be a "visual-spatial learner," are huge.

Suppose you run a clinic for smart children who struggle in school.  A child comes to you who learns well from 2D diagrams (e.g., tables, graphs) and mental maps, as well as from text.  This child thinks in large mental leaps and often can't explain how he got his answers, and he has to understand the larger principle of what he learns before he can understand or remember the details.  (For example, he learned easily that the Stamp Act preceded the Tea acts that provoked the Boston Tea Party, and how colonists responded to each one, but couldn't tell you the dates of either event).  However, his verbal IQ is over 20 points higher than his performance IQ, and he gets lost easily.  Furthermore, despite his skill at learning from abstract 2D images, he has difficulty with 3D spatial relationships, as when mentally rotating shapes in his head or putting together blocks and Legos.  What would you call him and how would you help him?

Since he has 2/3 of the traits of "visual-spatial learners," you might call him that.  Accordingly, you might suggest solutions that won't work for this child with spatial weaknesses, such as learning by building 3D models.

Or, you might focus on his large verbal-spatial IQ gap and assume he's an extreme verbal sequential thinker. You might then assume he has good rote memory but poor comprehension, or he might excel at learning from lectures rather than reading.  You might attempt to remediate his nonexistent comprehension weaknesses, while ignoring strategies (like teaching mental mapping) that might help him learn better.  You might not recognize his difficulties understanding lectures and teach him how to use his conceptual, verbal, and 2D visual skills to take good notes anyway.

If there weren't a few people who actually had all the "visual-spatial learner" traits, I would say there is no such thing as visual-spatial thinking.  Instead, I'll say that the concept of "visual-spatial thinking" divides people up in ways that can prevent us from seeing their real pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

To bring us back to Ragette, the right brain concept--like the visual-spatial concept--seem to have helped her see her son's strengths when he was most disabled.  (I think she would have recognized them anyway). From the outside, it seems like the "right brain" concept helped confirm what she already knew, and maybe explain it to other people, and didn't limit her understanding of her son.  Maybe the label did completely fit her son, or maybe it didn't but still helped, because she was focusing on her son, and not on the label.  Cluster concepts have many flaws, but maybe they mainly cause harm when people focus on them, not the person who bears them.

Are you the prototypical visual-spatial or auditory-sequential learner, or do you have some characteristics but not others?  Have you or your child ever been shoehorned into one of these categories when it didn't fit?  If you research spatial thinking, how do you try to separate out its many strands?


  1. Ha, your having the traits of verbal and spatial thinking styles made me realize something.

    I've always considered myself a very, very visual thinker --- my thoughts are exclusively images, and don't have anything like syntax, so I could not draw a "concept map" of them --- but also been confused because visual thinkers are supposed to be good with maps and I'm ... not. I *CAN* do it, but it takes a while and it's not easy.

    But when you have the two styles matched up, with being able to follow auditory directions as the verbal thinker's equivalent to map-reading, it all makes sense. I may not be very good at map reading, but I have NO aptitude for hearing directions. None. My brain goes "NOPE!" and shuts down. I don't even hear much of what the person is saying.

  2. Glad I could help inspire this interesting insight!

    I hadn't realized until you pointed it out that concept maps are based at least implicitly on syntax. It sounds like you can use lots of other imagery, though, so maybe having difficulty with concept maps isn't a big deal.

    Having your brain shut down when you're listening to directions sounds frustrating. How did you deal with lectures in school?

  3. Weirdly, lectures never gave me much trouble. I think it's easier for me to understand a verbal explanation when it's conceptual --- here's how this works, here's how these things fit together --- than procedural. I've always had terrible trouble learning how to do things from another person, but I can usually understand it when another person tries to explain an idea to me.

  4. Hi. I've got to tell you one thing that I remember. Ben was given a Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of intelligence at age 4. I don't have a copy of the test scores, but I do remember 2 of them.

    Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI)
    Visual Spatial Index (VSI)
    Working Memory Index (WMI)
    Fluid Reasoning Index (FRI)
    Processing Speed Index (PSI)

    Emily, his VSI was that of a 10 year old! His VCI was around 2 years old. This was the year after we worked on language visually, age 4. He did not yet know the difference between yes and no. (Not able to be visualized).

    I volunteer for Dyslexic Advantage, I do the Closed Captioning for their videos. Just today I finished a video by Fumiko Hoeft. She feels language disadvantage and visuospatial advantage may be causally related. (around 9'50") https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esC5A_ppTbg I may not make it back for a while. I just came cross this post by accident.

    The last testing we had done, I NEED to send the results to you, his Verbal Intelligence score was 126. He fits, almost exactly, the Cognitive Profile of a Dyslexic Student. http://raggette.blogspot.com/2014/09/dyslexic-advantage-picture-this.html I kind of took their work, and put my spin on it. High verbal, low processing. Is he autistic or dyslexic? I don't know.