Skip to main content
No. 1079:
Thinking in Pictures

Today, we try to think our way to the heart of the matter. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Physicist Richard Feynman told about a conversation with his friend Bennie when they were 12. "Thinking is nothing but talking to yourself," said Feynman. "Oh yeah?" said Bennie. "Do you know the crazy shape of a crankshaft in a car? How did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?"

With that, Feynman suddenly realized that most thinking isn't verbal at all. If you don't happen to know what a crankshaft looks like, don't try to find out without looking at a picture. The shape is far too complex. Eugene Ferguson uses that idea in his wonderful book, Engineering and the Mind's Eye. He goes on to say,

The mind's eye, the locus of our images of remembered reality and imagined contrivance, is an organ of incredible capacity and subtlety. Collecting and interpreting much more than the information [entering the optical eyes], the mind's eye is an organ in which a lifetime of sensory information [in all its forms] -- is stored, interconnected and interrelated.

As I read that I consider what goes on in my own head. Trying to reduce thought to words hamstrings me. The problem of formulating words takes precedence over the matter I'm trying to think about.

That may seem pretty obvious if I'm designing a crankshaft. It's less obvious, but equally true, when I'm trying to think of a way to make peace between two friends, or to relive a nice time I had the day before. Casting thought into words simply leads me away from the heart of the matter.

Ferguson quotes William James, who said that a favorite topic of conversation with his Harvard colleagues was the question, "Is thought possible without words?" James had no problem with that one. Of course it was possible. Yet the fact the debate was going on makes it clear that it was not obvious to everyone.

I once read William James's personal copy of an engineering mechanics text in the Harvard Library. In the back, a young James had reconstructed graphical solutions of complicated equations. Of course he understood. You only have to watch animals to see how sophisticated nonverbal thinking can be. Yet the intellectuals around James have colored our beliefs. Ferguson quotes academics who say things like this:

Some researchers are eager to give the less intellectual aspects of human personality equal weight with verbal ones.

He quotes another scientist who talks about

The visual rather than the purely intellectual aspects of the problem.

How horribly wrong-minded that is! Thought lives in the recreation of the whole realm of remembered senses. Thought is at its most abstract and sophisticated, not when it's first cast into words, but rather when it goes directly to -- the heart of the matter.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ferguson, E.S., Engineering and the Mind's Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.