My son Nicholas was thirteen when I read Temple Grandin’s autobiography Thinking in Pictures and learned two things that changed my life.
The first was that Nick was autistic. He didn’t have ADHD, which he’d been misdiagnosed with at age six. He didn’t have bipolar disorder, which he’d been misdiagnosed with at age nine, after three months in a mental hospital.
I put down Thinking in Pictures and knew my kid had autism. And that he was going to be okay.
And I also learned that there was something very, very strange about me.
Gradin talks in her book about thinking in pictures to the extent that words are her second language.
I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.
— Temple Grandin
I am a language-based thinker, alright. I’m so language-based that I don’t think visually at all. I don’t have a mind’s eye. Or, I do, but it doesn’t see. It — I don’t know. It conceives. My mind’s eye ideates; it’s not a movie projector.
The realization of just how different that is from other people was mind blowing.
I’m not huge on labels, but there’s a newish term for the kind of extreme language-based thinking I’m talking about. Aphantasia. I don’t like it, because it ‘a’ means lacking and ‘phantasia’ means imagination and that’s not right. On lots of levels.
I don’t lack an imagination. It just operates non-visually.
When I close my eyes and try to remember my mother, for example, here are strong sensory memories and there are words. And feelings. But I don’t get a picture.
So, I asked my husband, and he thought I was being ridiculous. You know what your mother looked like.
I do, of course. I look like her. Only she was blonder and I have brown eyes. I know that I’m built like her, my face has the same shape. I can bring up very brief flashes of very specific details. A pair of jeans she liked to wear that had belonged to my brother. The way her pale blue eyes sometimes shifted back an forth rapidly, a little tick that she didn’t know she had.
I remember them so strongly that they feel like they’re just on the edge of visual memory, but I can’t bring them all the way up.
I’ll remember something very, very specific like that — the yellow rose with the pink edges that my daughter and my sister and I saw at the rose garden in Portland a couple of weeks ago — and for a few seconds it’s almost there. I’ll almost see the inside of the gift shop.
I’ll certainly smell it, overpoweringly rosey. And I can feel the silk scarves between my fingers. Taste that rose-smell on the back of my tongue. But I can’t see it.
I can’t see my mother. It doesn’t upset me, because I haven’t lost the ability. I have never been able to visualize anything. So I don’t miss it.
Other sensory memories are stronger. I can still hear her voice, for instance. I remember exactly what she smelled like. She wore Charlie Perfume all her life, and face powder always makes me remember her. I made shepherd’s pie last night and it tasted just like the recipe she used to make it for me every year on my birthday. It doesn’t matter that I don’t actually have the recipe. I just know.
I do make visual connections. For some reason, I constantly see women who remind me of my sister. I’m not sure if that’s some under-developed part of my brain trying to fire off or what. But it’s always some small detail, not an overall appearance. The shape of the bridge of a nose or the way someone holds themselves will make me see her in someone who otherwise doesn’t look anything like her.
I don’t even dream in pictures.
This is the hardest thing to explain.
A friend once asked me if I just dream of the words. Like do I just see them scroll past? Well. No. That would be a picture of the words, wouldn’t it? It’s not auditory, either. It’s not like someone reading to me or narrating my dream. Although I wake up with a memory of the words.
It’s more like I dream in story.
My dreams are fully formed, and I often remember them vividly. Like the one where I opened my washing machine and my great-grandmother’s head was sitting on the agitator. We had a coversation about life.
I didn’t see it. I just — knew it. The idea of it. It wasn’t a nightmare. I wasn’t scared. Maybe I would have been, if I’d seen my Nana’s head on a washing machine agitator instead of just had the idea of it.
After I watched a documentary about a woman whose teenage son murdered her toddler daughter, I spent two nights having intense dreams about being caught in impossible situations.
It isn’t uncommon for me to have dreams that continue on for several nights.
I often dream of being chased. It’s my one recurring nightmare. And in dreams, I know that I’m riding a bicycle that won’t go fast enough or I’m running down a hall that keeps stretching.
I can’t see those things, anymore than I can see what’s happening when I read a book. But I feel them. I wake up knowing they happened, the same way I know that I know that went to Wal-Mart yesterday.
Maybe because I don’t dream in pictures, I tend to remember my dreams more than anyone else I know. I wonder sometimes if my brain is like a hard drive. Because I’m not filling it up with video all night long, there’s more space to record.
Strangely, the only time I ever dream in pictures is if I fall back to sleep in the morning, after a night where I didn’t sleep well. Very rarely, I’ll have a few minutes of crazy, visual dreams that completely freak me out. They unsettle me enough that I try not to let it happen.
I have a hard time connecting names with faces.
I read, and adored, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby a couple of years ago. It’s about a boy who has face blindness. I don’t have face blindness, but I recognized myself in that character.
I have a terrible time connecting a face to a name. It’s embarrassing. People I absolutely should recognize, whom I’ve had significant experiences with, I can’t recognize visually if enough time has passed for me to have lost the connection between their faces and their names.
The second I hear their names, everything snaps into place like a rubber band. Because I’m a language-based thinker and their name, not their face, is what I need to make the connection.
I have lots of information about the people I’ve come in contact with on file in my mind. There’s nothing really wrong with my memory. It’s just that I don’t have a visual file. So I know what they look like and I have words like brunette, dark eyes, freckles, glasses, tall, round face — but lots of people fit that description. I need their name to unlock the file.
My husband, on the other hand, can see an 80-year-old in a movie and instantly place them as a child actor. It’s like his superpower. He never forgets a face or a name.
We moved last year to the little town where he grew up. He moved away after he graduated from high school, but there are dozens of people still here who he hasn’t seen in thirty years and he’s in his glory, seeing people on the street that he instantly recognizes and waiting for them to place him.
Just like the boy in Bone Gap, if someone has a very distinguishing feature, I have an easier time. For instance, when my daughter starts with a new soccer team there are always a few girls I can remember more easily.
They stand out for some reason. Maybe one girl has red hair. Or one is much taller than the rest. Maybe someone wears a knee brace or has a birthmark. A couple might be friends with my daughter and I know them already. I’m able to attach their names to them fairly quickly.
And there are always some girls I never can distinguish from each other. My brain just sees a gaggle of brownish ponytails, all the same height and build, wearing the same uniform. They’re too similar to each other in appearance for me to make a visual connection between them and their names unless I really get to know them. I have to use their uniform number to know who they are, sometimes for years.
My creative work is language based.
I’m a novelist, which requires me to create a world for other people.
For the most part, I don’t actually have to work too hard to write description. I’ve certainly read enough of them, so maybe that helps. I’ve just learned how to do it.
I know what I want a setting to feel like and that’s my starting point. I focus on what I want my reader to feel.
I don’t struggle to see things when they’re in front of me, of course. And I know what things look like. If I want to describe something specific, sometimes I’ll look up photographs.
The one problem I have is with remembering which details I’ve included in my work. I have to write them down. I keep a sort of story bible where I can keep those notes. Otherwise, I’m likely to forget the details I’ve written.
Both of my daughters are artists. So is my sister, my aunt, my grandmother. I am spectacularly non-artistic. I think I have a decent eye for things like design and style, but I struggle to create anything.
Mostly, because I don’t have the patience for it. I can’t picture the end result. It’s impossible to create something when you can’t imagine what you’re creating. Or at least it feels impossible.
Stories are different. Grandin talks about visual and language-based thinkers. Maybe the flip side of not being able to think visually is that I’ve got a hyper-developed ability to be a language-based thinker.
My mother taught me to read when I was three, because my need for stories was insatiable and she couldn’t keep up. I learned quickly. I went into school with standard five-year-old skills — except that I could already read.
I have a very vivid memory of standing on my grandmother’s back patio when I was eight or nine years old and having an epiphany. I could read anything. All of the words in the whole world were mine. They belonged to me. Even weird, long scientific words that I didn’t understand, I could sound out. I could read them and they were mine. I was filled with such an intense feeling of my own personal power.
There’s nothing wrong with my imagination.
It works just fine, thank you.
I sometimes think it’s too big for my body, actually. I am often overwhelmed by ideas. Bowled over by them. I get so excited about them — mine, other people’s, it doesn’t even matter.
Because I have no problem talking about my ideas, I can tell you all about how I think they’ll play out. How I imagine they’ll culminate. And, oh man, if you give me the chance, I’ll go on and on about your ideas, too.
I have a much harder time figuring out all the little steps between here and there. I get lost in them. I can usually manage the next step. If I’m lucky.
I have to have a kind of crazy number of strategies and systems in place to keep me on track, or I would never (I mean never, ever) finish anything. It’s hard for me to even realize sometimes that I’ve gone off track.
I’m sometimes taken by surprise when other people are shocked by my productivity. It isn’t that I’m such a go-getter. It’s that I have two modes. Either I don’t get anything done or I get everything done.
Because either I’m using my systems that bypass the fact that I can’t visualize anything, or I’m not.
I usually chalk that up to being extremely right brained, but maybe I’m extremely right brained because I can’t actually visualize my path.
You know how Olympic athletes talk about visualizing themselves going through their event, step-by-step, and winning? I can’t do something like that. At least, not literally.
I’m good with concepts and ideas, but I can’t close my eyes and meditate on an actual picture of myself doing anything.
In fact, meditation is almost painfully impossible for me. At least the kind where you close your eyes and visualize — I don’t know, your happy place or a quite meadow or something.
I only see black and my brain starts swimming with thoughts and ideas that have nothing to focus them. They batter me. If I’m going to focus, I need to open my eyes and actually see something.
Because I can’t visualize, I actually have to do it.
I can learn by reading. And I can learn by doing. But I can’t learn by listening at all, unless I also take extensive notes. Sometimes my husband will try to explain something to me. Give me directions, maybe. Or tell me how to do something he’d like me to do for him.
I can get maybe two turns in and then I just shake my head and hold up my hand to make him stop. It’s useless to go any further. I won’t remember. And if I let him keep going, it will only confuse me.
If I’m going to remember something, I have to write it down. I don’t usually have to go back to my notes, interestingly. But I have to actually write them down. Somehow the physical act of writing them transcribes them into the language center of my brain, and then they’re there and I can access them.
We moved to Pennsylvania in November and it took me months to not need my GPS to get home from the grocery store or to take my daughter to school. It got to the point of ridiculousness and I know that people thought I was doing it on purpose.
And I get it. It seemed like there was no possible way I couldn’t find my way home from the grocery store — it’s half a mile. But I couldn’t. I turned the wrong damned way every single time.
I struggled with the sudden change from desert sun to lake-effect gloom and spent a lot of that winter as a passenger. Plus, I didn’t have the few visual cues I’d gotten used to after years of living in the same place. It wasn’t until I pulled out of my funk and started driving myself that I was able to finally figure out my way around.
We live in a visual world.
And I guess it’s a little weird to be wired in such a way that I just don’t function very well within it. Here are some things that I’ve found that help me navigate our visual world a little more easily.
My kids think it’s hilarious that I’m so low tech. I need almost everything to be analog if it’s going to work for me. I can’t visualize how something will work out, so I have to write it down, sketch it out, plan it first. With a pencil on paper. Old school.
Step-by-step directions work best for me. If I want to learn how to do something, I seek out someone who teaches in a way that doesn’t skip steps, expecting me to be able to make a leap that my non-visual mind might completely miss.
I capitalize on the things that I’m good at. I’ve built an entire life, including a thriving career, around being a language-based thinker. Temple Grandin, incidentally, did the same thing with her extreme visual thinking. She turned her ability to intensely visualize into a career building livestock equipment that revolutionized that industry.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.