January 30, 2013

Thinking and language

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 4:18 pm by chavisory

A friend sent me a link to this Radiolab episode (“Voices in Your Head”) from a couple years ago in response to a different inquiry altogether (having to do with certain experiences of schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations), but it was startling to me in an unexpected way.


Jad is talking to developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough about how he believes children learn to think by internalizing external verbal processes:

CF: I don’t think very young children do think.

JE: Like, think, period?

CF: I don’t think they think in the way that I want to call thinking.

JE: What he meant, is that thinking as he defines it, is just words sounding silently in your head, and before you have those words in your head, you can’t think.

Early in the episode, Fernyhough asks us to think of a parent and child solving a jigsaw puzzle together, and the back and forth dialogue between them in which, he posits, a child learns to think.  The “thinking” here, he says, is happening in the interaction between parent and child, and not internal to one or the other at all.  It’s by learning to make this verbal process internal, that we become thinking people, he says.  “If you watch any kid with their parents, anywhere in the world, doing this kind of thing, you’ll see them thinking together,” he tells us.

Immediately I thought, “How insulting to non-speaking or non-verbal people,” or even to people whose primary intelligence is not linguistic, but spatial, movement-oriented, artistic, or musical?

But then I was even more stunned.  Wait, I thought…Is this possibly why so many people cannot imagine that someone who doesn’t talk doesn’t truly think?  Why people are so highly skeptical of the genuine intelligence of someone who can type but not speak?  Because most people do, in fact, learn to think by speaking and can imagine no other way?

I never did engage in the kind of mutual narration described, or individual narration about what I was learning to do; being forced to engage in that kind of communication while trying to understand or carry out a task actually badly impedes my ability to do it.  I have the damnedest time getting people to understand that I’ll be better off if they show me something once or twice and then leave me alone to get comfortable with it, rather than hanging over my shoulder and re-explaining and correcting until I’ve got it perfectly, which will never happen under those circumstances.  It’s also one of the major reasons why I did so badly in cognitive-behavioral therapy:  Because having to speak severely impedes my ability to think.  I speak by translating and selectively externalizing my internal understanding; I don’t think by internalizing what’s external.

Even my memories of learning to write are hardly verbal at all; they’re very experiential, visual, and physical.  I remember the pattern of it becoming intuitive more than the words themselves.

Frequently in my line of work, I find myself defending the intelligence of dancers to other people, explaining that you just can’t expect them to be able to communicate much of their intelligence verbally.  It’s just not how they work best.  It’s not the framework in which they’re approaching the world.

But look at their intuitive grasp of physics, space, movement, group dynamics, and the capabilities of the human body.  That is just as much intelligence as anything you can measure on a standardized test, and it never stops being astonishing to me.

Or, in college I knew an art student who reported that when she’d been painting alone for a long time, she had a really hard time switching back over into speech…like if her roommate came home unexpectedly and said hello.  I have a really hard time buying that in those preceding hours, she wasn’t thinking at all just because she wasn’t doing it in words, but in color, shape, and movement.

It’s incredibly arrogant, too, the presumption that because this is how you, or even most people, learn to think about the world, that that is how it must be done, and if it wasn’t, then those people aren’t really thinking at all…that thought itself cannot occur in a frame of reference radically different from the one that most people take for granted.  Or that nothing of significance could be understood if it can’t easily be translated to speech or verbal language.  And that’s not even taking into account all the conditions by which someone may in fact have a very verbal understanding of the world, but not be able to physically speak for whatever reason (like oral motor apraxia).  The prejudice is to assume that they cannot think or understand, rather than to look for ways that they could make their understanding known.

What I’m starting to think is that it’s not the autistic who have a theory of mind problem.

I’m at my favorite coffee shop again, like I usually am on days when I don’t have to be at work till evening.  Patrons are actually sitting outside this morning, because it’s sunny, calm, and 45 degrees instead of 10.  A woman smoking at the table nearest the door pushes her last fragment of baklava—shimmering with honey—to the edge of the table for the sparrows to share, and as one alights on the edge of the table to seize it, the sun for just a moment shines through its widespread wings, turning both bird and pastry a translucent luminous gold…like the bird was solidified from light itself.

And though I write poetry, there are no words I can find sufficient for the sight…not really.  Even the above paragraph feels and sounds klutzy and contrived compared to what it actually looked and felt like.

If I had even fewer words than this to describe it to you, would that mean that I didn’t truly see or feel or understand that moment?  I don’t think so.


  1. Your entries always make me think.

  2. dixieredmond said,

    Hmmmmmmm. I agree that thinking is not embodied in words. Thinking happens in so many intuitive ways. People who are involved with the arts see this more clearly than people who are word driven.

    I remember in high school being in a class where I was doing an independent study on art, and another student was doing an independent study with writing. The writer said out loud to the teacher, that what she was doing was “harder” than what I was doing. I still have a drawing of that person. I wonder where she is and what she is doing.

  3. Emma said,

    ” I speak by translating and selectively externalizing my internal understanding; I don’t think by internalizing what’s external.” I resonate with that. Can you expand upon it?

    • chavisory said,

      Sadly, I’m not actually sure I could by very much…it’s like, for most things, I have to understand something on its own terms BEFORE I can put words to it.

  4. Lindsay said,

    Oh my gosh, I don’t think either! Amazing!

    (I do tell people sometimes that if they could look into my head and see my thoughts, they wouldn’t necessarily see anything, but I tell them that to try and acquaint them with how non-semantic, unpredictable and slow-moving my thought processes are. I certainly don’t mean for them to infer that I *HAVE* no thoughts worthy of the name….)

    • chavisory said,

      Yeah, I have thoughts that take a looooong time to ferment into something explainable, too. Like, there are things that I could never answer the question “What do you think about this?” because…I’m still thinking about it, and may be for months or years until I see or understand the pattern that I’ll eventually be able to put words to.

  5. tagAught said,

    I’m able to think in words – but it tends to be in a very visual way (quite often, if I slow my thoughts down enough, I “see” that I’m thinking the words as images of their spelling). To me, it seems entirely logical that people can think in images, in music, in synthesthia-istic ways, in math, in touch….

    Why wouldn’t they?

    Hm. Maybe you’re right, and it’s not us – or not just us – who have the theory of mind issue; it’s *all* of humanity. I’ve often wondered what “green” would look like if I could inhabit someone else’s mind. (Thought-experiments on telepathy!) It might very well seem different. I have a friend who can see somewhat into the ultraviolet range – I imagine that colours (especially near that end of the spectrum) look rather different to her than my conception of them. But they’re the same colours, the same wavelengths of light….

    A strong post. Have put it on Twitter with the hashtag #slpeeps (Speech Language People) – my sister is an SLP. I think I’ll be interested to get her reaction to this.

    😉 tagAught

  6. Ib Grace said,

    This. So much.

  7. Sian Atkins said,

    “having to speak severely impedes my ability to think.” – I like this bit especially. It reminds me of one of the only YouTube videos Cynthia Kim (of Musings of an Aspie) made (called “Why Talking is Hard” or something similar). She didn’t want to make any more precisely because trying to verbalise her thoughts prevented the thoughts themselves from properly forming. It’s like trying to maintain a dual track of thinking and talking.
    For myself, I am a verbal thinker, so most my thoughts are in words, but it works best if they stay in my head; having to speak them out loud impedes the thinking.

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