In our house, we’ve been having a bit of fun over the last few weeks thinking about thinking. Now I’m not talking about Socratic argument-type ideas. I’m talking quite literally about ‘how’ we think.
If you’ve been reading about education for a while now, you would have run into the idea that people are either visual/spatial or auditory/sequential thinkers. Now, I’m not going to agree with these – nor really disagree. But I am going to separate them out and include a new category – pattern thinking. BTW This is explained in Temple Grandin’s book – The Autistic Brain*, which is an awesome read.
As well as adding pattern thinking, I’m also not terribly happy with attaching sequential to auditory. That’s because I am an auditory thinker – but I am not sequential. I jump around and make intuitive leaps that do not always follow a logical sequence and tend to hold multiple contradictory ideas in my head in a kind of symbolic stew.
I’m also not keen on the idea of spatial being attached to visual (but they go together, don’t they? – not necessarily). What huh? You might say. Let me explain.
*This is a link to but this book – because if you want to read this awesome book, I want to make it easier for you – I am a book-enabler. But you can always hop over to your local library instead – libraries are cool.
The spatial part of visual/spatial is generally about the ability to rotate objects in your mind to be able to see patterns that match – ‘those two shapes are the same.’ So spatial is a way of lumping pattern thinking in with visual thinking. But that ain’t necessarily so.
I’m a pattern thinker – but I am not a visual thinker. So what is that like?
I store memories as sound – and I ‘see’ patterns of sound. This is particularly useful with music. I am able to hear a piece of music once and recognise it again, even if only a fragment of it is played. (Lyrics don’t matter, by the way, just the sound. I’m actually pretty terrible with lyrics). If I have heard it multiple times, I am able to pull it apart and see patterns. If I listen to enough of a particular genre of music, say hymnals, I am able to predict with fairly good accuracy the way a new tune I have never heard before will sound like – what motifs, pauses/rubato, end flourishes etc it will have. I would like to say I have used such knowledge for good, but I must admit, it was most useful as a skill when I was faking ‘knowing’ a piece of music I was supposed to have practiced. (I also used a technique called singing behind the note which my mum taught me – it’s simple – don’t start singing the note of a song for a fraction of a second, that way you can hear how everyone else is singing and mimic them. It’s a great technique for singing a song in a choir that you have never heard before, but it does rely on other people being well-rehearsed!).
Auditory pattern thinking is also incredibly useful at being able to ‘place’ music within say, a movie. A certain pattern of music, say a leitmotif, followed by other patterns might indicate a fight sequence with a particular main character and the ‘beats’ of the music indicate when certain events are happening. A reasonable, but not exhaustive knowledge about a film would then make it easy to pick the scene, e.g. dogfight music + Luke’s theme + imperial march implies Luke is in his X-wing trying not to be shot by Darth Vader. (It’s actually a little subtler than that, but it’s hard to put it into words – if you want to read about someone who was amazing at this kind of thinking, go and find a biography on Erich Wolfgang Korngold.)
This kind of stuff makes me great with things I have heard that have a pattern (and this applies to reading silently, as I ‘listen’ to my inner voice read a book.) But I am terrible, woeful and horrible with knowledge that is isolated and/or is not auditory – like names, dates and sadly, phone numbers. I don’t store my memories of people by their name, which sounds odd, I know. It may take me 5-6 times of hearing a person’s name before it will stick in my memory.
I am aware of the cultural norm – if you forget a person’s name it is quite an insult, particularly if you have known them for a while. I have had to build up techniques of conversation that work around knowing someone’s name – greetings that are non-name based, introductions of one person to another where they introduce themselves – and then I listen keenly so I can hear their name, and hopefully memorise it this time. I have learned the hard way that it is socially acceptable to ask someone’s name the second, or maybe the third time you meet, but not beyond.
This is not to say I have no memories – it’s just they’re not stored under a name. It might be ‘the lady who always gives my kids grapes at the grocery store’, or ‘she drives me to choir and has beautiful brown hair’. Over time, those memories accumulate so there is enough of a pattern for the name to stick (and if they’re story-based they stick faster – if you told me a story about your 2nd cousin and his problems with getting a licence, I’ll remember that, and you’ll probably also be stored under ‘man who told story about 2nd cousin getting a licence’) – but it will never be the first thing I remember.
This is true even of my loved ones, for whom I have a memory cluster that will eventually pull out their name. Sometimes I can high-jack the process and speed up memory retention by creating patterns. If I know a lady whose name is Amelia, I can attach her name to the idea of the famous aviator, Amelia Earhart. So when I meet this lady, my brain goes – plane – famous aviator – Amelia Earhart – ‘Hi Amelia!’
Being a pattern thinker but not a visual thinker can be weird – most tests of pattern recognition ability focus on visual clues. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m actually pretty good at visual pattern spotting, probably higher than average, but it is not intuitive, unlike my DH and my son.
For them, playing a game like KenKens or 2048, a new game on moving boxes around, is intuitive and fun – they are visual pattern thinkers and can see moves in advance. This kind of thinking is really useful for puzzle solving or playing chess. For the record, I can’t play chess. Oh I understand the rules, and can intellectually grasp that there are patterns to be exploited – but I just can’t translate it into being able to play the game. I know that watching me play visual-pattern based games is quite painful for my DH. And his advice to ‘just go with your intuition’ is deeply unhelpful. Like Emmett from the Lego Movie, I have no intuition. For me, it is a painstaking exercise in logical deduction. I’m just not able to keep up with their thinking – the pattern thinking is there, just not the visual thinking. This applies to almost all video games that have a large visual component and require intuitive visual pattern thinking – like the old-fashioned Street-Fighter style games.
Poor C so wanted me to play, and I tried. Eventually, he just resorted to stepping me through each step – ‘Mummy, go left now, then up’. It was a wonderful act of compassion.
That’s not to say I can’t solve difficult puzzles – but I have to break them down into high-level concepts in algebra or group theory. (Brain fry! What? They’re not simple! But they are for me – that’s different brains for you). I have solved those incredibly difficult hexagon puzzles where you match the heads and tails of various coloured objects (like fish), but I had to do it probabilistically – which arrangements of colours implied that a particular hexagon would be on the outside edge? Which had to be completely on the inside? And yes, I did it on paper, with algebra and statistics.
I also think this type of thinking is why I love Fractals – they’re geometry based on algorithms and patterns, and can be simplified back to algebraic expressions.
All in all, this thinking about thinking is a lot of fun, but it is also quite useful. I know that the way I think, while similar to my nearest and dearest, is actually quite different. What this means, is that I have to be aware that my way of making things easier to understand, is not theirs – things that are easy for me are hard for them, and vice versa. Just because I find a subject hard, doesn’t mean my son will and I have to be aware of my bias when selecting new ideas to show him. But it also means that ideas and subjects that I find exceptionally easy (say, seeing patterns, large structures, and symbolic references in texts) are going to require a bit more work before my son will grasp them. Or like, chess for me, it might be able to grasp that there is knowledge in there, and patterns, but he can’t see them. I don’t know, only time will tell.