Visual Thinking: There's No Word for It

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on August 14, 2013, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

Leo Segedin   |   August 14, 2013 |   Print this essay


We are different from animals in two, fundamental ways – our self awareness and our ability to represent the experiences that result from this awareness. Only we have the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize ourselves as individuals separate from the environment and other individuals. We recognize that if we are aware of ourselves, other humans must be too and this gives us the possibility of empathy, communication and cooperation to satisfy our common needs. Such self awareness must be hard–wired. Research by child psychologists suggest that humans have some sense of who they are even before they develop language. Experiments with animals have led some researchers to believe that apes, elephants and even dolphins are self–aware in that they can recognize themselves in mirrors. But this self recognition is not the same as self awareness in that animals are not aware that they do. Similarly, chimpanzees may have the intelligence of a three–year–old human, be able to anticipate the impact of their actions on their environment and laugh when tickled, but they are not known to laugh at themselves. Animals may be aware, but they are not self aware.

The second quality that distinguishes us from animals is our ability to make representable sense out of the chaos of our sensory experiences. There is no intrinsic meaning in the light rays that stimulate our eyes, in the electro–chemical systems in the visual centers of our brain or in the stimulation of our other senses. Animals probably convert these physiological processes into mental representations, but humans give them meaning when they become conscious of their representations in language and images. Only we can create meaning in carved or constructed objects, ordered sounds and marked surfaces.

It is through representations that we create our sense of reality. However, since the physical forms of these representations are distinct and separate from the subjective experiences they represent, they also can be, and most often are, manipulated independently. This allows us to create representations which refer to other representations rather than to stimuli. As a result, they often bear only tenuous connections to a perceptible reality, even though they are usually regarded as if they were real.

For all practical purposes, any stimuli which are not recognized in these representations do not exist for us. Representations are accepted as objective and true as long as they help us to function and anticipate future events and we reluctantly change them when they no longer serve these purposes. We assume that there is a world, perhaps several, beyond our experiences. There must be phenomena of which we are unaware or which must exist in order to make sense out of what we are aware, but all that humans can ultimately know of them is through these representations.


Many of us believe that human experiences are best represented with words, that intelligent thought requires verbal language. In fact, most intellectuals believe that the highest levels of thought are to be found in language. The linguist, Benjamin Whorf, even maintained that we cannot see an object unless we had a word for it. Language is linear and discursive, so to have meaning, words must be arranged in a sequential order according to the rules and principles of syntax. Although every language has a vocabulary with generally accepted meanings, such meanings can change in different contexts. Different words can have the same or similar meanings. Sometimes a word is equivalent to whole complexes of other words and, as a result, meaning can be expressed in several different ways. When organized in terms of syntax, words can create composite symbols with new meanings. Language allows us to think, remember, imagine and describe things. It can represent the relationships between concepts, communicate them to others and allow us to speculate about the future. Logic, philosophy, science, mathematics and intellectual discourse are based on such sequential structures. And, of course, great literature gives us insight into the possible meanings of our lives


Nevertheless, we have many experiences which cannot be articulated in words. In fact, most of our experiences are non–verbal. Language cannot adequately communicate visual, aural, kinesthetic and tactile sensations and falls short in representing emotions, moods, the subconscious and other states of mind. We often find our responses to the vastness of the universe beyond description in words. Our experience of music and ballet, of works of visual art are ultimately ineffable. And, most important from a cultural point of view, nowadays, even the most mundane, everyday representations in our lives are the visual, electronic media where words are secondary. We take for granted the extent to which photographs, film, TV, compute, IPhone and Skype images now create our sense of reality. We are bombarded with images – TV, computer, billboard, newspaper and magazine commercials and political propaganda, news events, cartoon animation, package design…. In fact, Medieval man did not encounter in his whole lifetime the number of visual images modern man sees in one day. Modern society could not function if it had only verbal, print communication. Some cultural theoreticians maintain that that our culture has taken what they call 'a pictorial turn', that visual imagery has replaced printed words as the dominant form of cultural expression in our time. They point out that, while electronic representation is rapidly expanding, newspapers and magazines bookstores and publishers are disappearing. Some critics suggest that the distinction between image and word is no longer valid and that we really should be discussing what they call 'imagetexts' or 'metapictures'. It can even be argued that our culture never was primarily based on the printed word in that the basic literacy rate in this country has never been above 40%. Only 15 % of Americans read at a university undergraduate level. Of these, how many might be serious readers?

From a practical point of view, our understanding of objects, geographical spaces and physical processes are often best realized in visual form. Images and models, for example, those of DNA and brain structures, are essential in physiological studies. Telescopic and microscopic images enhance our knowledge of the world. X–rays, MRIs, and CT and PET scans are invaluable in medical diagnosis. Road maps get us where we are going more easily than verbal instructions. Graphs and charts help us understand economic and social processes. Diagrams, engineering and architectural blueprints and architectural sketches are better than word descriptions in designing any kind of construction project. All these are distinct ways, superior to language, of articulating such experiences.

Thought itself is not necessarily sequential or discursive. Often our thought processes make most sense in a spatial form, in images, rather than in a word sequence. Images are made of lines and colors and two and three dimensional shapes organized according to laws altogether different than those governing language. Although these visual elements can represent ideas or their reference arbitrarily established with words, their significance is determined by their spatial organization. Quantities, proximities, and intervals become significant, as does distance between elements, direction of lines and similarity of shapes. Size and proportional differences illustrate quantitative relationships, for example, bar graphs by the length of the bar and pie charts by the size of the portion. Language reflects these kinds of meanings when we talk about deep thoughts, high administrative positions, close friends, big men and leftist political opinions. Since visual elements in themselves have no intrinsic meanings, there are no referential library or dictionary definitions, but they are just as real, if not more real, than language descriptions.

In this kind of thinking, all the elements of an idea may appear simultaneously. We reflect this awareness when we "get the picture," meaning that we have a global, comprehensive view of a situation. Since complexity is not limited to what can be remembered from the beginning of a word sequence, their totality can be grasped in one, single act of perception. Also, because parts of such a construct are not limited to sequential arrangements, they can be moved around to establish new relationships. As a result, they can be combined in original, sometimes unexpected ways. This kind of thinking forms the basis of metaphors, of jokes and, most important, of creativity. In fact, not only is original art, inventions and intellectual insight the product of this kind of thinking. It may be the case that the highest level of creative, intellectual thought involves visual rather than verbal order.

Albert Einstein has said:
The words of the language as they are written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined….The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.
The mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, the developer of the field of fractal geometry, has described his thought processes in the same way.


In order to be effective, maps and diagrams must convey information about what actually or potentially exists in the physical world. Like maps and diagrams, representational paintings are flat surfaces covered with arrangements of lines, shapes and colors. But, rather than conveying information, they can create illusions. They can create virtual worlds which serve ideological, dramatic, psychological and more personal purposes. Although representations in painting are not necessarily accurate descriptions, they must nevertheless be plausible and convincing. For example, traditional Western paintings present geometric, three dimensional worlds in which people can act out dramatic narratives. They are based on what an observer might see from a fixed viewpoint. As in theater, this perspective includes the observer in the space, but separates him from the action. The spaces are created by geometric projection and volumetric forms as revealed by light and shade. In this reality, color is secondary and an aspect of the surface of an object. The process of seeing the object itself is taken for granted. Even within these limitations, a broad range of expression is possible. For example, the idealized bodies of people in Michelangelo's world and their impact on an observer are profoundly different from the empathetic subjectivity in Rembrandt's world.

On the other hand, although still based on vision, Impressionist paintings create worlds consisting, not of geometry and form, but of the color in the light reflected off objects and transmitted to our eyes. The process of seeing is part of the content of the painting. In the Impressionist world, color is the sensation in the eye of the observer rather than on the object being perceived. Using such concepts, Cezanne created a world in which such color variations created the space and in which an object is represented from shifting points of view. In his world, perception includes the movement of our head. In this sense, every original artist creates his or her own world.


Paintings not only represent or create reality. They can also represent subjective experiences, as well as provoke them. On a most fundamental level, we respond to paintings and photographs of facial expressions and body postures in the same way that a newborn intuitively responds to his mother's expression. Such images affect us physiologically and unconsciously affect our moods. Beyond that, we are disturbed by scenes of disaster. We respond with pleasure to images of natural landscapes where mountains and forests become scenes of idyllic beauty or dark, dangerous places of goblins and Gothic ruins. In the same way, cities become places of social relations and conflicts or the source of memory and nostalgia. The subconscious is seen as representations of what were hidden, irrational thoughts. Images of divinity, of cultural allegories and myths affect us in ways that language cannot.

Not only does the subject matter of a painting convey feeling, but the formal qualities of a painting do also. In a real sense, images are metaphors in that they can function in the same way that metaphors function in verbal language. In the world of language, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which two things otherwise unrelated are connected with each other because of some revealing correspondence. In images, the lines, shapes and colors can have expressive qualities which correspond to the qualities of particular subjective experiences. There is even a vocabulary of adjectives that describes these qualities. Color is described as bold, deep, flamboyant, festive and depressing, lines as delicate, serpentine, graceful, and shapes, sinuous, droopy or spiky. But even such words are inadequate to describe our psychological responses. To read a description of a color as bold is not the same as responding to a bold color. To read about an angry facial expression is not the same as seeing an angry face or even an image of an angry face. And, since such responses are visceral and unconscious, the subject matter of the image is irrelevant.


It is a common, Romantic belief that the emotions of the artist play a part in what a painting communicates, that the artist expresses his feelings and, for some artists, the act of painting is emotional catharsis. On this assumption, the creation of art is also used as therapy. But, for the most part, making paintings is a profession and, although a professional artist expresses emotion in his work, that emotion is not necessarily what he feels while working. An actor does not express his own emotion, but rather the emotion of the character he is playing. A comedian does not have to feel funny to act funny. Mozart did not have to be happy to write happy music. In the same way, a painter uses his skill in drawing, his knowledge of composition and the characteristics of paint to convey the emotions of his 'players'. The painting will not necessarily display his point of view toward his subject. Although an artist might feel satisfaction on the successful completion of a painting, it is not personal, emotional catharsis. It is not the pleasure that amateurs feel. It is rather the intentional product of his skill and knowledge.

On the other hand, although an artist's cultural and conceptual presumptions may underlie his work, they do not determine the personal aspects of his style. Since the painting process is primarily an unconscious skill, an artist's painting will have his 'handwriting, his 'mark, the product of his personality. The way an artist applies his brush strokes and manipulates color and form will be his. We will still be able to recognize individual characteristics in his work. We will be able to identify his 'style'.


Certainly, visual thinking plays a vital part in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, the part it plays in the Fine Arts is honored more in idealistic theory than in educational practice. Art museum attendance is higher than ever and more money is spent on paintings than any other cultural product, but creating significant responses to the visual arts is a continually decreasing part is general education and in the public media. Art education is often the first to be eliminated in any budgetary crisis. It may be true that language can be intellectually more subtle and contains a richer content than images and that the interpretations of paintings depend a great deal on language. Also, paintings can be superficially decorative or merely entertaining, but perception of serious works of art can be profoundly transformative. If we are sensitive to such images, in the same way that great literature affects our understanding of our selves and great music moves us profoundly, so looking critically at great paintings changes us. We are not the same after we've seen Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel or Goya's Third of May or a late self portrait by Rembrandt. Besides affecting the way we experience our lives, great paintings create our visions of nature, of society, of the human psyche. They give form to our sense of morality and injustice and they reflect on memory, mortality and death. Truly, images, sans words, make us human.

Find this content at: