The Power of Abstract Thinking in the Unseen Mind

The concept of 'tokens' and 'types' helped me understand how we think differently: visualizers use specific imagery, while aphantasics excel in abstract thinking.
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token thinking, type thinking, abstract thinking
Statue of Themis from Greek mythology goddess and personification of justice, divine order, law, and custom. Lady Justice (Latin: Iustitia) is an allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems. Her attributes are a scale, sword and blindfold. The scale represents the impartiality of the court's decisions and the sword a symbol of the power of justice. The blindfold symbolic of the ideal, that justice should be applied without regard to wealth, power, or other status. Image taken of the Statue in Istanbul, Turkey.

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I was first introduced to C.S. Peirce’s concept of tokens and types in my conversation on Meta-Imagination with researcher Christian Scholz. This framework was especially insightful for someone like me with aphantasia, who navigates a world rich in visual imagery without the ability to visualize. 

The concept of ‘types’ and ‘tokens’ helped me better understand some of the different ways we think differently: visualizers use specific imagery, while aphantasics excel in abstract thinking. Token and type thinking are complementary cognitive styles, each enriching our understanding of the human mind.

This article delves into their unique strengths, challenges, and interplay, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of token vs type thinking in mental imagery.

Tokens: The Specifics of Imagery

When you think of a horse, what comes to mind? For many, the mind’s eye conjures a detailed, specific image—perhaps a chestnut stallion galloping across a sunlit meadow. Or imagine a beach; a visualizer might instantly recall the sunny shoreline and turquoise waves of a specific beach they visited last summer. 

The vivid, detailed, and often personal recollection of an object or scene represents a specific application of an ontological distinction that aligns with the broader philosophical framework of types and tokens described by C.S Pierce. Peirce’s distinction delineates between abstract, general concepts (types) and their concrete, particular instances (tokens) in the world. Applying this framework to mental imagery allows for a nuanced understanding of how individuals may or may not generate visual representations in the mind. 

Token thinking is rich in sensory details and emotional connections. These mental images are not mere pictures; they draw from our memories, sensory experiences, and, often, our deepest desires or fears. This more specific way of thinking is captured by Temple Grandin, animal behaviorist and author of Visual Thinking; The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions. Grandin describes her experience:

“When I was in my 20s, I thought everyone thought it pictures the way I thought […] But one time at a conference I asked a speech therapist: think about a church steeple. I was shocked that the only image she saw was a very vague two lines, where I see specific churches. They come up like a series of 35mm slides, or Powerpoint slides. As I start to see more and more of these churches, I can put them into categories like New England, stone cathedral, looks like a warehouse, etc. I can make finer categories as I get more and more specific images.

~Temple Grandin

Types: The Essence of Concepts

For those of us with aphantasia, our approach is fundamentally different. The focus isn’t on vivid, sensory-rich images (because we can’t imagine them) but rather on the essence, the concept of the object or idea. 

When we think of a horse, we don’t ‘see’ a specific animal in our mind. Instead, we think about the general characteristics, the idea of ‘horseness’—its context, sounds, and typical environments. 

The same goes for a beach. Rather than picturing a specific shoreline, we think about the concept of a beach. What does it represent? What are its essential qualities? This way of thinking in ‘types’ as opposed to ‘tokens’ allows us to bypass the specific imagery of our personal experiences and dive directly into the essence of the concept. This cognitive style is less about sensory details and more about abstract thinking, finding connections and relationships between ideas.

This more abstract way of thinking is succinctly captured by Blake Ross, a writer and software engineer with aphantasia. Ross describes his experience:

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the ‘concept’ of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself. But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself. And I grew up in Miami.

~ Blake Ross

The Unconscious Bias in Tokens

The allure of visualizing vivid, detailed images for someone with aphantasia is undeniable. Many aphantasics I talk to often express a desire to imagine in this sensory-rich way. The notion of engaging with a fictional technology to suddenly gain the ability to visualize conjures an enticing future. But before embracing this fantasy, it’s important to consider the complexities and potential downsides of token thinking. I’m particularly interested in some of the unconscious biases it may introduce.

With token thinking, many, if not most, details of a visualized object or scene are not consciously chosen but emerge automatically from the depths of our subconscious. This process is influenced by our past experiences, cultural background, personal biases, and emotional states. When visualizers conjure an image of a horse, for example, the specifics of this image—its colour, environment, and actions—are not typically the result of a deliberate choice. Instead, these details are an assemblage of past encounters, perceptions, and perhaps media influences. Depending on the individual’s past interactions or current perceptions about horses, the horse might appear in a field or on a racetrack and look majestic or weary.

This unconscious selection can significantly colour perceptions and reactions. For instance, a visualizer might picture a horse pulling a plow through the mud, evoking feelings of sympathy or nostalgia, influenced perhaps by a rural upbringing or historical movies. Conversely, another might imagine a horse drawing a carriage through the elegant streets of Vienna, invoking feelings of romance or luxury, possibly shaped by travel experiences or classical literature. These varying images can lead to different emotional responses and judgments about the same concept—in this case, a horse.

Such unconscious biases extend beyond simple objects to more complex ideas and situations. When visualizers imagine concepts like ‘home,’ ‘success,’ or ‘adventure,’ their token images are suffused with personal experiences and cultural connotations. For instance, the idea of ‘home’ may conjure an image of a specific type of house or family setting, influenced by one’s upbringing and cultural background. This specific image can colour a person’s perception of what ‘home’ means, potentially limiting their ability to fully appreciate the diverse forms that ‘home’ can take in different cultures or personal circumstances.

Similarly, when visualizers think of ‘success,’ their mental images might be filled with symbols and scenarios representative of success as defined by their personal experiences or societal norms—such as a high-ranking corporate job, material wealth, or public recognition. This specific visualization can narrow perspective, making it challenging to recognize and value other forms of success, such as the artist-entrepreneur or the indie hacker that may not align with these ingrained images. Additionally, this visual bias towards certain ‘tokens’ of success can inadvertently lead us to latch onto or dismiss ideas, as we might overlook more fundamental aspects of the idea or concept. In essence, the focus on these visual tokens can obscure a deeper, more inclusive understanding of what success truly means.

Abstract Thinking: The Unexpected Strength of Aphantasia

Individuals with aphantasia, who are unable to visualize and often lack any form of mental imagery, perceive concepts such as a horse, a home, or success through a broader, more abstract lens by default. This ‘type’ of abstract thinking can offer distinct advantages in certain contexts. 

One of the key strengths of ‘type’ thinking is its focus on the essence rather than the details, on the universal rather than the particular. This form of abstract thinking allows for a broader view, unencumbered by the constraints of specific imagery. This can be especially powerful in fields that, ironically, require ‘big-picture’ thinking.

Fields like strategic planning or theoretical science, where detaching from specific instances to consider wider possibilities and connections is crucial. In disciplines such as philosophy or complex problem-solving, where abstract thinking is paramount, aphantasics can excel by connecting dots across a wide conceptual landscape, often leading to novel insights and solutions.

Interestingly, one study has highlighted certain advantages of aphantasia, particularly within technical sectors. People with aphantasia are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries than in creative sectors. This suggests that the absence of specific tokens may, paradoxically, enhance the ability for abstract conceptualization, enabling unique contributions to fields that thrive on ‘type’ thinking.

The Potential Divergence in Complex Concepts

As we move beyond the realm of simple, tangible objects like horses to more intricate and abstract ideas, the potential for divergence in the way these concepts are visualized—or tokenized—becomes markedly pronounced. This divergence, inherent in token thinking, can have profound implications on both our individual cognitive processes and our collective communication dynamics.

When it comes to complex concepts—be it justice, love, freedom, or innovation—the range of imagery that different individuals might conjure is vast and varied. For one person, the concept of justice might evoke images of a courtroom, a balanced scale, or even a personal experience of fairness. For another, it might bring forth entirely different visualizations, perhaps influenced by cultural symbols, historical events, or literary depictions. Such variability in token thinking, while enriching the individual’s cognitive experience, also introduces a significant challenge in achieving a common understanding or consensus. The same language generates an infinite collection of tokens that shape perceptions and beliefs in a way that’s difficult to comprehend.

This divergence is not merely academic. In practical terms, it affects how we interpret and communicate about these concepts. In discussions or debates, people may believe they are talking about the same thing—justice, for instance—but in reality, they might be envisioning fundamentally different scenarios or principles. This can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and even conflicts, as each party operates from a different cognitive framework shaped by their unique token images. 

Mental imagery is an extension of past personal experience. For everyone, aphantasic or not, experience shapes and biases our understanding of concepts. However, in the case of the visual image that iconically represents an interpretation of past experiences, this bias on thought and behaviour might be strengthened for the visualizer. I wonder whether the commonly reported deficits in some aphantasics’ autobiographical memory would lessen these biases even further.

Moreover, this divergence in conceptualization can influence how information is processed, and decisions are made. When faced with complex problems or decisions, individuals may draw upon their specific token images, which can subtly guide or bias their reasoning and conclusions. This can be particularly impactful in fields like policy-making, education, or therapy, where understanding and addressing complex human experiences and societal issues are crucial.

It’s important to note, though, that this token divergence is not inherently negative. It reflects the rich diversity of human experience and thought. The challenge lies in acknowledging and bridging these cognitive gaps. In environments where understanding and collaboration are essential—such as in multicultural teams, interdisciplinary research, or international relations—recognizing and navigating this divergence becomes crucial. It calls for heightened empathy, open communication, and a willingness to explore and understand the varied mental landscapes of different individuals.

Token vs. Type: Understanding Our Cognitive Differences

In the expansive world of human cognition, it’s imperative not to regard ‘type’ thinking as inherently superior to token thinking or vice versa. Each cognitive style brings to the table its unique strengths and valuable applications. ‘Type’ thinking, predominant among aphantasics, excels in abstract thinking and conceptualization. This can be beneficial to big-picture analysis, offering a clear, uncluttered perspective often crucial in strategic decision-making and theoretical exploration. On the other hand, thinking in tokens, with its rich, vivid imagery, profoundly enhances emotional depth, creative visualization, and experiential learning, often leading to a deeper emotional connection with both personal and shared human experiences.

The key to harnessing the full potential of our cognitive abilities lies in understanding and strategically leveraging the strengths inherent in each cognitive style. ‘Type’ thinking, with its focus on abstract thinking and universal aspects, serves as an essential counterbalance to the sensory-rich, detail-oriented nature of token thinking. This cognitive diversity, when acknowledged and embraced, can significantly enrich our collective cognitive repertoire. It offers a broader spectrum of perspectives, enhancing creativity, empathy, and problem-solving skills in both personal and professional contexts.

For aphantasics who might long for the vivid imagery of token thinkers, it’s important to consider the broader picture. While the ability to visualize in rich detail can seem desirable, it’s important to recognize and appreciate the unique advantages that our ‘type’ thinking brings. This perspective allows for a more objective, abstract thinking and concept-oriented approach, often leading to innovative insights and solutions unencumbered by the biases of specific imagery.

In embracing our unique cognitive styles—whether as a visualizer or conceptualizer, engaging in token or type thinking—and understanding their implications, we pave the way for a richer, more nuanced appreciation of our cognitive landscapes. This recognition not only deepens our understanding of ourselves but also enhances our interactions with the world around us. It encourages us to value and integrate diverse ways of thinking, fostering a more inclusive and empathetic approach to the myriad ways in which the human mind perceives and processes the complexities of life.

The dialogue between ‘token’ and ‘type’ thinking is not about superiority but about synergy. By acknowledging and valuing the unique contributions of each cognitive style, we can cultivate a richer, more comprehensive understanding of the world, unlocking new possibilities for innovation, collaboration, and mutual understanding in an ever-evolving cognitive landscape.

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