Thinking in moving shapes/fields, non-verbally


I read a post by Ian Miller that describes the way I think.  He said:

“I build mental models of almost everything that I work on, they are often spatial models, but they don’t involve visual images.  Frequently the models involve equations, but again in an abstract way: just wordless mental models of mathematical relationships.  Quite often the models involve both space and time, imagining how a complex system would evolve.

I spend of lot of time working on those mental models, criticizing and improving them.  While I’m doing this I generally don’t think in words- I just ponder and twist the mental models, and try to tie together all of their loose ends.  Only when a non-visual, non-verbal mental model becomes really coherent do I start trying to describe it in words or with pictures and equations.  Words and equations and visual images are essential for communication, but they really slow down your thinking.”

My mind works much like that.  I am not artistic but I am wildly creative.  I have always been fascinated by the way things work, whether is is a clock, a gene circuit, a bird, a branch waving in a weird way, a business model or a part of the economy.  When I understand something it is in the kind of moving, 3D, interacting shapes/fields/equations that Ian describes.  Solving a problem or creating something new sometimes means making a new model but often a creative insight will manifest itself as an unexpected connection between the models- you can solve the problem X by stringing these unrelated bits of reality that I understand in terms of these models.  Since the models encompass both physics and economics, part of the solution is the business design- how to make solving this problem economically viable or profitable.  Then you run the model backward and forward to see if it “works”, if it conforms to reality.  If it does, boom, you are done with the problem solving and can spend the next 15 minutes or five years to implement it.  Sometimes it is wildly hard to do, but I am willing to invest time in making inventions real when I “know” they will work because I can rerun a physically realistic model with new info and it still passes the test. 

Looked at from the outside, it sometimes looks like I am an idiot, puzzling over something obvious until I understand it in these terms.  Other times I catch on ridiculously fast because I already have all the hooks and the new thing, the new idea is an easy extension of some (apparently) unrelated thing I understand.  I can talk to people in a wide range of different fields because the language I think in is a set of descriptions of reality that let me hear what they are saying in terms that make sense to me.  I think that large swathes of my brain that other people use for visualization of memories, understanding music, remembering dialog, remembering my past, etc. are consumed with this ability to do moderate resolution, 3-D, moving simulations in “thought space” to understand things that change over time or react with each other.  It is fun but has its costs.  You play the game with the cards you are dealt- I was dealt a weird set of cards but I have been lucky enough to find outlets that society values.  

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The notion of spatial models which do not involve visual images corresponds quite closely to my own experience. And explains perhaps why it took me 68 years to realise that I did not in fact have a mind’s eye. At least not a conscious one. Unconscious images can be quite startlingly vivid, but I have no conscious control over them. If I try to control them, they just fade away.