The current issue of the journal Science contains a short news article about the importance of spatial ability in science. This opening sentence caught my eye:
Albert Einstein, who was famously able to conduct physics experiments in his head, once said his “elements of thought are not words but certain signs and more or less clear images.”
Those are my elements of thought, too. The article made me realize that the way my mind works is primarily through spatial thinking. I consider myself pretty good in both verbal and math skills, but in both of those skill areas, words and numbers are translated into images. When I read, for example, I have vivid mental images not just of the subject matter being described, but also of the sentences and words themselves, represented by symbols, objects, or colors that I can rearrange. I see each arrangement as having a kind of tone, and parts of each sentence as smooth or rough. Awkward writing stands out to me as spatial incongruities. The more I reread or rewrite something, the more finely I see its texture.
The same goes for math. I remember once trying to explain to my Linear Algebra professor why I wasn’t grasping a particular concept or proof: “whenever I work on a problem, I see images in my head. They usually have nothing to do with the problem– they can be pictures of a house or just floating shapes– but they always come together in a certain way that makes me able to figure out the problem. The pictures just aren’t coming together for this one.” That was the best explanation I could give, but I don’t think that was quite good enough for my professor.
I think this trait of my mind is what made it so highly suited to religion. A spatially-oriented mind is probably more conducive to complex theology and things that exist primarily in the mind, like a personal relationship with an invisible God. Even if you accept the claims of religion as truth, they are truths that exist tangibly only in the past. Being able to visualize that non-physical dimension in which they exist in the present is crucial.
Now that I’m an atheist, I sometimes notice a lack in this area. I mean that I have found myself missing a certain mental aspect of life which religion provided richly. It was as if I had an entire additional life, an inner life that was my relationship with God and my exploration of the entire system of Christianity. It was deep and rich in metaphor and emotionally complex, the opposite of everything concrete and scientific and practical. I feel like that part of my mind has now fallen into disuse. My attempts at atheist spirituality have so far only replaced some parts of that, and intellectual exercises provide nothing that I didn’t also have when I was a Christian.
I don’t feel as challenged or as mentally fulfilled in a purely material universe.
I don’t necessarily believe that religion is the only thing that can fill that hole. My current occupation and preoccupations simply don’t call on me to use my mind in such abstract ways. Christianity satisfied me in a similar way as tackling abstract algebraic proofs did– at once consuming, anguishing, and fulfilling.
I would love to do a scientific study of the correlation between spatial abilities and religiosity.