spatial thinking

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.


6 thoughts on “spatial thinking

  1. Camels With Hammers

    It’s interesting because I think I have always conceived of metaphysical concepts in spatial terms and that’s why I have always been able to grasp them (or at least to feel like I do—it is a question whether those spatial conceptions really constitute understanding or whether they only give one the illusion of grasping how they work).

    But I would have a hard time with calculus and physics because it’s hard for me to spatialize things in motion like they require.

    Have you read or seen much on Daniel Tammet? The way his mind spatializes and otherwise brings to life numbers in synesthetic ways is truly spectacular and awe-inspiring. I blogged a tv special on him here:

    The closest I come to synesthesia is that all letters and numbers have colors for me. But I don’t literally SEE them on the page as some do. Just in my mind, every number and every letter has a very specific color associated with it when I think of them or words which incorporate them.

    BTW, I love your blog. As someone who lost his faith at Grove City College, I identify with your experience and appreciate your perspective a great deal.

  2. Lily Post author

    Wow, interesting. I’ve never considered my mode of thinking in relation to synesthesia. My perception of shapes and colors is more changeable and voluntary than synesthetes’. I do think your association of colors with numbers and letters is synesthesia.

    If I had been more in tune with my mind earlier (and less in tune with nature), I would have become a mathematician. I used to have a book called “The Fourth Dimension”, in which there was a two-dimensional drawing of the fourth spatial dimension (or how the author rendered it). After looking at the picture for a few minutes, I was usually able to visualize four dimensions, which was very jarring as it almost literally “popped” open to my mind like a collapsible frame. It was also beautiful, and represented by a shining golden color.

  3. Daniel Fincke

    That sounds amazing. Perceptions like those you describe and (especially) Hammet describe really open up fascinating epistemological questions. Hammet’s way of seeing is so incredibly truth-conducive that one could imagine a world in which everyone had a brain with the peculiar quirks of his and in which NOT seeing the world as he does was to be perceptually deficient. Because we all have this amazing quirk of qualitative color perception, we are now presently all (except the blind and the color blind) to perceive accurately all sorts of wave phenomena occurring around us and sensible through our experience of these qualia of colors.

    One could imagine a scenario in which all human minds saw other truths, like mathematical relations just as easily and regularly, in which there was agreement on them, and so the perceptions involved in them were taken to be universally understood and agreed upon facts as uncontroversial as color perceptions.

    As soon as there is agreement between all people, corroboration with other perceptual knowledge and logical inferences, and reliable power for helping to navigate the world, we could have a completely truth conducive way of thinking about the world which would form judgments which on a case by case basis did not need corroboration through logic, mathematical operations, sensory perception, etc. It would be like you described your math experience. People would routinely derive answers the way you say you did and only when different people disagreed about the answers would we bother to appeal to formulas and do calculations.

    Amazing to imagine, no?

  4. Lily Post author

    Actually, if I’m understanding correctly what you’re saying about truth perception, I don’t think the world would be that different. We would all be thinking in a different way, but synesthesia doesn’t make people infallible. Just because I see a green house cross over a blue line when I solve a particular math problem doesn’t mean I always get the answer right. Yes, some synesthetes are savants, but if everybody in the world was a savant, then we would simply be able to create more challenging things to pursue and problems to solve which are currently beyond out ability to understand. Everything would still be passing through a subjective filter in our brains, just a filter of a different type.

    Can you explain what you mean about qualitative color perception? I don’t follow.

  5. Daniel Fincke

    I just mean that right now we are able to assess the wave frequencies of light coming off of objects automatically through our experience of color qualia. Imagine a world in which we required complicated instruments to discern that there was a frequency we now call blue as opposed to one we call red, etc. In this world right now, with our brains as they are, we do make fallible judgments occasionally about color but not often. It’s a basic, 99.9999% kind of knowledge about which people almost never disagree (unless it is about obscure differences between shades or the perceptions of the color blind are at issue). Math and logic get harder in that even though they are even more naturally intuitive than sensory perception, they require active thought processes to generate results in all but the most familiar additions, subtractions, multiplications, etc.

    But in Tammet’s brain, the mathematic answers are nearly infallible, they simply come to him just as color perception comes to us when the lights are on. What is amazing is that this could reduce mathematical thinking which is presently, for the vast majority of us a kind of knowledge that requires processes of deliberate cognition to generate answers, into a kind of knowledge on par with color perception. Mathematical answers would just appear to us in shapes and colors with intuitive connections as obvious to us the difference between blue and red and with no deliberation needed. It’s comparable to the way I can navigate the world walking without knowing any of the abstract calculus that is necessary to explain the judgments my mind knows how to make without any conscious calculations.

    So, like you say, we’d be able to create more challenging things to pursue and problems to solve and could relegate whole swaths of currently conceptual difficulty to the level of automatic grasp of the world comparable to what sensory perception and automatic physical navigation are at present. And, yes, even though we would sometimes make mistakes, as we do with color perception and with misjudgments of the physical world, and, in this way, there would be what you call the “subjective filter,” the mistakes would be as relatively rare as bumping into things and mistaking red for blue. They would be anomalous weird things that happen instead of routine miscalculations or inabilities to calculate like they are now.

    And one of the upshots of this is that we’d be able to understand rational actions far more easily as, for example, the math behind game theory, decision theoretics would come to us extraordinarily simply and as probabilities would be obvious to us, etc.

    While we’d then go challenge ourselves in ways that would stretch us and make error more likely again, there would be a whole other foundation to knowledge of uncontroversial, exceedingly helpful automatic and nearly perfect understanding at our disposal.

    And most remarkable of all is that we already have such kinds of grasps of the world in sensory perception and many other unconscious cognitive processes.

  6. GeorgeRic

    Back in 1883 Edwin Abbott wrote ‘Flatland’. He uses it to give an understanding of contiguous geometric worlds, each existing at a higher level of dimensions. Today ‘Techie Worlds’ is available. Written for people with a mechanistic understanding of our world, it looks at ridiculous Christian teachings, such as Trinity, soul, resurrection and judgment. In so doing, ‘Techie Worlds’ follows science’s lead in examining phenomena in the light of theory. Contiguous dimensional worlds provide a logical, mechanical explanation for those phenomena.
    So an intelligent, intellectually honest and open-minded person has excellent reason to hold religious views. In the light of Pascal’s wager, people would be foolish to deny Christian teaching or to hold Moslem or pagan beliefs.
    ‘Techie Worlds, Visible & Invisible’ is available from



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