Thinking that occurs without the aid of visual imagesDuring the 1880s and 90s most psychologists believed that thinking always involved images. They held that we must have mental pictures or actual sensory experiences in mind if we are to draw any conclusion or solve any problem. They pointed out, for instance, that when we are in a strange environment, we cannot find our way around until we conjure up a “mental map” of the new environment and visually picture the spatial interrelationships in our new location. A group of psychologists working in Wiirzburg, Germany around 1900 were the first to question this view. They asked their subjects to perform extremely simple intellectual tasks and immediately report whatever imagery took place. They found that when the subjects were asked to name a fruit, they responded “apple” or “orange” without picturing these objects in their minds. The fact that tasks of this sort could be performed without the intervention of visual images gave rise to the controversial concept of imageless thought. The Wurzburg experiments pointed up three important aspects of thinking. First, it may not take place wholly on a conscious level. Second, an idea is more like a process than an object. Third, much of our thinking activity seems to go on before specific problems are posed. One example can be used to illustrate all three points. If we are told that we are going to discuss the capitals of the states of the United States, a flourish of mental activity occurs before any questions are asked. As soon as the general category is proposed, we unconsciously begin to run through what we know in that area. Then, when the question is asked, we respond directly (if we know the answer), since the bulk of the thinking has been done before it was actually posed. The Wurzburg investigators called this preparatory activity a “determining tendency,” or “set,” and defined it as the readiness to respond, or think in a particular, predetermined fashion. Just as the runner sets himself to respond to the starter’s gun at the start of a race, so an awareness of a category on which we will be questioned brings that entire area of knowledge to the fore. This process apparently goes on without the use of images. Another early hint that imagery was not necessary for thinking was Francis Gabon’s finding that many mathematicians and scientists had much poorer visual imagery than people who were less capable of using abstractions. Also, Alfred Binet found that people with normal visual imagery, such as his own daughters, reported that they did not use imagery in solving mathematical problems. In addition, some people report that they can even dream without the use of images. These and other observations have convinced most psychologists that thinking can be mediated by other kinds of symbols and does not always require “pictures in the mind.”

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "IMAGELESS THOUGHT," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed September 26, 2022).


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