Sunday, 29 May 2011


This is my brain—on words. 

While I was in middle school, I attended an after-school lecture regarding sex in the media. I would learn why beer and cigarette ads showed copious amounts of female skin. It was the first time that I had heard that axiom, “sex sells”, yet I don’t recall being surprised.

No, I was reeling from a bigger shock: that I was fundamentally unlike my peers.

In order to introduce his topic, the speaker asked the hundred of us to close our eyes and see what happened when he said a word. We closed our eyes, and he said the word “chair”. After a moment’s pause, we opened our eyes again.

“How many people saw the word ‘chair’ spelled out in their mind?” the speaker asked. I raised my hand high. “I see, okay, a few of you. Okay, thanks. Now, how many people saw the picture of a chair in their mind’s eye?”

Ninety-five hands shot into the air.

The speaker went on, connecting this illustration to the way advertising puts images into the mind, selling sex to sell products and yadda, yadda.

But I couldn’t concentrate on that. Until that moment, I’d thought that everyone sees words in their mind. I was shocked by the idea that people see pictures in their mind.

I mean, sure, if you ask me to picture something, I will. But as for the inner monologue, don’t people read it off the inside of their skulls?

My inner monologue, as far back as I can remember, has been like a ticker-tape rolling through my mind. As a youngster, I imagined my words as white letters embossed on black Dymo-style labels. One of my favorite games was to see how many of these tickers I could get going at once. I’d start thinking about something, then I’d start thinking about thinking it, then thinking about thinking about thinking about it, and so on. Little strips of thought would begin to build up, one in front of the other, and they would all keep going as my thoughts became more and more abstracted.

Of course, there was a time before I could read, but I can’t remember what came before—whether I would see images or words or something else in my head while I thought.

So, how many people think in pictures? How many in words? How many people think in pictures of words? What does it say about who we are and how we learn? And, how does this affect our theories of language?

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