IN THE MIND'S EYE
CREATIVE VISUAL THINKERS, GIFTED DYSLEXICS, AND THE RISE OF VISUAL TECHNOLOGIES
By THOMAS G. WEST
Copyright © 2009 Thomas G. West
All right reserved.
Chapter One SLOW WORDS, QUICK IMAGES
In the summer of 1841 Michael Faraday, the self-educated blacksmith's son who came to be recognized as one of the leading scientific minds of Queen Victoria's Britain, was on holiday in Switzerland. He had journeyed from Interlaken to the falls of the Giessbach, on the lake of Brientz. As he watched the cataract shoot down a series of precipices, Faraday noted his impressions in his journal. At the base of each cataract, the water was shattered into foam and then tossed into "water-dust" in the air.
August 12th, 1841.-To-day every fall was foaming from the abundance of water, and the current of wind brought down by it was in some places too strong to stand against. The sun shone brightly, and rainbows seen from various points were very beautiful. One at the bottom of a fine but furious fall was very pleasant,-there it remained motionless, whilst the gusts and clouds of spray swept furiously across its place and were dashed against the rock. It looked like a spirit strong in faith and steadfast in the midst of the storm of passions sweeping across it, and though it might fade and revive, still it held on to the rock as in hope and giving hope. And the very drops, which in the whirlwind of their fury seemed as if they would carry all away, were made to revive it and give it greater beauty.
These were brief notes jotted down by Faraday in his personal journal on an afternoon's excursion during a restful summer holiday. Faraday had no serious intent. He wrote for himself and perhaps a friend or two. It was a habit of journal-keeping developed to provide detailed records of his extensive experiments and to compensate for an especially unreliable memory.
Yet these few lines provide us with a small window into the mind and way of seeing of a great and curious visual thinker who lies close to the center of the story that will unfold in the chapters that follow. In Faraday's description, the major image is the rainbow, a form that, while brilliant and strikingly beautiful, is not really there. A form without substance, it consists of the refracted light bouncing off the tiny water droplets, perceived in a broad, arcing pattern. But the pattern is formed by the light and the perspective of the observer-for there is no pattern, no arc, no rainbow, in the random motion of the droplets that fill the space. Without the light and the observer, the pattern is not there. Yet, it is a stable and enduring form that moves as the observer moves, strangely seeming to draw strength from the ferocity of the spray from which it is made and which allows it to be seen.
It is this paradox to which Faraday draws our attention. The more wild and furious the spray, the more bright and clear and well-defined and beautiful is the form that is seen. It is the wildness and the chaotic confusion that provide the clearest image of the form and at the same time teach us seemingly contradictory things-that our clear view of the form relies upon the fury and the wildness-and that a form without substance can be strong, steadfast, and enduring. When the fury and wildness are gone, the clear image of the form disappears as well. Yet the more the fury and the wildness threaten to tear the form to pieces, the stronger the form becomes and the more brightly it shows forth, "steadfast in the midst of the storm ... as in hope."
Faraday was one of the greatest scientists of his age, perhaps of any age, yet this description and the mode of thought it shows is more like that of a poet. As in the best poetry, the simple metaphorical image illuminates, in a fresh way, a larger and apparently unrelated truth. Whether in the countryside or the laboratory, Faraday used his unusually powerful visual imagination to take the stuff of experience and experiment and form fresh, original models of reality in his mind, in his mind's eye-unconcerned that these models did not correspond to any of the accepted scientific ideas of his day. Yet it is just these same models of reality-especially the idea of the electromagnetic field-that provided the essential basis for the later theories of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.
One of the central perspectives of this book is that a powerful visual imagination such as Faraday's seems sometimes to come at a cost. Sometimes (but not always) great proficiencies in some areas can involve surprising and unexpected deficiencies in other areas. This is not seen as a cruel trick of fate, but rather a basic quality of design: what is optimized (deliberately or inadvertently) for one function may involve fundamental elements that make it unsuited for another function; a special proficiency in one area sometimes involves a corresponding deficiency in some other area.
It is the intent of this book to indicate something of what is being learned of how this process works and to indicate what an understanding of this process can mean for the way we view ourselves and those around us.
The story we will be telling provides evidence that, historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relied heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling, including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory. Irony and paradox are recurring elements of the general pattern. For example, even those who are known for their great verbal gifts may have surprising difficulties in certain specific verbal skills. Those known for their talents at higher mathematics may have curious difficulties with simple arithmetic.
Recently, studies of the microscopic structure of the brain and of early neurological growth patterns have provided the beginnings of solid evidence for a view of the brain different from that which has long been accepted. It is a view that emphasizes the great diversity of brain structure and capability rather than its presumed "blank slate" homogeneity. From this new perspective, it is becoming apparent that early growth processes can sometimes produce substantial diversity among different brains and that this diversity frequently has great benefit for the larger society over time, promoting forms and magnitudes of creativity and originality that might not otherwise have been possible. Those who learn with great difficulty in one setting may learn with surprising ease in another.
This fresh perspective suggests that we should be more concerned with results than with trying to get everyone to learn things in the same way, especially if we are more interested in creating new knowledge than in merely absorbing and passing on old knowledge. In some cases, the conventional educational system may eliminate many of those who have the greatest high-level talents, especially when these talents are predominantly visual rather than verbal.
The unfortunate losses occur because of wide-spread misconceptions about what visual talents are capable of doing and where they are required. Teachers and professionals at all levels understand, of course, that visual talents are important for the visual arts, graphic design, architecture, photography, film-making, and the like. But few of those who are teaching the basic courses or designing the basic tests may fully appreciate that these same visual and spatial talents are, in some important cases, indispensable for the highest levels of original work in certain areas of science, engineering, medicine, and mathematics-even in areas not usually thought to be highly visual. Consequently, some of those with the highest visual talents-those who may have the best opportunity to produce really original work in certain areas-may be barred from just those areas where they might otherwise have made the greatest contributions.
This view may seem improbable until we look closely at the early experience of some of those profiled here. Then, we can see how close some came to being eliminated themselves. Then, we may imagine how many others, with similar patterns of mixed talents and academic difficulties, were successfully eliminated and were never able to find a way to make their contribution.
Some people are so deeply accustomed to a linear view of intelligence and potential that they find it almost impossible to believe that certain persons may find advanced subject matter quite easy while they find some elementary subject matter quite difficult. Yet, among some of the most brilliant and creative minds, this general pattern is precisely what we do find. It is hoped that a better understanding of this paradoxical pattern of mixed capabilities would lead to better development and use of a wide range of special talents throughout the population. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly evident that the ability to recognize and accommodate this pattern of mixed capabilities may come to be especially important for future changes in education and work.
In the near future, creative visual thinkers with some learning difficulties might very well find themselves far better adapted to certain fundamental changes. They may have had difficulty memorizing formulas and learning the mechanical operations of mathematics, but as computer visualization techniques are increasingly employed to analyze vast and complex systems they may find themselves far better adapted to seeing new patterns than those with greater academic skills but weaker visual capabilities.
They may have had difficulty learning from books and lectures, but with future changes they may find themselves far better adapted to learning from simulations of reality as education and testing programs begin to emphasize interactive computer simulation over the verbal description of reality traditionally provided in books and lectures.
And, as an essential element in the ironic pattern, for these people it may be easier to create new knowledge than to learn and retain old knowledge. For these people, it is sometimes far easier to learn firsthand from nature than it is to learn secondhand from books.
The creative process is a continuing mystery. In our technological culture, this process is almost universally acknowledged as the source of all we are most proud of in science, technology, and art, yet a satisfactory explanation of the process has remained elusive. While an extensive body of literature on creativity has been produced over the years, only comparatively recently have new insights been brought together, from a wide variety of sources, that seem to provide an increasingly coherent picture of the process and its modes of operation.
One of the fertile sources of new insights into the creative process seems now to be the growing body of research defining the modes of thought generally believed to be associated with the two hemispheres of the brain. Many are now familiar with the experiments of R.W. Sperry and others in the 1950s and 1960s. These studies indicated that, in general, the right and left hemispheres are relatively specialized in their functions, operating in two different but complementary modes. The greatly oversimplified versions of Sperry's work that passed rapidly into popular culture during the 1970s and early 1980s created a loose shorthand in popular psychology that has led to the superficial categorization of "right-brained" people and "left-brained" people. Despite such popular oversimplifications, the idea of different but complementary modes of operation for the two hemispheres is now widely accepted and continues to be a major consideration in current research in neurology and psychology.
While the work of Sperry and others has been widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the work of Norman Geschwind and other neurologists whose research into nonsymmetrical development of the two hemispheres has suggested promising new perspectives. This research has indicated that, while in most people the left hemisphere is dominant for many functions, some people have relatively symmetrical brains-and that this unusual symmetry may lead to notable differences in both special abilities and special areas of difficulty.
This body of research also suggests a variety of possible interrelationships between highly diverse elements, such as unusual patterns of early neurological development, special talents, learning disorders, hormonal effects, handedness, delayed maturation, allergies, the operation of the immune system and various developmental diseases. Some aspects of the interrelated nature of these apparently highly diverse elements will be discussed as our story unfolds, but it may be sufficient here to point out that the same fundamental processes that influence early neurological growth and development can also have widespread effects on the early development of many other, seemingly unrelated, body systems.
TWO HEMISPHERES, TWO MODES
The view of the two hemispheres now commonly accepted is that certain skills and abilities are specialized in one hemisphere while other skills and abilities are specialized in the other. However, there is often complex interaction between the two hemispheres on any given task. Abilities such as logic, language, orderliness, sequential time, and arithmetic are seen to be largely specialized in the left hemisphere whereas the processing of visual images, spatial relationships, face and pattern recognition, gesture, and proportion are seen to be specialized in the right hemisphere. In general, one might say that the left thinks in words and numbers, while the right thinks visually, in pictures and images in three-dimensional space.
While these descriptions are useful in a general way, the actual functions are far more complex. For example, some more recent studies suggest that in certain persons the roles of the hemispheres may be reversed, and in other persons the two hemispheres may be less fully specialized-having, for example, relatively sophisticated language ability on both sides. Other studies indicate that although the left hemisphere is generally regarded as the seat of language, the right hemisphere may serve certain specialized linguistic functions. For example, evidence has been found for greater right hemisphere sensitivity to non literal aspects of language, such as the connotations of words. Also, the right hemisphere appears to have a greater role in controlling the hand gestures and tone of voice that accompany and embellish verbal language.
It is becoming increasingly clear that most activities involve both hemispheres to one degree or another, as well as various combinations of structures within each hemisphere. What is most important for our purposes, however, is that there is evidence for two very different but complementary modes of thought, each generally associated with one of the hemispheres of the brain. We are more interested in the interplay between these two modes of thought than we are in their exclusive physical domains.
Curiously, one of the important developments that arose from research on the functions of the two hemispheres is the idea that the right hemisphere is actually thinking at all, that is, the clear demonstration that consciousness and thought are, indeed, possible without words. Sperry and his associates showed that in patients where communications between the two hemispheres had been cut, the (generally) nonverbal right hemisphere could reliably identify (by only touching with the fingers) a range of small articles (such as pencils), although it could not say the names of the articles.
It might be asked how it is that we have so little awareness of this other half of ourselves. One answer is that many functions of the right hemisphere are so fundamental that they are easily taken for granted. Another answer is that the overt concerns of modern culture appear to be almost entirely dominated by the modes of thought most compatible with the left hemisphere, that our view of the world, our educational system, our system of rewards, our aspirations, and our value systems are all effectively focused on reinforcing the operation of the left hemisphere (while the more basic contributions of the right are largely ignored or seen as primitive).
Excerpted from IN THE MIND'S EYE by THOMAS G. WEST Copyright © 2009 by Thomas G. West. Excerpted by permission.
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