Anna Lina Litz

Book Club: Visual Thinking

A/Artist roundtable about Temple Grandin's newest book

Temple Grandin is a famous American academic, animal behaviourist, and autism spokesperson. Her new book, 'Visual Thinking', published in October 2022, is the latest in her series of books exploring autism and her own mind. It combines new scientific research on the topic with experiences from her own life, as well as an appeal for the education system to take visual thinkers into account. 

During this roundtable, we discussed the book, taking a visual thinking test and even touching on the relationship between Temple Grandin and poetry. 

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Cover of 'Visual Thinking' by Temple Grandin - as found online at amazon.com . 

Temple Grandin & Greta Thunberg? 

To start off the evening, we watched a part of the 2010 biopic about Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes in the leading role. One thing that stood out to us was the depiction of Grandin’s relationship with animals, which prompted a discussion about how times have changed - while Grandin in her time was passionate about creating better conditions for animals in slaughterhouses, today, the general trend is clearly towards vegetarianism or even veganism. How does Temple Grandin think about meat consumption today?, we wondered. 

This quickly lead us to think of another influential autistic person concerned with ecological issues: Greta Thunberg, the famous climate activist. “We should invite them both for a discussion together!“, artist and co-curator Annelies Wina Doom suggested, and others agreed: “What a good idea, let’s make it happen!“ 

What kind of thinker are you? 

After this, we moved on to a more participatory exercise: on page 19 of 'Visual Thinking' you can find a test with 18 yes/no questions which can help readers to determine what kinds of thinkers they are themselves. The test distinguishes two types of visual thinkers: object visualisers and spatial visualisers. 

Willem had printed out copies of these questions for each guest, so that everyone could complete it during the roundtable. 

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Visual thinking test -

Willem also posed an additional question to the guests: When you walked into Mediamatic tonight, you must have passed by a vegetable. What vegetable was it? 

“I did this test with a visual thinker on the phone a couple of days ago, and that person was able to correctly name the vegetable“, he said, and explained the meaning behind it: Temple Grandin talks about a similar idea when she mentions church tower spires. Some people, when they pass by a church, will remember the church tower spires in detail, others will only vaguely remember that there was a church. Visual thinkers notice these kinds of things even when they are not trying to. The vegetable test is our equivalent to this experiment with church tower spires. 

Visual thinking does not equal autism 

An important distinction we had to remind ourselves of throughout the evening is that not all visual thinkers are autistic, and not all autistic people are visual thinkers. Although Temple Grandin is a prominent example of an autistic visual thinker, this new book is about visual thinking rather than autism, and the test we took is not about diagnosing autism, but about learning more about what kind of thinker you are. 

Hands-on learning in schools

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the book is a critique of our current education system. Despite the book being directed at an American audience, artists agreed that it also applies to Dutch schools. “Schools don’t encourage learning to work with your hands at the moment“, one of the artists said, adding that manual labour in general is undervalued in today’s society.

In the Netherlands, high school students have the option to attend a “technasium“, a type of school with a focus on technical subjects and mandatory classes in research and design. However, both Willem and project lead Maartje Koch shared negative experiences with this type of school, saying that the level of education it offers is unfortunately lower compared to other types of schools in the Netherlands, at least in their experience with it.

In contrast to this,  'Visual Thinking' is all about the pleasure of inventing and creating with your hands as something that should be encouraged and supported in students.

Taking visual thinking into account in art education

David Collins, who joined online from Leeds, shared his perspective on teaching at a British art school after starting to read 'Visual Thinking'. 

“I've only read about a third of the book so far“, he said, “but it has already made me think a lot about our practices in education.“ 

“I teach in the visual arts and oddly we don’t teach in a particularly visual way. We spend a lot of our time trying to teach visual people - that’s what I imagine most of our students are, since they’re at art school - to think in more analytical and verbal ways.“

Since starting to read the book, he has been trying to find opportunities to let students run with the ideas that pop up in their heads.  

“I think there’s a habit in visual arts teaching of thinking that students shouldn’t just do the first thing they think of“, he explained. “That’s something we often say - think of more things, come up with many ideas, draw a spider diagram - always assuming that this will lead to better, more analytical ideas. Reading Temple Grandin so far has made me realise that a lot of people jump to really successful ideas right away, and maybe that’s part of what visual thinking is about.“

Artist Marjanne van Helvert, who currently teaches at the Rietveld Academy and the Design Academy Eindhoven, added that while students are expected to be able to explain their work with words, in the end the quality of the work also speaks for itself. “If you make super strong work but can’t explain it that well, that’s still good.“, she assured us. 

Ringing the alarm bells for education

We agreed that the book is important for understanding the ways the education system needs to change in order to not rule out visual thinkers.

While Temple Grandin is ringing the alarm bells for the US system, warning that if the education system doesn’t change, the entire infrastructure will start to collapse for a lack of skilled manual workers and engineers, the same warning holds for the Netherlands.

“I really felt like buying a hundred copies and sending them to the ministry of education!“, Willem stressed. “Because she’s presenting a few really important arguments about practical skills, understanding mechanics, understanding visual patterns, all that stuff that we are lacking in a society where the biggest wages are paid to people who work in banks just moving numbers around.“

Emergent aesthetics 

Artist Victor Evink pointed out that the idea of visual thinking might also play an important role in the phenomenon of aesthetics that emerge from platforms on the internet such as Tumblr. People post seemingly random pictures, but over time, a theme emerges, and these aesthetics make their way out of these forums and into the wider worlds of graphic design, fashion, visual arts, and so on. Since this process is driven by both visuals and pattern seeking, Victor’s intuition is that autism plays a big role in the emergence of these aesthetics. “If I ever have the opportunity to give another presentation here, it would be about that!“, he added. 

Test results 

In the meantime, everyone had finished answering the questions on the visual thinking test, so we did a round of comparing our scores. The number of 'yes' answers determines the extent to which you are a visual thinker, although of course in a very simplified way. As it turned out, scores around the table ranged from 9 times 'yes' up to 16 times 'yes'.

“And who has a vegetable on their list?“, Willem asked, referring back to the additional question posed at the beginning. The vegetable, he revealed, was a big pumpkin, which only two people had correctly noted on their paper. But even they admitted that they didn’t remember a clear image of the pumpkin, but rather guessed it, since the roundtable took place around Halloween. 

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“This is a really difficult test, then“, Willem concluded. 

Some of the guests criticised the test and the questions for being too binary in trying to assign one type of thinking or the other. For example, the first question straightforwardly asks “Do you mainly think in pictures or in words“, something many people found very difficult to answer with yes or no. 

“There are so many ways ways of thinking, even in just one person“, someone said. “Here it is simplified a lot, which makes it less beautiful in a way.“ 

Other artists agreed that there is a wide spectrum between visual and verbal thinking, some adding that they wouldn’t self-identify as visual thinkers despite scoring relatively high on the test. 

We agreed that these results should of course be taken with a grain of salt, the test simply an interesting indicator as to where the group generally falls in terms of visual thinking. 

A brief critique of the book 

Willem summarised that while the book, to him, is a bit too long and leaning too much on anecdotal evidence, the central message makes a lot of sense: In Western society and its education systems, we are severely undervaluing visual thinking and placing too much emphasis on verbal, abstract thinking, thereby excluding a lot of people. 

Designer Arjan van Amsterdam criticised that Grandin’s theory of these different types of thinking appeared to him as something the author just thought of herself, then went looking for explanations. “It doesn’t seem like a scientifically proven theory, it’s very speculative and anecdotal“, he said. Another artist agreed, adding that the theory is not very convincing as long as there are no statistic about how many people belong to each type of thinking, whether you are born with your thinking style or learn and change it throughout your life, and so on. 

Willem explained that this book is just the latest in a series of books Temple Grandin has published about her own mind. Compared to the earlier books, this one is more nuanced, making a distinction between object visual thinkers and spatial visual thinkers and adding a lot of references to scientific research from the past decade. 

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Temple Grandin - presenting her talk "Different kinds of minds." Photo by University of Denver and found on flickr . 

A final point, more observation than critique, was that the book does not at all address the topic of the arts, instead going into technical detail on the engineering perspective. We noted that books on autism and different ways of thinking, such as 'Visual Thinking' and also 'The Pattern Seekers' by Simon Baron-Cohen, tend to focus on the sciences, leaving the arts out of the picture they are painting. The A/Artist project will explore how art education can be improved for autistic students, and by extension visual thinkers, more in the future. 

Do you know how to fix a flat tire? 

While there was some disagreement about the validity of Grandin‘s theory, we did acknowledge that the trends she observes in society are true. “I think people are to an extent losing touch with their senses“, one of the artists said, also tying this to the development of people working more and more with screens. 

Project lead Maartje agreed and added: “I’m very curious what the percentage of digital natives is who can fix a flat tire on their bike.“ It makes sense that a generation used to services like Swapfiets, where you can rent a bike and get it repaired any time at one of their many stores, would not value these practical skills so much anymore. 

“But they might know how to fix computers“, artist Luciano Pinna countered. “Maybe new skills need to be learned, like how to navigate digital spaces, tell stories in digital spaces…“

We realised that the discussion was veering into the age-old argument about one mode of transferring knowledge being displaced by another, newer one - similar to the loss of oral traditions due to the invention of writing. 

Aphantasia and Imagination

Marjanne shared that one of her students at the Rietveld Academy claimed to not be able to see images in her mind at all, something that seems extraordinary for an art student. “That’s called aphantasia!“, Victor told us. Aphantasia is the medical term for the condition of not being able to visualise imagery, which often comes with difficulties in accessing other mental senses like smell, taste and touch as well. 

We noted that the vocabulary around “imagination“ is obviously strongly centred around the visual. Highly verbal thinkers who easily dream up stories will also be called “imaginative“. But when someone with a highly visual and someone with a highly verbal imagination are in conversation with one another, how well can they really communicate? 

Is Temple Grandin a romantic thinker?

Artist Robin Waart, who specialises in the relationships between words and images in his work  and during his studies, reflected on the relationship between visualising and imagining, drawing on his knowledge about poetry. 

“In 1924, the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff published a volume of poetry called “Vormen“, Robin began. Vormen has multiple meanings in Dutch: it translates to the noun shape, as well as the verb to shape. We know poets for their words, Robin continued, but they are so connected to their senses, the words are really just mediators! He gave as an example an important poem from Vormen. In this poem, the young poet looks up at the sky and the clouds, recognising shapes - vormen - in them. “It is one of the central poems of the collection, you can read it as autobiographical, and it almost goes against language, it’s about how all the words actually come from seeing.“, Robin explained. 

“The poet I know the most about, Herman Gorter, wrote something like this: What a poet must be able to do is see things in front of him as if he could grab them with his fingers.“, he added. This sentence stresses not only the sense sight, of visualisation, but goes so far as to invoke a sense of touch as well. “So a lot of the theory around poetry in the late 19th century is about visualising what you write. I don’t know how it is today in poetry - also I am now placing Temple Grandin in a tradition of avant-garde thinking about the relationship between language and image.“, Robin laughed and continued to speculate: “In the Netherlands you can locate this way of thinking about poetry around Herman Gorter, but he already refers back to Goethe, so romantic poetry, so… is Temple Grandin a romantic thinker?“

We agreed that while this connection might be a little far fetched, the idea that poets, as artists working exclusively with words, also rely heavily on visual thinking in their working process is very interesting. 

Luciano picked up on the idea of words as mediators between seeing and thinking, words as powerful visualisers that can trigger images. In this sense, the distinction between visual and verbal thinkers is a lot more diffuse, he pointed out. Poems draw links between images and different senses, Victor added, inspiring a sort of synesthesia in the reader. 

“Yes, synesthesia!“, Robin agreed, adding that people diagnosed with autism seem to have a tendency for being sensitive to these connections and crossovers. “This is also still my main criticism of Temple Grandin“, he said - “ She likes to define things, but she is not talking that much about the scale, the gradient, the spectrum, or is she?“ 

We agreed, granting that in this book, she is taking a more nuanced approach than in her previous work.