Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | December 2, 2012

Parsing of Verbal Language: Taking the Word Association Study

I thought I was a verbal thinker. I have a constant stream of words running through my head. I describe everything with words and am rather good at using them well (in my head, anyway – translating that to speech is a different story). I think and imagine and read and write all in words. So when Lindsay, over at Autist’s Corner, put up a link to this really cool Word Association Study by a group called A Small World of Words, and encouraged us to participate, I thought I would have a go. I have a very big vocabulary, and I enjoy using it. Plus, I’m always one to participate in Citizen Science projects, and love when researchers put up things like this online for us non-experts to contribute. It takes about 5-10 minutes, and if you have a few minutes to spare, you should go to the website and take participate in the study. 🙂

The online study is very straightforward. You tell them your age, gender, and which regional variation of English you speak (you have to be fluent in English to participate, but that’s the only criteria). Then they show you 15 words in succession, one at a time. Under the word, there are 3 blank boxes, and they ask you to write the three words that first come to mind when you see the first word. This sounds fairly straightforward. And it is. For most people. But not for me.

I’ve never considered myself to be a “picture thinker” – I’ve read Temple Grandin’s books and some other essays on the topic, and I’ve always thought I was a verbal thinker. But taking this test, I couldn’t get a single verbal thought out of me. I got stuck on picture-mode. I would see a word, and rather than other words coming to mind, I would think an image of the word itself, or an image of the thing the word represented, and then I would get stuck in the verbal-land of describing it. Sometimes I’d get lucky, and instead of just thinking of an image of the word itself, I’d see an image of what the word was describing.

image from

image from

A striking example of this, is that I got the word “Thinker”, and immediately an image of an academic came to mind, because they are people who think. So I tried to think of the word for it, and I think I managed to get a single word out, which was “science”. Then I started thinking about other things that “Thinker” was (as the image of the word is emblazoned in my “verbal” brain, which is currently going “thinker, thinker thinker thinker thinker, what is a word that comes to mind when I see ‘thinker’? Thinker, thinker…” So then I got lucky, and the Rodin sculpture (The Thinker) came into my mind. I’ve seen it, and I have a picture of me sitting at the base with the same pose. Ironically, I hadn’t done it on purpose (long trip, sensory overload, parents obsessing over yet ANOTHER art piece, etc). So that image came to my mind, and I thought “ok, so there is a statue of the Rodin Thinker, in a garden, with me sitting underneath it. Thinker. What of this is related to ‘thinker’? oh, Statue. That’s a good word. Statue.” And so I got my second word. “Science” and “Statue”. What about the third word? I’ve been staring at this word for over 3 minutes now, and I don’t have a third word for it. I can’t use “a” “picture” and “of” – though, those would be the first words that came to mind when I finally figured out how to verbalize my mental association with the words.

Or as another example, the word “prey” automatically kicks my mind into predator-prey cycling and the idea of Lotka-Voltera predator-prey interactions. (You can bet that words 1 and 2 were “predator” and “Lotka-Voltera” – I am nothing if not an interesting datapoint…) – but while I managed the verbal version of “predator”, I got stuck in the image-land of Lotka-Voltera, seeing the graph in my mind’s eye, thinking about predator-prey cycles. I knew exactly what I associated with the word. I just didn’t have words to describe it.

Needless to say, it took me quite a lot longer to take the study than I think it takes most people, and I had a fair few words where I just wrote “no response”, because I couldn’t figure out how to verbalize my response to seeing the words. I feel like I should email them and be like “uhh sorry, so I’m autistic, and I thought I could take this and give you good data, but I can’t. So if you find my datapoint you should take that into consideration when analyzing this.” Or something… as a scientist myself, I appreciate knowing what reasons are for the random outliers, after all…

But it does make me wonder if I really am a verbal thinker. And it really made me wonder how exactly my brain processes words and images. I’ve had a basic understanding of how I thought my brain worked for years, but it seems that I might be somewhat off. Having never gone through an exercise like this before, I have never had data like this to think about. I love learning new things about myself. It seems there is a disconnect between my parsing of written language into my own verbal output. Though actually, thinking about it that way, it makes total sense. Why I can’t read aloud very well. Why I can write (idea of my own into my own verbal output). This is why I am such a voracious reader, but so bad at reading comprehension (parsing verbal input and translating it my own verbal output that has to match to someone else’s verbal output?). I’ve always known that I have to “translate” language between what goes on in my brain and what is either coming in or going out, but it never occurred to me exactly how it worked.

I think I learned more about myself during this study than they learned from my datapoint… sorry, guys!

Go take the study for yourself and enjoy learning how your brain responds.



  1. I had much the same experience. My first and strongest associations were always either an image, or a tactile experience. I had to let the word “float” for a second to start getting other word associations.

  2. I couldn’t think of any words either. My mind was blank. I don’t know if most people can think of words. But I got words like “patron” and “fellowship”. If I had gotten words like “elephant” and “velociraptor”, then I could have thought of “pachyderm” and “dinosaur” at least. I think that the nature of the words makes a difference.

  3. I have a tendency to first think of word that start with the same letters rather than making conceptual associations.

  4. I’m exactly the same way, too. I can’t do standard stream-of-consciousness writing, either, you know where you’re supposed to write your thoughts as they come? I get plenty of words, but they have nothing to do with my normal thought patterns. As far as I can figure, my thoughts originate in pictures, but my reflective thought-process IS verbal. So I don’t really know what I’m thinking until I translate the thoughts into words. For the record, I don’t think I’m officially an Aspie, but I am “Asp-ish.”

  5. It could also be partly related to executive function as difficulties with that are likely to impact on this type of test.

    I’ve had a full cognitive profile done during an assessment for Dyspraxa/NVLD, so I know that my verbal comprehension and reasoning percentile scores are in the high 90s and my various non-verbal comprehension and reasoning scores are as low as the 37th, 9th and 5th percentiles. My processing speed and working memory are also significantly poor when compared to my verbal abilities.

    So I am very definitely a verbal thinker rather than a visual (although I do also think in spacial patterns and networks, which helps me be a good writer and computer programmer).

    Like you, I found the word association study uncomfortably difficult to do. I was only coming up with a rhyme or sound lyrics on most words and having to think really hard about the meaning of the word to make myself produce one or two more results.

    I believe that this is a combination of my poor executive functioning and processing speed at work, not due to a visual/verbal thinking dichotomy.

    The main reason I think this is that I’ve been given an executive functioning test that involved listing all the animals I could come up with starting with S, and I got ‘stuck’ on the first one, a snake, I think because it makes a sound like an S (‘hissss’) and/or looks like an S, and then had to struggle really hard to come up with anything else – eventually ‘sausage dog’. In the few cases when I can make a reasonable list on demand, it’s very much forming a ‘chain’ of things related in the same way, then getting stuck for a bit, then working out another type of relationship and coming up with a new set all related in that way. It feels like I’m solving a puzzle, not something that’s coming to me naturally. It becomes a lot easier if it’s part of a story, or it’s something I can add to, reorder and change while associations occur to me (as in the list at the end of this comment!).

    People with executive functioning difficulties tend to find it difficult to ‘jump’ from one thing to another and tend to perserverate on their first thought, only managing to come up with things that are related to that even when, as in the case of the word association test, they’re not meant to be forming chains of meaning like that. This generally only becomes obvious when asked to do artificial things like form spontaneous lists with a restriction and without the ability to use other strategies to form them. Verbal skills can otherwise be extremely good.

    I know from my day to day life that also can’t write a shopping list on demand, but I can do a lot better by looking through my cupboards, fridge and freezer for visual cues and also thinking about things I regularly eat. I’m still quite poor even then so I leave myself visual reminders of various kinds and have a list in progress of unusual things I’ve run out of during the week. Even then, I’ll remember more things when I see them while walking around the supermarket.

    All that also relates to my memory and concentration difficulties.

    I generally think that it’s helpful to be aware of the large number of different ways autistic people can be cognitively different. There’s also processing speed, working memory size and fragility, the different types of prospective memory, rigid thinking, perserveration, executive function, thinking in patterns (mathematics, music, programming), pictures and words, thinking in combinations of those or in other senses, dyslexia traits, mutlitasking difficulties, concentration and attention differences, single- or multi-channel processing, not being able to explain our working (either having the correct answer or not,not being able to explain why without reverse engineering), concept and meta concept formation etc etc. All of those things can interact in endless combinations and it’s a spectrum condition so no two people have exactly the same combination. We’re a spectrum of different ‘spiky profiles’ of varying abilities within one person. How any one task will interact with that pattern of strengths and weaknesses is hard to predict, but it’s unlikely to just be along one axis.

    Anyway, this has now become rather long (as is typical of me), I hope this is taken as a welcome additional perspective on your very interesting thoughts above! Neurodiversity in cognitive profiles and abilities is one of my obsessive interests so you’ve inspired me to spend 2 hours (oh my) commenting when I should have been feeding myself!

    • I loved this comment! I’m really sorry I didn’t respond earlier or longer – I was at a conference with super limited internet – I read it, grinned, and then my 10 minutes of lunch break was over… thanks so much for leaving it, though! I learned lots. 🙂

  6. I took the test then came back and read your post, so as not to bias my test results. 🙂

    I found some of the words very easy to get three answers for and some nearly impossible. Most of my first and sometimes second choices were words that I could pair with the given word to make a phrase rather than words that were synonymous to the given word.

    Like you, I also sometimes got stuck with images that I couldn’t verbalize. For the word magical, my brain latched onto the Disney logo and wouldn’t let go. For long moments my only answer was Disney! The researchers will probably think that a 12-year-old took their test.

  7. Funny, I’m taking it right now, and pictures come to mind far before words do. 😮 I keep thinking the picture and having to think up words that remind me of the picture. Quite interesting, indeed. Is it possible to be both?

    • I think its possible to be anything… it’s pretty hard to put someone’s brain in a box and label it neatly.

      • True. How very strange. xD

  8. Interesting. I tried it out, and found that some words were easy, and others were really difficult. I know I’m visually oriented; with some of them, I visualized pictures, but with most, I actually visualized the words themselves – which seems to be how I think. Not necessarily the *sound* of the words, but the way they *look* when written out.

    Thanks for letting us know about this – it was definitely interesting, and I’m glad I tried it out! Also, a very interesting post and comments.

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