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.
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.