Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists



We will need all the resources of science and literature to understand how differently human minds work.

In my work as a scientist and literary scholar, I have encountered many opinions about how thought works. By “thought” I mean conscious planning, remembering, imagining, and reflecting, although most mental processes are non-conscious. I have known people who say their thoughts come in verbal sentences and who can’t imagine what else thought could be. Others have told me that they think in vector diagrams and believe that human thought evolved from hand-eye coordination. Thinking is a little like going to the bathroom: we presume the experience is the same for others as for ourselves, but we don’t know for sure, because we don’t ask.

Rethinking Thought uses interview-based research to investigate this unknown realm of thought. To study individual differences in conscious thinking, I interviewed 34 creative, professional people: scientists, engineers, web and game designers, novelists, poets, painters, photographers, lawyers, teachers, and one flamenco dancer. Among the participants were Temple Grandin and Salman Rushdie. I asked questions such as “What senses predominate in your memory?” “What catches your attention?” and “What’s the hardest thing you ever had to learn?” They began to tell stories about the ways their minds work, and from these tales, I created brief portraits designed to lead readers into their minds as authors invite readers into their characters’ heads.

I interwove these portraits with summaries of laboratory research in neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics that investigates visual mental imagery and the relationship between language and thought. I have tried to establish a dialogue in which individual insights and laboratory findings operate as equal partners, each challenging the other and suggesting new directions for research.

This exchange of ideas focuses on the ways people vary in their uses of mental images and verbal language. Rethinking Thought does not label people as “visual” or “verbal.” Instead, it extends and moves beyond earlier studies of thinking styles by showing the wide range of skills visual and verbal thinking can involve. The book illustrates how greatly the experience of thought varies among individuals, even among people who call themselves “visual.”

The research for Rethinking Thought yielded some great surprises. One was the discovery of how many creative people had entered fields requiring skills that don’t come easily. Scientists confessed struggling with math; some humanities scholars wrestled with foreign languages, or even with learning to read their own language.

The creative thinkers interviewed for Rethinking Thought compose only a thin slice of humanity, but if the experience of thinking varies so greatly among these few, it must vary enormously across cultures worldwide. As we try to communicate and settle conflicts fairly, it is worth imagining how different thought may feel to everyone involved. We will need all the resources of science and literature to understand how differently human minds work.







Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists by Laura Otis

Explorations in Narrative Psychology

  • Presents original, interview-based research on a wide range of creative thinkers from the sciences, arts, and other professions that call for innovative work
  • Includes interviews with Temple Grandin, Salman Rushdie, Nobel prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, and game designer Jason Rohrer
  • Offers lucid, informed summaries of recent studies in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics

Tags: creativity research, creativity studies, laura otis, narrative psychology, rethinking thought

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