How We Think

A while back a couple of friends of mine, who have been together for decades, found themselves having an unusual discussion.  They were comparing notes on how they thought.  Not what they thought, notice, but how they thought.

They were stunned.

They discovered they were completely different.  Turns out that he thought mainly in words, occasionally in concepts, whereas she thought almost entirely in pictures.  They beat this around for a few hours, but they just couldn’t get around it: They had two radically different modes of mental processing.

Neither could quite believe that the other was quite so foreign and, well, weird.  On the other hand, it went along way to explain an endless number of misunderstandings and crossed communications they had had over the years.

She called me up to tell me about it.  I, too, was quite intrigued.  Naturally, she wanted to know how I thought.  After pondering a bit, I told her that I seemed to think mainly in words, secondarily in concepts and maybe thirdly in emotions.  These seemed to me to be pretty normal.  But pictures??!

I was meeting a friend for lunch and told her all about this strange new question.  She mulled it over for a minute and then said that she herself thought almost exclusively in words.  She said that there was a sort of necessary translation process between the words themselves and the feelings and ideas they meant.  “I suppose,” she added, “that’s why I like books.  I don’t like movies.”

Now that was really interesting.  It seems to imply that we not only have a wide range of possible modes of thought, but that the modes directly affect how we interact with the outside world.  Not just what we think about the world, but how we feel about it.

I happen to like movies.  Not to the point of addiction, but I like them.   But I have friends who seem to be truly addicted.  Given a chance, they would go every day of the week.  Since movies are mostly escapism for me, I just assumed, a bit condescendingly, that they had quite a bit of escaping to do.

Maybe, but maybe not.

What if our feeling for movies was not just a matter of preference, but a matter of perception.  That is, what if the nature of the movie experience depended upon the mode of thought of the individual viewer?  Maybe some people experienced movies in an overwhelming way while most of us saw it merely as a pleasant diversion.

My head started to spin.

What, I asked myself, would the movie experience be like for someone whose primary mental mode was pictures?

My head spun a lot faster.  I honestly, literally, couldn’t imagine it.

As it happened, there was a party that weekend and that first couple was present.  I am afraid I almost leapt on them.

“What,” I asked her, “is a movie like for you?”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m in it.  There is no separation between me and what is going on on the screen.  I am completely caught up.”

“Hmm,” I said, “and for me I am a few steps back just…watching.”

I turned to her boyfriend.  “Tell me,” I said, “has it ever happened to you that you come out of the movie and she says something like, ‘Wasn’t that the ugliest ashtray on that table?’ and you say something like, ‘What ashtray?  What table?!’”

He smiled a little grimly.  “Every time,” he said.

I did a little informal poll.  Of the people at that party, most described themselves as thinking in words, some in concepts, and a couple in pictures.  I have now performed this completely unscientific research a few more times and the ratios seem about the same.  A small sample and hardly definitive, but it’s  interesting.

[I have tried to find real research on this, without success.  I have found some studies that address “modes of thought,” but none that address such simplistic breakdowns as mine.  I assume some have addressed them, but I haven’t found the magic search terminology that would locate them.

Yet there ought to be some.  Here we are getting all excited about all the Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus hoo-ha.  Yet the communications problems there are comparatively minor compared to the potential for misunderstanding between people who actually process thought differently.]

All of which brings me to the vital question as to why so many movies are so badly written.  Just about everyone who goes to movies or is driven to write about them remarks about the uniformly low standard of the scripts.  Totally unbelievable dialogue, people doing completely improbable things merely to move the action along, plot holes you could drive a truck through, etc.  Oddly enough, the biggest budget monsters seem to have some of the worst writing.

I have some friends in the business.  I have asked them about this question and repeatedly gotten what seems to be a virtual insider’s mantra: The problem is that the people who run the studios these days know all about money and nothing about movies.  The old movie moguls (improbably acquiring praise they completely lacked in life), were in love with making movies.  Not with improving the bottom line of some global corporation, but in love with the act itself.

Yes, but.

First off, the money guys usually don’t have final script approval.  But, more to the point, if you stay in the theater and watch the credits of that atrociously written big blockbuster/action/special effects movie, you might find something curious.  Not only does it have a category for writing, it boldly lists about twelve names.  And if you read the trade papers, you are likely to find out that there was another whole crew who asked to have their named taken off the credits.  Whatever else may be true, millions are spent on some of these dreadful scripts.

Aha!  I hear you say.

A camel is a horse designed by a committee and that is what has happened to those awful scripts.  It is not that the money guys refuse to spend any of it on scripts.  Rather it is because too many cooks have spoiled the broth.  The scripts are so bad because the are overwritten.

Yeah, but.

Granted you could easily get lousy dialogue from any scripts being pored over by a series of “experts,” how does that explain the plot holes?  One would think that being examined over and over again by successive crews would at least catch the obvious errors.  Some of those plot holes live from the first draft until the last.

How come?  Here we have a need that is recognized, it is addressed, millions are spent on it, and the result is dreck.

How come?

Let me suggest a modest (ahem) possibility.

Who do you suppose goes into the movie business?  If you read their interviews and biographies, you discover that they were once those kids who wanted to go to the movies every day of the week.  The true addicts.

It is only a theory of mine, but I will bet a survey would show an abnormally high percentage of them are visual thinkers.  Check the directors, the set designers, the cinematographers, etc., I’ll bet you will find a whole lot of them ideate in pictures.

The proof?  That, let me suggest, may be found in another peculiarity of modern movies: They may have paper-thin characters reciting inane words in improbable plots but, by God, they have great visuals!

If I’m right, then a large part of what is wrong with the scripts lies in who we put in charge of our productions.  They are born, dyed-in-the-wool movie people.  People who were absolutely destined, from the cradle, to make movies.  Their brains are literally shaped to perceive and shape the moving shadows we project on the screen.

But to specialize is also to narrow.  To gain focus in one area, you must lose in others.  I suspect that the people who get final approval on these scripts are highly specialized.  So visually specialized that it has left them a bit handicapped in other areas.

For the written word, these folks are, well, a bit tone deaf.

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