I'm an osmotic learnerWed, 4th Jan '12, 1:31 am::

I often encounter people who say "I am a visual person" and hence need to see things (like user interface, photographs, videos) in order to understand what I'm trying to explain. They usually say this when I ask them to "imagine the left 25% of the screen has a list of people and the right 75% contains the list of email subjects."

I'm not asking them to imagine something unfamiliar like riding into equatorial sunset of Mars on a goliath slug-whale wearing a sombrero. I'm not asking them to visualize something complex like a 4D hypercube intersecting a torus. Everyone I talk to has seen what a list of people looks like and a list of email subjects looks like. I'm simply asking them to imagine what they would look like when displayed side-by-side on a screen.

And it's not just visualizing computer interfaces. I receive similar responses when I ask people to visualize furniture being rearranged, building dimensions being altered, colors being changed, and even instructions being followed in a different order. The fact that people have a hard time imagining is unimaginable to me!

I don't know why others can't visualize. But I can try to explain why I've never had difficulty in visualizing almost anything, including a Martian sunset.

  1. I read lots of books as a kid, mostly about things that I could not possible see in person - fictional lands, foreign countries, distant galaxies, superhuman beings, impenetrable forests, and tons of magic. While I love watching sci-fi and fantasy movies, they do not help you imagine or expand your mind. Reading a book does.
  2. Nobody told me I was a visual learner, aural learner, textual learner, active learner, passive learner, or anything but a typical human adolescent. I read text, deciphered diagrams, and listened to lectures. There was no 3D animation of the solar system on a computer to help me visualize how the planets revolved around the Sun while still rotating on their axes. If I didn't understand something, I was not given academic labels as crutches to hold on to for the rest of my life. I was told to try again. Moreover, research shows that catering to "learning styles" is not helpful i.e. dividing students into visual-learners and aural-learners and showing presentations and visual demonstrations to the former and giving audio lectures to the latter does not improve learning.
  3. I always thought that being able to quickly understand what people were trying to explain was a very positive trait and something I should actively try to do in all situations. If someone says they got into a car accident because as they pulled out of a parking lot, a vehicle coming up the road changed lanes and side-swiped their car, it is best not to ask them to draw a diagram for visual clarification.

I think the biggest reason why even grown-ups I encounter continue to have a hard time visualizing concepts, models, and strategies is because nobody has told them that everyone should be able to do that. If you're in a meeting and the boss says "I can't add 3 to 7 because I am a numeric person", everyone will gasp. But if they say "I can't picture 3 more icons to the right of the seven icons already in the toolbar because I am a visual person", nobody will flinch. In fact, the helpful ones among us will offer to do a mockup immediately after the meeting, thus reinforcing the belief that it is ok to not have the ability to imagine. Let's stop doing that.

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