News & Politics

Secrets of the Brain & Dyslexia: Interview with Thomas West

Running movies in your head, seeing what others don't, discovering the gifts of dyslexia, and other secrets of the brain.

National editor Ken Adelman ( has been conducting What I've Learned interviews since 1988.

"Much of our educational system," Thomas West says, "resembles what existed before Leonardo da Vinci–medieval clerks who relied on reading, counting, memorizing texts, and learning foreign languages. We need to be more like Leonardo–integrating many aspects of life in art, science, mathematics, architecture, and technology using visualization."

West, who studies visual thinking and learning differences, came to the field after realizing that his sons' academic difficulties mirrored his own when he was young.

"I had trouble in school," he says, "not reading until way too late. I couldn't spell or memorize, but I later found that visual and conceptual thinking came easily." He began to research ways of learning and presenting data through visualization, particularly in the area of computer graphics.

"Computers can take lots of information and deliver images that integrate all the pieces," he says. "That delivers to the human brain a way of seeing and connecting masses of data."

West was born in Indianapolis in 1943, and his family later moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore. His father was an art teacher; his mother, now 96, painted until recent years.

West majored in English at Gettysburg College and received a master's degree in international relations from the University of Southern California. He spent three semesters in a doctoral program at Georgetown University before working for local energy and high-tech firms in the 1970s and '80s.

In 1991, he published In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity. The American Library Association called the updated edition one of the "best of the best."

West has consulted for the National Library of Medicine, and he's on the advisory board of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University.

For years, he wrote a column on visualization for a computer-graphics journal. These columns were collected in last year's Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots With the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization. He's now writing a book on visual thinking and dyslexia in three scientific families.

West lives in DC's Barnaby Woods neighborhood with his wife, Margaret West, a radio producer and editor. They have two sons. Ben, 31, is a freelance journalist; Jonathan, 28, is studying at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

What is visual thinking?

It's running little movies in your head and then using them to store and manipulate information. Handling dates in history might entail remembering the digits–or envisioning the story of that century and putting a date into it roughly where it belongs. Then you're viewing time in a spatial way.

For hundreds of years, educational systems have been based on reading and writing, rarely on images. People who think in images often have trouble in the world of words, such as memorizing things.

Today there's so much power in new technologies built on visual thinking. You can look at something complex and grasp it as a whole. That's been done forever by artists.

But they were working to create moods or settings, not to deliver data.

Not really. Traditional artists like Leonardo da Vinci and modern computer-graphic artists do both. Doing data visualization in a systematic way began 15 or 20 years ago in supercomputer centers. Images require lots of power, whether brain power or computer bytes. Until maybe five years ago, you could get that much power only at supercomputer centers, like the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

For example, the NCSA took the massive data on a thunderstorm–information on temperatures, pressures, wind direction–and showed it as something moving and pulsing, with colored balls and streamers. You're seeing the storm and wind build in three dimensions. These aren't photographs but models based on, and showing, lots of data.

What's done with thunderstorms can be done with many other things, such as international financial markets.

Think of a symphony. You can hear trombones or violins alone, but hearing all the instruments together is far more satisfying. It's a way to deliver more complex information to more people.

Remember that trader in Singapore who ruined Barings Bank? He could hide his wild trading by burying the numbers in the mass of data in ink on paper. A year later, the Economist magazine described software that would have saved Barings by showing his trades in a color-coded sea of bar charts.

It's easy to hide something in a stack of papers but not so easy in the new computer-visualization display. Someone can zoom in on things that break a normal pattern.

How is this being applied in science?

One of my favorite examples is a film about a pulsar in astronomy that's sending out regular radio signals. The film lasts three minutes but contains 15 hours of lecture information. It got an award at one of the computer-graphics conferences.

It shows a pulsar with planets going around it. One planet pulls the pulsar and makes it wobble slightly, changing the pulses ever so slightly as well. Adding another planet into the mix changes this pattern, as the wobbles become a bit different. Adding another planet also changes the pattern, with the planets themselves interacting.

It's shown on a computer screen, but some people can see this "movie" of the pulsar and planets in their imagination. They're really good at visualizing. Computer graphics enables people to see loads of information before their eyes even if they're not gifted at thinking visually in their own minds. Their brain can absorb, in a richer way, how the wobble interacts with planets.

This new approach opens information to people who couldn't handle it in the old way. People at the bottom of the class before–restricted to words and numbers–may be at the top of the class in this new world of images and rich information.

We laypeople have been taught that scientists carefully examine all the data and find a pattern emerging from the data itself. That's not always the way it works. Geniuses in many fields of science, like Einstein, have used their visual imagination. They've gone way beyond what the scientific data warrants.

They use images to understand what's happening and then visualize what could happen in the future or in other circumstances. The toughest part of this new scientific process is translating these mental images into words, numbers, or formulas so they can be understood by others.

Einstein described his use of what's popularly called the creative, or right, side of his brain to see whole concepts; he then relied on the logical, or left, part to translate what he grasped into words and numbers.

He later said that when he was young, he would play with images in his mind–move them backward and forward and look at them from different viewpoints. In time, he understood an image or problem sufficiently to visualize it whenever he wanted. Only then would he begin the work of translating the images into words, numbers, and formulas.

Several scientists have observed that the more Einstein became a sophisticated physicist and mathematician, the less creative he became. He abandoned the visual methods that had delivered his breakthroughs as a young man. He became a better mathematician but had fewer revolutionary ideas.

I'm studying a young banker in Edinburgh who's said to be very innovative in his merchant- and investment-banking ventures. While his colleagues are talking about tax laws and numbers, he draws diagrams to better understand the relationships. He's dyslexic, so his visual approach often helps him to see problems in different ways and to see new business opportunities.

Should we use visualization more?

Yes, particularly if you're good at imagining things or have some degree of dyslexia.

Anyone strong in visuals should embrace these new computer technologies. If you can detect a pattern in a financial market or a scientific experiment that everyone else misses, you're going to succeed. Being creative means seeing what others don't.

Educators need to learn about this, too. Most people who run major educational institutions are adept with words, numbers, and formulas in the old way. They need to turn to these new technologies and the techniques they open up to all students.

If a CEO or head of a laboratory buys into this approach, what should he do?

Find people in his group who are really good at visualization and have them go to it.

For example, there's a guy, Dan Sandin, in a computer-visualization center in Chicago. He consults for scientists, bankers, and others by setting up the problem and detecting patterns. One time, he set out to find patterns for credit-card companies–whether somebody would pay their credit-card bills. Looking at months of nonpayment is one way of proceeding, but it turns out to be not a very good one. Sandin looked at more variables and found patterns others had missed.

So your CEO or laboratory head should bring a consultant in, buy the necessary software to process the information, and have his employees begin playing with this stuff. Many are already doing this.

Some employees may not be good at first because they're used to the old way. But others will prove to be superlative, even though they may lack advanced degrees. But look at performance–see who gets the results, and start building.

A scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Bill Dreyer, read my first book and called to say, "This is my life story." In his field of molecular biology, he had to visualize relationships, the immune system, and other systems. He generated more information by designing instruments to show him what was happening. In the process, he designed the machines that eventually led to those used in the Human Genome Project.

Another fellow who contacted me installed computer systems for corporations. He said that once he understands a system, when something goes wrong he instantly knows what's wrong and where to go to fix it. Others he works with have to go to A and test everything there and then to B and test that. In contrast, he has a model of the whole system in his mind and consults that model with all its intricacies and relationships.

Even those in English literature or history can use this approach. They're accustomed to words, but if they're good writers–whether in prose or poetry–they're evoking an image in the reader's mind. Most academics resort to dry statements that are hard to follow, because they're not referring to any image in their own minds or evoking it in the reader's mind.

Some of this is really "back to the future." Leonardo da Vinci was not only an artist but a first-class scientist who visualized all kinds of amazing discoveries.

Nikola Tesla, who developed the alternating electrical power system, used his visual imagination to design machines in his mind. Now we can do this with simulation in a modern graphic computer.

Boeing designed its 777 airplane by using high-visual computers. They didn't have to build prototypes to see which parts fit together and how they'd work with one another. Those engineers and designers couldn't do what Tesla did–build a prototype in his mind, run it there, and then improve it–but they could use modern computer technology.

Which fields are leading the way?

Design and film animation. Pixar makes animated movies, but unlike Snow White, animators don't draw one frame after another. Rather, they make models–essentially, marionettes without strings. Then, like the model of the little cowboy for Toy Story, they move it around within the computer's memory. They're using concretized imagination, as Leonardo da Vinci did.

In virtually any field, opportunities open up for a mini film clip as a way of making information visual or graphic. Using these modern technologies resembles the earliest human experiences, with one-to-one instruction using pictures and verbal explanations. It's very interactive.

What lessons have you learned about thinking?

That things aren't necessarily what they seem. Some people who appear not very proficient in the conventional school system fly to the top of the class when put in a more visual system. This is what happened to the young Albert Einstein.

I believe the powerful changes in computer-visualization technology will change our culture as much as the printing press did in the past. New visualization technologies will show us a side of our brains that has mostly atrophied.

This isn't frivolous, like entertainment television, which you watch passively. This technology is interactive and very powerful in delivering lots of information. It will allow us to educate a wider band of individuals and keep people engaged far more than any lecture could. This technology will tap into human brain power in virtually every field.

What have you learned about life?

That what looks like a problem, when you deal with it, can be seen as a gift. Someone who has dyslexia, for example, or who has trouble in school, may have real gifts of visualization.

I've learned how many people around the world are interested in this topic. My first book has been translated into Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese entitled it Geniuses Who Hated School. This shows that some people who lack verbal or mathematical skills have other skills, such as in visualization, which now prove so critical.

I've learned about real diversity as well. It's not just that we want to be nice and fair to people, but we may really need them. Go to places where these new technologies are being developed and used, like the computer-graphic society called SIGgraph, and you find deep, mutual respect. The mathematician knows he needs the artist, or even the dancer, to help him communicate an idea. There's no hierarchy of subspecialties.

I've learned to believe in the future. These new capabilities will work in a very exciting way. We have big problems and need people who can see the big picture. We'll have lots more Leonardos in the future.