Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Eye-Mindedness and Ear-Mindedness




THE faculty that determines the direction of one's mental acquisitions has been termed "apperception"; it is equivalent to all that the mind brings with it to perception. Steinthal has made clear the nature and importance of this trait by a variety of clever illustrations. One of these relates to a party of German gentlemen who had traveled together all day, and as they were about to separate one of their number offered to tell the profession of each of the party if each would write without hesitation an answer to the question, "What destroys its own offspring?" One wrote, "Vital force." "You," said the questioner, "are a biologist." A second answered, "War," and was correctly pronounced a soldier. The philologist revealed his profession by writing "Kronos"; the publicist by writing "Revolution"; and the farmer by writing "She-bear." Each answered according to his apperceptive bent. The same thing is illustrated in Don Quixote's seeing a giant in a windmill; in our seeing a man in the moon; in the ancients finding curious animal shapes in the constellations; in children's and savages' personification of animals and natural phenomena; in Macbeth's vision of the dagger; or in the advice of that wise priest who told a maiden consulting him as to her acceptance of a certain suitor, to listen to the church-bells, and if she heard them saying, "Take-him., take-him." her happiness lay in acceptance, while if the bells rang out, "Take-him-not, take-him-not," no good could come of the union. The issue is left in doubt, but the maiden certainly followed her own mind. Especially when distinct perception is difficult does the subjective element of the process come to the front. In a country walk at night, an imaginative person constantly sees a ghost in what his more prosaic companion recognizes as a whitewashed tree. At a spiritualistic séance, it is well known that enthusiastic believers see whatever they are anxious to see. The general formula which sums up all these illustrations is, that we see with all that we have seen; we hear with all that we have heard; we learn with all that we have learned, and so on. Every acquisition and every action, however trivial, leaves a mark on our organization and becomes a causal link in the rest of our lives; it is in this way that experience leaves its deposit in character. This apperceptive bent goes deep into human nature, and it is transmitted to our offspring; it reveals itself early in life, is a most valuable guide-mark to the educator, and plays a prominent rôle in the development of enthusiasm and of genius. It is one aspect of this important trait that is here to be treated—an aspect best described as "sensory apperception"—the part of our individual bent due to the relative intellectual importance of the several senses.

Man is a visual animal; as a race we are eye-minded. We regard "seeing as believing," and say we "see" when we comprehend. The language of every-day use, as well as the imagery of poetry, abounds in illustrations of the "pictorial" nature of thought. Primitive forms of "picture-writing" testify to the ease with which the eye takes the lead in expressing ideas; and modern civilization increases a hundred-fold this natural visual supremacy, which by some is regarded as originally due to the function of sight as a distance-sense ("anticipatory touch" of Spencer). The use of object-lessons, models, diagrams, the reduction of complex relations to the curves of the graphic system, and a host of similar devices,[2] all show how firmly the eye is the apprehensive organ of mankind, and how generally its educational value is appreciated. While, as a genus, we are eye-minded (in the same sense in which we might call a dog smell-minded), certain portions of the genus homo possess this faculty to a greater degree than others. Women visualize more distinctly than men; children think more vividly than adults; the French are (or were) noted for the skill with which they can foresee the effect of dress combinations, festal decorations, and the like, and their phrase for "imagine" is "figurez-vous." Similar individual variations have been well brought out by the studies of Mr. Francis Galton.[3] From the examination of a large number of answers to a long series of questions, he concluded that the brightness, vividness, and reality of the mental picture of a former experience varied in different persons from all absence of any pictorial element in the remembrance to a remembrance comparable to a colored photograph of the original scene. In describing their remembrance of the morning's breakfast-table, some saw it all bright, definite, and complete; the persons present, their costume, the dishes, the view—all stood out as in the actual scene. Another group could visualize only the main features; the picture lacked reality, omitted details, and was only fairly clear; while a third set could hardly picture anything at all: they remembered the scene as they would a poem, but they saw nothing. Mr. Galton also finds that form is pictured better than color; that a high degree of visualizing power is apt to be hereditary; that scientific men as a class are poor visualizers, owing to their busying themselves with abstractions and generalizations, in which such a faculty would be inconvenient and thus fail to be cultivated; and many other interesting conclusions. When properly trained, and prevented from checking the plastic growth of mind, this faculty should be as useful an educational aid as the possession of a strong memory; like the latter, it is no mark of high intellectual capacity, but can be made a means of attaining it.

Some extreme and almost abnormal forms of this visualizing power are interesting in this connection. Examples of its extreme development are found in chess-players who play many games at once while blindfolded; in orators who "see" the pages of their manuscript as they speak; in mechanicians who picture every detail of construction and action of a machine in process of invention; in "lightning-calculators," who do their work on an imaginary blackboard; in artists painting a portrait or copying a painting from memory; and in countless others. Perhaps the crowning example is that of two chess-players, both gifted in this way, who could play a game of chess as they walked the streets; each announcing his move, and securely and readily picturing the result on their imaginary chess-board.

A strange development of this faculty (which, when it occurs, occurs almost always in conjunction with a strong visualizing power) is seen in certain imperative associations between colors or forms and sounds. The most common example is what Mr. Galton terms a "number-form." Many persons, when hearing or even thinking of a number or of a series of numbers, see these numbers arranged in definite shapes in a definite part of space. Some see them in the form of a circle; some as a broken line, the numbers 10, 12, 20, and 100 usually standing at the angles; and others have a variety of more complex and fantastic shapes. The letters of the alphabet—especially the vowels—the names of the months, of the days of the week, of persons and places, musical sounds, and so on, are associated in this realistic way with forms and colors. One gentleman has actually a whole alphabet of sound-colors, and can paint the sounds of v-i-s-u-a-l-i-z-a-t-i-o-n in colors, or read words out of wall-paper patterns.[4]

That such powers easily shade into the morbid is not hard to believe. Many of the chess-players who play blindfolded are haunted by the chess-board at night. An artist painting an imaginary portrait saw the figure in his walks, saw it move, at length came to believe in its reality, and became insane. The creations of genius are sometimes similarly realized: Dickens walked the streets with "Little Nell" at his side. All such phenomena are likely to appear as visual; in dreaming, these are decidedly most frequent and prominent (in fact, we call a dream a "vision"); in hypnotism an imaginary visual sensation is easily induced; in incipient as in pronounced insanity, visual illusions and hallucinations are the most usual.

All these facts illustrate the leading role that vision plays in mental life—or, to speak physiologically, the high development of the cortical sight-center in man and its associative dominance over other cortical centers—as well as the great variety of its development in different individuals. Next to sight, the intellectually most valuable sense is hearing; that it owes much of this importance to its function as the medium of spoken language goes without saying. As in sight, so in hearing, the ease of perception and the clearness and accuracy of one's remembrance of musical or other sounds are subject to wide individual variations. Again, there are persons who possess this "auditizing" power to an unusual degree; to this class belong Mozart, who remembered the "Miserere" of the Sistine Chapel after two hearings; Beethoven, composing and silently repeating to himself whole symphonies after his deafness; "Blind Tom," performing any musical composition, however fantastic, after a single hearing, and so on. In ordinary experience, many persons reveal their dependence on auditory impressions by repeating things out loud to remember them, by closing their eyes and assuming the attitude of listening when trying to recall a word, and so on. Among the blind I have found many a good example of this type of mind, just as good visualizers are probably abundant among the deaf-mutes. A good illustration of the difference between what I shall term a "visionaire" and an "auditaire" is furnished by the conversation between the two dramatists, Legouvé and Scribe. "When I write up a scene," said Legouvé to Scribe, "I hear it; you see it; for every phrase I write, the voice of the character speaking it strikes my ear. You are the theatre itself; your actors walk and act under your eyes; I am of the audience, you of the spectators." "Nothing could be truer," said Scribe.

Instances in which certain forms or colors call up certain sounds are on record, though they occur much less frequently than the reverse. In one case the sight of the full moon looked at through a red glass has the sound of l joined to o. In dreams, hearing enters next frequently to sight (though in many cases the tactual-motor sensations predominate); in hypnotism an auditory suggestion is very easily imposed; to the blind, hearing is decidedly the most valuable sense; and illusions and hallucinations of hearing are only slightly less frequent than those of sight. In general, the intellectual nature of these two senses presents a similar scale of individual differences, and suggests the action of like causes in their education as in their decay.

Third in importance is the group of muscular and tactual sensations accompanying motion. The importance of these is shown by the large factor of mere imitation in all training. The speaking of a language, though guided by the ear, and lost when hearing fails in childhood, is yet a separate acquisition, and deaf-mutes can be taught to speak by the muscular feelings alone. This avenue of knowledge was sufficient to bring to Laura Bridgman her phenomenal education. In common experience the value of this sense is illustrated by the tendency of many persons to speak to themselves, to move their lips when reading, to go through the motions of touching the keys of a piano when listening to a musical recitation. Many artists lay much stress on the teaching of free-hand movements apart from pencil and paper; singers often state that they "feel" an aria in their throats when they go over it to themselves; actors and athletes are, perhaps, likely to develop this kind of mental faculty, and among blind handicraftsmen it is frequent; while a certain school of psychologists define thinking as restrained action. The difficulty in estimating the importance of this sensory group to our intellectual fabric lies in the fact that it acts almost entirely under the guidance of the eye or of the ear; but analogy makes it probable that its importance varies much in different individuals. Such sensations enter into dreams, play a prominent role in hypnotism, where the assumption of an attitude will bring about the corresponding emotion, and have much to do in developing a common type of illusions and hallucinations. (Here belong the persecutions by crawling vermin, the feeling that the body is made of glass, or that the walls of the chest touch one another, and the like.)

Smell and taste need only a bare mention. The intellectual value of these senses reaches its climax in the lower animals.[5] Smell is a richly suggestive sense (witness the associations with the odor of funeral flowers, and the like), and taste gives us many emotional epithets, such as a "sweet" disposition. But our mentality has developed in other directions, and these senses have remained nearest to the conæsthesic stage.

Every normal-minded man uses each of the above avenues of knowledge in his mental processes, as well in acquiring as in retaining and digesting mental food. Certain acquisitions depend almost exclusively upon the development of one intellectual center (music upon the auditory, painting upon the visual); and one in whom this center is poorly developed is deprived of all but mediocre achievement in that direction. But a far larger share of mental work is done by the combined use of various centers; and here, in what one does best by using the eye as the leading sense, another may succeed better by employing the ear as the teacher. The learning of one's mother-tongue is probably the best example of the operation in question. (A remark must be here inserted regarding the acquiring and the retaining of knowledge. It may be that one sense acquires knowledge readiest and another retains it best. But the utility of either process is so generally dependent upon the soundness of the other that we have good reason to believe that cases where different senses take charge of the two processes would be the exception. However, the question can only be settled by an experimental test. In general, the different sensory types will be supposed to refer to the combined process of memory and apperception, with the reservation, in necessary cases, of the possible difference just referred to.) In learning a language, one must first associate certain ideas with certain sounds, and again with the accompanying feelings of the vocal apparatus when making the sounds, and again with a certain set of visual symbols (usually more than one set—capitals, small letters, printed characters, script, etc.), and again with a set of muscular feelings when writing. And all this—the work of years—can be further complicated by the knowledge of several languages, of short-hand, and so on. In spite of this wonderfully complex and compact interassociation of the elements of language—as expressive of the intellectual utilization of sense-impressions—each sense keeps its store of images and its apperceptive grasp quite distinct. Pathology demonstrates that the distinctions here made are not abstractions, but have correlated with them separate physical substrata in the cells of various parts of the cortex; disease can paralyze any one of these cell-groups, shutting off one part of the language complex, and leaving all others quite intact. A few cases of this kind will bring out very clearly the distinctions in types of memory and apperception here treated. Dr. Charcot records the most striking case: A highly intelligent gentleman, well versed in several languages, was gifted with a remarkable visual memory. He could read pages of his favorite authors from the mental image of the printed page; he could sketch well from memory; and the mention of a scene in a play or of an incident of any of his many travels at once called up a bright and complete picture of the entire scene. He had, however, no fondness for music, and what he heard impressed him very little. As a consequence of business troubles, he became nervous and irritable. With this his visual apperception and memory gave way. The scenes of his daily walks seemed strange; if asked to picture a certain spot, he was unable to do so; the attempt to draw a church-spire resulted in a rude, childish scrawl. Later on, the familiar scenes of his childhood faded from his memory; he could not picture the appearance of his wife and child, and even failed to recognize his own image in a mirror. In order to keep up his literary tastes, everything had to be read out loud to him; he had to cultivate his little-used auditory center. He now no longer dreamed of seeing, but of hearing. In short, without impairment of vision or of general intelligence, his excellent visualizing powers faded out, and he was left dependent upon his auditory center. By nature a strong "visionaire," disease forced him to become an "auditaire."

In sensory aphasia, cases occur in which the patient can not understand spoken words; he may be able to speak himself, can write, and has no defect of hearing. But the power to apperceive, to get the meaning out of sounds, is lost. The same may happen to the function of the motor sense in written language. In a typical case the patient suddenly lost all power to write; he had no paralysis, could read manuscript, could talk and hear. But the knowledge of the movements necessary to form the letters had dropped from his mind. If the disease progresses, he may lose the knowledge of all those little gestures and facial expressions that fill the gaps of social intercourse. In these cases—and more varieties could be added—we have clearly illustrated the distinctness of each of these sensory faculties, and of the various degrees of importance they assume in different minds.

It will doubtless have occurred to many a reader that this natural difference of faculty has a practical, an educational aspect. If each one can best absorb his mental food in a certain way, a knowledge of the nature of this peculiarity is certainly desirable. An absence of this knowledge is certain to bring about waste of energy, and especially so as these differences are already apparent in early youth, when a proper recognition of them can do something to remove the unnecessary friction of school-room methods. Dr. J. Mortimer-Granville has clearly grasped the practical aspect of this principle in his primer on "The Secret of a Good Memory." The leading note of that essay is the necessity of finding out the sensory bent of one's memory, and following out the clew thus gained. An eye-minded person should read, should reduce everything to visual terms; and it is because of the common occurrence of this trait that such mnemonic systems as associate everything with a certain spot on a general scheme have been successful. To an "auditaire" they would be worse than useless. The latter must have things read to him; will gain much from conversation, and so on. Dr. Granville does not recognize the motor-type, but gives a series of tests for distinguishing between an eye-minded and an ear-minded person, which, in brief, are as follows: Unknown to the subject of the trial, a slip of paper containing some eight or ten monosyllabic words, arranged so as to have no natural association, is prepared and presented to him to be silently read once only. He must then write as many of the words as he can remember. The same is repeated with an equivalent set of words read aloud once to the subject, which he attempts to repeat. A comparison of the errors in a number of papers prepared in this way will reveal whether the words are better apprehended by the eye or by the ear. By having a longer or shorter interval between the reading and the repeating, the sense by which the subject remembers more securely will be determined.

The test is good but insufficient; a reliable and complete estimate of the part played in one's mental life by the several senses can be gained only by a series of varied and mutually corroborative tests. A few such tests which I have tried and found satisfactory—and which will readily suggest others—will be here detailed.

The general principles on which I proceed are three: I. I test the limit of the capacity for receiving impressions by the eye, and a similar limit for the ear. The sense that has the largest capacity is the dominant one. II. I test the subject in a performance in which error is sure to occur, both by eye and by ear, and compare the amount of the error in equally difficult performances, as well as derive hints from the nature of the errors. III. I have two processes, one requiring the use of the eye, the other that of the ear, going on at the same time; and find which one absorbs the maximum of attention and gets best remembered. All of these principles admit of a variety of applications, both for immediate apperception as well as for remembrance after an interval.

I. The simplest test relates to the mechanical apprehension of form and sound. For this one can find the maximum number of nonsense-syllables that can be repeated after a single reading, and compare it with the number remembered after a single hearing. One can do the same with numbers, with words of a foreign tongue, with simple diagrams or colors and sounds, and so on. The "visionaire" remembers more of the seen; the "auditaire" of the heard. The next step is to use significant words, as Dr. Granville suggests. It is still more instructive and often amusing to take short sentences from the newspaper or a book and find the largest number of words in construction retained after a single hearing or a single reading. Another interesting test is to find the number of repetitions necessary to commit a paragraph or a string of words too long to be retained after a single bearing or a single reading; here, as everywhere, care must be taken to have the paragraphs of equal difficulty, and to repeat the test a number of times. Dr. Ebbinghaus[6] has made a valuable study of the memory, tracing a curve of forgetfulness, and establishing many interesting conclusions by this method; while Mr. Joseph Jacobs[7] and others have used the maximum number of sounds repeatable after a single hearing, which they call the "span," as a test of the growth of mental power with the increase of years, and as a mark of the narrow intellect of idiots. The successive corrections and improvements, until a perfect repetition is possible, are often full of interest. The "auditaire" reaches this stage sooner by having the passage, etc., read, the "visionaire" by reading it; in addition I find that the former has all along (both in I, II, and III) a tendency to remember the last words best, while the latter retains the first most readily. One must also observe by which method the sense is best retained when the exact words are forgotten; moreover, it may be noted that the one confuses words allied in sound, the other words are in appearance, and so on.

II. All the various processes described under I can be repeated with the list of words, numerals, paragraphs, and the rest, so long that error is sure to arise. It is not necessary to give details. These errors are often highly amusing as well as instructive. The fleetness with which an impression which you feel perfectly sure of firmly possessing while listening or reading, suddenly disappears with a blank in its place, is very startling. After an interval, only the most prominent words or ideas are left. Of three persons subjected to a variety of tests, one retained most and more of what the eye had taken in, the second nearly equally of each, with a preponderance of the visual, while the third (myself) was a decided "auditaire." This suggests the remark that a type of mind to which all the avenues of perception are almost equally attractive is doubtless common. In fact, M. Binet,[8] who has much interesting matter to offer on this topic, regards this indifferent type as the normal type, representing a harmonious development of all the sensory faculties. But here, as elsewhere, specialization has its advantages; and, moreover, if the tests are carefully made, I suspect a noticeable superiority in favor of sight will be the most usual result. It is not impossible to imagine the tests so arranged as to give roughly quantitative estimates of the relative importance of the several senses in this respect, and thus register the degree to which one is a "visionaire," "auditaire," and so on.

III. These form the most difficult as well as most interesting tests. Two paragraphs (of course, the same can be done with syllables, numerals, words, and so on), of equal difficulty are chosen, and, while one is read by the subject, the other is read aloud to him. The reading must not be especially loud or pronounced, but neither must it be monotonous. It is very important that, in repeating as much as possible of the contents of both paragraphs, one should as often repeat first what has been read as what has been heard. The amount of forgetting of the other paragraph that goes on while you repeat what you can of the one, is surprising. In this performance, appealing simultaneously to eye and ear, the "auditaire" is attracted to what he hears, the "visionaire" to what he sees, and the former knows more of what has been read, the latter of what he has read. A strong "visionaire" may, at times, know nothing of the passage read to him, while the "auditaire" may listlessly let his eye wander across the page, his attention being involuntarily chained to what he hears.

A modified form of this test can be adopted by finding the limit of words, etc., that can be perfectly learned by the eye and ear simultaneously. While the "auditaire" can listen to and retain six words, he may be able to read and retain (at the same time) only two or three words; while with the "visionaire" the propositions will be reversed. That it is possible to do these two things at once is shown by some ingenious experiments of M. Paulhan.[9] This observer finds that the more disparate the faculties used in doing two things at once, the better can they be done; and that the simpler the processes, the less the difference between the sum of the times necessary to do each separately and the time to do both at once, this difference failing entirely in very simple processes. When the two sentences get confused it is suggestive to note whether a heard word creeps into the passage read, or vice versa.

If a person is an "auditaire," a further test of the degree of this trait can be thus made: While a passage is being read to him, let him copy a sentence or two from a book. If a strong "auditaire," he will find that he has been writing automatically, knows little of what he has written, and can tell more or less of what he has heard. The "visionaire," on the other hand, knows what he has written almost word for word, and less than usual of what has been read to him. That is, with a strong "auditaire," hearing outweighs sight even when supported by the muscular sense; while, when thus supported, sight more than usually outweighs hearing for the "visionaire." A few words should be said about those to whom action is the chief aspect of mental experience—the "motaires." I have not succeeded in devising a satisfactory test for the importance of this avenue of knowledge in our mental fabric, for the obvious reason that it operates so generally under the guidance of the eye or (in speaking) of the ear. (It would be easier to devise tests applicable to the congenitally blind.) Even when we write or draw with closed eyes, we imagine and interpret what we do by how it will look. A few hints as to the strength of this faculty can be gathered from some of the above and similar experiments. In the last test, for example, he who would be decidedly aided by writing what he read would be somewhat strongly motor-minded; while this trait would be weak in one not much aided by writing what he reads. Again, one might find the limit of memory for words, sentences, etc., written from a copy and again written from dictation, and observe which the motor feelings aided more and how much altogether; one can also have the hand moved by another, drawing a more or less complicated figure, and compare the attempt to repeat the drawing with a similar repetition of a drawing momentarily seen. These tests—for which the average of a large number of trials is necessary as a standard—would be certain to bring out decided "motaires," but they must be perfected before they are as available and conclusive as those for ear-and eye-mindedness.

It goes without saying that every one will probably have a hint (though often only a slight one) as to the sensory bent of his apperceptive processes, especially any one engaged in mental labor. If he is a "visionaire" he will have noted how much better he remembers what he reads than what he hears; that he often remembers the position of a word on a page; will, perhaps, have a good memory for forms and faces; will find that he can easily read while talking is going on; that he readily gets absorbed when his eye is occupied; and so on in a hundred ways. The "auditaire" will note that a lecture impresses him more deeply than a review article; that he imagines the sounds of the words as he reads or writes (and is usually thus a slow reader); that he repeats aloud what he has written to judge of its effect—he wants to know how "it sounds" even when it is only to be read; he observes harsh sound-combinations in style (the "visionaire" observes misprints); talking easily disturbs him when reading or writing, his attention being involuntarily drawn to the conversation; he may have a good memory for tunes, and so on. Those who approach the motor or the indifferent type will have greater difficulty in discerning this by hap-hazard observation. The above are, of course, only general descriptions; they will be variously modified in individual cases, but will retain a typical appearance throughout. Enough has been said to indicate the diversity of various minds in these respects, and the importance of recognizing and studying these distinctions, alike for their educational utilization and as a contribution to a scientific psychology.

  1. The treatises dealing most fully and ably with the general subject of this article are G. Ballet's "Le langage intérieur et les diverses formes de l'aphasie," and V. Egger's "La parole intérieure"; see also S. Strieker's "Sprachvorstellungen," etc.
  2. Perhaps the most striking device is that of teaching children the tones of the scale by association with colors (also with position of the hand, etc.); thus do would be red, mi yellow, etc. The association is explained (?) as due to a similar emotional effect of the sound and the color. I have heard a class of children sing from colors, and set up tunes in the same way.
  3. "Inquiries into Human Faculty," London, 1883.
  4. Further examples and much interesting information are to be found in Mr. Galton's papers, loc. cit. (where are also illustrative diagrams and plates), and in "Zwangsempfindungen durch Licht und Schall," by Bleuler and Lehmann, 1881, a small monograph.
  5. Perhaps the eccentric Dr. Jäger, who finds the seat of the soul in smell, is an unusual case of smell-mindedness—a highly developed "olfactaire."
  6. Hermann Ebbinghaus, "Ueber das Gedächtniss," Leipsic, 1885. An excellent monograph.
  7. "Mind," January, 1887; an article by Mr. Jacobs et alii and another by Messrs. Galton and Bain.
  8. Alfred Binet, "La Psychologic du Raisonnement," Paris, 1886.
  9. "Revue Scientifique," June, 1887; reported in "Science," July 8, 1887.