Thoughts on Visual Thinking and Empathy

A comment left on one of my posts a few weeks back got me wondering about the connection between visual thinking and empathic response. About the idiom “It’s raining cats and dogs,” Lauren wrote:

I literally see cats and dogs (the animals) falling from the sky along with raindrops. I still ultimately understand that it means very heavy rain, even though that’s not exactly what I see in my mind’s eye.

However, when I was a child, perhaps the first time I head the phrase, I felt very sorry for the poor cats and dogs. I mean, it would hurt to fall from the sky like rain and hit the ground! I would hear the cats and dogs mewling or barking in distress, inside my head. Until someone actually explained what they meant by the phrase, I found it very upsetting because I thought animals were getting hurt. (I’ve heard other people have similar reactions to the phrase “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been noticing that certain idioms evoke a strong visual and emotional response in me as well:

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

You’ll kill two birds with one stone.

Don’t lose your head.

It’s no skin off my nose.

Can you lend me a hand?

You’re stirring up a hornet’s nest!

I know that each of these sentences is idiomatic, and I always have. And yet, I feel varying amounts of physical pain and emotional upset when I see the visuals appear in my mind — probably because the literal meaning of each one implies some form of pain to the body of a living creature.

So, it got me to wondering whether, contrary to popular opinion, the tendency of autistic people to see things visually might engender an intensified empathic response. Like Lauren, who talks about feeling upset at the vivid image in her mind of dogs and cats crying out and getting hurt, I wonder whether other autistics feel that same kind of upset by words that describe pain, or by images that show suffering.

The visual image can evoke very intense feelings, it seems. The idea that thinking visually means that we somehow objectify the world around us and detach ourselves from it seems altogether wrong-headed to me. If your way of thinking is primary visual, wouldn’t the visual images have more emotional power, rather than less?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism, and presides at Autism and Empathy.

Thoughts on Visual Thinking and Empathy appears here by permission.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Memoir is The Uncharted Path.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 09/15/11 in featured, The Unconscious | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Fibi says:

    I have the same response to all kinds of sayings implying pain. I also feel pain when I watch movies where they show wounds or someone gets hurt. It overwhelms me. I’m glad to know I’m not alone like that.

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