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The Cranial Gymnasium
by Moses Aakar
Word Pictures

The concept of critical thinking is what we concern ourselves with here at the Cranial Gymnasium. The mind/brain is like a muscle, insofar as the more one uses it, the stronger and more able to be strengthened it is. Critical thinking involves analyzing and discerning what is actually going on in a given situation.

If one stops to observe what one does throughout the day with the mind, one of the first important observations made is the fact that we tend to form mental word pictures to coincide with concepts and things we hear. For instance, if I say to you “I traveled throughout England last summer.” the image that pops into your mind’s eye can vary widely, and is most certainly NOT the image that is in my mind as I make the statement. The importance of this is overwhelmingly apparent when a person harbors strong emotions about a topic that is mentioned. But even on trivial levels, word-picturing is at work in our mental world, virtually all the time.

In your mind, “England” may immediately evoke mental images of Big Ben, the Tower of London or Warwick Castle. It may mean Shakespeare, the Beatles, Stonehenge or Soccer; Charles and Diana, the Crown Jewels, etc. So, while I am stating that I traveled in England, you are thinking of various word pictures that are your creation – not mine. I may not have seen any of the things you have in your mental pictures, yet we are presumably both “thinking” of England. The next level of word picture would be built upon this foundation. Let us say that in 6th grade you were required to write and present to the class, a report on Stonehenge. You worried yourself sick about it for the two weeks you had to prepare it; you couldn’t sleep the night before you presented it and the presentation itself didn’t go well. You felt humiliated and ashamed at your failure to perform at a level you could be satisfied with. Do you suppose that from then on, the mention of Stonehenge might produce uncomfortable memories? It is possible. Not everyone would have such an outcome, but let us suppose that this experience did produce a mild discomfort in you each time you saw a photo or heard mention of the ancient rock-pile on the Salisbury Plain.

Now, when I mention my trip to England, you may be thinking of the picture of Stonehenge and feel discomfort. I am not intending to produce discomfort in you, and you would prefer not to be thinking of your 6th grade failure, but that is what is taking place, just the same. So, my statement to you may produce this as your response: “I hate England. I have always hated England.” Now, this may seem an unlikely and extreme response, but if I were to change the word “England” to “God” you could probably think of two people who very well could have such an exchange. And now we are able to see that this is where awareness of our thinking in word pictures becomes extremely important. In law, a contract is a paper symbol of a “meeting of the minds.” What the minds meet on is, hopefully, accurately and completely set forth on the paper version, but the actual contract is invisible; it is only in the mental images and concepts of the parties to the contract. That is why lawsuits can arise so easily over an apparently obvious paper agreement – the minds did not actually meet – at least that is the contention of one party versus another. In daily life, many an argument can arise where none was intended, simply due to an unawareness of the power of word pictures. When one becomes aware of word picturing, his choice of words may become more concise – approximating his intent more closely.

Whenever two people are discussing something that is very “hot,” the word pictures in their minds are what they are really discussing. As mentioned before, the word “God” is the best example one can think of. No other single word can produce such a powerful friction so quickly . . . like striking a match! Now, if two ambassadors of two different countries, with very different ideas – and emotions -- about God, sit down to hammer out a peace agreement, the collective word pictures of their countries and themselves are what they are actually “talking” about – not the complex intellectual issues of the right of one party and the right of another party and currency exchanges and such. No, the word pictures in their minds are focused much more on emotionally-charged things that may have nothing in common, except that what triggers the mental image in each person (and country) is a word or phrase common to them both. (This could be a vast oversimplification, but where an honest meeting of the minds could exist otherwise, this sort of mental picture difference can block peaceful coexistence.)

Homeschoolers hear two prime examples of word-picture differences when discussing their lives with non-homeschooling people: “It’s a tough world out there.” or “How will your child be able to function in the real world?” A favorable blanket response might be: “Where is ‘out there’ and what makes it so tough?” and “My child already lives in the real world – not the school world.”

If a person frequents a tough place populated with tough people, such as a bar, pool hall, ghetto neighborhood, or other such area, then certainly such a world will be tough. But unless one lives in or near such an environment, it isn’t particularly difficult to avoid. Most of the adult people I know do not frequent such dangerous locales and the world they inhabit is no “tougher” than striving to make an adequate living and raising children has ever been. Farming is “tough” so is doctoring. For some reason, few people seem to challenge this nonsensical word picture, so it persists. Child after child is told the “tough” cliché and who knows what fear of growing up is cast in their young minds?

Or how about the “real” world fallacy? Every homeschooled child I know is already living in the real world. Homeschooled teenagers know about September 11, just as sure as my generation knew about the assassination of President Kennedy. Teens know about the military action in Iraq, and most of them are acquainted with the Arab-Israeli wrangling, the relative state of the economy, something (or very much) about the stock market, and many of them are well-versed on moral and ethical issues that are in the news every day. Around the house, they can see their parents handling these “real” issues and doing quite well with them, so doing so is simply part of life. Being at a job on time or being an entrepreneur and working for one’s self, is just being an adult – at least as most of us define it – and our children should be taught to look forward to their adult lives, forging their own way, and using their creative abilities and willpower to make life better for themselves.

Another category of word picturing is social/political issues: Gun control is seen as an end to crime by one group; it is seen as a means to Big Brother’s enslavement by another group, as well as leading to an increase in crime. In some instances, both sides are imaging the worst-case scenario in the form of a word picture, and not using intellect and logic. This lack of applied thought probably fuels their powerful emotional reactions. Add to this the fact that lying and misinforming is more acceptable than it may have been in bygone eras, and you have a recipe for intellectual disaster! In the gun-control debate, it seems somewhat difficult to find valid, accurate statistical information to quell the issue, once and for all. While there is much evidence by police associations that where the law-abiding citizenry is randomly (unpredictably) armed, the “cost” to outlaws to break the law increases and that risk factor makes armed crime less profitable, thereby functioning as a strong deterrent. Gun-control advocates maintain that the presence of guns increases the risk of innocent injury and death that is more important than the deterrent factor. Recently, statistics supporting gun-control have been completely fabricated, making a reasonable person believe that the gun-control advocates have a very shaky logical case, but, possess powerful emotional word pictures on their side. Michael Moore’s film “Bowling For Columbine” is an example. He tries to make a flimsy connection between Dick Clark’s business activities and a 10-year-old boy killing a schoolmate with a handgun in Michigan. Moore quietly ignores the issue of personal responsibility in that the boy-shooter’s adult uncle left the gun in plain sight and accessibility of his nephew. No one with critical thinking skill is sucked in by such emotional propaganda.

Of course, emotionalism is what makes word pictures so pervasive and meaningful in our modern world. A great portion of the population cannot reason, because that requires hard work and may result in one having to change or re-form a long-held, comfortable belief. On the other hand, anyone and everyone can form an opinion and these opinions are derived from word pictures – not analysis. Obviously, this process of word picturing is what makes propaganda effective. It appeals to the hysterical word-picturing function which then exaggerates small fears, turning them into massive or distorted terrors.

Lastly, it must be mentioned that this process of word picturing also makes great prose and poetry possible. For instance, there is a children’s book entitled “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. Picture for a moment whatever images this title conjures up in your mind and then allow me give you my personal word picture rendering: In the United States, the Eastern portion of the country is densely populated, while the West is a place of huge, open spaces and big skies. The morning sun (East) is very harsh and annoying to me, while the full moon is always peaceful, beautiful and welcome. The daytime sky seems finite, while the night sky seems infinite and dreamy. Therefore, the phrase “west of the moon” is one that is very attractive in my word pictures, connoting freedom and peace, while “east of the sun” is very unattractive to me, connoting restriction and annoyance. It would be relatively easy for me to find a person who felt the opposite about this book title and had word pictures that were equally attractive in his/her mind’s eye. Being aware of this function of the mind and teaching one’s self how to use it makes for excellent writing and communication . . . and may even bring peaceful resolutions to fiery and dangerous differences of opinion. – M.A.

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