wen bubble brightBook Proposal

See What You Think: Thoughts on the Visualization of Thinking – a neurognostics handbook

Proposing: A small illustrated book of poetico-philosophical speculation on the spatiality of thought and on the challenge of visualizing mental processes.


HU Seminar 2017/18 Helmholtz-Zentrum


This book will elaborate on the ancient dream of visualizing the mind.  Incorporating visual and conceptual materials from esoteric tradition, art, poetry, science, philosophy and popular visual culture, the book will be presented partly as practical research towards a graphical language for visualizing mental processes, and partly as the hermetic search for a system of living signs that would finally allow the Word (Logos) to take on Flesh, and manifest in visible form.

James paths of thought
William James, paths of thought

The task of visualizing thought is in an important sense an impossible one, but the desire is old and persistent, linked to the human longing to grasp the mysteries of the universe and see the principle of cosmic order revealed in bodily form. Placing itself in a tradition of speculative art research that includes Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes, this project aims both to communicate the spiritual/philosophical legacy of this search, and to inspire artists, poets and philosophers to carry it forward in an age where new media technologies and new, embodied models of consciousness hold out the promise of truly new revelations.

Ihde 1
Don Ihde, the phenomenological situation

Highly specialized visualizations, of course, already exist in several disciplines, from neurology with its high-tech imaging capabilities to artificial intelligence with its sophisticated mapping of neural networks, but what is lacking is a more developed vernacular graphics for embodying and communicating the important new models of consciousness and mental experience emerging today. See W hat You Mean is intended as an exploration of the possibilities of such a vernacular.


from Johnny Mnemonic, memory space

The book draws on and develops from a period of artistic research and experimentation begun in 1999 under the project title, Neurognostics. In addition to the search for historical and contemporary precedents, the project undertook to develop visualization schemes for several basic mental functions that would be essential building blocks for more comprehensive visualizations. These included abstraction, intentionality, the phenomenological situation, metaphor, hierarchization, and the process of reading. Portions of this project were carried out with the 3D designer Maximiliano Goldschwartz and one phase was conducted under the guidance of Professor David Galen, PhD, of the Langley Porter Institute of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Hans Ulricht Gumbrecht was supervisor of the doctoral research (Stanford Comparative Literature 1995-2004) to which these studies related.

Content plan:

1. hints

Introduction to the topic by way of instances from literary texts where a poet or lyrically gifted thinker has described thought or the mind in a way so vivid it seems you should really be able to see it, e.g. Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, William James.

2. the promise

Continuing with explicit moments where a poet or thinker has commented explicitly on the possibility of seeing thought or meaning made visible, e.g. Valéry, e.g. Einstein.

3. the hype

Highlighting some of the more extreme (and exaggerated) projects of this sort, e.g. the  “Thought Forms” of 19th Century spiritualism or Kirlian photography.

4. the earnest

Some solid philosophic arguments for taking such a project seriously, based on statements of the fundamental spatiality of thought, e.g. Cassirer, James, Lakoff.

5. resources

            graphic language abstractions

            disciplines, systems & schemes

Pointing to some resources that would give one a head start on such a project: a) various graphical “lexicons” for expressing abstractions visually (e.g. Malevitsch, Klee, or Kepes), and b) schemes to elaborate comprehensive systems for explaining how mind works (e.g. Buddhist Abhidamma, or Tart’s “States of Consciousness” diagrams)

6. procedure (1) structural descriptions into graphics

            e.g. abstraction

Example of how to proceed in developing new visualizations, 1: Take structural descriptions from the technical writing of scientists or philosophers, and develop iconic signs to represent the main terms and relations, and test for their ability to support systematic illustration of those writings. Neurognostics case study: abstraction.

7. the phenomenological situation

The basic challenge for any attempt to visualize mind: develop a visualization scheme for the basic terms and relations of phenomenological theory, e.g. using above procedure; recommended text Don Ihde Experiential Phenomenology; sample solutions from the Neurognostics project.

8. the object – ontological interlude

Fundamental challenge to this project, giving material form to an immaterial “thing”, how to picture a thought; strategies for “dematerializing” the visualization scheme, and for representing indeterminacy, uncertainty, changeability, vagueness and relativity.

9. procedure (2) models from metaphors via abduction

            e.g. the word in its universe

2nd recommended procedure, especially useful for poetic and mystical writings: take a persistently recurring metaphor or analogy (e.g. that words are to the world of ideas what elementary particles are to the physical universe), and develop the visualization scheme by elaborating imagery from the source domain (physics) to symbolize aspects of the target (language).

10. the imagewater – interlude on mediality

Fundamental challenge part 2: representing the environment of thought and meaning; further strategies for materializing the immaterial indeterminately; speculations on what kind of stuff the “mind stuff” might really be.

11. test case: the act of reading





Useful test case for attempting a “comprehensive” visualization of mental processes; the act of reading involves all of conscious experience within the narrowed frame of a fully text-focussed intentionality; demonstrates this comprehensiveness according to four vectors or dimensions of the reading process.

12. solution (1) the wandering viewpoint

      solution (2) the tubular loom

Sample solutions to the challenge of a comprehensive visualization based on reading: the first applying procedure 1 to Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading, the second applying procedure 2 to the recurrent literary metaphor (e.g. Ezra Pound) of the mind as a loom on which the text is woven in reading.

13. dismissal:           

                        concluding caveats

                        destructions for use

Healthy reminders of the essential impossibility of this undertaking; of the ultimate arbitrariness and partiality of any thinking of thought in a medium other than thought.


Selected Bibliography

Art, Graphic Design, Visual Communication:

Paul Klee:  The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee, L. Humphries, 1964.

Wassily Kandinsky: Point and Line to Plane, Dover, 1979.

Kasimir Malevich: The Non-Objective World, Paul Theobald, 1959.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald, 1947.

Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Paul Theobald, 1944.

Anton Stankowski: Visual Presentation of Invisible Processes, Hastings House, 1966.

Rudolf Arhnheim: Visual Thinking, University of California Press, 1969.

Robert H. McKim: Experiences in Visual Thinking, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1980.

Edward Tufte: Visualizing Information, Graphics Press, 1997.

Tyler Volk: Metapatterns, Columbia University Press, 1996.

Arakawa and Madeline Gins: The Mechanism of Meaning 3rd ed., Abbeville, 1988

Esoteric Theology and Spiritualism:

Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbetter:  Thought Forms (1901), Quest Books, 1969

Giordano Bruno: De monade, numero et figura (1591)

Boris Mouravieff: Gnosis: Study and Commentaries on the Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, Agora Books, 1990.

Buhnemann and Gudrun: Mandalas and Yantras in the Hindu Tradition, DK, 2007.

William Huffman: Robert Fludd, Western Esoteric Masters Series, North Atlantic, 2001.

Angela Voss: Marsilio Ficino: Western Esoteric Masters Series, North Atlantic, 2006.


William James:  Principles of Psychology (1890), Harvard University Press, 1983.

Bernard J. Baars:  In the Theater of Consciousnesss: The Workspace of the Mind,  Oxford 1997.

Anthony Damasio:  The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of

Consciousness, Harvest Books, 2000.

Daniel C. Dennett: Consciousness Explained, Little Brown, 1991.

Charles Laughlin, Eugenie D’Aquili and John McManus: Brain, Symbol and Experience: Towards a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness, New Science Library, 1990.

Charles Hampden-Turner: Maps of the Mind, Scribner Paperbacks, 1982.

Peter Kunzmann: DTV Atlas zur Philosophie: Tafeln und Texte. Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991.

Cognitive Linguistics:

Peter Gärdenfors: Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought. MIT Press, 2004.

Ray Jackendoff:  Languages of the Mind: Essays on Mental Representation, MIT Press, 1992.

Gilles Fauconnier: Mental Spaces, MIT Press, 1985.

Mark Johnson:  The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Computer Science:

David Gelernter: The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought, Free Press, 2002.

Douglas Hofstadter:  Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, Basic Books, 1995.

Marvin Minsky: The Society of Mind, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Literary Theory:

Wolfgang Iser:  The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.


Buckminster Fuller and E.J. Applewhite: Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Scribner, 1975.  (Also Synergetics 2 by Fuller, more of the same)