An asymmetrical relationship between verbal and visual thinking: Converging evidence from behavior and fMRI

Elinor Amit, Caitlyn Hoeflin, Nada Hamzah, Evelina Fedorenko*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans rely on at least two modes of thought: verbal (inner speech) and visual (imagery). Are these modes independent, or does engaging in one entail engaging in the other To address this question, we performed a behavioral and an fMRI study. In the behavioral experiment, participants received a prompt and were asked to either silently generate a sentence or create a visual image in their mind. They were then asked to judge the vividness of the resulting representation, and of the potentially accompanying representation in the other format. In the fMRI experiment, participants had to recall sentences or images (that they were familiarized with prior to the scanning session) given prompts, or read sentences and view images, in the control, perceptual, condition. An asymmetry was observed between inner speech and visual imagery. In particular, inner speech was engaged to a greater extent during verbal than visual thought, but visual imagery was engaged to a similar extent during both modes of thought. Thus, it appears that people generate more robust verbal representations during deliberate inner speech compared to when their intent is to visualize. However, they generate visual images regardless of whether their intent is to visualize or to think verbally. One possible interpretation of these results is that visual thinking is somehow primary, given the relatively late emergence of verbal abilities during human development and in the evolution of our species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)619-627
Number of pages9
StatePublished - 15 May 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Inner speech
  • Modes of thought
  • Visual imagery
  • fMRI


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