February 19, 2006March 19, 2006Meeting Report

March 3, 2006

Ken Helms

Differences in Cognitive Styles

Ken HelmsKen Helms is a former Unitarian Universalist minister and is currently a Humanist Counselor/Celebrant, and a photographer (as was his famous father in law, the late Ansel Adams). He and his wife, Anne, are also active members of the Humanist Association of the Monterey Bay Area (HAMBA).

The full name of Ken's presentation was "Individual Differences in Cognitive Styles and Their Effect on How We Experience the World."

Ken promised a presentation that would be good fun and interesting, in that it would give us an opportunity to see how others may experience the world in either the same or remarkably different ways from ourselves. He didn't disappoint the twenty people who showed up to listen to him.

Usually we don't talk about what goes on "behind our eyes" or outside the conventions of language, but it can be quite revealing when we take the time to do so and will tell us a great deal about how we interpret the world and how we sometimes tend to over generalize from our own particular experience.

Unlike most people, Ken is unable to visualize. If someone says "cat" or shows him the word, he does of course, know what a cat is. However, he is unable to visualize a cat--neither a generic one nor one with which he is familiar. If he sees a cat, he does of course know what it is and, presumably, which one it is of the cats he knows. After all, he recognizes people and all of the things most of us recognize.

Ken started by holding up a flash card, on which was printed "CAT." He asked the audience if they visualized a cat. All did. After some discussion, he held up a succession of cards containing various single words, each of which was intended to evoke either a visual image or an image of sound, taste or touch, or some combination of two or more of those. Audience responses were less consistent than they were with the word "cat." However, according to Ken, they were within the normal distribution (Bell Curve) exhibited in the population as a whole (based on empirical evidence).

Differences in visualization are not just a matter of degree. Variations on the theme include such things as associating numbers with colors and seeing colors while listening to music (or when hearing the name of a familiar piece of music). This phenomenon is known as synesthesia, which is defined as a sensation produced at a point other than or remote from the point of stimulation, as of a color from hearing a certain sound. One audience member was apparently synesthetic. 

Ken recommended a book that deals with the synesthesia phenomenon. It's The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Revolutionary Insights Into Emotional Reasoning and Consciousness, Richard E. Cytowic, MD, MIT Press, 1998, ISBN 0262531526. It's available at Amazon.com for as little as $9, plus shipping.

The question and answer session following Ken's presentation was very lively.

Ken also set up a small literature table with information about New Zealand and the Humanist movement in that country. He and his wife, Anne, had recently visited new Zealand.

Report prepared by Bill Potts


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