Picture this

Two nights ago I came across a video on YouTube about something called aphantasia. What this means is, the inability to create mental images inside your head, also known as visualization. The term aphantasia came from the greek word for imagination - fantasia - and the "a" means without.

For my entire life, I have always assumed that when people talk about visualizing something, or being able to "picture" something, that they meant it as a metaphor. Because for me, when I try to visualize or picture an image, what I do is basically think about that thing or scene or setting and then describe it to myself in words. I run an inner narrative describing the thing or scene, like in a book. But I do not "see" any actual image. And for my 62 years on this planet, I had NO IDEA that other people -- apparently most other people -- actually do see images and pictures in their head. For real. This blew my mind!

I immediately asked my husband to do the basic quick test: close your eyes and imagine an apple. Do you see an apple? He replies, "Yes, of course." So I say, do you actually "see" it, though, like a real apple? And he says, yes. And I am like, NO WAY. I ask, is it flat, like a picture of an apple, or is it 3-D, like a real apple? After a brief pause he reports that he can create an image of a photo, or of a real apple. Then he says he cannot believe that I do not have this ability. But it is true. I don't SEE anything! My inner screen is totally blank.

I've spent two days now absorbing everything I can find about this topic. It is a real thing. Some people have 'recovered' or learned how to create mental images. Some are able to improve their abilities somewhat, but not to the extent that other people can do. And then some people have extreme abilities sometimes called prophantasia, which means being able to project a 3-D image in front of you, like you are seeing it with your eyes instead of in the "mind's eye" which, they say, is images that appear either on the inside of the forehead or somewhere in the middle of the brain. (I would not know, since when I close my eyes I see black or dark gray with some spots of flickering lights but nothing else, in either location.)

I have begun studying how to do exercises to train the brain to be able to visualize. Last night I saw some flashes of colors in the darkness. This is supposed to be a good beginning!

I am processing what this means to me. I understand that some things that have always felt like I'm just not good at, like having sense of direction, or recognizing the faces of people I've met casually, or being able to recall visual details like what I or someone else was wearing at a specific event, were just "quirks" and didn't mean anything. But now I am beginning to understand that these limitations are related to the inability to create and hold on to mental maps and images.

One way that some people like me compensate is by using words and language to remember and process everything. Instead of a mental image, if I want to remember the details of anything, I write it down. I have journaled almost compulsively since I learned to write as a child. I now see this was because I have to put things into words if I want to recall them later.

All of this has made me very curious to know more about how other people are able to visualize, to what degree, and what if any experiences do you have with working specifically with this talent or improving it. If anyone has any thoughts or insights to share, it will be greatly appreciated.

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PriceRip's picture

I order to not freak anyone out I spent nine months learning my daughter's (or son's) name. That way I did not need to carry around a card to remind me during the first few months. As for my granddaughter that story is a bit longer and convoluted.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.

CS in AZ's picture

@PriceRip

That raises questions about a whole other area to explore. For me, memorizing words and names of things is effortless. I always thought that spelling tests were the most ridiculous things! They give you all the answers in advance. Never did grasp why people struggle with it.

What is so interesting is just exploring the very different ways our minds process things, and how faulty it is to assume that everyone's experiences are the same, or even similar. Wild!

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PriceRip's picture

@CS in AZ

I like your reference to spelling tests. One of my high school English teachers (and guidance counselor) told me I would never succeed as a scientist if I couldn't pass an English class. 8-)

I find it fascinating that no two people "think alike". This is not a metaphorical statement, but an observation grounded in the nature of how we function.

To clarify (?): I am a particle physicist and spend "too much" time thinking about the quantum mechanical origins of classical processes.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.

CS in AZ's picture

@PriceRip

I find it fascinating that no two people "think alike". This is not a metaphorical statement, but an observation grounded in the nature of how we function.

It seems that you and I could not be more different in our focus and how we think, and yet I agree completely with this statement.

Thanks again, it is good to see you back on C99%!

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janis b's picture

I find your unique experience of visualising fascinating, and appreciate you presenting this theme for consideration. It’s interesting and highlights how unique, and also invisible we are in some ways. It’s wonderful that you have discovered greater understanding of yourself and all the potential inherent in the exploration. Enjoy.

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CS in AZ's picture

@janis b

It is apparently a rare condition, but not unique. Estimates are about 2 to 3% of people cannot visualize. Going to online groups and websites related to aphantasia, I find there are many, many people out there with similar experiences, and a huge range of abilities that different people have in terms of "imagination" and how exactly they do that.

There is even a debate as to whether aphantasia should be considered a disability. I certainly have not felt that before, but I suppose you do not miss what you never knew existed.

Right now I do feel a pretty strong drive to figure out if I can "fix" this and learn how to do it. Some people have done so, but it does take a lot of time and focused effort of doing basically meditation exercises, practices designed to build new neuropathways to allow the brain to access or create internal visual imagery. So... we shall see. There are also people who say it really is not important, one can function fine without visualization abilities. For now, I want to see what I can do with it and try to improve. The idea of seeing a picture inside my brain sounds quite amazing, to be honest.

In case anyone is interested, here is the first video I saw on this topic, a short intro to the topic.

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janis b's picture

@CS in AZ

is that we have the capacity to re-visualise and integrate new images ---

"... practices designed to build new neuropathways to allow the brain to access or create internal visual imagery."

"The idea of seeing a picture inside my brain sounds quite amazing, to be honest."

It sounds like you are treating what comes naturally to you as less of a disability, and more of a secret to explore.

I will watch the video later when I have more time. Thank you, and all the best.

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PriceRip's picture

@CS in AZ

There are also people who say it really is not important, one can function fine without visualization abilities.

is a rather "funny" comment. Much like being "color blind", or "tone-deaf" having aphantasia represents the lack of a perception "channel" that is useful, while maybe not essential, certainly useful.

We are exploring ways to "fix" these "deficiencies" partly because the challenge is so very enticing. But also learning about the plasticity of the brain is at the very core of what some of us have been doing our entire lives. This is why teaching is such an exciting career.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.

janis b's picture

@PriceRip

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janis b's picture

@CS in AZ

Curling up on a cosy windowsill when it is raining, and getting lost in a good book sounds like heaven to me.

This has always been my favourite visualisation of an apple …

https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/7846/masterworks-in-my-collection...

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Lookout's picture

My visual recognition is not very good. I'm more plot based with my memory...what happened is my grasp. However, I very much build images of everything from the garden plan to a new deck to our house before I built it, and so on.

My partner worked for Paul Torrence. One of his teachings was that in order to be productive we must create a positive future image of ourselves and place in the world. Seems that could be done with words or images to me.

Interesting topic. As folks have said we all have our way of creating and learning. Understanding the way in which we are talented and where we are not should help us to be more successful.

Makes you wonder about the oft used phrase, "picture this".

All the best.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Socialprogressive's picture

I must be one of the 2-3%ers because my minds eye is, if not completely blind, it's definitely legally blind. I think this goes a long way in explaining why I have such a love for photography. The camera is able to create the image that my mind cannot.

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During the middle ages they celebrated the end of the plague with wine and orgies.
Does anyone know if they have anything like that planned when this one ends?
(asking for a friend)

CS in AZ's picture

@Socialprogressive

I wondered if there wouldn't be at least one or two others on here who experience this condition. Great insight about using photography to create the images that the mind cannot. I do love taking pictures and spend a lot of time looking back at old photos of my family, friends, pets, and places of the past. Now I realize that is because I cannot just call them to mind, so photos are literally the only visual memories I have. As such they are a greater treasure than I'd realized.

Thank you for sharing your experiences and insight!

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studentofearth's picture

thinking patterns.

Making the square peg fit a round hole is faster with a pictorial thinking process. Shave the edges or make the hole larger to accommodate the corners. If the square peg is just the right size it fits into the round hole with no problem, very few notice the shape does not fill the hole completely.

Intolerance is one way of not recognizing there are multiple ways to experience world.

Might find this interesting, Dr. Temple Grandin interacts with the world from primarily a visual perspective. She fortunately found a place to function in our society and did not become one of the throw away people. One of the skills she learned was to not react when others mocked her actions and words. During the lecture the audience often laughs when she is not telling a joke. The complete video is 52.42 min, to be brief this section fits the diary better (21.05-26.47)

Medicalizing all differences and labeling then deficiencies creates a new set of problems.

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Still yourself, deep water can absorb many disturbances with minimal reaction.
--When the opening appears release yourself.

CS in AZ's picture

@studentofearth

I am definitely a verbal thinker, as she puts it, with strong language skills that have served me very well in life. I was lucky and found my way to a successful career as a technical writer and editor, which certainly meshes well with my word-based memory and thinking style and has allowed me to thrive even without being able to visualize images.

I agree completely with your comments that differences should not be considered deficits, necessarily. And yet, I still cannot help feeling like I am missing out. How amazing it must be, to be able to close one's eyes and actually see the face of a loved one appear in your mind. Or recall what a view looked like that you saw from a special place.

To learn at this stage of my life that other people can do actually do this ... well, it was a real surprise, to say the least.

Thank you for the video, I do find it quite interesting!

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studentofearth's picture

@CS in AZ calling someone deficient or requiring to take a med to "correct" a non-harming difference is a different matter. The new awareness of creating and holding pictures in the mind opens the opportunity to improve skill or use tools to compensate.

Yes it is amazing. It allows traveling through time and space.

How amazing it must be, to be able to close one's eyes and actually see the face of a loved one appear in your mind. Or recall what a view looked like that you saw from a special place.

Some people can add or delete the other senses at will: sound, smell, taste, emotions and physical sensations. Helpful to reexperience pleasant memories and reduce intensity of frequency of unpleasant memories.

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Still yourself, deep water can absorb many disturbances with minimal reaction.
--When the opening appears release yourself.

QMS's picture

@studentofearth

Brought me back about 10 years ago to a hotel restaurant in Ft. Collins, CO where we watched this amazing woman give an informal interview to a news reporter next table over. She was discussing animal behavior, for the most part, but was all over the map. Fascinating. Temple Grandin.

I am definitely a visual thinker. I observe a structure, then can 'see' in my minds eye how it was built. The drawing skills are lacking, but a quick sketch is enough to duplicate it down to the joints, stress loads, nailing patterns, etc. Same with boats. No formal training. Must have been all that time spent on an Etch-A-Sketch when a wee lad in the basement at the farm? The conception of the concept is the easy part for me. The actual physical application of the necessary tools and materials has become more difficult with age.

Thanks again!

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When I was a teacher's aide in an elementary school, I was asked to work with several very interesting children. One boy had a terrible time with reading and somehow we figured out that when he read a story or a story was read to him, he could not visualize the action or the characters in his mind. I remember when I read the Hobbit and the trilogy stories, I had very definite pictures in my mind of how the scenery and characters looked. When I saw the movies, I was so pleased because they looked so much like what I had imagined when I read the books. So when I worked with this child, I had him start to do drawings when we read to help his brain visualize. It was just a start in terms of therapy and I'm sure there is a lot more information out there now than what I had to help kids with this problem. Did you have problems reading or ever felt bored with reading as a child?

One of my daughters has synesthesia, which made reading and math and music a great adventure because all the letters, numbers and notes appeared colored to her. She read and did math very early. She married a man who is color blind.

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"Without the right to offend, freedom of speech does not exist." Taslima Nasrin

CS in AZ's picture

@Fishtroller 02

Your teaching experience around this is fascinating. And this is a good question.

Did you have problems reading or ever felt bored with reading as a child?

I love reading and took to it like a fish to water. Learning to read and write was like learning to do magic! Words are my lifeline, and I have an excellent memory of what I've read. And heard aloud.

I also have very strong auditory recall and can recite whole conversations more or less verbatim. Drives my husband nuts, because I can (and do!) quote back *exactly* what everyone said during a discussion, while he cannot remember the specifics of any conversation for even a few minutes. For instance, he may chat with the neighbor out by the mailbox and when he comes in, I'll ask, "what did he have to say today?" and my husband will be like, "oh, just this and that." But if I ask, like what? then he typically cannot tell me anything of what they actually said, or at best I'll get a vague summary and if I ask for details, he gets testy because he does not remember "exactly" what they said. I have never understood this! How can you not remember a conversation you had 10 minutes ago?

BUT, as for reading ... I do have a hard time enjoying fiction, and for many years I read almost exclusively non-fiction. I read more fiction nowadays, but I do get extremely bored with descriptive passages about scenes and settings. Because I cannot create any mental pictures to go along with it, I tend to simply skip or skim over those sections as irrelevant to the story. For a fiction book to grab me it has to have excellent characters with lots of snappy dialog and action, and an intricate, detailed plot certainly helps.

As a child, that is very interesting to think about. I loved books from as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child was Black Beauty. I have probably read it a thousand times. What I remember doing, was pretending to BE a horse. In my body. I would run around in a canter, and trot, and throw my head around like a horse would. I did not visualize the horses in the book, I became them. I also loved another horse book called The Snow Filly (also title Silver Brumby's Daughter) which I read over and over, and recall also pretending to be the horses in that book.

It took me forever to be able to get into The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy. I started it a dozen times in my teens and lost interest, but finally in my late 20s I was able to read the whole thing. So now that you mention it, I would have to say that my experience of reading was very much influenced by my lack of visualization ability, and that fiction poses a challenge but I can and do enjoy it -- if the story is good, and the writer includes a lot of dialog and action and goes easy on the scenery.

Thank you so much for stopping in and sharing your thoughts!

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@CS in AZ

One of the things I liked about being a teachers' aide was that I could really get to know the children without the responsibility of running the classroom. I found that there are just as many ways of learning as their are individual children. This is what makes teaching hard... trying to gear the learning to so many different ways of absorbing it. I still don't think we pay teachers enough or give them the kudos they deserve.

Because I was within the classroom dealing with certain children one on one, I noticed a boy who would just spend a brief minute here and there kind of staring into space with a strange look in his eyes. It was so momentary that most people would miss it. I talked to the teacher about it, and she then shared it with his parents. It turned out that he was having seizures. He ended up with major brain surgery that cured the problem and he is now a very successful adult. I personally think that every classroom should have a teacher's aide, even if there are no special needs kids in the group.

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"Without the right to offend, freedom of speech does not exist." Taslima Nasrin

PriceRip's picture

@Fishtroller 02 ...

our lives are filled with seminal experiences, yet too often we don't recognize the significance or more likely cannot get anyone else to intervene.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.