Methinks I see my father. -Where, my lord?
June 25, 2015 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Neurologists have coined the word "aphantasia" to describe the condition of being unable to form visual mental images, publishing a study (nonpaywalled draft) of individuals with congenital aphantasia after first encountering a subject who described a sudden onset of the condition after an unrelated medical procedure. But how reliable is self-reported introspective data anyway?
posted by yarrow (67 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
But how reliable is self-reported introspective data anyway?

This is why I'm skeptical about the existence of synesthesia. I don't know—everything I've read about it smells a little fishy to me.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:42 AM on June 25, 2015 [23 favorites]


I misread that as "Neologists have coined the word...."
posted by thelonius at 11:42 AM on June 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


I think this is the visual imagery questionnaire they use in the paper. Subjectively, it's super clear to me that I don't really "see" mental images in the same way that I "hear" music in my head, so much so that it's hard to imagine other people do really see them - but it seems like everyone would make up their own scale on a survey instrument like that.
posted by yarrow at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I can't wait to dig into this. I have this (I've talked to medical professionals about it and they've either responded with "that's not a thing that exists" or "oh yeah, my Aunt/Grandad/whoever had that, took them forever to figure out they had anything different going on up there") and have always struggled to explain that I can't remember pictures, or faces, or whatever but instead rely on the facts I know about something in order to describe what it would look like. I do, however, have strong visuals in my dreams and have an incredibly vivid auditory memory (imagine little snippets of hi-fi recordings of music, speech, whatever playing in my head constantly), so I wonder if there's any connection there. Anecdotally, everybody else in my family has a normal visual imagination and memory, and I've only ever met one other person who has it (well, who has it and it has come up in conversation).
posted by OverlappingElvis at 11:52 AM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow. I think I might have this and not just a really bad memory. So when other people "picture" something, it's like they are really looking at an image of that thing?
posted by Rock Steady at 11:57 AM on June 25, 2015


Huh, very interesting. My father, brother, sister, and I all visualize to fall asleep (e.g. I made up an apartment and would wander through it) but my mom thinks we're making up this way of thinking.

On the other hand, I have a horrible sound memory and even after 15 years of being a birder, I only have like 10 calls memorized. They just seem to leak out of my brain. I keep saying I should look up the sonograms so that I can have something to hold on to.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:04 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


♫ We are the power inside, we bring you fantasy, we are the kingdom of light and dreams.... ♪
posted by Wolfdog at 12:15 PM on June 25, 2015


Could people who have "the experience of voluntary visual imagery" please comment on this thread? The linked articles don't really explain what is meant by this phrase. Can you just close your eyes and have the subjective experience of "seeing" whatever you want as if it's there in front of you? Is it projected in the same way that things seem to be vivid and real during a dream? This ability seems like a superpower to me. Why are you not just constantly closing your eyes and imagining really cool things all the time?
posted by compartment at 12:16 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


So when other people "picture" something, it's like they are really looking at an image of that thing?

Sometimes, yes (sometimes that's just a metaphor). Do you dream? Are your dreams visual? Visualizing something is sort of the same as daydreaming.

Like, can you imagine a simple jigsaw puzzle - 9 pieces or so, and put it together in your head? Or a Rubiks Cube? Or something simple, like watching a ball fall from high up, and bounce, with each successful bounce being lower.

That's just not me, right? Right. Cause I'm always doing that. That's the main way I work: I visualize the problem, then translate that into the real world. Art school was all about engaging that skill, and making it stronger.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:16 PM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Can you just close your eyes and have the subjective experience of "seeing" whatever you want as if it's there in front of you? Is it projected in the same way that things seem to be vivid and real during a dream? This ability seems like a superpower to me. Why are you not just constantly closing your eyes and imagining really cool things all the time?

Yeah, that sums it up, but you don't have to close your eyes: you just think about it, and it takes over your visual field. Like, right now: big orange dragon, with razor sharp teeth, with what looks like saliva dripping down from his mouth. Yuck!
posted by alex_skazat at 12:19 PM on June 25, 2015


Or sometimes you can just augment what you see with additional images. Something easy would be outlining an object with a white, thick line. Or you can just do live rotoscoping ala Waking Life. I think that got me through many a online date I wasn't into.

Ever see the Terminator films, and they show you the Terminator's POV with all the additional information? Yeah, kinda like that.

I dunno, I guess my head is always doing that. I was always under the suspicious that your visual field was already heavily modified by your brain, between the information you get into your eyes, and when you, "See" what's in front of you, adding additional things that don't actually exist didn't see all that much different.

Now I'm weirded out, that this isn't just everyone.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:28 PM on June 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Can persons with this condition describe their dreams?
posted by robbyrobs at 12:32 PM on June 25, 2015


I almost never dream - like, maybe four times a year I have a dream that I remember. When I do remember, it's the feelings of the dream, very little visual. I do not daydream anything visual; if I drift off thinking about something, it's about conversations or feelings. I don't even know what a visual daydream would be like - what sort of things would I be visualizing? No clue.

I cannot imagine a Rubik's Cube or a 9-piece jigsaw puzzle in anything but the vaguest sense, and the idea of a basketball falling is something I see sort of like a physics textbook diagram, a static picture with some force arrows, maybe. My answer to pretty much everything on that questionnaire linked above is "vague and dim" or "I think about it in words, but don't actually see anything."

If I try to do the task in the article of counting the window in my house I could do it. I'd sort of mentally walk through the house counting windows, but when I say "there's a window over my bed" I'm not really getting any sort of mental image of my bedroom except in the vaguest child's-stick-figure-drawing sort of way. I just know it's there, because obviously it is, I look at it all the time, but I can't visualize it in any detail beyond having a general sense of its proportions and knowing the curtain color.

Being able to do any of these things definitely sounds superpower-like to me. I always wonder about it when I find guided meditations that are super-visual, trying to get me to picture walking along a beach or in the forest or something. I can't picture any of that! What are you talking about, meditation person?!? I end up more telling myself a little verbal story about what I would see if I were in that situation, than actually visualizing anything.
posted by Stacey at 12:35 PM on June 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


I very rarely remember my dreams, and when I do, I have often explained the experience as similar to watching a movie. The characters and locations are almost never familiar to me, and I don't feel like I am a part of the action, just observing it.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:36 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


alex_skazat: "Or sometimes you can just augment what you see with additional images. Something easy would be outlining an object with a white, thick line. Or you can just do live rotoscoping ala Waking Life. I think that got me through many a online date I wasn't into. "

This literally sounds like magic to me.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:38 PM on June 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


Robbyrobs' question snuck in while I was posting.

So: I don't know if I have this condition, but it sure sounds like how I experience the world. So, if it's useful - as noted above, I very rarely have dreams that I remember. I've had a sleep study and they noted I have much less REM sleep than usual, so maybe that's part of it, but even using a CPAP I rarely dream in any way that I remember when I wake up.

The few dreams I do remember from throughout my life are almost always about being chased. I could tell you a lot about the story of those dreams - who was chasing me, how scared I was, how slow I seemed to be moving, how I would try to slide down a bannister to get ahead of them on the stairs or something. How I usually fail and wake up terrified just as I am caught. But I could not tell you a damn visual thing about those dreams beyond "there were stairs" or maybe "it was nighttime."

Which is to say, my dreams are all anxiety dreams. Terrible anxiety dreams. I'm toying idly with the notion now that if my brain could distract itself with pretty scenes or interesting vivid pictures, maybe it would not be so prone to turning on itself and anxiously reliving bad past feelings or scripting out conversations it thinks it might have in the future. Why would you do that when you could imagine a dragon instead? I would like to be able to imagine a dragon.
posted by Stacey at 12:40 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


robbyrobs I remember my dreams as being visual in the same way that waking life is, but my memories of what actually happens in them suffer from the same issue (I remember facts about what I saw in my dream, but I don't see it again).
posted by OverlappingElvis at 12:42 PM on June 25, 2015


That's funny to say, since I could very well see having this visual way of seeing causes anxiety, too. Having things in the real world NOT match what's in your head caused horrible anxiety as a kid. It took a long while to train to make that better, and then be ok with it not being perfect.

Or say I have a math problem in front of me: gotta visualize it. Say you're in school, the teacher has no idea what you're talking about, as it's an analytical problem. You flounder (as I did) and you think you're just a dumb kid. Then geometry comes around, and it's smooth sailing again.

Maybe that's what it means when people do crazy things like pi to whatever ridiculous digits, by seeing the colors of the numbers - they figured out a way to visualize that. I can't do anything like that, though but it could be trained. Maybe playing a game of checkers with myself would be a good challenge.

I write software, but I can barely do algerbra level math. I just have like a virtual machine "crunching" the code and showing me what it does. Expressive languages are easier. Something like Haskel? The simplest examples are impossible for me. Lately, working with GIS/mapping software makes me really excited. Producing visualizations such as graphs and charts - weee!

When in art school, I had fellow students that couldn't *read*. They saw shapes, but they weren't symbols to them and they're brains would just go all crazy (dyslexia). I thought it was just on this same sort of visual <> analytical (or maybe there's a better word) spectrum, if that makes sense. I could read just fine, but I could never remember the names of things. I would just imagine what a person would look like, or smell like, or how they moved - things like that. I use mnemonics for everything, which is just a little script to play in my head to remember a visual scene.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:50 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


So basically what I'm hearing is that most people are capable of summoning lucid visual hallucinations on demand. Is that what people are saying? Because I'm in the camp that thinks this sounds like a goddamn superpower, and if that's what most people have then I'm deeply envious.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:53 PM on June 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


Whoever above said about it taking over your visual field.... That sounds like hallucinations.

When i visualise things it like I'm seeing them with my mind's eye, sort of like a bad transparency on an old overhead projector that needs a new bulb.

It's not like I literally see my living room all around me and then imagine a slavering orange dragon and i *see* it. But I can imagine an image of an orange dragon in my living room via the mind's eye projector thing.

I also have a mind's eye mimeo but it ran out of ink...
posted by sio42 at 12:55 PM on June 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've had hallucinations and they are nothing like normal visual imagery, Btw. If people have that on the norm, then whoa nelly boring meetings must never be boring. :)
posted by sio42 at 12:56 PM on June 25, 2015


Are there any more specific ways of testing your mental imagery than rating them in terms of how vivid and clear they are without any reference frame? I know that I don't have mental images that are as vivid as my normal vision, but I'd like to know if I'm somewhere in the middle of the scale, or perhaps completely unable to form mental images and instead fooling myself by substituting them with abstract thinking instead.

This is meant as a serious question.
posted by tykky at 1:08 PM on June 25, 2015


I wouldn't describe it as hallucinating, as I'm controlling everything about the image that's been placed within my visual field.

Like, I'm not seeing the dinosaur outside the window as this surprising thing, I'm more thinking about there being a dinosaur and "pop!" there it is. I can then augment what it looks like, and what it's doing, much like say: a puppeteer.

I thought that was just called, "imagination". Like, "use your imagination"

I've very rarely hallucinated, and don't take psychedelics of any type. The last time I hallucinated, was after waking up from anesthesia from a wisdom tooth operation. Dinosaurs again, incidentally. As a child though, I would have frequent hallucinations of "visitors" in my room (aliens, monsters), and many occurrences of succubi, along with sleep paralysis. I thought that was pretty normal, too.
posted by alex_skazat at 1:11 PM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh my god, geometry was the WORST. All the other math made perfect sense, algebra was downright fun, and then goddamn geometry. Maybe I can be your super villain nemesis, alex_skazat.
posted by Stacey at 1:14 PM on June 25, 2015


Hmm, I remember a chapter in a Richard Feynman book where he talks about how if someone has to, say, count off 60 seconds in their head, some people will "hear" that time counting off in their head, and other people will "see" a clock ticking the seconds. I remember it being one of the first times I realized that other people have a completely different internal life than I do. That being said, it's odd to see this as a completely new discovery - we really don't know much about our own brains, do we?

I'm definitely a hearer, not a seer. When I daydream, to me it's most like reading aloud a story and feeling the attendant emotions vs. seeing it play out - nothing like real dreams at all where I feel like I am actually seeing what's happening (although sometimes, I do have audio-only dreams). I never really thought of it as a huge hindrance in my life, but I really do wonder if it could be linked to things like poorer recall of some memories, a poorer sense of direction, etc.
posted by muddgirl at 1:15 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've lived in this house for a few years now and I could tell you what colour the walls are downstairs, but I wouldn't be surprised if I was wrong.
Is this what they mean?
posted by fullerine at 1:16 PM on June 25, 2015


Maybe I can be your super villain nemesis, alex_skazat.

Well, what's funny is, I tend to gravitate towards people who aren't like me at all, in my personal life. I've dated many engineers/scientists. Artists? Some, but not so much. I get sick of my scatterbrain as well. It's hard to turn off sometimes.

I also thought all this stuff was recently discredited,

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2011/08/29/139973743/think-youre-an-auditory-or-visual-learner-scientists-say-its-unlikely

which felt very alienating. But in some ways makes sense, if nonvisual people can't understand visual people, and vice-versa. There's no empirical evidence towards augmenting your reality with your imagination, now is there ;) (or I guess we gotta hook up brains to fancy equipment for that.)
posted by alex_skazat at 1:26 PM on June 25, 2015


muddgirl - Yes! How you conceptualize time. Like for me, the year is like a big oval and I'm looking over it into the future with all of that bright and the past being dim behind me.

Also when I give or get directions, I'll close my eyes and 'drive' myself down the street 'seeing' everything. That's why I give directions using weird road marks. I can also visualize maps and give directions using N/S/E/W if I've studied a map enough (a couple times).

I can't spell though. I think I read too fast to see the letters in words so when I think about words, I never see them, I hear them. I have to write them down in front of me so I can see if they're spelled correctly.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:26 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


For me the "strength" of visualisation is very variable depending on what I'm trying to think about. If it's something quite familiar I can very much "see" it in my minds eye in a way that I can extract information from - like estimates of size, or where specific features are, or how one thing could be rotated onto another thing.
For abstract mental creations it's more like sio42s "bad transparency on an old overhead" - that's a great analogy. But I can "see" quite abstract math problems in this way and even get some kind of insights out of them (or I could back when I did a lot of maths).
If I imagine something visual but not real like a dragon, I sometimes just feel I'm describing it to myself, but sometimes really "see" it, but then I can't use the information in the mental image - like I can't easily describe it, or draw it.
And for faces, I got nothing! It's like, "they look like a human".
posted by crocomancer at 1:30 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Can persons with this condition describe their dreams?"

For me, it's sort of like narrating a story and hearing a story and acting out a story all at the same time. I'll know details or have emotions or experience kinesthetic feelings about whatever the current scenario is, but I won't see visual images.

I don't know whether it's normal dream logic or an artifact of the lack of specificity that comes with not having any sort of clear visuals, but any given object or person that I encounter in my dreams can be several different things or persons at the same time. Something might be, I don't know, both a beagle and a street sign simultaneously. Maybe that's normal in dreams, but I'm not sure how it works for people who actually can see clear pictures of what they are encountering in dreams.

I've had 2-3 occasions I can remember in my life where just for a moment in a dream I actually had (or imagined I had) a moment of visual clarity where it seemed like I could actually see something fully. One time it was a leaf, another time it was the edge of a swimming pool. This excited me so much that I tried to hold on to the experience and expand it out into full scale lucid dreaming, but it faded almost right away.
posted by tdismukes at 1:35 PM on June 25, 2015


Hmm, I remember a chapter in a Richard Feynman book where he talks about how if someone has to, say, count off 60 seconds in their head, some people will "hear" that time counting off in their head, and other people will "see" a clock ticking the seconds.

I came here to mention this! I thought it was, I dunno, "anecdotally well-established" that some people mostly think in words and others pictures.

and have always struggled to explain that I can't remember pictures, or faces, or whatever but instead rely on the facts I know about something in order to describe what it would look like. I do, however, have strong visuals in my dreams and have an incredibly vivid auditory memory (imagine little snippets of hi-fi recordings of music, speech, whatever playing in my head constantly), so I wonder if there's any connection there.

I can do both but I definitely favor words and I have the same very very detailed auditory memory. I'm under the impression also pretty common for people to perform better at either verbal/symbolic tasks or spatial ones in tests, which I've kind of assumed is correlated. The one time I was given an IQ test as a kid I believe I was almost 3 SD higher on verbal which is enough to suspect something structurally different but I think I've evened out somewhat as an adult.
posted by atoxyl at 1:37 PM on June 25, 2015


I wouldn't say that my "mind's eye" is blind, but sometimes, I wonder if it's just not very dim...when people make the comparison to dreams, that really gives me pause.

My dreams are incredibly vivid. As in, same quality as real life, visually.

But would I say visualizing things when I'm awake is that vivid? No. It's very very very dim, more impressionistic...translucent...

That being said, I usually struggle to visualize things I haven't seen (e.g., think of something new/creative). So, if I'm reading a book, I will usually make the characters look like characters from video games or TV shows I've already played or seen. But most of the time, if I'm reading, I'm not visualizing much of anything at all. I can hear the dialogue, but it's too much work to try to visualize.
posted by subversiveasset at 1:40 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Weird! I can imagine sounds pretty clearly, but if I try to mentally visualize something, like say a cube or a landscape, it's super indistinct and often if I keep trying to focus it will actually start spinning and morphing and moving around, which is super frustrating. I'm definitely one of those people who would imagine a 60bpm click if I were asked to count down seconds from something (though I credit that to the default tempo in my old MIDI editing program being 120bpm).
posted by en forme de poire at 1:40 PM on June 25, 2015


I basically don't visualize at all while reading, either. My mental impressions of what main characters look like are super fuzzy and indistinct.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:42 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Atom Eyes: This is why I'm skeptical about the existence of synesthesia. I don't know—everything I've read about it smells a little fishy to me.

Synesthesia seemed kind of fishy to cognitive scientists for a while too, until some very clever tests were designed to prove its existence. Synesthesia takes a variety of forms (Chromesthesia, Grapheme-Color, Lexical-Gustatory, etc.), and tests vary depending on which form you're looking at. Not every type has been scientifically proven, but many have.

I'm most familiar with tests of Grapheme-Color Synesthesia, which causes one to associate letters and numbers with colors. Some of the ways scientists have proven its existence are beautifully elegant in their simplicity. My favorite consists of a grid of numeral 5's with a minority of very similar-looking numeral 2's scattered throughout. The subject is asked to point out all of the 2's in the graph. A grapheme color synesthete will perceive the two visually similar numbers in two different colors, allowing them to pick the 2's out much more quickly than a non-synesthete.

Another cool one is this modified Stroop Test, in which the subject is shown a series of digits of different colors and asked to identify both the digit and the color out loud. When the actual color of a digit matches their "photism", AKA their perceived synesthetic color for that digit, then they are able to do this more quickly and easily than when there are mismatches.

Long story short, cognitive scientists are really good at finding cool ways to quantify subjective experience.

P.S. Here's a cool site some researchers designed where you can test yourself for synesthesia.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 2:13 PM on June 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


I guess I always assumed that people were speaking metaphorically when they said they could visualize things, but I've been taking drawing classes lately and it has been fascinating to realize how little internal visual sense I have. The model will take a break, and other people will keep working on their drawings, and I'll be thinking - how do you know what to draw if there's nothing to look at? Or, if I look at a picture of a chicken, I can draw it, but if I don't have a reference I can't for the life of me think of what a chicken looks like in order to draw it.
posted by yarrow at 2:16 PM on June 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Like, I'm not seeing the dinosaur outside the window as this surprising thing, I'm more thinking about there being a dinosaur and "pop!" there it is

File under "But how reliable is self-reported introspective data anyway?"
posted by grog at 2:20 PM on June 25, 2015


I don't visualize while reading either, unless I'm deliberately slowing down to build a mental image of a place or person. I can visualize though, and can indeed hold detailed images of a place or whatever in my mind's eye if I put in the effort. It's just that I'm a fast reader, and I mostly think in words, so I'm fine with sacrificing the whole movie-in-my-head quality of a book in favor of reading faster.

And now that I think about it, I favor mentally reciting poetry or "telling" myself a story when I'm trying to fall asleep, instead of visualizing anything. So I guess I'm more audio-oriented than visual. I'm also terrible at giving directions or drawing maps, because routes and things like that are more a matter of kinesthetic memory than visual memory for me. And yet, I can visualize a place or memory with pretty good detail! What's up with that, I wonder.

Now I'm really curious about how other peoples' "mind's eye" works.
posted by yasaman at 2:20 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Everyone is attempting to describe what inner visualization looks like, feels like. There are some great--mostly metaphorical--descriptions here.

But to not have such a capacity…Let's pretend I say MICKEY MOUSE loudly and clearly. Do you not "see" Mickey Mouse immediately? If not, maybe you are patient MX.
posted by kozad at 2:21 PM on June 25, 2015


It depends on what the meaning of the word "see" is.
posted by sockermom at 2:28 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


But to not have such a capacity…Let's pretend I say MICKEY MOUSE loudly and clearly. Do you not "see" Mickey Mouse immediately? If not, maybe you are patient MX.

If I want to. If I want to, I can summon up every single instance in my memory of Mickey Mouse, all at once, instantaneously. If I think of a bike, I think about a bike with every single part in an exploded diagram. It's overwhelming. I've thought perhaps I'm on some autistic spectrum, sort of near an Aspergers individual. I'm certainly completely crippled in other parts of my life, including social interaction ;) (I get by...)

If I want, I can play Tetris in my head.

File under "But how reliable is self-reported introspective data anyway?"

Well, please, what can I do, short of a mind meld to make you understand?

I think honestly it's just a cognitive skill that's been developed with practice. I dedicated about 5 years of my life to learning how to be first and foremost a visual thinker, and before that, I was encouraged to be a creative individual. Things I couldn't apply this skill towards, I floundered in.
posted by alex_skazat at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not really, no. I have a sense of a couple of specific features - round black ears and red pants. Then I get stuck, try to remember what else there is to see about Mickey Mouse, get sidetracked into remembering that very early Mickey Mouse was black and white and maybe he was skinnier? And that's all I got. After trying to remember for a minute or so I went and looked him up and now I remember his gloves and shoes too, and while I was looking at him I thought "Oh yeah, that's what his face looks like!" Now that I've closed that browser tab, I've forgotten again what Mickey's face looks like, but I seem to be hanging on to the gloves and shoes for now. Not as a complete image, though, it's more a disconnected set of features like someone put a Polyvore collection of Mickey-attributes together.
posted by Stacey at 2:33 PM on June 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh god, I just got Atom Eyes' joke after writing that whole screed on synesthesia... I guess his comment just made me see red.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 2:41 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


For the record, your comment was informative and interesting. And it smells like daisies.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:59 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have a colleague who is like this. Brilliant philosopher. He can't conjure images. He doesn't even dream in pictures.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:01 PM on June 25, 2015


I've always been very good about visualizing things in my head. I may not know the directions to a place but I can drive there in my head and reliably communicate that into real life. I'm terrible at math but I can do math problems in my head by visualizing them as well.

I remember one time that I did LSD I had one of the most profound hallucinatory experiences of my life that, hilariously enough, I've only seen replicated in the Robocop remake, and a current car commercial that I saw a couple of weeks ago. I had taken two hits of some good Owsley LSD when all of these mathematical equations and grids and angles and such appeared in my actual visual field, not in my head. They changed and moved around as I manipulated objects in the world, like I remember opening a cabinet and a grid came over the side of it with these different axis lines and equations that would all change in real time as I opened and closed the cabinet. It was some pretty cool stuff.
posted by gucci mane at 3:02 PM on June 25, 2015


I guess the closest thing I can describe it is like a heads-up display.

Edit: this is the scene from the movie and is the most realistic representation of what I saw.
posted by gucci mane at 3:03 PM on June 25, 2015


I have a colleague who is like this. Brilliant philosopher.

Brian Magee speculates in his autobiography "Confessions Of A Philosopher" that the only way he can understand how his mid-century Oxford philosophy teachers could seriously maintain that there is no such thing as non-linguistic experience is that they experience the world very differently from how he does.
posted by thelonius at 3:34 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Like alex_skazat, my inner life is mostly visual. I spend most of each day manipulating 3D images (on screen) and building physical objects. Often I will build entire projects in my head before doing anything physical, seeing how things will fit, analyzing motions and the fabrication processes.

But if I have a conversation with someone and later in the day my wife asks me what we talked about, I usually get about as far as saying "Stuff. And things.". It's really difficult to recall.

I'm curious if gender aligns with these tendencies.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:02 PM on June 25, 2015


I can visualize things in my head, that's one thing. However, if I close my eyes and look at the inside of my eyelids and concentrate on seeing something (like, say, a giraffe) I can briefly make it appear. I can't control it completely, however; it might be a green giraffe or it might turn into a rhinoceros. [Is this just me or do other people do this?]
posted by acrasis at 4:43 PM on June 25, 2015


I have this condition in extremis. I can't visually imagine anything, even, say, a black dot. It was discussed by Francis Galton as long ago as 1880, after which Psychology seems to have forgotten it. I consider myself mentally handicapped, since I believe the condition has all sorts of adverse effects, notably, on memories, which are very weak.
posted by oluckyman at 6:23 PM on June 25, 2015


I have no problem with visualisation, but I was floored when I learned (maybe eight years ago?) that people were really serious about hearing a voice in their heads that told them to do things, like some sort of running commentary on their life. I still have no real idea of what an internal voice would be like.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:48 PM on June 25, 2015


It's like talking to myself, but in my head? See, it doesn't seem very complicated to me, because I live it :)

I find this really fascinating and I would love to get a brain scan to determine what centers of my brain are activating when I'm asked to imagine or describe something.
posted by muddgirl at 6:53 PM on June 25, 2015


I don't think the ordinary language philosophers thought that... But now I'm curious.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:54 PM on June 25, 2015


persona au gratin, I may be conflating his criticism of some other people with his general disagreement with linguistic analysis and ordinary language philosophy.....I'll look it up later
posted by thelonius at 7:01 PM on June 25, 2015


Or, if I look at a picture of a chicken, I can draw it, but if I don't have a reference I can't for the life of me think of what a chicken looks like in order to draw it.

While I pass the window counting test, how people can do stuff like painting without a reference is basically incomprehensible to me. I have a friend who has dyslexia but is a very talented visual artist and I've heard of a lot of people who fit that pattern. I guess the opposite phenomenon is nonverbal learning disorder - which sounds like it fits me as a kid pretty well. Huh.

I thought OverlappingElvis' mention of auditory memory was interesting because having played various instruments over the course of my life I've really had to work to develop an adequate sense of rhythm, whereas I've always had a good ear - as a kid I got kind of bored of music lessons at some point and figured out that I could show up having blown off practicing, sight-read (poorly) until my teacher would demonstrate, then play what she played right back. Is there any support for my intuition that rhythm invokes visuospatial areas of the brain?

I guess it's an open question how much these variations in aptitudes have to do with the extreme phenomenon described in the article and "thinking styles" in general. It just seems likely to me that they are somehow related.
posted by atoxyl at 7:31 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been wanting to talk about this for YEARS and now all i can think of to say is "ooh, ooh, me too." My visual imagination is basically a bluish fog with bluish blurs in it. But somehow I still dream in technicolor.
posted by moonmilk at 7:45 PM on June 25, 2015


...and somehow I work as an artist.
posted by moonmilk at 7:52 PM on June 25, 2015




I think about this a lot. I also don't really visualize well in my head. I can rehearse an image until I can "see" it, but it's like I can only see a little bit at a time - like I'm in a dark room and I have a flashlight, and I can just shine it around the image but not see the whole thing at once, or else back far away from it and see the whole thing, but it's blurry. And that takes deliberate practice or daily repetition - specifically, either looking deliberately at images over and over (which I used to do with Facebook so I could match names with faces in my college classes) or drawing them (which is why I'm great at navigating around Disneyland; I spent months in my teens drawing the map over and over, and now I know it well).

My dreams are visual, but often blurry, especially around the edges. I used to be really terrible at mental rotation tasks, but I got into building Lego models and am noticeably better at that sort of thing now - although I still have to turn maps so up is the direction I'm going.

I think as basically a stream of text; my thoughts are words, but I don't hear them. I don't really *read* them either, per se. I am the kind of person who would always rather read than listen or watch (the kind of annoying jerk who pops into Mefi threads about speeches and asks if there's a transcript). I don't have a mental picture of characters in my head when I read fiction, and only rarely does that change, even after I watch film adaptations of books. I've seen the Lord of the Rings movies a zillion times, but I don't picture Aragorn as Viggo Mortensen, I picture him as the same vague collection of traits I always have.

I definitely used to have a hard time believing that anyone really "pictured" things in their head, but once I was meditating while falling asleep and I actually did see mental pictures like they were projected on a screen inside my eyelids, clear and sharp, so I know it's possible. My brain just doesn't do it, except that one time.
posted by town of cats at 9:13 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


+1 for "This entire thread sounds like people have strange superpowers that I have no ability to relate to/comprehend". Not sure which of us are the aliens, then. Suspecting myself. :/

Then again, this feels like that recent thread on meditation where people were all "Just... stop thinking. It's easy" and from my experience of things, the only way to accomplish that is through sleep or heavy drinking (and even then, when I used to get anywhere near there, I'd still be interacting normally while having no recollection of it. I've long since stopped that, leaving sleep.).
I could no more 'stop thinking' than I could stop my own heartbeat. So I'm already a bit familiar with the alienation of "Just do THING" where THING sounds as equally accessible whether its "perceive a visual overlay in some sort of mind's eye" or "let go of your connection to mass and levitate".

Human variation is weird.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:09 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whoa, some of y'all don't hear things in your head, either? Man, my runs and bike rides are nothing but chattering to myself, in my head. Or I just play whatever song I want. Or kinda half-watch a movie I like.

I kinda grew up without many friends, and played a lot by myself. I never had an imaginary friend, per say, but I wonder if that's part of all of this.
posted by alex_skazat at 10:41 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I used to think I couldn't visualize, but it was just that other (sound, algebraic) ways of modeling overpowered my visualization. But then, I found certain drugs gave me the ability to visualize (temporarily) and the difference was clear. This subjective space needs to be mapped better so we can understand each other. But in what medium?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:42 AM on June 26, 2015


I don't have a mental picture of characters in my head when I read fiction, and only rarely does that change, even after I watch film adaptations of books.

This. I often tend to skim long passages of mostly-visual description because I just can't picture what they're talking about. I do, however, usually have a very good idea of what I think fictional characters sound like, so sometimes that throws me off in adaptations. (For instance, I've heard many people say good things about the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I just cannot listen to them because the voices are so wrong.)

I tend to prefer auditory input most of the time. When I'm watching tv, unless it's really engaging, I tend to mostly listen to the show and look at my knitting, glancing up at the screen maybe once every couple minutes. I find myself doing it in the movie theater as well. My attention is still on the film but I'll notice that my eyes have kinda lost focus and are pointed at the seat in front of me or the borders of the screen.
posted by darchildre at 1:05 PM on June 26, 2015


I can see three things at once. Sort of.

First of all I see ordinary stuff like this computer screen in front of me while I type.

But I also have a small amount of visual snow and after images. It is easiest to see the visual snow and the after images when my eyes are closed in a very dark room. If the room is perfectly dark all I can see is a field of faint speckled lights, rather like the milky way. There are little traces of colour in the lights but it is mostly grey, not coloured. I have never actually seen blackness or perfect darkness.

When I am tired it is hard to not see the visual snow.

On top of or through or concurrently to my real vision and the visual snow I can see what I imagine or remember. I have a decentish visual imagination. Of late years my visual imagination has been fading on me so that it is harder and harder to see things clearly. However I can still imagine things clearly enough to see colours and where the light is coming from and details that I can zoom in on. The first thing I imagined was a grassy field with the soft bulk of the greener trees behind it. The strongest images were the lay of the land and the direction of the light. If I were going to draw the scenery I would begin with placing those things in my head, or in a visual image equivalent to the paper.

If I picture Mickey Mouse I remember those thin black round arms, like liquorice shoelaces and those rounded shoes. No head and face. I can picture the rat tail trailing behind him. I am seeing the early black and white cartoon, Steam Boat Willy not the popular current one. I suspect this is because the most recent time I voluntarily looked at a Mickey Mouse was to watch the old cartoon. Oh, I remember his pursed lips and the little musical symbols as he whistled!

You know how you can totally focus your vision on something and not really have a close awareness of the stuff peripheral to it. Someone gets you to look at a vase of lilacs on a table - I picture the colour, the heady scent, the falling browning petals, all placed in vase of a particular shape that I can see, but it would take several minutes to describe accurately in words - so I am looking at that and they don't tell me to look at the table and the table legs or anything, just the flowers. Afterwards you have only the vague impression of what you didn't notice. What colour were the table legs anyway...? Visual imagination is like that. Only parts of the picture are in perfect focus and have detail. The rest is just sort of general there like an unfinished drawing where the layout has been sketched... the man's legs end about here, the road begins about here, above that is colourless sky...

If I get really interested in the visual images I am creating or remembering they become more vivid and more detailed, more textured. I can see and feel the coarseness of the grass. The colours are more accurate, the different shades of tan, brown and pale gold found in grass are distinguishable instead of just a generic bleached wheat grass colour.

For most of my life there has been a constant voice over. The only way to mute the voice over a bit was to fill my consciousness with imaginary visual images. Like the way my visual imagination is fading so is the voice over. It pauses a lot more now and talks in less complete sentences.

Production of visual images is linked to the amount of close visual attention I have paid to what I am seeing. If I am watching and looking - actively seeing, for a short while afterwards it is easier to visually create.

Meanwhile I have a truly awful visual memory. If I look at a telephone number I cannot see it. I can only say it and maybe, just maybe remember it because of chanting the numbers. Mostly I can't even remember it after repeating it twice to myself, not even long enough to dial it. But sometimes it falls into a rhythm and I can remember the rhythm and recreate it.

I have an even worse memory for faces. I can only remember tiny fragments of faces, perhaps an eyebrow or a conjectiva, perhaps a wrinkle line or some tiny wispy hairs in front of an ear. But to put it together as a gestalt to make my sister's face or my mother's face? One thing that helps me remember a face is to see a still photograph of it; somehow that tiny little image helps me dredge out a memory of the picture where I can't actually remember the face itself the way it is in motion.

But I can remember expressions.

I like feel imagining things as much as visually imagining things - feeling the imaginary rhythm of a train, the hardness or softness of the seat under my butt, the feel of the moving air against my arms and face, the sound of the huffing and the metal scrape as they vibrate in my ears... perhaps the feeling of my feet dangling unsupported with the different feeling of the circulation inside my skin and the way they move not anchored so there is a pendulum swinging feel too...

I have synesthesia. It is very annoying. It is always the same way. I am asleep and I hear a noise which makes me wake up. And the noise is a visual image, an annoying black and white swirling pattern like those op art psychedelic posters in the sixties that could trigger vertigo in me. The noise occurs in a flash of light. And it happens inside my eyelids so it is like suddenly having a bright real light flashed in your face when you are awake. The noise can be this tiny soft sound and wham! I get this spot light right in the eyes. I flinch violently as you might imagine.

I have a tiny field of vision. I have worn glasses since early elementary school and I thought I didn't use my peripheral vision because of that. But later I got tested for Ihrlen lenses and discovered that I can't actually see both the first and last letters simultaneously in an eight letter word. My field of vision is almost a pin-prick, like Mr. Teatime in Hogfather.

I get light induced migraines very easily. And I am thinking that when I have a migraine my visual imagination may get messed up. This post has made me want to check how difficult it is to see memories the next time I get a migraine.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:30 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


But to not have such a capacity…Let's pretend I say MICKEY MOUSE loudly and clearly. Do you not "see" Mickey Mouse immediately? If not, maybe you are patient MX.

I have no visual imagery at all, and when you say that I remember the concept of Mickey Mouse, and his voice, and Disneyland, and lots of other things, and I could draw a picture of him for you--but only because I once memorized how to draw him.

If you say "SQUARE" or "CARDBOARD BOX" or "BLUE" I don't get a picture either. I can't visualize my wife's face or my own face. Not to ANY degree.

I can draw but only if I follow along with a picture. Take away my picture and say "draw a cat" and I have absolutely no clue. I can do a kid's drawing of a cat as a circle with some triangles for ears but that's it.

There was a crazy thread here a while back where everybody was describing how they visualize time (as a circle? as a line? a plane?) and I thought the whole thing was from outer space. I don't visualize time or any other concept.

I also have a pretty serious degree of face blindness. I didn't know about either condition until I was in my 30s because I assumed it worked the same way for everyone. I cope. If I meet an old high-school friend I won't recognize them until they speak, I'm really good with voices.

Strangely, I've always considered myself a visual learner, and I am very good at spotting details and such. But only when my eyes are open.

I don't form pictures when I read fiction, although I do enjoy reading and I can follow the action just fine. I even sort of imagine myself in the main character's place, but it's like a memory of something that happened to me--just an experience, no pictures.

My dreams ARE visual. In fact as I lie in bed trying to sleep sometimes a picture appears in my head, and that's when I know I'm about to sleep. Sometimes I can take advantage of that moment and picture a few things or people on purpose. But maybe I'm just dreaming that I can do that...

I can replay songs in my head to a reasonable degree of detail. Probably better than most people. But I'm a musician so that might be why.

I've talked about this here and it seems like there are others like me. Maybe 1-5% of the population. Nonetheless pretty much nobody in "real life" believes me when I tell them...
posted by mmoncur at 4:43 AM on June 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Aphantasia meetup! Just don't ask me what the venue looks like.
posted by moonmilk at 10:16 PM on June 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


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