How it feels to be blind in your mind
April 23, 2016 4:54 AM   Subscribe

Blake Ross: "I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t 'see' my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought 'counting sheep' was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind."
posted by How the runs scored (235 comments total) 175 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's fascinating! And very well-written. Thanks for posting.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:27 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


There are some tests of spatial visualisation where you're asked to say which of a set of rotated shapes is the same as a given one. I believe experiments have shown convincingly that the time taken to solve these problems relates to speed of rotation in the mental visualisation. So how do aphantasics solve these problems at all?
posted by Segundus at 5:30 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I found the bit about the different senses interesting because I'd never compared my abilities to conjure up sights to smells, audio, etc. Interestingly upon reflection it was immediately obvious to me that my mind's ear is in much better working order than my mind's eye. Audio (and also taste and touch) are super clear, vivid, rich and easy to imagine in great detail. Visuals are doable, but at a much lower level of intensity and realism. And smell is totally absent. I cannot remember or imagine smells even a little bit. And I had never noticed that before, or realised that some people can. When people said they like a particular smell, I had thought they meant they recalled the sensation of liking it, not that they could recall the actual way it smelled.

I wonder how much variation there is for people across the senses like this?
posted by lollusc at 5:39 AM on April 23, 2016 [19 favorites]


Also, how it relates to dreams. I know people who say they never get to eat in dreams or if they do, the food is tasteless. I eat delicious food in my dreams all the time. That's one of the best things about dreaming to me
posted by lollusc at 5:42 AM on April 23, 2016 [18 favorites]


I wonder how well he plays chess.

I have some experience with this. Like him, I skip the descriptive passages in novels. I have prosopagnosia. On LSD, I was able to visualize but I never hallucinate. I did several weeks of neurofeedback and my prosopagnosia lessened. And my spelling improved.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:53 AM on April 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


This was an interesting read (though I miss Oliver Sacks, who would have made it lyrical and profound as well as interesting...)

There's probably a lot more neurodiversity out there than we realize, because it's so hard to compare subjective experiences. (It is really true that other people don't dream in color? Because I'm pretty sure I dream in color.)

It's interesting to me that he's a programmer and presumably good at math? Only missed one question on the SAT? Because for years I've been reading about how women on average perform slightly worse on tests of "spatial reasoning" which rely on mental visualization (like those shape rotation tests) and how this probably explains why we aren't good at math/computer science. (Though the latter does seem more verbal to me...)
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is really interesting to me... as a kid I really struggled with a poor memory, and then eventually I figured out that my memory seems to be very heavily tied to visual and spatial ideas. So for example if I want to remember my middle school friends, I first remember what the middle school was like inside, what the spaces were like, and then it comes back to me.

Our brains seem to be very good at making do to such an extent that we often don't realize they are even doing it.
posted by selfnoise at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


It's interesting to me that he's a programmer and presumably good at math? Only missed one question on the SAT?

This one has some personal interest to me. I can visualize okay but my memory is tied much more to concrete facts than visualized experiences. If this guy's at the end of the bell curve, I'm leaning significantly toward one side.

My capability to do math is divided. Algorithmic or set stuff comes very easily and intuitively, but when it becomes a matter of geometry (seeing what the derivative of a curve looks like, or what's orthogonal to points in space) things become a lot more difficult. Not coincidentally I think in this case, programming tends to be more of the former and less of the latter.
posted by solarion at 6:05 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Still processing this. I have people related to me in this house who can look at a table with seven objects on it and not find a specific one, who have been introduced to people their whole lives at least six times a year and have no idea who they are.
posted by tilde at 6:18 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


HOLY FUCK.

I had this realization about a year ago. I explained to my wife but it didnt go to far... well at least i have a name for it now.

Mental blindness is a pretty good description. Its especially odd as i have a very visual contextual memory. Meaning i can remember exactly how and where i wrote down your phone number, what i was wearing when we met, exactly how the sun shineson my kids face and every wisp of hair... but i can't SEE anything. Just lists of facts.
posted by chasles at 6:20 AM on April 23, 2016 [25 favorites]


This is me.

I once had a Cognitive Science professor who espoused the idea that all thought was in images. I told him that obviously it wasn't, because I didn't see images in my mind. He was deeply annoyed.

It's nice to have a word for it. I think the brain has a lot more variation than we think.
posted by mkuhnell at 6:28 AM on April 23, 2016 [39 favorites]




@Segundus Slowly. Using logic.

@lollusc Actually I do "see" my dreams visually (I think). That's one thing that makes me aware that I can't do it at any other time.

@Obscure Reference I play chess well enough to beat most beginners. I could play better if I practiced or studied. But I do well because I am good at puzzling out long strategies and effects--I don't "see" boards in my head at all.
posted by mkuhnell at 6:32 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I suffer from parts of this.

For instance, I can't picture real people. Ask me to picture my mother or my neighbor or my girlfriend and I can't do it. I can tell you facts about them: curly hair, shorter than me, etc. But I can only state facts that I've been made aware of in a non-visual sense.

For instance, I've had many girlfriends that I cannot tell you the eye color of. The only ones I can tell you the eye color of are ones whose eye color has come up in conversation. Couldn't tell you what color my mother's eyes are. Once, when I was ten, I reported my mother missing to the police and they asked me to describe her and I couldn't do it. At the time, I just thought it was because I was upset but the truth is, I really don't know. Still don't, and that was forty years ago.

I also LOATHE fantasy books and science fiction, just like the author of this piece. And I hate descriptive prose. Only thing I hate more is hearing people talk about their dreams. I'm baffled why people find dreams interesting as a topic of conversation.

I've maybe remembered 10 dreams in my entire life, and the things I remember are never visual. I hear words or phrases, tones of voice, but no pictures.

I also write fiction and screenplays and don't really "see" the characters doing stuff. I think I'm drawn to screenplays because they're primarily dialogue and I can evaluate their worth as conflict or exposition or whatever. But I don't envision actors playing the parts.

That said... I can "imagine" a beach. The image is fleeting -- less than a second. And I cannot hold any aspect of it for any significant portion of time. When I try and imagine myself meditating on a beach, I more just see flip book images of a beach: wave, boat in distance, pier, towel, seagull... But I can't focus on any. I can't watch the bird fly -- can't see a surfer on a wave for more than a second.

Anyway... Interesting article.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 6:33 AM on April 23, 2016 [12 favorites]


I do have the ‘milk voice’—that flat, inner monologue that has no texture or sound, which we use to tell ourselves: “Remember to pick up milk.”
So this is where I'm almost the opposite, because I would imagine milk. Possibly I would picture the action of picking up milk, or the location of the store where milk is.

But not entirely opposite, because I can think of words, but I only do so to work out how I would articulate something to other people.

My own mind-blowing revelation was to learn how many people do think in words. I thought when movies had characters thinking in V.O. this was just a metaphor, not something anyone actually did.
posted by RobotHero at 6:37 AM on April 23, 2016 [22 favorites]


Oh, and another thing that upsets me about this and I don't know if it's related.

I don't really "see" things... Or -- I don't really know how to put this.

I'm a very messy person and I don't like it. However, I don't really see the mess. If I make a conscious effort -- say, I have someone coming over -- to look around and find mess, I can find it. I know that dishes aren't supposed to be piled on the floor, for example. But until I run out of plates, I do not go seeking them to clean.

I also am very, very bad at finding things. I think it's because I cannot visualize what they look like. I only "see" them when I actually find them. But they could be right in front of me without me actually realizing it. This happens many, many times each day.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 6:40 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Im going to have to puzzle this for a bit. But really, everything behind my eyes is a list of facts. Bullet points about my world and the people and stuff in it.

Number 20.... thats just exactly me right down to the specific books he mentions, the speed. ..
posted by chasles at 6:40 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I can’t read this in Morgan Freeman’s voice, nor can I “hear” the theme song to Star Wars in any sort of “mind’s ear.”

Holy hell. That's remarkable. I can't imagine not being able to hear music in my head. It's far clearer than any mental image I can draw up. They're normally kind of fuzzy.
posted by Braeburn at 6:45 AM on April 23, 2016 [26 favorites]


YSSOG, that's funny because I'm pretty sure if you were to sit down with a focus group of 30 women partnered with men and asked them to list the top 5 irritating things the men in their lives do, not being able to "see" mess and not being able to find lost objects even when they're right in front of them would be on the majority of those lists. I'm having the uncomfortable feeling that on the one hand I should respect neurodiversity but on the other: feminism. Ow, my brain :- /
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:46 AM on April 23, 2016 [21 favorites]


"Milk voice." I'm stealing that. Heh.

The ending, I laughed and covered my mouth, mumbling "poor guy!"
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:46 AM on April 23, 2016


I'm the same way, You Should See the Other Guy. According to my mom, the thing that we're bad at is called figure-ground vision. (I don't know if my terrible figure-ground vision is an actual diagnosis or just something my mom decided I had. I did see an occupational therapist for sensory processing issues when I was a kid, so it may be something she got from someone official.) I've actually gotten better with practice, but I'm still pretty bad at it. The way that I tidy a room is to start in one corner, focus on each object, and ask myself whether it belongs there or needs to be put somewhere else. Otherwise, I just see mess and can't differentiate any individual piece of the mess from the whole.

I have no trouble picturing a beach, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:49 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Imagine a beach? Check.
Imagine a red triangle? Sure. It rotates. Cool.
And mom's face? ....

Nope. Don't have that one. I thought this is what pictures and portraiture are for? How do you remember what someone looks like if you aren't looking at them? I can tell you she's got brown hair and blue eyes and is yay tall and so on, and of course I'd recognize her likeness anywhere, but I just don't have more description than that.

So mostly I can't relate, because in general I'm a quite visual thinker and even when I'm working with equations I need to see them written out.

But people's faces? No idea. When I'm imagining a scene with people there aren't really faces, although there can be emotions.. so I know the person is happy but I can't see that they are smiling. I never understood how police sketch artists work, because "blonde hair brown eyes 5'2"" isn't really enough to draw a picture. Nothing I could say would be, because I don't have words for what people look like. And unless I have a reference picture, I just don't remember.
posted by nat at 6:50 AM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


A good test would be to start singing "It's a small world" to him and see if he gets that annoyed look from realizing it'll be in his head all day.

What an incredibly bland life that must be, poor guy.
posted by Mooski at 6:51 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


You Should See The Other Guy, are you sure you don't have run of the mill clutter blindness and aren't conflating it with the minds eye issues? Maybe it's different for you, but clutter blindness is really common. And as soren_lorensen alludes to, tends to have a gender bias.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:51 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


A good test would be to start singing "It's a small world" to him and see if he gets that annoyed look from realizing it'll be in his head all day.

What an incredibly bland life that must be, poor guy.


If you could give me aphantasia with a 100 percent guarantee it would kill earworms forever, I would have to think about it.
posted by Etrigan at 6:56 AM on April 23, 2016 [17 favorites]


This is a really interesting piece, thanks for posting. Also, just in case anyone missed this gem from the article:

One friend, Chris Pan, told me he didn’t have time to imagine a beach but that he’d do it later. I have never heard a better sign of the times.
posted by duffell at 6:57 AM on April 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


My first thought (which I said out loud to an empty room, for some reason) was, "So he never gets songs in his head? What the fuck?!"
posted by misskaz at 6:59 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I visualize things all the time - but if I try to examine the visual image closely I find that it doesn't truly seem visual. If I "picture" a beach, I can tell you that the sand is golden-beige, that the ocean is over on the left from my point of view, that I'm seeing it from high up, that the beach is dotted with people in bright-colored swimsuits. But the reality is that I somehow have all the information I would have if I were seeing it and I feel as if I were seeing it - but I'm not actually seeing it. The more I try to concentrate on one aspect of the picture, the more I realize it's not actually there. It's not actually a picture, it's the feeling of a picture.

I was middle-aged before I recognized this. I assume many other people have the same type of "visual" imagery and don't even realize it. (But based on conversations with other people, I'm also pretty sure some of them really see things in their heads.) I thought at first Ross might just be like me and might mistakenly think that was rare. But, no, he doesn't even get the feeling of seeing. Wild.
posted by Redstart at 6:59 AM on April 23, 2016 [32 favorites]


Nope, I've definitely got a picture. I can also imagine the sensation of sand between my toes (but I don't want to, because I don't like that sensation), and I can imagine myself swimming in a way that is different from picturing myself swimming. I can almost feel what the motions feel like. I definitely hear music in my head. I don't think I can imagine smelling or tasting things, though, which is odd. I know I like certain flavors, but I can't conjure them up in my head the way that I can conjure a picture, sound, sensation or motion. Odd.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:07 AM on April 23, 2016


The interesting thing to me was the challenge of realising and then explaining your particular neurodiversity.
I'm sure everyone has their own "weird brain things" but we don't recognise them for what they are.

Mine came about when I was mapping a walk some friends and I went on, and I revisited the conversations we had at each point. Then I realised that the way my mind stores memories, i.e. strongly coded to location was unusual.
I went to see a kitchen a week or so ago and found myself walking down a path that I had cycled along once ever about a year or so ago. Instantly the memory of mathowie asking people to send insulting cards to coldchef on the podcast, because that was what I was listening to last time I walked that path.

When you realise your own particular neurodiversity it's such a bizarre realisation, like the "oh wait, that's not normal!" way.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:14 AM on April 23, 2016 [22 favorites]


lollusc: "Also, how it relates to dreams. I know people who say they never get to eat in dreams or if they do, the food is tasteless. I eat delicious food in my dreams all the time. That's one of the best things about dreaming to me"

For months after I quit, I had vivid dreams about smoking. The crinkle of the cellophane. The firmness of a perfectly packed cigarette. The snap and crackle of the Zippo lighter. Long delicious drags of rich smoke. The catch in my throat (really hard to describe to nonsmokers) that satisfied my desire for nicotine. It was a caricature of the pleasant physical sensations of smoking -- far and away better than the dull stupid monotony that is the reality of actually smoking a cigarette. Because in reality, nothing is more boring than smoking a cigarette.

The dreams went away as I finished breaking the addiction. I didn't need them anymore.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:16 AM on April 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


It is said, I know not by whom, that one cannot read in dreams - after I'd heard that, I managed to test it out during one of those rare dreams where you retain awareness of your state, and I could read a sign I conjured up. On the other hand, I don't remember reading in dreams otherwise.

Since I lost the majority of my eyesight (AION, it kills off random chunks of retina and optic nerve) I have very poor pattern recognition for letter shapes, which is as dull as you might expect. I do, however, have permanent but mutable hallucinations, one of which is of fields of apparently well-formed text laid out in sentences and paragraphs, but completely unreadable - none of the acrtual shapes are distinguishable altough they're sharply delineated I guess that's what it's like to be illiterate Quite fascinating - I do wonder if I'll ever be able to 'read' it.
posted by Devonian at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


So this post just sparked a conversation between me and my wife, and it turns out we vary greatly in our ability to conjure mental images. She can close her eyes and see in HD video with her mind: full color, full detail, panoramic vision. This is also how she dreams, and for what it's worth, she has the best memory of anyone I've met. She was shocked to learn this is not the norm for everyone!

I, on the other hand, am pretty limited in my mental visualization. I can see things in my "mind's eye," but everything's very disjointed. Mostly I get impressions and contours, and it's hard to hang onto them. The effect is a little bit like taking a flash photograph, then immediately closing my eyes; I can hang onto the detail of the scene for just a moment, but the image rapidly fades.
posted by duffell at 7:21 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


It is really true that other people don't dream in color? Because I'm pretty sure I dream in color.

I think the general consensus is that people do dream in color (I certainly do) and that the idea of dreaming in black and white arose during the time when photos, movies, and TV shows were black and white. People's memories of their dreams are often vague enough that unless you really noticed a color in your dream it could be easy to imagine while recalling it that the whole thing was in black and white, especially if you were used to watching TV in black and white.
posted by Redstart at 7:27 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have taken a visualization aptitude test. Google is totally failing at finding the sucker. It was administered by a consulting firm that did nothing but aptitude testing. The visualization test was a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle where the pieces were curved prisms. Like this but a little more complicated. They gave the pieces to you on a cafeteria tray and you put them together into a bigger rectangular prism. There were three of increasing complexity. And the tester stood there with a stop watch while you assembled them.

Had a mild panic attack doing the last one and scored well below the mean.

The short term memory test they gave us was hard.
posted by bukvich at 7:30 AM on April 23, 2016


Interesting! I don't have a particularly strong visual imagination, which I suppose is different than having NO visual imagination at all. I can picture things, but not for long and what I conjure isn't terribly meaningful to me.

I identified that this is somewhat unusual through writing fiction and realizing that I couldn't hold on to a character description for more than few pages. If I tried to describe a character, I would accidentally contradict that description a few thousand words later. Fiction is not a movie in my head that I'm transcribing. I can't "see" imaginary people, and I can't cast actors as fictional people in my head. I know what a fictional person is like, what they feel at any given moment, how they are perceived by other people, what they want, how they're going to react to obstacles or epiphanies, and they feel scarily real to me sometimes, but I can't "see" them.

I think it's more of an advantage than anything. Everyone else has such strong mental images of the people and places they read about, and forcing myself to see a fictional person is so hard and meaningless to me. So I stopped describing characters in fiction. And no one noticed. In fact, I got a lot of compliments about how vividly visual my writing was, even though I never described a damn thing. I will describe what people and objects feel like to encounter, but I don't actually describe anything in detail. I had a friend who was so strongly visual that if a description came later in a novel, and that description contradicted what she had visualized, she had to start the book over to see it they way it "actually is" in the story. She told me she and I must see the same things, because she never had that experience with me. Not describing what characters look like left room for her version of them to remain uncontested.

Through that experience, I came to appreciate how active being reader or an audience really is. We think about fiction as coming directly from the active/creative brainscreen of the writer into the passive brainscreen of the reader perfectly unmodified. I've read the work of so many control-freak writers who want to make sure my mental image is exactly the same as theirs, describing every tiny little detail, and freaking out if a reader interprets a character at all differently. But my visual imagination issues showed me that fiction is a collaboration between a writer and a reader, and so much of what a reader experiences is coming from their own imagination and ability to visualize, not from the writer. The writer can prompt certain images, and can animate those images in someone's head, but the images are created by the reader. I like the idea of stories being fully collaborative.

My experience of fiction is primarily emotional rather than visual.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:38 AM on April 23, 2016 [84 favorites]


I've been able to read in dreams, but just like a word on a sign, labels, never pages of text. I had a dream while working in a warehouse that was just a stream of catalog numbers.
But even though I can read in dreams, writing is impossible. I tried sending a text in a dream once, and when I went back over my message to check it for spelling and clarity, it was just a string of vowels like AAIIIOAUEEEOOOOAAAA.

Visualizing things for me is clear, but not steady. That is, I can see detailed images, but I see not a panoramic scene I can walk around in, or a still picture, but like a Darren Aronofsky montage of quick disjointed images, different angles on the same thing, impressions of related ideas (like if I picture a dog, I might also see the places I've met that dog in, people who were there, different poses and actions of that dog, flipping past like the pages in the Marvel Studios animated logo.)
But I can imagine music, recall sensations of touch, smell, and taste. I can imagine what seawater tastes like, how it feels in my nose; I can remember what different people's hugs feel like.

What's funny is, I always thought my imagination was really poor, because I can't always imagine things as perfectly as other people can draw them. Probably an unrealistic standard, I now realize.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:44 AM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


I immediately sent this link to my wife. "This dude is exactly like what you say you are."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


The effect is a little bit like taking a flash photograph, then immediately closing my eyes; I can hang onto the detail of the scene for just a moment, but the image rapidly fades.

Exactly. I can conjure images in my mind, but only as flashes. They slip away as fast as I can summon them. Perusing my visual memory is like navigating a darkened room armed with a flashbulb camera. However, I've had experiences on hallucinogens where I could close my eyes and see artistically-rendered images as vivid (possibly moreso) as anything I've seen in real life. No effort required at all to hold onto it. Just close my eyes and it's there, bright and clear as day. Absolutely uncanny. So the hardware must be in there, even if it's not running most of the time.

Like others have mentioned, I can summon music and voices mentally without effort. There is almost always a song playing somewhere in my head. It's harder to turn it off than to turn it on.

I can just barely imagine the vague impression of a smell.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:47 AM on April 23, 2016 [13 favorites]


I'm with dephlogisticated. I can't visualize for extended periods. And by "extended periods" I mean more than just the briefest, possibly just imagined, flicker before the image vanishes.

I close my eyes, I try to conjure up an image of my son. And maybe, if I'm lucky, for a tenth of a second or less there's this image and then nothing. It comes and vanishes so quickly I'm not even really sure it is ever truly there.

When I used to hear other people say that they picture things, or see things, and I used to assume it was just a figure of speech or an exaggeration. I understand these days that apparently some (many?) people really can see vivid, long lasting, images in their heads. I wish I could.
posted by sotonohito at 7:55 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


> I think the brain has a lot more variation than we think.

This is my takeaway from a lot of what I've been reading lately. We try to impose a false uniformity on humanity at large (and then, unfortunately, tend to persecute those who don't fit it). Thanks for this fascinating post!
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on April 23, 2016 [17 favorites]


Etrigan: If you could give me aphantasia with a 100 percent guarantee it would kill earworms forever, I would have to think about it.

Forever's a mighty long time, but I'm here to tell you there's something else.
posted by dr_dank at 8:00 AM on April 23, 2016 [25 favorites]


Huh. Maybe this is why guided visual meditation has different impacts on different people? I'm of the "picture it in a flash" camp described above and I always found that I couldn't hold on to the images long enough to meditate on them...

I'm also curious about whether this tracks with ASMR and having a strong audio sensory response to that means the visual is diminished.
posted by montag2k at 8:07 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


officer_fred: SSC: What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

I was excited to read about others' experiences, but the comments quickly became a discussion about feminist blogs brainwashing people and I noped out. WTF kind of site is that?
posted by tzikeh at 8:11 AM on April 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


I always think of myself as a very visual person, the more I overthink things, the less sure I am that I can visualize anything very well...
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:20 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wrote about my experience with this here and lots of people (170 comments so far) have commented in response about their own experiences here.
posted by dfan at 8:21 AM on April 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


My personal answers to a couple of questions in this thread (though this person appears to have it "worse" than I do):
There are some tests of spatial visualisation where you're asked to say which of a set of rotated shapes is the same as a given one. I believe experiments have shown convincingly that the time taken to solve these problems relates to speed of rotation in the mental visualisation. So how do aphantasics solve these problems at all?
I reason about local properties of the shape, generally. I talk a little about it on the page I just linked to in my last comment.
I wonder how well he plays chess.
I'm 2000 USCF, which is pretty good. My calculation is pretty much on par for my rating, but I can't play blindfold, which most people can do at a rating significantly below mine. I absolutely need a chessboard (even a blank one) in front of me in order to function.
posted by dfan at 8:25 AM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


As for earworms, I totally get them. I just can't visualize anything.
posted by sotonohito at 8:28 AM on April 23, 2016


I can't tell whether the author realizes that describing his inner monologue ("milk") voice as "flat" is also atypical?
posted by nobody at 8:30 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


He's obviously one of them philosophical zombies I keep hearing about.

I would describe it like all the parts of seeing apart from the bit your eyes do, as if you never "see" anything in there, you just experience having "seen" it. I'm more amazed by people that say it's like an actual cinema - I can imagine pretty detailed imagery, but all I actually see is the dull red of my eyelids. Is it so real you could be snap-teleported to a dark room with a screen and struggle to tell the difference momentarily?
posted by lucidium at 8:31 AM on April 23, 2016


OnceUponATime: "(It is really true that other people don't dream in color? Because I'm pretty sure I dream in color.)"

I dreamed in black and white when I was a very young child. My first colour dream was a nightmare where I was chased around our house by a floating claw hand. The claw-hand was blue.

I never really hear people's voices in dreams. Someone will speak, I can hear the fact that they're speaking, and I know the meaning of what they said, but I have no idea what specific words they used to say it.

I do typically visualize images with the "in a flash" style that people mentioned, where it's hard to hold a detailed picture steady. I can maintain very simple shapes more easily.
posted by RobotHero at 8:40 AM on April 23, 2016


I came here to make the same comment lollusc did. I've got a great ability to visualize (I worked for three years at a programming job that was almost nothing but visualizing the dynamic interaction of shapes) , and I can replay music in my mind just fine, but recreating the experience of smelling a particular scent? I just cannot do it. And it's not for lack of sensitivity. I'll say "ooh, skunk" 5-10 seconds before others do, and am pretty good at figuring out what seasonings go into a dish. It's just that scents don't go into some replayable memory store like sound and vision* do.

*Man, Bowie still pops up everywhere, doesn't he?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:55 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I can see and hear perfectly well in my "inner voice", but I can't smell, taste, or touch. Can the rest of you do that?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:05 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the dreams not being color thing is just a myth. I dream in color, always have except for a few weeks after I heard that people dream in black and white and then after that I dreamed in b&w for a day or two before the color resumed.

I don't dream about people I know though. Or at least not often. Maybe once every couple of years people I know will appear in my dreams, otherwise the characters in my dreams are inventions of my subconscious. Dunno why.

My "inner voice" is like my speaking voice, and is often varied and more often kind of snide. Definitely not flat and without variation.
posted by sotonohito at 9:06 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I can’t read this in Morgan Freeman’s voice

So, is it a problem if I can't stop hearing his voice when I read?

Also, aphantasia is only about the "mind's eye" though, not the "mind's ear", etc. Is there a term for the lack of any imaginative senses?
posted by klausman at 9:07 AM on April 23, 2016


I can’t read this in Morgan Freeman’s voice

This is why I can't do some audio books after they've been done into movies ... I can't listen to a narrator after picking up the actor's voices. But I can re-read the books, hearing the actor's voices do their parts.
posted by tilde at 9:11 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the debate in higher mathematics between "pictures are good because they help intuitions" and the "Nicolas Bourbaki" school, which has no pictures at all in its ten textbooks because pictures have no place in a proper mathematics text, has anything to do with this.
posted by clawsoon at 9:12 AM on April 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.
posted by NortonDC at 9:12 AM on April 23, 2016 [20 favorites]


This is a great post and a great thread - thanks everyone for your insights.
I'm wondering if anyone has noticed they could train one or several "inner senses"? I know for sure I trained my ability to visualize when I was 16-17: when I was bored, I would try to imagine specific routes through specific landscapes. In my mind the idea was to spend exactly as much time in my mind as a given bus-trip (we didn't have smart-phones then, and the bus was always so full I couldn't read)
This training ended up being a huge strength for me later in life, and I was really surprised. I thought everyone did something similar when they were bored.
posted by mumimor at 9:18 AM on April 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Analogues of 'visualize' for all the sensory modalities:

Visualize
Hearmagine
Olfigure
Tactilate
Salivize
posted by painquale at 9:19 AM on April 23, 2016 [29 favorites]


When I was in high school, if something was boring to read, I'd switch my inner voice to Sean Connery until it got interesting or I finished it.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:21 AM on April 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


There are some tests of spatial visualisation where you're asked to say which of a set of rotated shapes is the same as a given one. I believe experiments have shown convincingly that the time taken to solve these problems relates to speed of rotation in the mental visualisation. So how do aphantasics solve these problems at all?

I can't visualize worth shit, but I'm good at these problems; I do them by inner touch and heft and balance.

On the upside, there's endless original Hendrix-level guitar playing available in here, on tap, any time I want it. Can't play a real guitar, not even slightly; don't really need to. More fun to play the drums to accompany all this internal roar and rhythm.
posted by flabdablet at 9:23 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


wow. WOW.

I would have loved to have been the recipient of one of his late night Facebook messages when he realized that people can do this.

Because my mind does it very much and very, very vividly. I can conjure up images of anything real and unreal and my life and sometimes livelihood revolve around my ability to do so. I tend to take for granted that everyone's mind works this way, so this blows MY mind. I can't imagine it. I don't know what I would do.

It kind of terrifies me.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:23 AM on April 23, 2016 [12 favorites]


I'm not sure about visualizing a beach, and I only get glimpses trying to visualize something as simple as a red triangle, but reading someone else's Facebook chats felt like such a violation of privacy that I almost skipped reading them, even though I should be able to assume the author's friends gave permission to be quoted, even in such a visually direct manner.

Given the variation on how much people are able to visualize, it seems reasonable to conclude how much people feel from reading must similarly be different.

Picture scoring a goal. Along with a (sport-specific) mind-picture, how much of a triumphant feeling does everyone else experience from a simple description like that?
posted by fragmede at 9:24 AM on April 23, 2016


Huh. Maybe this is why guided visual meditation has different impacts on different people?

Hmmm, I can imagine/visualize things like it's a day-glow hi-def movie, down to the tiniest details, but guided meditation does zero for me. I drift off and can't focus on it.

I wonder if those that talk about being extreme daydreamers with really deep inner lives are those who can visualize things to extreme detail though?

I can't visualize smell however. I can only visualize how the smell makes me feel, or moments I encountered the smell.
posted by Windigo at 9:27 AM on April 23, 2016


Picture scoring a goal.

Can't do it. Can bring to mind the feel of body imparting energy to ball and ball leaving boot and the body-knowledge of whether or not kick was good. Can also put myself in the position of the ball and hear and feel the rush of air, feel the apprehension of approaching the right-hand goal post a little too closely and then the relief of clearing it, but I can't generate a visual of how any of that would look from the outside, not even from my own position as the ball kicker.
posted by flabdablet at 9:30 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I also completely suck at recognizing infrequently-seen faces.
posted by flabdablet at 9:32 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am an extreme daydreamer, to the point that while out for a walk or riding public transit people I know see me but cannot get my attention, but I am not a visualizer. Though I have consistently encountered very visual people who think creativity and imagination is linked to being visual. I have not found that to be the case. I find digging into emotionality and interaction far more engaging than watching things happen like a movie before my (inner) eyes.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:33 AM on April 23, 2016


I can see and hear perfectly well in my "inner voice", but I can't smell, taste, or touch. Can the rest of you do that?

I have various sensory overload problems from neuro stuff (hyperacusis, scent-triggered migraines) and it would be great if I could not do this but alas I can remember perfectly to a gag-stimulating degree exactly how a shot of vodka tastes or exactly how the burning ghats at varanasi smelled and my mind can summon these things to its forefront at the drop of a fucking hat and it is really just too much sometimes. My ability to strongly generate previously smelled odors is intense enough that I have worried about it being a seizure or stroke precursor before but so far nothing. It's not just previously smelled odors, either, it's descriptions of perfumes in combinations I've never smelled but know the component notes of individually, and it's the same with taste. Internal sight, touch (both me touching things and things touching me), and sound are very vivid and strong as well but nowhere close to taste and smell.

Also as per pretty much everyone else here, I don't even really know if these things are particularly remarkable or not, or if it just sometimes feels excessive to me.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:36 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


I can do sound, and flighty images that immediately fade, but texture of food is visceral.
posted by chapps at 9:40 AM on April 23, 2016


I'm trying to conjure the smell of vanilla. Nope. Disappointed. When I actually smell things it seems stronger than for those around me. But imagined smell is a dud.
posted by chapps at 9:41 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Previously.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:46 AM on April 23, 2016


I think I'm somewhere on this spectrum, closer to this author than to those who can effortlessly conjure up images, but if I make an effort I can visualize a sandy beach, even the specific sandy beach down the street from where I grew up. But it does take an intense effort, it will go away if I don't spend my entire mental energy concentrating on it.

I do think as the author does that this accounts for my general detachment from people and places. I think "out of sight, out of mind" is quite literally true for me. I realized a while ago that most of my "memories" were constructed out of after-the-fact descriptions of photos and conversations about those photos. In some ways it is an advantage - I don't have a hard time letting go of things - I feel the occasional twinge of nostalgia, but my general outlook is geared towards moving forward, trying new things, exploring the world. I spend about two weeks getting used to a new place, like an apartment, and then I feel as though I've always lived there. In other ways it is a huge disadvantage. When my grandfather died, I felt a huge sense of loss, just in the sense of losing another person in this world who cared unconditionally for me, but in other ways I felt I had already experienced this loss when I moved halfway across the world. Unless I interact with people every day, I cannot easily conjure up their faces or their mannerisms.
posted by peacheater at 9:48 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm good with spatial reasoning, and very visually-oriented when it comes to memory. For example, when I'm looking for my keys, I imagine where I've left them. And I remember what I read MUCH better than I remember what I hear (except for music - I remember music very clearly).

When it comes to visuals, my head fills with concepts, not pictures. When I remember or when I dream, the concepts are clear (my old house, for example), but there's only a vague visual to go along with it. I don't think about dreaming in color, because ideas don't have a color.

Now that I've read the article and all of this commentary, I'm starting to think about thinking more visually, and I notice my mental images coming into focus. And also to understand more about how differently other people *actually* think about things.
posted by Jefffurry at 9:51 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I started seeing pictures sometime last year. It's not quite the same, because I had visual flashes before and it was brought on by a medication change for ADHD (despite being told that this has nothing to do with ADHD).

Anyway, mind-blown, I spent about a month wandering around saying "I see pictures" while being humored by the people around me. I saw pictures in my head when I thought about past stuff, or future warnings. I talked about them endlessly. This was bizarre. It was amazing.

The first time it happened, I was recalling a conversation where I wrote down a phone number, and I saw the table/paper/my hands writing down the number (I also kinda filled in blanks, I guess? The number I saw myself write was totally made up.) The second time, right before walking out the door, I saw myself wet and freezing my behind off at the bus stop, and I paused to check the weather. This skill grew from there, with me constantly being surprised by what I could see. I could visual doing stuff for the first time, or being places I never saw. I started reading again, because the worlds were vivid and exciting.

Visualizations or seeing pictures, made my life so much easier. Instead of words, and blanks, and outlines (I'd see word-outlines, like decision trees in my head, a form of visualization, I guess) - stuff just popped in there. I'd felt like I leveled up on life.

Umm... Repeated neuropsych testing places my spatial IQ somewhere under the 15th percentile. It's one of two categories that I scored pretty low in, and is a source of frustration for me, because everything else is way to the right. I also had a pretty good bump to the head as a baby, a concussion treated with aspirin, which my family laments every time my learning difficulties are discussed.

As a kid, I constantly worried about not being able to find my family in the store. I knew their hair color, coat, but couldn't easily cue in until I heard their voice. I still have a tiny fear that I've misidentified my family.

While I can cue to voice, I've never been able to hear music in my head, which makes singing difficult. I can remember spoken conversation pretty well, but never the words to songs. Most of the other times, people's voices are flat in my head, but once or twice I've read the blue and everyone had funny voices. It made things better. I wish that happened more often. As for taste, I do remember the rush of emotions that come with amazing food, but not an actual taste.
posted by bindr at 9:53 AM on April 23, 2016 [20 favorites]


This is really interesting.

I have the opposite issue: I can't really understand something until I visualize it. I'm constantly whiteboarding and sketching notes to try and build a durable mental model. I remember Richard Feynman noting how he built mental "things", and it was such a revelation to me that it was a valid way of thinking about higher mathematics, where I had always struggled with the abstract.

However, I pale in comparison to my wife, who has a degree in ceramic art. She can build mental images that are, to her, indistinguishable from real objects to all her senses. Her nightmares can be extremely traumatic... she often can't tell them from actual experiences.
posted by underflow at 9:54 AM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


His descriptions of reading gave me the chills; how a paragraph of description and detail gets narrowed down to "there's an assassin." How LOTR is so encumbered with visual detail its unreadable for him.

My experience of reading is exactly the opposite; I experience what I'm reading in my mind's eye, so much so that the words melt away as I'm reading. It's like an immersive movie with visuals, ambient temperature and light, smells, sounds, everything. When I remember books, I recall sensory images primarily, and plot points second. Some of my favorite books focus a great deal on the material conditions of the characters; what they eat, how they find food, what are their working conditions, what their houses are like.

And yet he's a very good writer, and surely a good reader, too. I would love to hear more about what his favorite books are, and why.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:00 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


How do you make your thoughts sound like Morgan Freeman or Sean Connery? I can imagine or remember them saying something, though imagining it feels like an unnatural affectation. My thoughts are a nearly never-ending stream of words that don't have any discernible vocal quality to them. I don't see my running commentary of thoughts at all, but I don't really hear them as if someone were speaking to me either. They are just there.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:02 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is a tiny thing from the essay, but I wonder if anyone else tripped over it; it took me a second to remember that the typical phrase is "nook and cranny ":

I can think about the idea of a red triangle. But it’s blackness behind my eyes. Blackness next to my ears. Blackness in every nook and kindle of my brain.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:06 AM on April 23, 2016 [12 favorites]


Tangentially related for those of you who complain about earworms. My trick, especially if it's a song I hate, is to find it online and listen to it all the way through. That almost always get rid of it for me.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:08 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


> I'm trying to conjure the smell of vanilla. Nope.

I just tried this myself and the first thing that came up was this image. Yep, I'm visual.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:11 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Goddamn it. I thought I could visualize things perfectly well, I know I do it when I'm dreaming, and now that I'm actually trying to do it I'm not sure if I can do it or not.

I can build a mental picture when I'm reading, and in fact vastly prefer the written versions of my favorite books to their TV/movie equivalents because I have a very specific way that I see/hear them in my head, and the equivalent doesn't match that and I don't want that influencing my own version.

My pattern recognition has its good and bad parts; I'm an ace at video games and at spotting patterns in tables of figures or in writing, but I'm notoriously bad with faces. I can't tell you how many times someone's recognized me and I've drawn a complete blank on who they were until they told me, and then it clicks and all the connections come back.

I really needed an existential crisis this weekend, thanks!
posted by delfin at 10:11 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


re: earworms: I make them ring tones. Somehow the acceptance of the earworm forces my brain to make peace with it. Would anyone like an Africa ring tone? It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.
posted by Hildegarde at 10:12 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


double block and bleed: For me, it's like doing a vocal imitation of someone, just without the actual vocalization. There's a... well, a feeling associated with each voice. If I can recreate that feeling, and sort of put myself into it, I can usually make that mental voice sound like the person I'm feeling.

Imitations of characters are my commute entertainment.
posted by underflow at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


double block and bleed: Tangentially related for those of you who complain about earworms. My trick, especially if it's a song I hate, is to find it online and listen to it all the way through. That almost always get rid of it for me.

I remember that research on earworms says that it most commonly happens when we can remember part but not all of a song, especially when we're missing a word or phrase or two.

I don't remember the research exactly, though, which is maybe why it's stuck in my head.
posted by clawsoon at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]



Mine came about when I was mapping a walk some friends and I went on, and I revisited the conversations we had at each point. Then I realised that the way my mind stores memories, i.e. strongly coded to location was unusual.
I went to see a kitchen a week or so ago and found myself walking down a path that I had cycled along once ever about a year or so ago. Instantly the memory of mathowie asking people to send insulting cards to coldchef on the podcast, because that was what I was listening to last time I walked that path.


I have this too, and it works in the opposite direction as well. Works best when I'm relaxed, so I noticed it a lot on car trips as a kid. Often, when I'm listening to music (particularly songs that are newish to me) I'll get flashbacks to what I was looking at or thinking about the last time I heard that line of the song. It's not like I'm trying to commit things to memory and recall them later, it just happens spontaneously, and it's extremely vivid. I'll be listening to a song and get a sudden flashback to a farmer's field because we were driving through the country the last time I heard that song. The effect seems to be mostly a single shot deal: it wears off considerably or becomes more of a memory-based thing with repeated listens to the same song. (E.g. the next time through, I'll remember the experience of having the flashback rather than have another vivid flashback). It's so cool when a flashback happens, and probably explains why one of my favorite activities is going for long walks with my mp3 player.

There's downsides to it too, like when I look at a certain spot in my office I'll remember an argument I had there the day before with a coworker. When those negative flasbacks get committed to memory I end up living in a world where anywhere I look I get a negative association, causing me to want to change jobs or apartments to get a clean mental canvas. I guess I need to get better at letting the negative flashbacks go when they come up, so they don't become permanently tied to objects, cluttering my entire mental landscape.
posted by mantecol at 10:45 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


And, suddenly, fiction clicks. Paty says I used to worry that “I feel like I’m doing reading wrong.” Descriptive language in novels was important to her but impotent to me; I skip it as reflexively as you skip the iTunes Terms of Service. Instead, I scour fiction like an archaeologist: Find the bones. […] I hurdle over paragraphs and pages, mowing down novels in one night

Jeez. In defense of the humanities, at least, you can say with certainty to people like this, if you'd ever taken a single serious literature class in your life you would have discovered your significant impediment for this basic category of human cognition a lot earlier. It's not the smallest virtue of literature that it enables self-diagnosis, at least for people more introspective than this (which I'm pretty sure is most of us, thank goodness).
posted by RogerB at 10:47 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I do see mental imaged plenty, but maybe more abstractly or fleetingly than some people. It's kinda "we've seen it now, we're done here" unless I really want to continue. I do read fiction ignoring some details, like I skip the songs in LoTR, but conversely I enjoyed Lovecraft as a teenager.

I do not hallucinate on normal doses of LSD, like 100µg, but I think that's normal, and I've never taken more than that. I've gotten extremely mild visual hallucinations on normal doses of more visual drugs like psilocybin, but never gone on a trip to visit the machine elves.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:53 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


My best friend and I once took a road trip where we discovered, to mutual surprise, that her mind was a quiet place and that mine has a radio station that never quits. It was a revelation for both of us, because I can't even imagine a quiet mind and it helped her to understand some of the problems that come with ADHD.

My brain is an auditory brain. I've only ever hallucinated sound. I can't do images in a way that is at all like seeing. I'm pretty good at remembering touch. I am very good with scent and taste, though my brain gets a bit creative sometimes. The other day in a doctor's office waiting room, the scent of coffee mixed with the underlying smell of institution somehow melded itself into the chemical stench of perm solution for me. I've also been randomly smelling waffle cones lately.

It is weird that unlike a lot of the non-visual people here, I do enjoy visual description in books even though I can't make a picture in my mind.
posted by monopas at 11:02 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Surprised no one's mentioned Temple Grandin and her book, Thinking in Pictures. She describes herself as on the other side of the spectrum, where her thoughts are purely visual with no language component at all.
posted by Pryde at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Also, I need text menus. I really don't understand the people who have a desktop full of icons or who can stand a start screen full of tiles.
posted by monopas at 11:07 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


You know another interesting angle? Cooking. I think I am pretty good at inventing dishes and then executing them. I can mentally taste how the flavors will go together, what needs to be added to balance the dish, whether there will be enough texture, etc. Other people I know are terrified of straying from recipes for fear of making something unappetizing. I respond that while I'm not perfect, I generally wouldn't add an ingredient if I knew it was going to throw off the dish. I guess not everyone can hold the finished dish in their mind and work towards creating it. This realization should help prevent a couple kitchen disputes, thanks TFA!
posted by mantecol at 11:10 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


I've had a fair amount of musical training, to the point where I can pick up most guitar parts by ear and translate them to my hands on the instrument. Composition has always been hard for me, however. I'm getting to the point where I can compose new tunes and riffs in my head, although they don't always translate into the real world like I'd expect. I wonder if the great songwriters/composers have an innate ability to compose mentally that helps them write great works.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:11 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is totally amazing and surprising.
posted by odinsdream at 11:14 AM on April 23, 2016


Several years ago, I experienced something akin to this. For whatever reason, I had always experienced the sky as sort of a flat backdrop to the world around me. Then, one day, I was riding in a car and just staring out the window at the clouds, and suddenly, I began seeing them clouds as they really were...discrete physical objects in space receeding back into the distance. I was suddenly seeing the sky as an vast three-dimensional space. It really shook me up when I realized that I had never seen the world like this before.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:15 AM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


Pryde: "Surprised no one's mentioned Temple Grandin and her book, Thinking in Pictures. She describes herself as on the other side of the spectrum, where her thoughts are purely visual with no language component at all."

It was actually an Oliver Sacks chapter about Temple Grandin where she said the same thing, that made me realize most people didn't think that way.
posted by RobotHero at 11:18 AM on April 23, 2016


So, this is a fascinating article and thread....something I was surprised to discover about myself when I started mulling this over....I can picture stuff in my head, but it's fairly fuzzy and indistinct. Like looking through a pinhole camera, or a movie scene shot through a fisheye lens. When he says, "picture a beach" I could do so, but it wasn't super detailed, and I couldn't have said whether what I was picturing was based off a place I'd been or just some Platonic idea of a beach. Even when it was like "picture your mother's face" I could do so, but it seemed sort of...tough to hang on to? Then reading this thread, when people were talking about being unable to remember their loved one's eye color or describe them to others...well, like a big old weirdo I stopped for a minute and tried to describe my mother's face, as if describing her to someone else. And all of a sudden, images came flooding back, i could picture her much more easily, how her face looks in different expressions, the way she carries herself, everything. And it occurred to me that when he describes the monster in the article -- hairy, cough, cupcakes --- I had a clear and instant mental image of that. For me imagery seems to be mediated through language? Like i need the words to get to it but with the words I can construct something in HD, something fully immersive, whereas simply picturing a red triangle or a mountaintop feels...gossamer, ephemeral. A peak through a viewfinder. It seems to be the same with the other senses, too. Some are more distinct than others...it's hard to just straight imagine vanilla from nothing, but when you describe swimming in the ocean I can if I try taste the seawater in my mouth.

Side notes: I rarely remember dreams but the ones that do stick with me tend to involve senses beyond the visual; I've had nightmares several times where my teeth are falling out and the physical sensation of that is the creepy part, for me.

Also reading: When I read as a kid it was like sinking underwater, I felt almost like I wasn't even seeing the words anymore it was just the pictures in my head, the story played out like a film. Or like VR, really, since other sense are involved. I can also hear music and can kinds of read things in other people's voices, but it's not as strong as the visual.

Just saw your comment, mantecol --- does cooking feel like writing to you? For me thinking about how to make something that will taste good given the ingredients i have feels exactly like composing a paragraph. i don't exactly taste it with the vividness of actually eating something, but i can sort of mentally compare it? Like, this will need something bright and sharp? And then accept or reject, say, chopped tomato or a squeeze of lemon depending on how that will affect the other ingredients?
posted by Diablevert at 11:24 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Re: a certain subthread ive had dreams where I'm mostly just reading. But I'm pretty heavily slanted toward verbal and auditory thinking. (Also I don't seem to remember dreams very often at all.)
posted by atoxyl at 11:30 AM on April 23, 2016


Hold up. You guys skip over the iTunes Terms of Service?
posted by little_dog_laughing at 11:31 AM on April 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


For those interested, the BBC has an written aphantasia quiz and also discusses aphantasia some more.
posted by fragmede at 11:36 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've had a fair amount of musical training, to the point where I can pick up most guitar parts by ear and translate them to my hands on the instrument. Composition has always been hard for me, however. I'm getting to the point where I can compose new tunes and riffs in my head, although they don't always translate into the real world like I'd expect. I wonder if the great songwriters/composers have an innate ability to compose mentally that helps them write great works.

My guess is that the "innate ability" you refer to isn't innate at all, but is something that grows from years and years of practice. Last night, we saw Purple Rain. I work with art and my sis is in business. I noticed that a strain in the film is that the father claims to be able to remember all of his compositions in his mind, while the Kid (Prince) has to write it out and work with his compositions on paper. At the end of the film, the Kid finds all his dad's compositions, on paper. For my sister, this was insignificant, for me, it was one of the core scenes of the film.
posted by mumimor at 11:42 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


You know what'd really be interesting? Watching this guy or someone like him read and react to Peter Mendelsund's book What We See When We Read.
posted by RogerB at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


I get strong 'visualisation' of all the senses. And ear worms are pretty annoying, but they beat a 'nose worm' of the rotting leg ulcer I smelt in hospital twenty years ago that still haunts me sometimes..
posted by KateViolet at 11:48 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


For me it's less pictures and more abstract things. I can picture my mom's face right now, but it's about things like the quality of her gaze and not an exact shape or image. When I imagine a beach I remember vividly the salt air, the warm sand, the waves rumble, the horizon all around, but it's not any kind of photorealistic picture. A sufer is a vague shape, maybe a human outline, plus movement vectors for the surfer and the waves.

I also have dreams that include complete source code to programs that I can edit in my dreams (and often works if I type it in, unless the programming language was also dreamed up). And I can visualize entire routes on well known roads and trails (hours and hours of them), but it's all about the turns, the rises and falls, the outlines of the view at any point along the way, but never any images.

Never any colors, come to think of it. Triangle? Sure, and I can rotate tetris peices in my head and slot them into place. But red triangle? No, it's just 3 angles with lines.

Thorzdad, https://xkcd.com/941/. I always see the sky mountains now when I look up.
posted by joeyh at 11:48 AM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


I knew that being able to "picture" things was something that other people could do but I couldn't, which was sort of interesting, but I'd never really considered it from the other side until I read

I thought when movies had characters thinking in V.O. this was just a metaphor, not something anyone actually did.

and holy crap your experience of existing is just alien to me. The brain certainly is a land of contrasts.
posted by russm at 11:53 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oddly, Lord of the Rings is hard for me for almost exactly the opposite reason it is hard for him. I visualize the scene so vividly that I lose track of the plot. My brain takes over and I'm looking at Hobbits walk through the woods for five minutes and I realize I haven't read a word. I forget where I am on the page or what characters are saying because I have this full blown movie going on in my head and I can't concentrate.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:54 AM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


I find all of this super fascinating! I remember the first time I heard about this idea of lacking visual memory. It was in Pat Barker's WWI historical fiction book, Regeneration. W H R Rivers was a real psychiatrist. I always wondered whether him lacking visual memory was a historically known fact.

It blew my mind the first time I read it. I have a very strong visual memory (and a good memory in general). I also can vividly recall places I've been, people, etc, and I also can visualize imaginary places or people too. It's so natural and intrinsic to my thinking that I can't imagine not being able to do it.

My best friend and I once took a road trip where we discovered, to mutual surprise, that her mind was a quiet place and that mine has a radio station that never quits. It was a revelation for both of us, because I can't even imagine a quiet mind and it helped her to understand some of the problems that come with ADHD.

"A radio station that never quits" is such a great description, and I have this as well. I also have ADHD... I guess it makes sense that this could be connected. So do some people really not have constant running monologues? Actually, I pretty regularly have internal conversations as well. Sometimes with real people, sometimes characters from stories, or famous people, which um, sounds kind of weird now that I type it out. It actually is one way that I process or think through things. I guess it's easier to do that as a dialogue instead of a monologue. It's also fun.

I have always been very curious if there are people who can have minds that are "quiet" whatever that would mean. This thread seems to answer that question. Although I do have very good mental visualization skills, visualizing isn't constant in the way that thinking it words is. I guess the only time I come close to this is if I'm reading a book that I'm really into. Or when I'm writing.

Also, "milk" voice? I would say my general internal monologue voice is just a version of my actual voice. Although I also can easily recall other people's voices and songs. Songs that I know well can play in mind as vividly as if I'm actually listening to them (this can be a blessing and a curse...earworms, ugh).

It's actually super helpful for writing, too, particularly for writing fanfiction. I usually get pretty positive feedback about my ability to channel characters' voices. I guess being able to conjure up the actual characters voices in my head helps with that.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:05 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is fascinating stuff, and I wonder whether something can be done with this thread. Radiolab, perhaps (I know they read Mefi...)

Thinking more about visualisaiton and how I do it - I've never considered myself particularly visual, but I have (had!) a very strong ability to spot small details in a scene, which seems from the number of times it has elicited surprised comments from others to be a bit abnormal. But not during mental visualisations, which... take work. I've found that describing a visualised scene in writing helps flesh it out visually; I actually did this recently about a beach (hah!) in distant prehistory; it started out like a complete cliche of a beach in my head, but by the time I'd written about a thousand words it was very rich and varied - the shading and textures of the sand and water, the curve of the bay, the way you could see he currents by the change in surface patterns, and as I wrote these down the image became more precise. I've written a lot of scenes, so perhaps that's practice, but I can't just imagine something and write it down as-is; it's iterative.

My srongest and best-defined mental images are of films and photographs. I can remember a scene from a film with far greater clarity than a scene from real life, and it persists for very much longer. I've seen TV shows and films that I last experienced forty years ago, and they were full of details I recognised. Reading my parents accounts of things I was involved in at the same time - nothing. I've learned to improve my visual imaginative ability by pretending to watch a film of the events or scene I want to bring to mind, and that works peculiarly well. What different bits of the brain are being called into service through this, I have seriously no idea...
posted by Devonian at 12:08 PM on April 23, 2016


Okay, no one probably cares about this but me, but actually I believe the conversation where Rivers talks about having no visual memory is from the second book in the Regeneration trilogy, Eye in the Door.

Also, a little bit of google searching seems to support that Rivers did in fact lack a visual memory.

posted by litera scripta manet at 12:13 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Reading this whole thread is amazing.

I must be a deeply... internal person, I guess? Reading has always felt like not just watching a movie but actually being there. All this discussion of being on a beach conjured a very intense sense of being on a beach to the point where I almost forgot where I actually am right now. It started as a generic beach, palm trees, sound of waves, smell of sea... and then morphed in to a day from a few years ago when we went to West Palm Beach in January for a wedding. I can see the whole thing, but also feel the sand that's collected on our towels, the smell of the water, everything.

I'm just digging up random memories now, but I can remember all of my senses in very vivid detail. I am remembering the first apartment I ever lived alone in, learning how to cook, I made duck breasts on the stove top. I can taste the seared duck, feel how sticky everything in the kitchen was because the stove didn't vent properly, the acrid smell of cooking smoke. And then sitting in my ratan chair, how it creaked, the feel of the carpet against my bare feet.

I navigate by visualizing the route ahead. If I have to make a decision about which way to go, I'll run both routes in my mind first. It's a strong enough image that I often marvel at how long it takes to get to my destination because I've already made it to that landmark, haven't I? No, I just visualized it a few minutes ago. When I listen to the news in the car, the descriptions play out in my head like a movie and I have trouble remembering what was actually going on around me.

The one thing I can't really do is control where the visualizations go, it's almost like hallucinating I guess. Sometimes it's memory into memory, but other times the imagination takes over and things run wild.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:18 PM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


Hmmm, carrying on about ear-worms, nose-worms, etc. I'm not often afflicted with ear-worms (and can usually clear them out with a single listening of this), and have never had a nose-worm, but I am really prone to "eye-worms", images that I have trouble shaking.

They are usually gross ones (why else would I try to shake them?), and relate to sickness, injury, or infestation. Heck, there's a specific image that I probably glanced on Reddit three years ago that's trying to get back into my mind right now; I'm not going to describe it because that makes it harder to forget about. Do other visually oriented people share this?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:21 PM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


For contrast, see Thinking in Pictures (book by Temple Grandin)

When I need to find something in clutter, I do a lot better if I visualize exactly what I'm looking for (rotate it, flip it over, 'weigh' it in my mind) before I start using my eyes to look for the thing. Usually it pops right out.

If I'm not working with a visual memory (someone asked me to find something so all I have is a description) I can go right by the thing repeatedly, and never notice it -- until the Martians who have snuck it into an alternate dimension put it back and make it visible again.
posted by hank at 12:25 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


A jarring thing that I find happens quite a lot when I'm reading is that I'll have built up a mental map of a location based on relative descriptions like "stood on the opposite wall" and "trees lined along one side", then suddenly a specific "left" or "right" reference will make me realise I've got the whole place mirrored. Is that a common experience?
posted by lucidium at 12:34 PM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Whoa.

Projection is one of my all-time top peeves. People claiming they know how another person is or should be experiencing something is a giant red flag for me, so I really try not to do it myself.

But I had no idea at all that this was even possible. I don't think I can conjure super-HD photorealistic imagery in my head the way I know some people can, but it had never occurred to me that someone might not have mental imagery at all. Sometimes, with really visually evocative movies or even books, I get so wrapped up in the imagery that I gloss over the plot, and I have to rewatch or reread it and pay attention to what's actually happening.

Not hearing things is the most alien concept to me, though. I have an almost 24-7 soundtrack going in my head at all times (now playing: Police Truck), and earworms are just when one of the songs gets stuck on repeat.

(And yeah, I get really bad eyeworms, too. I am right this second trying to bleach a really bad one with the handy mental image of a worm-infested eyeball you just provided me.)
posted by ernielundquist at 12:35 PM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is just awesome, reading through all this, having had this conversation with my SO previously, about how no, seriously, I can't do pictures in my head. Weirdly, I can do sound in my head very well. Including voices of people whose accents I couldn't even begin to mimic. But I can't do visuals at all. If I can't do a spatial reasoning problem with pure logic, then I just rule out whatever answers I can and guess, although sometimes I've been able to draw something on paper to represent things well enough to work it out.

I'm not very good at smell or taste, but I've also got a very strong tactile sense in my head, too. There are times I can work things out based on how it'd feel in my hands even if I can't "see" it. I'm not sure if this is going to turn out to be a thing, but I'm also diagnosed ADD and my brain definitely doesn't shut up. It's just never visual.

This probably wouldn't bug me at all, except that I love art and graphic design and I've started trying to learn to draw or something so many times only to get incredibly frustrated that I can't imagine what something should look like without something right in front of me to reference. If I picture a wave, it's a concept of a wave. I know how waves work. But I don't know what they look like. I can imagine how a fold of fabric or a curve of body should feel, but not its visual representation.
posted by Sequence at 12:42 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Strangely, while I can visualize, even quite vividly if I focus on it for a bit, can recall smells, etc, I usually don't. My day to day experience is mediated almost entirely by language or rote instinct. I "think" in words, not concepts. One of my most vivid visual memories is the moment when I was 5 or 6 and first discovered what the author calls his "milk voice." Before that, I thought in pictures or abstract concepts. After, I have to specifically occupy the language center of my brain with nonsense to do that.

Similarly, I now default to reading things "aloud" in my head, rather than just absorbing the words off the page directly into their concepts. I can do it the second way, but it takes effort (and sometimes, again, occupying the language center with other nonsense so it can be bypassed)

Brains are not only weird, but their weirdness changes over time.

Anyway, since I'm writing this out anyway, I'll also note that while I recall music in a fairly flat way most of the time, sometimes it is literally like listening to the album or performance. Shit just pops into my head at CD quality sometimes. It can be really disturbing, although less disturbing than the similar visual hallucinations I have at times. Thankfully, they both can be swatted away pretty quickly. The visual thing would make me a menace on the road if not since it's as vivid as reality when it does happen.
posted by wierdo at 12:44 PM on April 23, 2016


"YSSOG, that's funny because I'm pretty sure if you were to sit down with a focus group of 30 women partnered with men and asked them to list the top 5 irritating things the men in their lives do, not being able to "see" mess and not being able to find lost objects even when they're right in front of them would be on the majority of those lists. I'm having the uncomfortable feeling that on the one hand I should respect neurodiversity but on the other: feminism. Ow, my brain :- /"

I think a lot of people underestimate the impact socialization has on the brain. The brain does not come fully formed out of the uterus; it literally creates itself as it grows, like a crystal forming, and the pathways of growth are shaped by the experiences the person has. The physical brain is shaped by the experiences of the mind. This growth continues up to at least age 25, and there's some evidence of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to grow, reshape and repair itself) well into old age.

(The famous example is London cabbies, who (on average, in a particular study some decades ago) have a larger-than-usual hippocampus because of the effort they make to learn the map of London and hold it in their mind. I know there have been other studies done, I think on PTSD, but I don't remember.)

So accepting "clutter blindness" as a quality of the brain does not necessarily mean it's beyond our ability to change it, or prevent it.

There are some qualities (like autism) that you can't train someone out of - but even then, you can often train someone around those issues.

Brains often develops different pathways to the same goal - like, in the 3D visualization test, mentioned in this thread, it's usually assumed people solve it by visualizing the shapes and mentally rotating them; but some people in the thread have said they approach it by .... logicking it out? And other people can imagine it kinetically, like they're using their hand to hold the shapes and feel how they fit.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 12:45 PM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


> I am right this second trying to bleach a really bad one with the handy mental image of a worm-infested eyeball you just provided me.

Sorry 'bout that. Would some eye-bleach help?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Mine came about when I was mapping a walk some friends and I went on, and I revisited the conversations we had at each point. Then I realised that the way my mind stores memories, i.e. strongly coded to location was unusual.

>>I have this too, and it works in the opposite direction as well. Works best when I'm relaxed, so I noticed it a lot on car trips as a kid. Often, when I'm listening to music (particularly songs that are newish to me) I'll get flashbacks to what I was looking at or thinking about the last time I heard that line of the song. It's not like I'm trying to commit things to memory and recall them later, it just happens spontaneously, and it's extremely vivid. I'll be listening to a song and get a sudden flashback to a farmer's field because we were driving through the country the last time I heard that song.


Me, too! I was tempted recently to try to Google this to see if it was something that was common or not, but I couldn't figure out how to phrase a search. I notice it a lot when I'm rereading novels -- I'll have the visual world of the novel happening but then also get a sensory visualization of where I last was when I read that particular scene last. I also listen to NPR most of the time when I'm commuting, and my commutes often end up with my hearing, e.g., the start of "All Things Considered" at 6am when I drive to the gym and then the repeat when I'm driving to work at 8am, and I'll get a flashback at 8:03am of where I was at 6:03am.
posted by lazuli at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, in reading the article, I thought that I had no ability to remember smells, until I read "Ghiradelli Square" and got hit with an internal wave of the smell of chocolate, which was kind of neat.

Also I'm not scrolling back up but in my mind's eye I am shaking my fist at whichever one of you got Toto stuck in my head.
posted by lazuli at 12:49 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think in pictures, and am so lucky that I found a way to make a living by doing this. When AK was a journalist, I could always see the story in my head before I started to write it.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:52 PM on April 23, 2016


Fascinating essay. I feel like I have 100% the opposite problem.
posted by thivaia at 12:52 PM on April 23, 2016


My audio memory and tactile memory are really strong. Not only can I hear Morgan Freeman's voice but when I think "red triangle" it can go one of two ways. If I'm trying to stay abstract, it's a sort of glowing 2-D triangle floating in front of me. If it's just thinking of red triangles in general, I am holding a wooden red triangle block, and feeling the smooth side and also running my finger along the texture of the side where the wood was cut against the grain to make it. I feel the little imperfections in the paint (and pick at them, probably, I was that kind of kid). I'm probably in preschool or someplace similar. If I had a red triangle block in front of me now, that's what I would be doing.

I can only smell things when they are present, I can't "remember" them though I might remember them feeling sharp against my sinuses, or sweet on my tongue, or rotten and gross. Smell and taste are tied pretty closely anyway, but I'm better at remembering tastes. But even those can fade with time.

I have earworms all the time, and mostly don't mind; I know enough "benign" earworms that if an annoying one gets in there I'll go listen to one that I like and replace it. But, if the annoying one is a song my kid likes on the radio, I keep getting re-exposed and that's annoying.

Visually, it varies. My visual memories are heavily overlaid with the emotions I was feeling at the time, and I also tend to be thinking/smelling/feeling/listening/tasting more than paying attention to visual stimuli, so visual memories tend to be fuzzy. I might remember the texture of your couch cushions but not what you were wearing when we sat on the couch together. I have trouble recalling faces because people's faces change expression constantly and apparently this confuses my brain and so I end up with a blurry mess. I recognize people but there is always a little hesitation, especially if they've changed hair color or style.

Maybe this is because I spent my first ten years undiagnosed as myopic and got used to not relying on my eyes. I can still visualize things, though. I tend to be better at details close-up than at big scenes. Huh.
posted by emjaybee at 12:59 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any specific example, but I wonder if some cases of "sane" persons suddenly having "visions" are folks who grew up with aphantasia and had a remission in adulthood?
posted by King Sky Prawn at 1:00 PM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


I can't visualize anything either. The closes I get is that when I close my eyes, if there was something bright, I can see a negative after-image of it and the things around it for a few seconds, but then just . . . nothing. I can't imagine seeing something that isn't currently there.

As a result I've always been afraid of having to talk to the police. They would think I was lying because I wouldn't be able to describe anything. I have no idea what I'd say to a sketch artist. Even if they asked me to describe my father's face I guess I'd say . . . round? Greying hair? I'm pretty sure he has a nose?
posted by Garm at 1:04 PM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


Mine came about when I was mapping a walk some friends and I went on, and I revisited the conversations we had at each point. Then I realised that the way my mind stores memories, i.e. strongly coded to location was unusual.

This is totally not unusual!! Memories are "coded" with context, with the sensory information and emotional tone bundled in with whatever factual information you want to remember. All brains do that to some extent, although there's differences in what details get stored and how important they feel. And when you want to retrieve one fact - what someone said - the rest of the memory comes with it.

(This is a major factor in how PTSD and triggers are formed. If the emotion is violent - if you were feeling fear, pain, abjection, etc. - when it happened, then that becomes the dominant quality of the memory, linked with the sensory memory, often overriding the factual content. All brains handle potential danger in more or less the same way.)

When you encounter the same thing in multiple contexts - like, say, a particular song? or a math concept? or birds? - then it starts to become its own thing, I think, from what I understand. A platonic ideal of birds, composed of the pattern these memories have in common. But until that point, the fact (whatever conversation you had) is inextricably connected to its context (the place you had it).
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:08 PM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Here's a question for y'all;

I can visualise in my mind fine. And hear music. But sometimes, when I'm trying to get to sleep, I try to really put on a show and deliberately try to visualise and explore various scenes and objects in my mind. When I concentrate and do this deliberately, my eyes get physically sore. Like they're trying to physically focus or go cross-eyed to take a closer look at the images in my mind.

Anyone else get this?
posted by Jimbob at 1:14 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


When I think red triangle, the first thing I visualize is looking at the label on a bottle of Bass Ale.
posted by fings at 1:27 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


This thread is like a wonderful system check for sussimg out how your brain visualizes (or doesn't). I've had countless wild visuals and thought process flipping through my head all from reading other people's descriptions of what they experience.

I am very visual, though it's not necessarily crystal clear like a picture. The more I try to hold a sign image in my head and evaluate it, the harder it is to focus. With the exception of actual images, be they photographs, drawings or film.

I suspect it's because life isn't a single flat image, and when you are experiencing most things, you focus on various detail. For instance, I think of a friend and I know what they look like, but the only clear image the pull up are photographs. Or rather, the only clear image I can hold on to. I hear her laugh and see her smile, hear her voice. Her face flashes up again and then going to a recent memory. Then I think about her mannerisms, as someone mentioned above. It's a combination of visuals, sounds, feelings and specific memories. But if I'd try to hold on to her face, it will become more muddied. Even thinking of a photograph is only so much better, it stays there but it's not easy to pick out details.

Weirdly, this exercise of visualizing different people, I am realizing many of them the first or second thing I think of is their laugh. Not everyone, but a lot of people. More for people who are close than those that I see infrequently or have known in the past, though their laughs come up some of the time if I try and focus on it.

And I hear sound pretty clearly. Almost everyone I pull up gets a little voice clip. I can hear music, including the ear worms. (And weirdly as I get older, I'm more likely to embrace ear worms.) I can only sort of "put Morgan Freedman's voice to text" right now, but I think I'm overwhelmed from this thread, to be honest. I've done "famous voice reading" with clear and easy visualization other times.

I only vaguely have a sense of remembering smell, taste, and touch. It's in there, but vague. I more remember the feeling/assessment. Vanilla is good, sweet, smooth and then a vague sense of taste. But it's very vague, almost like an expectation of taste. Maybe my brain is priming it so I can call it up should I taste it? Weirdly, tootsie rolls popped into my head just now and I had a strong sense of the taste, but it fluttered away as quickly as it came.

I suspect I could develop taste, touch and smell more strongly. For lack of a better way of saying it, I get the sense that those senses aren't as important to my thinking processes so they have been ignored. I could really be wrong, but it feels like an underused skill.

My milk voice isn't flat either. Though it's no where near as flourished as my speaking voice. It also sounds different than the sound of my voice when I speak. No vocal fry up hear, and I fry bacon and eggs when I speak. Also not my recorded voice; though that is not too surprising.

Which on that note, I heavily have an internal monologue, and visual imagery. I can't tell you if one is more prominent than the other because this thread has me doing all sorts of thought gymnastics. The narration is pretty constant. But so is the imagery? I think the narration is in the gorgeous, and imagery along side it.

One question I have for those of you with an inner monologue (milk voice), how does the language/grammar/vocabulary you use compare to your spoken and written word? My inner voice is much more eloquent than my spoken word. My narration gets either turned of or pushed to the side when I'm speaking. I assumed that would be true for everyone one, but since we are taking notes and comparing our thought processes, I'm curious about how other's inner and outer voices work.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:37 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


My written word is also closer to my inner voice, though not exactly spot on. Perhaps it's more internal than speaking?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:39 PM on April 23, 2016


Oh yeah! The beach. When I think of a beach, I get a very stylized, almost cartoonish image of a beach, but at the same time, I see pictures of actual beaches I've seen. If I try to visualize myself on the beach, it's multiple images again, one stylized and one or more actual beach memories. Sometimes with me inserted as a 3rd person view, including what I remember of what I was wearing at the time. If I really focus, I will end up on the stylized beach, but the real images do keep bouncing around adjacent to what I'm trying to visualize.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:43 PM on April 23, 2016


Re: inner monologue: I would say that I have one and that....hmmm, actually, my inner voice seems more like my true voice to me than me than my exterior voice. It's not flat, it's just as expressive as my exterior voice. But I do remember one time...I am not a morning person, I should note. So one time I was lying in bed idly contemplating what I should wear to work that day. I could hear a noise in the kitchen. I went out to check it out. My inner monologue, at the time, was something along the lines of "what could possibly be causing that? Let's investigate." When I went into the hall I saw my roommate at the time bent over something in the kitchen. The exterior words I managed to form were "what you bang?"
posted by Diablevert at 1:49 PM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


Unfortunate that the phenomenology of vision remains largely unclarified though (because?) it is surely complex.
posted by Segundus at 2:02 PM on April 23, 2016


I can visualize everything in great detail...except my own face. If I try to recall a specific photograph I can do it, but otherwise my features all just sort of slide around. Weird.
posted by Biblio at 2:15 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've talked about this here before, I have no visual imagery at all. Can't picture a red triangle. I've told most people I know and most of them don't believe me.

I'm about 90% face-blind too, but so good at compensating that I rarely have trouble recognizing people. (I remember people's gait, voice, personal style, etc.)

My dreams have pictures and right after I wake up I can still "visualize" bits and pieces. It goes away pretty fast.

I can play music in my head with full orchestration. Can't "imagine" a smell. I do have a "voice in my head" that narrates some thoughts. Not all thoughts. I can make it Morgan Freeman's voice if I want to. I don't hear a voice when I read, though, I do that entirely visually.

I've known I had this (and even more strangely, that everyone else didn't) for about 10 years. Lately I'm starting to realize I'm not as unique as I thought -- there are lots of us in this thread. I feel like it will end up being about 10% of the population, although we'll never know for sure. And I'm sure it's a spectrum ranging from no images (me) to amazing 3D HD imagery.
posted by mmoncur at 2:54 PM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I wonder if I have this. I have had a problem with fiction for ages. I have had "visions" (of Jesus, natch) and hallucinations (of demonic effects, not so much demons themselves - more poltergeist) as a child. Like audio hallucinations and lights off/on flickering. I have tripped many times on acid and shrooms and other substances and have visualized heavily on them. I have seen CEV so I know they exist.

I even can appreciate visual descriptions (unlike some in this thread) though it's a very precise FLOW of description that I require where my mind can gloss and ease over it. But for the most part - I read factual stuff.

I have a vivid imagination in the sense that I have all sorts of crazy ideas. But I don't VISUALIZE those ideas. They are just that. Ideas. Words. Concepts. Maps of these things linked together. But they are not necessarily visual. If I try *really really really* hard I *might* be able to visualize something very faintly. But I don't *see* it in my minds eye.

I always assumed it was a metaphor. I'm imaginative. But I'm IMAGENEGATIVE.
posted by symbioid at 3:12 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Memories are "coded" with context, with the sensory information and emotional tone bundled in with whatever factual information you want to remember. All brains do that to some extent, although there's differences in what details get stored and how important they feel. And when you want to retrieve one fact - what someone said - the rest of the memory comes with it.

I think what feels unusual about it to me is how strong mine is -- it very much does feel like a full flashback, with all my senses engaged, which is not normally how I either visualize or remember things, and it brings my memory of what I read up to almost-photographic. Which is why studying in cafes was always helpful to me.
posted by lazuli at 3:13 PM on April 23, 2016


I have a weak ability to visually imagine things -- visual meditation has always been a struggle for me, I flashbulb the beach but I can't really hold it. When it comes to those "rotate the shape in your head" things, that's no problem, I can do ONE operation to it fine. But if I have to rotate it and unfold it and flip it over, things fall apart quickly.

Which actually comes up as a problem when I make clothes from scratch; sometimes there's a complicated 3D geometry transformation to how the pieces go together and since I can't picture in my head what the instructions are asking me to do if it's more than one "move" at a time, I can't do it. I've learned from experience that my best bet is to make a paper mockup of the pieces and futz with them until I figure it out.

I HAVE had the experience of hating a movie because it doesn't match my visual picture of the book, but only sometimes; Lord of the Rings was one where it was a freaking relief to have the movies because there's so much visual description in that book and I could picture NONE of it, so while I was reading it I FELT LIKE I was stumbling around in the dark. (And it felt like that every time, I must have read it at least half a dozen times from when I was 12 or so until the movies came out. Now when I read it it feels much brighter in Middle Earth -- like there is literally more sun -- because I can picture the movies.) But there are other visual-description-heavy books that don't give me that problem, so I'm not totally sure what makes it work or not work for me. I guess I'll pay more attention to it now and maybe I'll figure it out!

I have wondered for a long time if this is why I can't really draw for crap: I can't really picture what I'm trying to do in my head. I also realized a long time ago that where other people use their visual memory, I'm really using my spatial memory (which is probably why making a model for sewing helps) -- trying to remember if something is in the closet, I'm not actually visualizing the closet, I'm recalling the physical action of putting it there. It helps if I replicate the hand motion by which I put the object down. (My husband and I have a LONGSTANDING argument about this; he likes to "front" his books so all the spines are even on the shelf, and this makes it impossible for me to find them. He can "see" where the book's spine is in his mind's eye, but I need to be able to "feel" putting it away and feel its unique size and depth and I can only visually scan for the book with that tactile knowledge in there too, which means they have to be shoved against the back of the shelf for it to work.)

My auditory memory is so clear and vivid I can listen to a symphony, replay it in my head, and hum you the clarinet line, even if I wasn't particularly listening for the clarinet the first time around. Typically I can tell you how many French horns are required for the number of discrete horn parts. (If I heard it live, I might be able to tell you "there were four horn parts but five horns, the lowest part was doubled," but on a recording the mixing usually makes that difficult.)

BTW, I can read in my dreams, and in fact my most common stress nightmare is where I'm reading a book and the words are all actual words but are in a gibberish order (but I know they're supposed to NOT be, which is why I wake up in full adrenaline rush).

Re: location-coded memories, that's essentially the theory behind memory palaces, which is a very ancient technique for memorizing information -- that coding it to places reinforces it in our brains. A lot of stage actors do it with their lines, too; they need the blocking to get the lines right. That's relatively common, desirable, and for most people it's a learnable skill. (Although as per this thread, probably not for everyone!)

"A jarring thing that I find happens quite a lot when I'm reading is that I'll have built up a mental map of a location based on relative descriptions like "stood on the opposite wall" and "trees lined along one side", then suddenly a specific "left" or "right" reference will make me realise I've got the whole place mirrored. Is that a common experience?"

YES. And I have to like stop reading until I can fix my brain. The most recent one was I started reading Game of Thrones without looking at the map first, and I managed to get East and West flipped, and then it started talking about King's Landing being in the East (probably w/r/t sailing to Braavos or something) and my brain screeched to a halt and I had to take two days to reorient myself to the actual picture map before I could continue. What's striking is that GRRM did do such a good job describing the relations of places that I had them all in more or less the right places ... just exactly flipped.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:14 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Waaaait. So I can visualize in my head--not really HD, more impressionistic--but I'm not really 'seeing' it when my eyes are closed. Like I can picture a red triangle in my minds eye no problem, but my ACTUAL eye is seeing only black. Can some people really see stuff like that? Wow. Same with reading--I don't really see a movie, exactly, but I'm completely immersed, and the language itself is kind of sublimated into visuals and impressions. I definitely don't hear a narrator voice unless I concentrate--but if I do i can read it in Morgan Freeman voice.

The differences in audio processing are so interesting too. My husband can compose or deconstruct a song in his head, but has to make a concentrated effort to process the words of lyrics. Whereas for me, I have to concentrate super hard to suss out individual instruments in songs, while lyrics are plain as day. I love music, but for me it's like a complete whole, and nearly impenetrable.
posted by sonmi at 3:20 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This might also explain that video I saw this morning of a young kid memorizing a rubiks cube for a couple minutes, then putting on a blindfold and mentally solving it. I didn't picture him literally visualizing it and solving it spatially in his minds eye (though I'm sure even if you have that skill of visualization - it's still quite difficult to do everything from rotation and memory and visualization all together while remaining a coherent cube, so it's still impressive... but knowing that there's a a visual element that I didn't know before makes it *slightly* (very slightly) less impressive).
posted by symbioid at 3:27 PM on April 23, 2016


I was going to post a comment about how nobody really "sees" anything in their minds eye. It's not like there are actual images. There's just a sense of an object or an experience. Nobody can really call a picture into their mind when it's not right there in front of them.

I was convinced that the author was having a false revelation based on a misconception of what everyone else can do. But now I am suddenly concerned that I am in the same neurological minority as he is....
posted by 256 at 3:41 PM on April 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Maybe you are because I think most people can call a picture into their mind fairly easily.
posted by Justinian at 3:53 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's just a sense of an object or an experience. Nobody can really call a picture into their mind when it's not right there in front of them.

I think you're right to wonder whether you're non-typical in this respect. The extent to which people can do this clearly varies. But I'd say that dreams and hallucinations should demonstrate to you that both memory and imagination can produce visual effects that are indistinguishable from those produced when an object is in front of you. It seems that, for most of us, the mind's eye is typically much less intense, but it still recognisably visual as an experience.

I try to really put on a show and deliberately try to visualise and explore various scenes and objects in my mind. When I concentrate and do this deliberately, my eyes get physically sore. Like they're trying to physically focus or go cross-eyed to take a closer look at the images in my mind.

Anyone else get this?


I get something like this when I'm not quite in properly balance when meditating, and I am trying too hard to shift my perceptual focus on my body. I feel like I'm trying to roll my eyes back into my head to look at myself. But if I am in better form, and I'm not trying to force it, my eyes don't engage at all.
posted by howfar at 4:07 PM on April 23, 2016


Man, this was a weird article to read.

I can't really visualize images, though I can kinda visualize paths. To think about a red triangle, I have to move my eyes like I'm looking at the sides of it. Or, where other people might visualize counting sheep to sleep, I often imagine writing the shapes of the Greek alphabet.

Unlike the author, I'm decent at drawing, and am good at rotating shapes.

There are some tests of spatial visualisation where you're asked to say which of a set of rotated shapes is the same as a given one. I believe experiments have shown convincingly that the time taken to solve these problems relates to speed of rotation in the mental visualisation. So how do aphantasics solve these problems at all?"

I'm pretty good at these, not because I see the shapes but because I can imagine how a three-dimensional shape will rotate. It's hard to explain, but basically just running through the mental twists and checking them against the initial thing to eliminate inconsistencies.

Its especially odd as i have a very visual contextual memory. Meaning i can remember exactly how and where i wrote down your phone number, what i was wearing when we met, exactly how the sun shineson my kids face and every wisp of hair... but i can't SEE anything. Just lists of facts."

Yeah, I can remember what it was like to see it, rather than being able to remember the sight. And I'm fantastic at remembering faces of people I've actually seen (I'm pretty bad with it in terms of TV/film) — just not great at connecting names to them.

The more I try to concentrate on one aspect of the picture, the more I realize it's not actually there. It's not actually a picture, it's the feeling of a picture.

"The feeling of a picture" captures it well.

It is said, I know not by whom, that one cannot read in dreams

It's in the movie Waking Life.

I, on the other hand, am pretty limited in my mental visualization. I can see things in my "mind's eye," but everything's very disjointed. Mostly I get impressions and contours, and it's hard to hang onto them. The effect is a little bit like taking a flash photograph, then immediately closing my eyes; I can hang onto the detail of the scene for just a moment, but the image rapidly fades.

If I really work, I can get to this level of brief flashes that disappear almost immediately.

and then, unfortunately, tend to persecute those who don't fit it

Ah, so you remember in Foucault color.

I would describe it like all the parts of seeing apart from the bit your eyes do, as if you never "see" anything in there, you just experience having "seen" it. I'm more amazed by people that say it's like an actual cinema - I can imagine pretty detailed imagery, but all I actually see is the dull red of my eyelids. Is it so real you could be snap-teleported to a dark room with a screen and struggle to tell the difference momentarily?

Yeah, the idea that it's actually there again indistinguishable from seeing is just wild. I didn't realize that it wasn't much more a metaphor than an experience.

I'm wondering if anyone has noticed they could train one or several "inner senses"? I know for sure I trained my ability to visualize when I was 16-17: when I was bored, I would try to imagine specific routes through specific landscapes. In my mind the idea was to spend exactly as much time in my mind as a given bus-trip (we didn't have smart-phones then, and the bus was always so full I couldn't read)

I'd assume so. Outside of some medical stuff, it seems like a lot of these things are more spectrums of affinity — how hard your brain has to work to do something it's not optimized for.

Jeez. In defense of the humanities, at least, you can say with certainty to people like this, if you'd ever taken a single serious literature class in your life you would have discovered your significant impediment for this basic category of human cognition a lot earlier. It's not the smallest virtue of literature that it enables self-diagnosis, at least for people more introspective than this (which I'm pretty sure is most of us, thank goodness).

I took a bunch of literature classes and largely thought they were metaphors for how people experienced things, rather than literal descriptions.

I do not hallucinate on normal doses of LSD, like 100µg, but I think that's normal, and I've never taken more than that. I've gotten extremely mild visual hallucinations on normal doses of more visual drugs like psilocybin, but never gone on a trip to visit the machine elves.

Yeah, I get the visual melting, and the only time I can remember real visual hallucinations was from, like, phosphenes in almost total darkness. Weirdly, I feel like I get closer to "seeing" things with my eyes open and just looking past whatever's actually in front of me than I do with my eyes closed.

You know another interesting angle? Cooking. I think I am pretty good at inventing dishes and then executing them. I can mentally taste how the flavors will go together, what needs to be added to balance the dish, whether there will be enough texture, etc. Other people I know are terrified of straying from recipes for fear of making something unappetizing. I respond that while I'm not perfect, I generally wouldn't add an ingredient if I knew it was going to throw off the dish. I guess not everyone can hold the finished dish in their mind and work towards creating it. This realization should help prevent a couple kitchen disputes, thanks TFA!

Similar to knowing how a drawing should look (then the inevitable frustration when it doesn't), I know what things work together and can kind of think about the ingredients from that perspective. But now that I'm thinking about it, I do almost all of that in weird abstractions too. Like, a soup may need a more "bass" or "dark" flavor, so I'll add something bitter. Or "sharp"/"bright" so add something sour.

Something that's so weird about this for me is that my mom's a photographer, and I've been taking pictures for a long time. Part of learning to do that is learning to know what the photo will look like as if you're looking through the lens of the camera, which is really different from how I actually see things. But again, that's not a literal imagination for me — it's a sense of what it's like to experience looking at things from another perspective. It's something that comes up all the time when I'm looking at visual media with people in it — like, say, a wrestling match. What's actually in the field of view of the wrestlers? What does it look like to see that? What is the experience of seeing something?

My wife mentioned that this is similar to the problem of qualia ("do we see the same red?") and it's something that, to reconnect with an earlier thread (sorry to be all over the place), I do think can be trained — one of the things that has made me more empathetic is imagining what the woman being hit on by the gross subway drunk is seeing, how she's processing it.

Anyway, thanks for commenting, folks. This sort of stuff is why I was really into phenomenology when I was taking philosophy classes.
posted by klangklangston at 4:13 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I would be one with the opposite problem - the visualizations and stream of sounds I conjure up just don't seem to ever stop. The only solance was to make pictures or music, and then at least what my mind was up to was in sync with what was going around me. I get really frustrated with listening to music, as any song to me seems overplayed. This works out in band practice though, where I can tell when we're sounding different than before. I, for a lack of a better term, day dream for a few hour in bed, before I get up. I can see what's right in front of me, but it's inconsequential.

I went to art school, I think in part, to be able to more easily take what's in my head, and take it out, so to speak. That wasn't an easy process - I'm not a gifted at drawing or anything. One of the problems was that I think in such an exploded view of things, that picking one thing to focus on at a time (since drawing is uh, linear) feels awkward. This is also a problem with planning out things for the future. already have a great idea what my goals are, but it's difficult to put them in steps for others to understand. They just come all at once visually.

Everything though is narrative, so thinking extremely logically is difficult, unless I have a visual to narrate with. Like math is hard, except when it comes to graphing and then I see the relationships very easily. I write software as a DJ, but I need a very flexible language to write in - something to tell the story. I can't say I'd find any use in an IDE - a simple search works, or I just remember what the shape of the block of code I want to looks like.

If you're interested, this is the song that's been in my head all day.
posted by alex_skazat at 4:36 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Maybe you are because I think most people can call a picture into their mind fairly easily.

See, that's just it. Right now, I can think of the beach and visualize my favorite beach town, and if I think about different streets and shops I can 'put' myself there, as if I have a mental rolodex of snapshots of that town and I'm matching the thought up with what I remember seeing there. I can think of a different beach town and the 'picture' is different because the scenery is different.

And if I want to visualize something that I _haven't_ actually seen there -- say, a guy in a gorilla suit walking down 2nd Avenue -- I can put that in my mind as well. My brain can do addition and superimpose one thing I can comprehend on top of another thing, so I'm that far ahead.

The more stimuli I have around me, the harder it is. Like, right now I'm in my living room and my wife is talking and the TV is on and I'm typing on my laptop and I can't concentrate on shit. If I'm in bed and the lights are out and my eyes are closed and I'm trying to wind myself down to sleep, it's much easier. And if I'm dreaming, when I have a dream that I remember upon waking, it's vivid and lifelike.

But the more I read this thread the less sure I am that I _am_ doing it the same way others do. Am I forming a genuine visualization when I'm conscious or am I just taking memories of visual stimuli and recalling them to various degrees? Is my brain compensating for a lack of visualization skill with its best approximation? Is there a difference? And if there is a difference, _how do I tell?_
posted by delfin at 5:04 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm more amazed by people that say it's like an actual cinema - I can imagine pretty detailed imagery, but all I actually see is the dull red of my eyelids. Is it so real you could be snap-teleported to a dark room with a screen and struggle to tell the difference momentarily?

Speaking just for myself, the things I see with my mind's eye are utterly distinct from the things I see with my physical eyes. If you have a song going through your head, and suddenly someone starts playing the exact same song, and by some coincidence it starts at exactly the same point as in your head, you still have no trouble distinguishing what's in your head from what's coming from your senses, right? Same with visual imagery. It's not because it's less real, it's because it's separate.

This is something that I think bears further explanation. Sounds aren't very localized, as far as perception is concerned. When a song goes through your head, you don't experience it as coming from someplace around you. You just experience the song. Vision, on the other hand, is extremely spatial. Visual images inherently need a space to exist in. If you have no experience of visual imagination, the idea that could see a beach without seeing it in the physical space around you may seem absurd. And yet -- again, just speaking from my own experience -- that's how it works. When I imagine something, I see it occupying a space, but it's a different space from my physical surroundings. This probably sounds very weird to you if you haven't experienced it.

A movie screen is a tolerable metaphor: you might see a beach on the screen, but you're aware that it isn't real. However, it's a flawed explanation because even if the beach isn't in your physical reality, the screen it's projected on is. Visual imagination as I experience it is like a movie screen that doesn't exist in real space.
posted by baf at 5:08 PM on April 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


There's no fun like the fun of your own brain Rick-rolling you.

You're welcome. (Anytime a song gets mentioned, my brain radio gives me a sample on top of whatever it is currently playing.)

But seriously, I've had Janet Jackson in my head for most of the last two weeks. Toto and Janet do not play well together.
posted by monopas at 5:27 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Waaaait. So I can visualize in my head--not really HD, more impressionistic--but I'm not really 'seeing' it when my eyes are closed. Like I can picture a red triangle in my minds eye no problem, but my ACTUAL eye is seeing only black. Can some people really see stuff like that? Wow.

Same here. I can "see" things (though they are more contours and it's all black and white), but the "seeing" happens inside my head. Are there someone who can close their eyes and feel that the pictures they're visualizing come from their retinas?
posted by ymgve at 5:38 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


double block and bleed, yes! Exactly! My inner voice is a nothing. It speaks, but has no sound -- it has no quality at all. It just... is.

I can conjure up touch, taste, smell, sights, and sounds (I can definitely hear songs, which are distinct from my inner monologue or my inner "voice" when I am reading, which, like I said, is a nothing). But I cannot for the life of me hear my inner voice. I have thought about this many times before, and I didn't know quite how "different" it was (although I had suspected it was not entirely typical).
posted by sockermom at 5:39 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have (to my knowledge, at least) a very adept ability of picturing things in my head. It's torturous. I can't draw the images I see, I can't reproduce the music compositions I hear, I can't shoot the movie scenes I direct. The most I can do with this talent is take photos, and I've become remarkably better at imagining what I want a picture to look like and then manipulating a camera to reproduce what I see in my head. It's fun, and I wish it wasn't a hobby, but it's okay for now. I really wish my aural perception skills were good enough for me to put down the music in my head, however.
posted by gucci mane at 5:51 PM on April 23, 2016


Are there someone who can close their eyes and feel that the pictures they're visualizing come from their retinas?

That would be hallucinating and I don't think it's what people mean. At least it isn't what I mean. When I (and I think most people) talk about "seeing" something in their minds, it is "seeing" it in exactly the same way that you can "say" something in your mind. I can say the word "Metafilter" in my mind... but there isn't an actual sound involved. Similarly, I can see something in my mind without an actual image on my retina.
posted by Justinian at 5:52 PM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm assuming everyone can say words in their minds. If you can't please don't tell me because it would be very weird.
posted by Justinian at 5:53 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have a rich inner life - I can see things very vividly, I always have music in my head. I can definitely conjure up the sense of smell or taste (though it is a much more fleeting sensation than music or vision). I tend to have pretty vivid dreams and I'm often narrating stuff in my head as I go along. I was able to describe, with a lot of accuracy according to my mom, the floor plan of house I lived in from birth to the age of 5.

I have a shitty memory with events, in terms of "Who was with me at that concert? Did I even go to that concert?" "Where did we spend Christmas 2010?" Smells and sensations will bring me right back, though. One whiff of rosewater brought me back to my grandparents' house that I haven't been in since they sold it in 1993. It was the scent of the soap they put in one of their bathrooms.

My brain is pretty much fill to the brim all the time. I also have ADHD - perhaps that is related. I cannot imagine NOT having music in my head all the time or my inner narrating voice. It's a part of me.
posted by sutel at 6:03 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


gucci mane: "I have (to my knowledge, at least) a very adept ability of picturing things in my head. It's torturous. I can't draw the images I see, "

Could you imagine them on paper and then trace them?
posted by RobotHero at 6:13 PM on April 23, 2016


I also have music running in my head all the time (Purple Rain for the last couple days; before that, the theme song from The Nanny for like two solid weeks, argh), but I don't have ADHD. I am aware of it, though, as a sort of background track even when I'm concentrating very hard on something else. Like, 95% of my brain is working on a tough philosophy text and 5% is running through the Hamilton soundtrack politely in the background. It's only a problem when the soundtrack decides to stop being polite and tries to run in the foreground and won't let me concentrate on other things.

One of my kids actually has a sensory processing disorder, which means lots of sensory tests to pin down exactly how his brain works differently, which is sort-of interesting vis-a-vis this thread. He has very little sense of his body in space (proprioception) -- you know how you can close your eyes and then touch your nose? He can't do that. -- which he compensates for with ridiculous, chart-busting visual acuity. So when he writes letters, for example, he wants to stare very intently at the pencil because he's using his eyes to tell his hand where to go -- the "muscle memory" doesn't come naturally to him because of the proprioceptive problem. So when he first started writing that's more or less how all beginners do it, but as the other kids started to store the letter "K" in their muscle memory and he still had to stare intently at his hand and slowly direct it through the strokes, it became very noticeable.

The various child development specialists tell us a lot of this IS trainable; he will always be "behind" on proprioceptive tasks but we can train him to make that system stronger and strengthen those connections in the brain. So like right now when we go to occupational therapy, one of the things they have him do a lot of is fine motor tasks behind his back, so he can't use his visual acuity to compensate for the lack of motor skills. And it's fascinating because as a parent you can see those connections joining up and his ability to store tasks in muscle memory improving. And it's also interesting because so much of it is coming up with tricky tasks where he can't use the strong parts of his brain to compensate for the lazy parts -- I never realized how much of an occupational therapist's job is simply tricking the mind into not doing something it's preferred, suboptimal way, but retraining by breaking down tasks so that you can learn them "right." We see other kids there with physical problems, and it's so much the same thing -- trying to trick them into not always stepping with their preferred foot (for example) but into alternating to strengthen the pathway for the non-preferred foot. With adults I guess it's easier to get them to HELP in tricking their own brain, but with kids it's a lot of outright trickery to force the brain to do things a way it would prefer not to.

Anyway it makes me way more aware of how my brain works and when I'm "cheating" at a task by using something my brain is better at (spatial recall) to compensate for something it's not very good at (visual recall).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:28 PM on April 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


Really surprised there hasn't been more discussion of the relationship to Oliver Sacks' case studies... the artist who stopped being able to see color. The autistic boy who was able to draw accurate and detailed cityscapes after a short glimpse of the view. Sacks' own face-blindness. People whose left brains have been severed from their right brains, who can perceive things on their left side but aren't aware that they can perceive them, people who can't see things but believe that they can, and innocently fabricate elaborate stories about the fictional scenes they insist they can see. He has a whole book called Hallucinations and a whole book called Musicophilia, which gets into how different people hear things in their minds and people who get songs stuck in their heads for years at a time. People who can't remember things but can remember how to do things. The effects of drugs and Tourette's and autism and head injuries and schizophrenia and the gifts each can bestow... And he writes so beautifully and empathetically about it. If you haven't read anything by him, but you're reading this thread, start with "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," and "An Anthropologist on Mars."
posted by OnceUponATime at 6:31 PM on April 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


My "is this normal?" thing is the frequency and intensity with which I can remember dreams. Not every dream, and not all the time, but I'd say that at least once a week, some random stimulus brings to mind a dream I once had, and that dream might be years old. And the stimulus is probably barely related to the dream. It's just like some random neuron fires in my brain and decides "you need to think of this dream right now." It's like deja vu, almost. Just with dreams.
posted by yasaman at 6:35 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


A life like this is utterly inconceivable to me. My imagination has always been absurdly powerful - as a child, I believe that I had full-on hallucinations, including sight, sound, sometimes even smell or feelings like hot and cold. It wasn't from illness or ever, but my imagination and "mind's eye" was so sharp it could put things in my field of view. Actually I'm not sure hallucination is the right word... there were times it was involuntary (when I was scared, mostly) but usually i was something I did on purpose to entertain myself. If it got away from me, I could usually distract myself and disperse it.

The way children's imaginations are depicted in cartoons... that's what it was really like for me.

I can still do it, if things around me are fairly quiet and there aren't many other demands on my attention. Sometimes I just sit down to daydream in my spare time, and I go to a world I've created that's as rich as it ever was. Or I'll be stressed and have a character from that world visit me in my own world, standing or sitting beside me and speaking to me, saying what I need to hear.

Anxiety disorder has shredded my memory, so I use a device like Sherlock's mind palace (obviously less perfect, as he's fictional) to remember things. If I forget a number, I can visualize typing it and usually remember it. If I forget something I wrote down, I try to recall the moment I wrote it - often in class I'd take notes, then never look at the notes again because if I just remembered the moment that I wrote them, visualize the room I wrote them in and details about that... I'd remember the notes themselves.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 6:39 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Reading this I'm starting to realize that some of my senses are kind of non-perceptive. I can picture a beach, but only a beach I've experienced: my first reaction was the beach at the end of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", then a beach scene from a TV episode I've seen a few times, then pictures of beaches I've been too. At one time I had a particularly gory image of a death I witnessed and the movie played in my head for years until I was finally able to stuff it down.

I don't enjoy fantasy at all - no LOtr, GoT or HP for me please.

I played trumpet for 15 years - hundreds of hours of scales and intervals - and while I can usually tell if something sounds "off," I have no clue what key it could be in.

I've never had any desire to have a massage.

Smell is a strong one for me though - I caught a whiff of the perfume I wore in 7th grade and rocketed back to that time.

Taste is very strong - I was eating sashimi the other night and could taste everything about it. The delicious buttery taste.

I'm also very tactile. I love fabrics and textiles, when I clothes shop I have to touch everything. To self-soothe I go to a store and pet stuffed animals or fuzzy scarves.

I'm planning to go for a 90-minute session in sensory-deprivation float tank this weekend. It will be fascinating to see what happens.
posted by bendy at 6:40 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Just to add: Annoyingly, I have zero art skill at all. My mom and aunt are both amazing artists in many media (drawing, painting, charcoal, sculpture, fabric, you name it) and have tried their best to train me, but to no avail. My hands just won't make what I see. I've tried the "imagine it on paper and trace it" as suggested above even, but honestly even my real tracing looks pretty awful. My hands can do music pretty well, but not visual art.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 6:42 PM on April 23, 2016


I have something very much like this. No "mind's eye."

I also am kind of bad at navigating if I don't have a GPS or a map, or if it's a route I haven't taken several times. And I have trouble following movement directions/choreography/martial arts moves particularly when they involve left/right directions. I've often wondered if these are related.
posted by Foosnark at 7:00 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This has easily been the most fascinating thread of comments I have ever read on Metafilter!

To add my own experience: I can visualize most anything in my mind, even rotating geometric shapes or unfolding pieces of paper. Give me a picture of an airplane over a landscape, and I can see what the pilot sees from the cockpit.

Even scarier is that I can remember scenes from dreams I had over 40 years ago. WTF?

But I suffer from earworms badly. I can hardly dare to listen to music for fear of hearing a song for the next 4 or 5 days, constantly. Still, I wake with some random clip of music in my head every fucking day, and it's maddening.
posted by Uncle Grumpy at 7:01 PM on April 23, 2016


Oh god, directions. I can't tell you directions. I can't really navigate a map very well. I can follow a GPS just fine, or a written list of directions Google maps style. But even if I know how to get somewhere, I can't give detailed directions without basically imagining myself taking the whole route, and I'm bad at that too. I have to just actually be driving the route.
posted by yasaman at 7:08 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I need text menus. I really don't understand the people who have a desktop full of icons or who can stand a start screen full of tiles.

So! much! hate! for The Ribbon.
posted by flabdablet at 7:11 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I feel like I have a pretty normal interior sensorium. I remember sounds slightly easier than sights, but only slightly. I can't read in my dreams (or dial phones) but I can do math. I get visual, tactile, and auditory sensations in my dreams, but no olfactory sensations or pain (thankfully).

My wife is more interesting. She is largely face blind. In her dreams, no one she doesn't know from life has a face. She dreams in black and white the vast majority time, and when she dreams in color, it is often just one color, with everything else still greyscale. Places she dreams about have changes that never occured in the real world but are consistent between dreams on different nights. She can't stop speed reading, and she can't remember the text she read if it is describing a scene. She just remembers the scene playing like a movie. Like her brain processes descriptive text unconciously.
posted by pattern juggler at 7:18 PM on April 23, 2016


@flabdablet: This. I can build a mental model that maps to a directory tree filled with source code and makefiles, but find IDEs baffling and impenetrable.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 7:19 PM on April 23, 2016


If I focus very hard I can give myself the subjective experience of hearing sounds that aren't there (mostly music) but it "sounds" like it is coming from the center of my head. Can remember unpleasant tactile sensations viscerally (corduroy, paper cuts) and sometimes food when I'm hungry. Smell is much weaker but my sense of smell is pretty weak so unsurprising. Can also visualize pretty well. This mind-blindness article (and the previous article about the woman with no experiential memory from the other day) are super interesting.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:37 PM on April 23, 2016


I can read but cannot type in dreams. I often have dreams that I need to search the Internet and everything I type is gibberish. Sometimes I dream that I am trying to type an askme.
posted by Biblio at 7:47 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon.

Is this a thing? Are there people whose memories are cartoonified?
posted by pwnguin at 8:30 PM on April 23, 2016


Like a lot of people have described in this thread, I can picture things in my mind's eye but it's more of a gestalt than a minutely-detailed HD panorama. It's very different from an actual image in my field of view, but I experience it as visual. My brain elides the details and puts in ideas as a placeholder. As an example, if I picture a bicycle, I can immediately "see" a hazy teal frame with black handlebars, wheels and a seat, propped up in a narrow, orange-y brown cobblestone street that looks like it could be in Italy (the colour comes with the image). When it comes to individual objects, I usually picture a setting for it too, though for simple shapes, like the red triangle, I "see" it in a plain white space. If I really try, I can come up with more details, but I'll probably end up with something like the drawings from the Velocipedia.

Sound works similarly for me as well - I can "hear" music, usually the melody and some major instruments, and my brain fills in the rest with "etcetera". I have partial perfect pitch - I can sing melodies in the key I originally heard them without any reference, but I don't have pitch recognition.

Taste, smell, and touch are weaker, but similar.

I have no trouble navigating IRL, but I get hopelessly lost in video games. I suspect I rely strongly on proprioception to orient myself, so without being able to physically move around, I can't form a mental map of the space.
posted by airmail at 8:36 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have wondered for a long time if this is why I can't really draw for crap: I can't really picture what I'm trying to do in my head.

I taught myself to draw very detailed pen-and-ink drawings despite having no "mind's eye". But I have to work from a picture. Period. I could take something I've seen a million times (my wife's face, or my dog) and try to draw it and I can't make anything better than a child's drawing. If I have a photo I can do it, albeit slowly.

I can both read and type in my dreams. I know this because I have spent 12-hour sessions writing and editing books and ended up having dreams about writing and editing. Same with programming.

My navigation skills (such as they are) are based strictly on decision trees. So I can remember a list of directions, basically. For example, I once moved about 20 miles south. All of the places that used to be south of me were now to the north. And I had to re-learn how to drive to each one. I could think about it for a while and figure it out, but it wasn't automatic. My wife (who has maps in her head) thought this was bizarre.

I do OK at those "rotating shapes" puzzles but I cheat. Instead of rotating it in my head I make lists (this shape has six sides, two of the sides have holes in them, the two with holes are separated by one side, etc.) and see which one matches.

I pretty much have music running through my head all of the time, as well as some sort of inner dialog. But it's rarely an "earworm" because I can change the channel if I want and play a different song.

I can even do the music version of "picture a gorilla walking down 2nd Avenue". For example, I just decided to imagine a bluegrass banjo version of the theme from Star Wars and I can "hear" it like a real song. (This isn't the same as hearing real music. It's distinct from that, like others have said about the visual stuff.)

I can amaze people by memorizing numbers. I can tell you every phone number I've ever had in 45+ years, and locker combinations from High School. I generate random alphanumeric strings to use as passwords and easily memorize them.
posted by mmoncur at 8:39 PM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


For anyone here who is really good at languages or music, remembering and re-creating accents, remembering whole phrases of music, etc: Have you ever noticed yourself sub-vocalizing words or music? I've known I had an aptitude for words and music all my life, but I only noticed that my tongue and throat would be inadvertently moving, forming words or following a melody, later in life. I'm wondering if there is cognitive research backing up a relationship between obsessively doing the muscle work of speaking (I repeated interesting words to myself over and over as a kid) and linguistic or musical aptitude.

It's funny how aptitudes evolve, and how they shape our understandings of ourselves. I hit a wall with singing practice in high school (I love singing but find vocal practice tedious), while I watched a friend go on to get full opera training in Germany and Italy. I basically gave up music and stopped thinking about myself as musical. But in the past six years, I've realized how good I am at figuring out songs that are in the same key or have similar riffs. And I was able to transcribe an entire piece of classical music by ear into a chiptune composing tool. I've been working with a couple of musicians, passing along ideas which they bring to fruition. I'm left to wonder what I might have managed if I'd been encouraged to compose or arrange music rather than just sing or play it.

My go-to earworm remover, taught to me as a teen by a man who wrote songs for Olivia Newton-John: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. "Guaranteed to remove any song and not stick itself," he told me. I think the fact that the melody resolves so well is what keeps it from sticking.
posted by gusandrews at 8:43 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


That Velocipedia link is a great example. You can look at all of the drawings and see that some people have a way better visual recall or "mind's eye" than others*. Most of them are better than I could do. I would have two circles, some scribbly notion of bars between them, a seat, and handlebars. The scale of the parts would be completely wrong.

And I own three bicycles, used to ride every single day, and can strip one down to parts and rebuild it.

* That's not scientific, of course, since some people have a great mind's eye but poor drawing skills and other people may not have a huge amount of experience with bicycles.
posted by mmoncur at 8:46 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


airmail, re: proprioreception: I finally figured out why it was hard to navigate in 3D space while playing Portal. My inner ear was not engaged, so how was I supposed to know I had been shot out of a portal and was now upside-down? That's harder to notice when the only orienting you're doing is moving your field of vision around in, say, Halo, looking up through an airshaft or something.
posted by gusandrews at 8:47 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I also think my linguistic aptitude gets in the way of my math skills. I will transpose numbers if speaking them in order means putting together voiced and non-voiced consonants.
posted by gusandrews at 8:49 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


For anyone here who is really good at languages or music, remembering and re-creating accents, remembering whole phrases of music, etc: Have you ever noticed yourself sub-vocalizing words or music? I've known I had an aptitude for words and music all my life, but I only noticed that my tongue and throat would be inadvertently moving

I'm really good at English (writer, editor) and music (composer). No other languages although I've picked up a little here and there.

I can speak or sing in my head -- I'm singing "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" right now, thanks a lot gusandrews. I can change it from my voice to David Bowie's or Johnny Cash's. I often compose "speeches" in advance during a conversation, so when I say something to make a point or tell a joke, I've already spoken it in my head, and I know what inflection, tone, etc. I'm going to use.

I was going to say "my throat and tongue never move when I do this" but now that I am thinking about it they do move a little bit. Weird!
posted by mmoncur at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Not weird. That's the part of our brains at work when we use language (including reading). It's perfectly normal to subvocalize. Apparently moving your lips when you read increases comprehension, too, though the practice is considered low-brow.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:15 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm wondering if anyone has noticed they could train one or several "inner senses"?

Yes, I think. I spent many years doing graphic design, and it certainly seemed as if my ability to see in my minds eye at the very least changed, and I think it improved. I'm more likely to be able to pick out colors and shading because of this. When I started out, I could never envision the end product. I played around until something I wanted started to take shape. Now I can have ideas show up in my minds eye fully formed, and I have gotten better at recalling them. There was a time I was frustrated that things would come to mind fully formed but I'd lose it too quickly. I still often create with no or little ideas at the start, and freestyle until something comes together. But the change is more frequently being able to visualize an idea very early. Or I am going in a direction, and I can see the end product I want much sooner.

I think it's played into other visualizations. Even though I've always had pretty good internal visual imagery, it is sharper. As I said above, I can see more with color and shades inside my head. I'm more likely to wholesale create stylized imagery alongside real images. The detail seems better on real life things as well. And here is where it may have improved. I mentioned earlier that I could imagine things, but if I "look" to hard, they get muddied. When I'm looking at internal imagery from a design perspective, I almost have to look at it through my minds peripheral vision. Yeah, that sounds corny, but that seems to be a way of dealing with the muddying from looking too closely.

Sadly, I can't seem to use the same thing to draw from my mind. I don't know why it's different, other than practice.

I am curious if that suggests that someone with no minds eye, like the author, could gain it. My instinct is no. I'm that case it's just not there. In the cases where it's really bad, maybe? Or maybe having decent minds eye to begin with meant that improvements/change were possible with no particular effort other than exposure.

I was thinking more on the inner monologue. Someone said above their wife doesn't get that and only thinks in imagery. That seems crazy to me. But I started to wonder something else. I suspect my strong internal monologue is in part due to reading and writing. Especially writing- as I type this out, my monologue is fully engaged. Which got me wondering- was it the advert of writing that gave people inner monologues as opposed to image only thinking? That assumed imagery based thinking came first, and I might be just flat out wrong in that assumption. Non the less, it does seem at least feasible to me that writing, not speaking, would encourage an inner voice.

Also, since my previous comment, I realized I definately have some smell visualization (my minds nose?). I can smell the sea side- and the earthy smell of an aquarium filter. Pancakes. And at least on a few occassions, I have dreamt of smelling things that were not there, which has to be a type of visualization, right? The first time it woke me up.

I have ADHD and am a day dreamer with pretty damn vivid imagery. It just takes one errant thought (monologue or imagery) and I'm off to the races. I can't conjure anything in my actual visual field as someone mentioned above. But I can easily turn off the outside world and only see the internal imagery.

And I too have a pretty constant showcase going on between the inner voice and minds eye. But now that I think about it, activities that cause hyperfocus/perseveration are pretty good at quieting those. Maybe that's why my brain gets stuck in those spaces; there is some piece there.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:30 PM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Jeez. In defense of the humanities, at least, you can say with certainty to people like this, if you'd ever taken a single serious literature class in your life you would have discovered your significant impediment for this basic category of human cognition a lot earlier.

I can visualize, but it's fucking work. Which is like the opposite of leisurely reading. My method is to generally skip everything that isn't dialog. I bet one could probably pass any given humanities course with this technique, though I admit that I totally missed the liberal white people were Communists in Invisible Man in part because I didn't catch the red drapery and such. And if the humanities in question focuses say on the works of Shakespeare, you might even get an A.

For anyone here who is really good at languages or music, remembering and re-creating accents, remembering whole phrases of music, etc: Have you ever noticed yourself sub-vocalizing words or music?

Played viola for 8 years. On occasion, if I'm into a piece of music I'm listening to and want to be more into it, I'll perform the left hand fingerings I think might fit well. I'd put it as more of a habit than a subconscious and unnoticed behavior. But otherwise, I don't subvocalize. And while I could read this comment in a variety of voices I can recall, its not something I even think to try doing.
posted by pwnguin at 9:45 PM on April 23, 2016


I am curious if that suggests that someone with no minds eye, like the author, could gain it.

When I work on drawing seriously, I find I can visualize the thing I'm drawing (and have been staring at a picture of for hours at a time) a bit. I did a very detailed drawing of a bird, and for about a week after I finished, I could hazily visualize that bird. But ONLY that bird. So I think it might be trainable, but it would be HARD. Like trying to learn a new language fluently at age 40, or even harder than that.

I started drawing in my 30s. I feel like a 10-year-old with this problem--if you could communicate with a 10-year-old well enough to know for sure they had it--might be able to take tons of art classes and train their mind's eye to work properly.

Jeez. In defense of the humanities, at least, you can say with certainty to people like this, if you'd ever taken a single serious literature class in your life you would have discovered your significant impediment for this basic category of human cognition a lot earlier.

I was somewhat offended by that comment, because I've taken plenty of serious literature classes, and have read thousands of books, and written some, all without having any idea that I had that "impediment". But that comment was responding to the original article writer's description of "finding the bones" in descriptive paragraphs, and my experience is not at all like that.

I don't generally skip anything when I'm reading, unless I'm in a hurry and not reading for fun. I do read the descriptions and note details, and I can remember details when they turn out to be important. I understand and enjoy language that describes visual things. It just isn't a visual process.

Beyond any "skipping" some people might do, I don't see how a literature class would have revealed anything.
posted by mmoncur at 10:20 PM on April 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


What I actually see in my mind is similar to what several other people have reported: very brief, fleeting images, not much control over what I'm seeing, and no ability to visualize smooth fluid movement. However, I'm well above mean at spatial reasoning and other stuff that seems like it must require accurate detailed visualization. My experience has always been like there's another person visualizing, and stingily giving me lots of analytical data about the visualization but almost none of the actual experience of seeing it.

When I was in university I was quite fascinated with the incredible variance in how people visualize (or don't) and I interrogated quite a number of people about their experiences. All except one person that I talked to, regardless of how vividly they could visualize, experienced their visualizations as being in a separate space or stage. Some had to close their eyes to "see" their visualizations -- they couldn't have both "spaces" active at once.

But there was one girl who did not have this sense of a separate space in which she could visualize. When she visualized things she could (actually had to) see them in the real world. She could make it translucent, and see through it, but it wasn't in a separate space. And she could easily visualize opaque things, and they would block what was behind them in the real world. She sometimes had trouble sorting out things she had really seen and things she had visualized.

She could have been making this all up of course. I was never able to come up with a way of testing the truth of her claim to my satisfaction.

Here's something from my own experience that I can't figure out how it works:
1. I can read in other people's voices -- Morgan Freeman for example;
2. I can do this at 400 to 600 words per minute. That's my comfortable reading speed.
3. The voice doesn't sound sped up at all.

The fact that these three things can't all be true at the same time has always made me suspect that the verisimilitude of inner experience is after the fact. This would explain both why there's so much variance, and why the differences in verisimilitude don't seem to correspond much with cognitive performance.
posted by lastobelus at 2:48 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is my favorite thread ever! I have book-marked it, please keep your experiences coming. But it is hard work to read it - every time someone describes their sensory perception, I have to test it, I have the feeling others are doing the same. I am very skeptical of the type of research where you do brain scans of people in order to figure out how this or that phenomena (music, modern art, puppies) works "in the brain" - precisely because "the brain" is a multitude, and somehow we manage to live and communicate anyway. Of course, some scientists are aware of this, and do very interesting work..

This morning, I dreamt the world had been taken over by aliens, who were somehow parasitizing people. The way you could see if people had the alien in them was that the pupils and irises in their eyes had become tiny daisies. So because of this post, I zoomed in on someone's eyes to see if I could really see the daisies, and I could see them very clearly, with all the little white petals and those yellow round things in the middle. And then I ran, and woke up.
Awake, I could still visualize the daisy-eyes, but it was much harder work.
posted by mumimor at 3:39 AM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


I was going to say "my throat and tongue never move when I do this" but now that I am thinking about it they do move a little bit. Weird!

There's some evidence that suppressing tongue movements by using a tongue depressor or just asking the person to keep their mouth wide open can partially curb voices heard in schizophrenia. I've never considered doing this as a cure for earworms, but maybe it's worth a shot!

Visualize
Hearmagine
Olfigure
Tactilate
Salivize


Wait, I've come up with a better one! For 'Salivize', replace with 'Phantaste'.
posted by painquale at 5:11 AM on April 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


I can visualise a particular sexual fantasy in full detail with my eyes closed in bed at night but I can't do it out of that situation. I can imagine a red triangle with my eyes open but I can't see it with my eyes closed. I remember some dreams for years, the full technicolour movie type dreams. I can read in my dreams, like a page of words but they can only be read once. If I try to go back and read it again the letters get mixed up and turn into something else.

This is truly a wonderful thread.

I remember the thing that truly freaked me out about watching 'Apocalypse Now' when I was too young for it was being able to feel the snail on the razor blade, because I could remember what it was like when I cut my finger with a knife - I could feel the skin separating and even now I can feel it when I focus on it.

I can hear a song in my head in full detail and my inner voice is like my outer voice but with no filter, which is why I sometimes have full arguments with people in the car on the way home (without them there and with me saying what I *should* have said, natch).

I'm shit at playing first person games because I have no sense of direction At All. In real life, in games; I can't see where I've been and I can't visualise where I should be going. I know that North is up, South is down, East is left and West is right but I don't know where I am in all of that!

Thanks for referring to those Oliver Sacks books, OnceUponATime. I've read "The Man Who ..." and many of his online essays plus a brilliant book of his about Deafness, "Seeing Voices", but obviously I need to catch up on some of his other books.

Once again, great thread and thanks to everyone who shared.
posted by h00py at 6:05 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


For those interested, the BBC has an written aphantasia quiz and also discusses aphantasia some more.

I got really low on this test because it had bunch of questions about people. Thing is I am quite visual in that I have super awesome people recognition skills. Like really scary good. It's weird though because if you ask me to 'see' the person in my head like this test I can sorta see them but not enough where I could describe them in words. It's more just a sense and shape of them. I don't have good drawing skills so I don't know if I could draw them.

Put them in front of me an I will remember and recognize them though. On TV and Movies I'm the type of person the recognizes actors when no one else does, or I end up in debates when people think the person is another actor and I know for 100% certain that it's not. It's so strong that at those times I find it difficult to understand how people could think it was someone else because to me it's so glaringly obvious that it's actor x and not actor y.

I also don't have much issue with visualizing places or things with enough detail that I could describe what I'm seeing. I can put myself right into scenes. Right now for instance I've been visualizing an Augmented Reality app I want to figure out how to make and not only am I seeing it in great detail I can imagine the sensations and feelings that I want it to evoke. (It's an arty type program).

If I add people into it I can see them enough to know that they're there and I can see them moving in certain ways but details are shadowy.

Weird.
posted by Jalliah at 6:24 AM on April 24, 2016


Ah bugger, I meant east is right and west is left. You see??
posted by h00py at 6:26 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Man this is crazy (and totally awesome) to me, both the thing this dude is describing and this thread itself. I've always been a hugely vivid daydreamer and it's one of my favorite thing to do, especially with music--I make tons of really detailed music videos in my head.. I have certain scenarios/scenes I've fleshed out that I like to revisit and tweak repeatedly until I get them somewhere I like, and sometimes even after that, setting up alternate universes etc. I do this a lot while driving on long, open interstate. It can be distracting if I let myself get too into it though so if there are any adverse conditions or traffic I have to either tone it way down or shut it off, depending on severity. I also have major issues with concentration sometimes, and with things like adverse driving conditions or serious decisions I have to turn things like music off because I just can't handle it otherwise, like I literally will not be able to make a decision or concentrate on the thing at hand.

I wonder if people with this do have more trouble with non-referential art that requires a visual output? Like drawings, and especially things like storyboards that I feel like would require a video in your brain more or less like I was talking about above. This might've been addressed but it's a huge thread and I'll comb it better later for this--I saw one where someone was talking about how they thought they might have t his but it might've been just too-high expectations for their own art.

Also in that link way up there about finding out that things people think are universal sometimes aren't with examples... like. Not to get too far off topic or anything, but it's only in recent years after things have gotten pretty extreme that I started to suspect I might be asexual. And I feel like that's very hard to describe to some people. But the way a couple of people were talking about it in that thread and the angle this made me think about it from... well it made me feel a lot better because let's just say I have a tendency to self-doubt and negative-self-talk and when you add in a heavy component of both the general public and a huge part of the LGBT community (sorry, but it's true) saying it's not really A Thing I basically try to grab on to any validation I can. This helped in a weird, roundabout way, so thanks. The way they were talking about it kind of took a load off my chest.
posted by suddenly, and without warning, at 6:36 AM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


I am curious if that suggests that someone with no minds eye, like the author, could gain it. My instinct is no. I'm that case it's just not there. In the cases where it's really bad, maybe? Or maybe having decent minds eye to begin with meant that improvements/change were possible with no particular effort other than exposure.

Recall is a funny thing. The more you practice something, the easier it can be to return to it later. The trick is figuring out what constitutes practice in the first place.

In many cases I suspect it's something that we practice without thinking about it as children, exercising our vivid imaginations frequently in everyday life, and many of us lose the knack as we get older and use our brains for more "important" things. As Norman Juster once described it, learning that if we stare at nothing but our shoes when we're walking we get to our destination SO much faster!

Some of us use this skill, or related visualization skills, with or without thinking about it. It might be part of your job, part of a hobby, maybe just something you do when you hear or see certain stimuli. Others either lost the knack or never learned to view things that way in the first place, and a few may be missing some particular synapse connection that enables it.

If it's this difficult to verbalize what it is, how we do it and if we can do it at all, working out how to train myself in it will be a son of a bitch. Maybe it'll come back, or maybe it'll be like the higher math courses I took in college where I'd have to start way back at the beginning and work my way back up. But I really don't like this melancholy feeling that perhaps I had a very cool skill and lost it by ignoring it for years.
posted by delfin at 7:17 AM on April 24, 2016


Tactile too?

I have a little box with my favorite rocks collected over the past, oh, six decades or so.
Every now and then I can take them out and turn them over in my mind and feel the shapes.

A while back, I went to visit my mother and she'd thrown my childhood rock collection out into the yard a few years earlier. It was no particular bother to go out and find exactly the ones I remembered, distinct from the rest of the rocks.

> Brains are not only weird, but their weirdness changes over time.

Yup. I used to 'daydream' random shapes before falling asleep at night. A year or so ago, that changed; now faces briefly form and change instead. Not people I know, nothing sustained, but endless variations. It's like some part of my memory finally loaded enough images from crowds ....

Also the visual noise has amped up as I get old, what used to be a few speckles in the dark is now "visual snow" (which turns out to be a real thing when I look it up). Visual tinnitus, anyone?

In signal processing, a little white noise makes it easier to detect a very faint signal. Hmmm .....
posted by hank at 8:14 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


So right now I am visualizing Gumby doing cartwheels on the airplane seat in front of me. Red, green, blue, whatever. He can drop behind the seat to hide or just poke his head up. So there isn't, in this case, a separate "stage" though it is something like a transparent overlay.

I also have visualized sound from a very young age. Also the seasons (a year has a particular visual representation) as well as weeks and days. The idea of being unable to visualize things is extremely foreign to me but it doesn't surprise me that it is a thing.

Visualization (and a good sense of direction) helps a lot when navigating, as I can "see" an overhead map view as I'm cavorting around.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2016


Wow. So, now my mind is blown, too. I always wondered why I couldn't really count sheep.

Because when I think about things, it's definitely in words, not in pictures. Even my dreams take the form of narrative prose -- weird narratives, often, but properly punctuated and filled with 'he said' and 'she said' markers.

A good test would be to start singing "It's a small world" to him and see if he gets that annoyed look from realizing it'll be in his head all day.

I get songs stuck in my head, but they're the lyrics, repeated over and over again and kind of urging me to sing them. I don't really *hear* the music, but I still suffer from earworms.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:08 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I close my eyes I still see my immediate surroundings well enough to reach out and turn the faucet to make the shower hotter, or reach out and pick up a coffee cup by the handle without knocking it over. Even if I turn around 360 degrees, the coffee cup's right where I see it, but it's not as precisely located and I might miss by a couple of inches. The vision persists for about twenty seconds or so then fades.
posted by alpheus at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Huh.

The face problem is dead on with my experience--I don't think I have face blindness, because after meeting someone a few times I can recognize them, but the instant you try to ask me to describe them, I get nothing but floating question marks like drunk Sherlock.

This was sorta underscored to me at my birthday, this year, when a few friends were completely surprised by my inability to match their description to another person who had been there not thirty minutes before--and then asked me to close my eyes and describe them, as they were sitting directly near me. Apparently, I assume all white people have blond hair, regardless of whether they have blonde hair--or even hair at all--and I'm unable to really describe anything else about them. No eye color, no amount of facial hair, whether they wear earrings or makeup, no anything. Not even what clothes, really, other than general color. (I was much better at describing the hair and eye color of my AA friends, but that's playing the odds.)

The thing that made me think it wasn't face-blindness was that while I couldn't describe them at all, I could pick them out of a lineup.

Thinking about the more general stuff, I think that instead of actually being able to conjure up the sensory data, at best what my mind will do is pull up a 'compressed' version of it, or a platonic ideal version of it. Tell me to imagine a beach, and I can conjure up the concept of 'sea, next to sand', but it's not until you actually tell me to imagine specific--but simple--aspects of it do those details get generated: tell me to imagine a sun, and one appears. Tell me to imagine sand in my toes, and I can imagine grit and small particles, but then it doesn't quite lead to a tactile sensation, and the sun and water vanish (but there's some generalized non-specific light source still there).

Which is why I don't think I have much trouble visualizing shapes and doing translations/rotations/transformations--since they don't have to be detailed, and they're just points/simple objects, it's like dealing with compressed info. Just moving it and shifting it around doesn't require any textures to "pop in" or sensory data to be added.
posted by qcubed at 12:12 PM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


One thing that surprises me is how many people have mentioned difficulty in smelling things in their imagination. Sitting here at my desk, I can easily summon up and distinguish among, for example, the fragrances of dianthus, freesias, roses, lilies, sweet alyssum, lavender, lilac; I can immediately bring back the smell of the perfume (Hypnotique) my mother used to wear in the 60s and 70s; and sometimes, to calm myself when stressed, I'll recall and re-smell the best aroma I've ever smelled in the world, which was the smell of the wind in a campsite in South Dakota in July, the clean air that had blown across Saskatchewan and Alberta and hundreds of miles of open grassland and prairie. Oddly (or maybe not so much) I can't stand having scented stuff in my daily surroundings, and always buy unscented soap/cleaning stuff/hand lotion/dishwasher detergent (thank you Seventh Generation!).

And this does of course correspond to taste; it's pretty easy to read through a recipe and know exactly how it's going to turn out, and while I'm not a supertaster I definitely have very specific flavor aversions and tend to cook relatively bland things for myself unless there's a specific taste I'm craving.
posted by Kat Allison at 12:22 PM on April 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


It's probably because you're a kat.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:41 PM on April 24, 2016


> I need text menus. I really don't understand the people who have a desktop full of icons

Also something that may change with age.

Did for me. I've been text-oriented all my life, sort by name or date in the window and find what I'm looking for, whether program or document. And typos would leap screaming off any page that got within reading distance.

I noticed as I got into my 60s that I no longer remember the exact name of some software tools (e.g. whatever it is I use to find duplicate files). Probably because I've used a lot of them over the years. Suddenly the easy way to find the darn thing is to look for the icon, because for some reason that's stuck in my memory.

I was still struggling at times to remember exactly what some document was named or the exact string to search for -- so I started putting pictures into file info (Mac, lately). And they're easier to find.

Fortunately the typos still leap off text pages. My work proofreading the Internet continues apace.
posted by hank at 12:57 PM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


"My "is this normal?" thing is the frequency and intensity with which I can remember dreams. Not every dream, and not all the time, but I'd say that at least once a week, some random stimulus brings to mind a dream I once had, and that dream might be years old. And the stimulus is probably barely related to the dream. It's just like some random neuron fires in my brain and decides "you need to think of this dream right now." It's like deja vu, almost. Just with dreams."

This is something that you can train.

Because I went to an alternative public school — read "hippy" — I took a class called "Creative Problem Solving," and one of the units was on dream interpretation. There are a series of exercises that you can use to both increase the frequency of lucid dreaming, and to increase the frequency of recalling dreams. A lot of it really is just practice — for folks who have an affinity for it, they practice without having to intentionally do so, but it's something where someone who thinks they can't do it can reliably learn to do it. The biggest reason not to is because a lot of the techniques to do it end up interrupting restful sleep, so the process of training yourself can be a giant drag and isn't worth it for most folks.

"My navigation skills (such as they are) are based strictly on decision trees. So I can remember a list of directions, basically. For example, I once moved about 20 miles south. All of the places that used to be south of me were now to the north. And I had to re-learn how to drive to each one. I could think about it for a while and figure it out, but it wasn't automatic. My wife (who has maps in her head) thought this was bizarre."

I can keep cardinality in my head pretty reliably, which I always put down to having orienteering practice in school (again, hippies). The only place where I've ever really gotten fucked up was in downtown Los Angeles, which offsets the grid by like 30 degrees, which totally fucks with my sense of north. But in places like Bangkok or Seoul, where there's no real grid to the streets at all, I have no problem remembering where I am by thinking about the rotation of each step that got me there, even at night.
posted by klangklangston at 1:11 PM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I can conjure up mental images reasonably well, although it takes a huge deal of mental concentration to give that mental image more significant level of detail.

This discussion has made me very curious about two things that I now really want to know whether they are a common thing or not:

1) It's really hard for me to visualize motion, other than very limited brief movements, like someone flipping a pancake. So when people say that when they visualize fiction, it's like having a little movie playing in their heads, do they mean that literally? Because for me, it's more like a series of one- to three- second gifs, and like gifs, they tend to repeat.

2) My mental images involuntarily "drift" or there are visual elements that I didn't willfully conjure, and often can't make them go away no matter how hard I try. For example, just now I brought up a mental image of my mom, and for some reason she has a shiny piece of vinyl fabric draped over her shoulder like a scarf even though she owns no such thing and its appearance is entirely involuntary. And now it's a huge struggle trying to imagine her without it. Reading fiction or daydreaming is really frustrating for me sometimes because it feels like I'm fighting against my own brain to imagine things how I actually want to imagine them.
posted by adso at 1:28 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've been thinking about non-sound, non-visual Visualising. (Thanks to this thread: olfiguring, tactilating, and phantasting.) and yeah, I can do all three with more accuracy and breadth than I originally thought. I suspect because I rarely think through a problem using them (I don't cook much) that I never really thought about them. But also, they seem less centered in my head, if that makes any sense. Especially tactile visualize. Obviously that is where it is, but it seems more defuse. Even taste and smell to a lesser extent. I feel like my brain has prioritized images and sound so I just didn't have a sense I could call up the others or what it would be like to do i- like minds eye visualizations, I'm not literally smelling, tasting or experiencing touch. My brain is just creating an approximation of it. Unlike images and sound, I can't really do much to manipulate it. But I assume that is just a learning thing, it sounds like those who use taste visualization to cook can.

I wonder if Blake Ross and the others that seem to be completely aphantasic are also cut off from these other sense visualizations.

This continues to be a mind blowing thread.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:07 PM on April 24, 2016


I can't visualize a damn thing, and I'm gobsmacked by the fact that others can. I also had really bad myopia as a child, which no one discovered until I was in middle school. I wonder if they're related?

Also, in my family, I've dealt better with my traumatic childhood than others. I wonder if it's easier for me because I can't visualize; I don't relive it the way my siblings do.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:29 PM on April 24, 2016


This was an interesting read (though I miss Oliver Sacks, who would have made it lyrical and profound as well as interesting...)

The inability to make it lyrical is one of the points of the article.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:21 PM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wow, literally third-eye blind. I had no idea... Reminds me of this story from Richard Feynman.
posted by and for no one at 7:10 PM on April 24, 2016


I can read in dreams, but I can't proofread in dreams, because the text I'm trying to proofread changes before I re-read it.
posted by yarntheory at 7:14 PM on April 24, 2016


Here's a question I was debating with some friends recently: if you do think in pictures, how intrusive are they? If your eyes are open, are you more likely seeing the world in front of you, or your thoughts?
posted by yarntheory at 7:45 PM on April 24, 2016


I see the world, not my mental pictures.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:48 PM on April 24, 2016


I knew I wasn't fabulous at visualizing, but until I tried that quiz on the BBC page, did not realize how bad I was at it (bottom 5%). It is really fascinating reading the level to which some people can see things in their minds. I'm also really interested in how these different abilities match up or don't. I noticed a lot of people who don't visualize have trouble with directions. I am actually really good spatially and can find places from memory once I've been there a few times. Cardinal directions work for me as long as I'm on a grid, but suburbs get me tangled up and cranky. (I feel a little off-balance any time I don't know where I am in relation to other places I know.) Even confusing places, I can usually recognize my way back out of. (I don't remember the street names, so the recognition is necessary, and the sense of distance helps too.)

I can't describe faces of even the people I know best, other than a few details in a sort of list format in my brain, but luckily the spark of recognition works well for me. I recognize people I've met a number of times or actors I've seen in a few things. If I am not quite sure what I remember an actor from, my guesses are way off. My spouse is frequently boggled by the people I mix up (because I had a flash of recognition, but my mind sorted them together, apparently).

I can hear things fine in my head and the inner monologue never stops chattering. I can recall some flavors, smells, or touches, but not super-strongly.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:23 PM on April 24, 2016


I just took the BBC quiz and got 40%, which they said was normal. What I find interesting is that I consider my visualizing ability to be fairly low, because I can picture imaginary things but I have a really hard time trying to picture how real-life things (paint colors, furniture rearrangements) will look in real life. This conversation and quiz has shifted my spectrum over and made me feel less like an outlier.
posted by lazuli at 9:45 PM on April 24, 2016


I have very vivid dreams. And there is music in my head non-stop. But if I close my eyes and try to picture something, I get blackness but the image is almost like a program running in the background. It's there, but I can't quite see it. My memory is based on places. We have bookcases in multiple rooms of the house, with over a thousand books, and I can retrieve any of them when asked. I cannot tell you where a specific book is. But I can go to the appropriate bookcase, close my eyes, and touch the book. I can locate any random thing in my house, but I need to physically get it. If you ask me where the best spatula is, I won't be able to tell you, but I can go to the right drawer and get it for you.
posted by Ruki at 10:08 PM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


I can't visualise images at all, on that quiz on the BBC site I got the lowest score possible. Like some others have said, I always assumed that "counting sheep" was a metaphorical thing. I'm not great with remembering faces, but probably not too far outside the normal-ish part of the range, but I really struggle to describe how someone looks, even people like my partner or co-workers who I see every day.

But, my spatial sense is excellent, both in the real world and when gaming. The closest I can get to "visualising" things is sort of, just knowing what the geometry is. If I try to visualise a sunset, the best I can do is a horizontal line with a semicircle sitting on it - I have no visual representation of it, but, you know, I'm imagining that shape. There's no colour at all, just geometry. Those spatial reasoning tests are easy because I'm not imagining things, just geometry and how it fits (or doesn't fit) together.

I very rarely remember my dreams, but when I do there's only visuals (in colour) and emotions. Never any sound, though I have no trouble imagining sounds or changing my interior monologue into (say) Morgan Freeman's or Sean Connery's voice. Odd.
posted by russm at 12:53 AM on April 25, 2016


This is such a great thread. I have been wondering what this has to do with language learning and processing. I am a native English speaker and I'm fluent in Spanish. People often ask me what language I think in, or what language I dream in, and... that question makes no sense to me. I can't say that I think an any language whatsoever. I don't even know how to begin to suss out the answer to that question.

I also like this thread because it has given me an insight into, and therefore, a larger measure of compassion for people whose brains don't work like mine. My husband for example, who needs to drive a route dozens and dozens of times before he stops getting lost, versus me, who only needs to look at the bird's-eye view of something once on google maps to know exactly how to get there, basically a human GPS.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:58 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


You Should See the Other Guy: "Only thing I hate more is hearing people talk about their dreams. I'm baffled why people find dreams interesting as a topic of conversation. "

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but:

In my experience, almost nobody finds dreams interesting as a topic of conversation, unless they believe dreams are prophetic or deeply symbolic or the like. In other words, people who enjoy psychoanalysis and see dreams as a means of doing it enjoy discussing them, but most people do not.

The reason it seems like people like conversing about them is that people like talking about their own dreams. Perhaps it's because they've vivid, perhaps because they're so different from the ordinary. After all, if you saw someone climb out the window of a bus and fly away in real life, you'd totally want to tell people about it. So if you saw it in your dream, it's like halfway between seeing it in a movie (not interesting enough to describe to others) and seeing it in real life (no way you would not want to describe it to others).

So people like to tell others about their own dreams, and their counterparts humor them by listening, which makes it look like people are enjoying conversing about dreams.
posted by Bugbread at 1:29 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I wonder if people with this do have more trouble with non-referential art that requires a visual output? Like drawings, and especially things like storyboards that I feel like would require a video in your brain more or less like I was talking about above.

This might explain why I never liked comic books. I can read them, but it's really more like reading the dialog. I can look at a frame and tell you what action is happening, but the story doesn't "happen" in my head.

Weirdly, when I read fiction that has only words, the story does happen in my head. But not visually. More like a memory. (And your memories are probably visual, come to think of it. Mine aren't.)

I wonder if Blake Ross and the others that seem to be completely aphantasic are also cut off from these other sense visualizations.

This is the thread where I learned that other people can "smell in their head." I can't. Even if I try to think of a strong smell like lavender or formaldehyde I can't do it. I can't imagine a taste that isn't currently in my mouth either. But I'm very good at remembering smells and tastes, I'm a good cook and can recreate a recipe when I've tasted it pretty well.

Touch / tactile sense? Nope. Nothing.

I can definitely hear sounds and voices in my head, though. I can even play back a "recording" of what I just heard and tell you the exact words you just said. That only works for a little while, it's like the words are still hanging in the air. If I need to remember something I can say it out loud and then it's "in the air" for the next 30-60 seconds.

Apparently, I assume all white people have blond hair, regardless of whether they have blonde hair

Same problem here, although I'm also somewhat face-blind. People will describe someone and I have no clue who they're talking about. My wife has caught me wondering what color of hair a friend of mine has (whom I've known for 20 years) or whether they wear glasses. Similarly, friends show up with different haircuts or new glasses and I have no clue anything has changed.

basically a human GPS

One of the first hints I've had about my condition was when my wife had a bad migraine. One of the symptoms was that she couldn't find her way out of the casino we were in. She said "it's like the map in my head has disappeared." And I said "Map? What map?"
posted by mmoncur at 2:09 AM on April 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


This is an amazing thread. Thank you all. ❤️ It's really reinforced that I need to step up my game with practicing visualization, I had no idea some people's mind's eyes were as vivid as dreams. Do want!

Regarding memory palaces, I really liked this video of how mentalist Derren Brown cheats at blackjack using a mental space filled with objects representing the different cards. I wonder how many people with this kind of neural advantage realize their potential?

Since I've gotten so much out of everyone else's perceptions I will try to share my own.

I have ADD, am linguistically/sound oriented. I can easily picture text read by different voices, and for most of my life had a running internal monologue with various characters. There was usually music playing. In the ADD questionnaire I took it described it as, "I feel like my mind is a television turned to too many channels at once". That about summed it up.

I was on Adderall for a while which literally turned the tv off. No more omnipresent music, monologue and characters interrupting me. Even now that I've been off it for a while, I've learned where the switch is and can turn it off if I need to. It's very bizarre, but I am not ungrateful.

I dream vividly of things that don't exist, one memorable lucid dream I had involved inspecting the brickwork in the imaginary school I was in, marveling at how my mind was able to create all this texture. In comparison, my ability to visually recall things in the waking world is pretty awful. I cannot describe people very well, even good friends of mine, especially if I have not seen them recently. I have no difficulty recognizing friends, but have difficulty with acquaintances and coworkers, even ones I have been introduced to multiple times, and unless I force myself to memorize names, it just never happens and I have to hope somebody else says their name or work around it. When I do remember acquaintances it is usually because of some mannerism or their voice. My ability to visualize places I've been (or haven't been) is not quite as atrophied, but at best I have a dim shadow compared to the real thing. I struggle to picture the front yard I've seen outside every day for the past 7 months.

I can navigate back to almost anywhere I've been, including places I haven't been to in years (although I may need to glance at a map to be sure my memory is accurate). I spend much of my time traveling, so I have a very firm sense of direction, and I can glance at a map and memorize up to about 8 or 9 steps. The map in my head isn't a picture, but instead a set of imagined spatial experiences, this is the feeling of me turning right after I cross over the river, or if I've been there before, a mix of vivid flashbacks, including what was going on at the time I was there before, what it looked like, and sometimes how I was feeling.

I know where every item I own is at all times and can easily retrieve any of them. It helps that I don't have a lot of stuff, and this is most likely a habit picked up from years of necessity, overcompensating for my ADD.

I can easily memorize words, I know the lyrics to hundreds of songs, whether I like it or not. I once pushed this to see how far it went, and found myself able to memorize the entirety of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. (I thought it would be fun at parties? Protip: it isn't) I still remember most of it years later.

I am an amateur artist, and for years have favored sculpture as it is far easier for me to actually make things and turn them around in my hands than to visualize the "camera lens angle" of an imaginary scene, including foreshortening. I have begun to make inroads into drawing by forcing myself to copy what I see in front of me quickly (this timed photographic life drawing tool is fantastic), but is is an uphill battle to train my mind and hand to work together properly.

Growing up I was a nerd, caught up in worlds of imagination, wandering around in the woods unattended behind our house from 6 or 7 years old, and devouring books by the armload. I see echoes of that here, now that I've wrote it all out. It's fascinating what shapes our perception!
posted by Feyala at 2:45 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm quite fascinated by (and this is slightly continuing off topic ish) the difference in people's mental capacity for navigation and sense of direction. It seems like it's actually not connected to visualisation, but also very connected to that moment of discovering other people's brains aren't like yours.
Like others have said (and I mentioned earlier) I am so strongly spatially organised that as a child I wondered about getting lost, like, how you did it. How you could, without being blindfolded or something walk somewhere and then not know how you got there.
I was discussing something or other with my parents recently and alluded to the location of the nursery I went to, that I haven't revisited in 30 odd years in a town I haven't lived in for 20 years. My dad was unsurprised, because of course I knew where that was. My mum was shocked that I could remember the location precisely down to drawing accurate room layouts. So, I assume some sort of heritability of mental structures?

We don't go to the big mall anymore because it disorientates me, I'm fairly sure they do it deliberately, and I can't quite explain why, but the walkways are nonintuitive and you have to go an odd route to find escalators or stairs and the ceiling is wobbly and changes the angle of light and floor is slippy and like mmoncurs wife in the casino my internal map gets corrupted and I get really really angry, annoyed, disorientated, it's horrible. It makes me want to bite people.

So, for a while I was terrible at directions. It truly boggled me that people wouldn't know where they are and how to get places they had been to before.
What is interesting is that I assumed I could visualise things just fine, and I can certainly sort of draw pictures in my mind and see a beach if I'm told to think of a beach. But I don't know if I'd call them vivid like real life images. I'm having some trouble reconciling what other brains can do compared to mine. I wish I could visit them.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:08 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


I thought when movies had characters thinking in V.O. this was just a metaphor, not something anyone actually did.

I am continually startled when people claim that they hear voices.

I'm not saying that they should be locked up, given that they're no apparent danger to themselves or others, but it seems weird and deeply wrong to me. I hear no internal voice, except perhaps when I'm composing text. If I'm deciding what to make for dinner, I imagine myself making each thing and I choose the one in which I feel happiest. I just can't imagine having this voice in my head commanding me or arguing or whatever it's supposed to be doing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:31 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not commanding you or arguing with you, it is you. The better way to think of it is more like the voice you have when you're composing text, but all the time. It's not "Mike (or Joe), you should buy some onions," it's "I need to buy some onions".

It's more like you're giving a running commentary, but your lips aren't moving.
posted by Bugbread at 7:03 AM on April 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Scenario: You're in the store with someone you know very well - a partner, a best friend, a sibling. You wander off to look at something and need to circle back and find them.

People who feel reasonably typical at visualizing stuff, would that scenario ever make you panicky? Would you ever find yourself thinking "Wait... what does [person] look like? Am I going to recognize them when I see them again?" And then peering intently at every person you see who's anywhere in the same general age/gender/coloring ballpark, because you're not 100% sure that it's not the person you're looking for, because you're not sure you remember what they look like?

'Cause that happens to me fairly often, including just this weekend, with my partner of 16 years. I could not for the life of me imagine what he looked like beyond "tall, male, glasses, shaved head, 40". I was so very relieved when I finally found him and had the flood of oh yeah, that's what you look like, I do know you when I see you! recognition. I just really had no confidence whatsoever that I knew what he looked like when he was not right in front of me.

More generally, my post from the previous thread is still pretty accurate to how I experience things. But I do have one new insight, having spent most of the months between then and now rediscovering that I have some minor ability to write fiction/poetry. I've learned that said writing, unless I fight it very hard, comes out pretty much all narration and emotion and motivation. I can write endlessly about what people are doing and why they're doing it and how they feel about it. But left to my own devices I'm pretty much never going to tell you what anything I'm writing about actually looks like, because that's just not on my radar at all when I'm imagining something.
posted by Stacey at 7:31 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am not incapable of visualizing things in my mind, but it seems to be a chore in some contexts. I've done some writing, and my writing group critiqued my fiction writing as "everything seems to take place in an empty room." One of my main characters, I realized as I was writing him, notices sounds a lot more than he does visuals.

I have trouble with science fiction or fantasy which doesn't take place in what I'd call a "mundane" world (unless I've seen a movie that shows that world or something very similar).

I *like* visual images and respond to them; I just have trouble conjuring visual images on my own. I'm actually a half-decent photographer, in the amateur sense, but that's more out of necessity, as I don't think I'd have any idea of what my kids looked like five years ago if I hadn't taken pictures.

I remember dreams more as narratives than images, usually. That is, I can remember what happened, but what it looked like is a bit fuzzy.

OTOH I can mentally take any earworm song or tune and transform it to any mental orchestration. "Purple Rain" as a bluegrass tune or Russian men's choir? No problem. No, I couldn't write it down without spending hours and getting a LOT of help, but I can instantly conjure it in my mind.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:43 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here's a question I was debating with some friends recently: if you do think in pictures, how intrusive are they? If your eyes are open, are you more likely seeing the world in front of you, or your thoughts?

Real world, though I can sort of see both; they are just seperate. And I can de-prioritize real world stimulius so the internal images are taking up more of my awareness. This can range from the passive-repetitive tasks where I am seeing, but only processing enough to ensure I don't fuck it up, to completely being unaware of the external visual stimulius. Though it can switch back, say if someone says my name, or a dog barks, seemingly instantaneously. And when it does, it's not as if I haven't been seeing, it's been significantly down regulated from my active thoughts.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:34 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I too, have this, and have had many discussions with people over the years who just don't believe me... I spent nearly an hour once on a bus ride with a professor asking me questions about this as she found it quite fascinating. I haven't read the whole thread, so I'm not sure how similar my experiences are to others (or how late I am to the party), but I imagine that they're in line.

1- I'm good at navigating to places and figuring out routes, but the thought process is generally a combination of 'known routes.' For example, I know how to get from A to B and from A to C, if I need to get from C to B, I process backwards to where a-b and a-c cross.

2- I'm okay at recognizing people, but only in context. If I see you at the same place all the time, I can recognize you without an issue. But, if I see you in a totally different place, I have to rely on other cues, like voice or dress or stance.

3- I'm terrible at anything artistic unless I'm copying something.

4- I remember maybe 2 dreams a year and they're usually something fraught with panic or tragedy.

5- I'm good at math, software development and identifying process improvements or other solutions to business problems.

6- I love music, am completely tone deaf, but can hear when something is off key out of rhythm, etc. I attribute that to my math / logic brain.

Everything I do or plan tends to go through the same process of breaking things down, making lists, sketching it out and comparing it against known things. For example, my wife and I are working on a bit of landscaping and trying to decide what to do... I've drawn like 10 different variations on possible layouts because I can't stand out there and fathom what it will look like. As for choosing the flowers and plants and what-not, that will happen the same way... With acquiring pictures and seeing how things look together or based on my general color knowledge as to what colors complement one another.
posted by Jacob G at 11:58 AM on April 25, 2016


> if you do think in pictures, how intrusive are they? If your eyes are open, are you more likely seeing the world in front of you, or your thoughts?

My visualizations usually take place in what I think of as a 3-D dynamic chalkboard that is located just in front of and slightly above my forehead. It's really more my attention than my vision that switches between it and the world in front of me. It's just another place I can attend to, like the ground in front of me when I'm walking on icy winter sidewalks. Though writing this comment and thinking about it, when I'm paying attention to my visualization area I'm pretty sure my eyes roll up in my head a bit.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:06 PM on April 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


How long do mental images stay for people who have them? I've been trying to do this a lot since this thread started, and I can sort of get mental flashes of images I know really well -- a particular picture of my mother that I really like, a photo of a Brazilian beach that I was really proud of -- but they're barely there and then they're gone again. And it's not even so much that I can see them, as that I can sort of see a space where they could be, a general shape, and I can sort of hear a description of them.

The only image I can readily conjure up and have it be more than the briefest possible flash is from a recurring nightmare I had as a child. It feels like if I want to get better at this, that would be the image to practice on, but it's not really a fun choice.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:14 PM on April 25, 2016


I can get mental images to last as long as I need them if I'm working on something that requires it. I used to be an art student, so I had to do this a lot. Figuring out how to solve carpentry problems can also involve keeping a mental image for extended periods of time.
posted by nangar at 12:42 PM on April 25, 2016


I think is probably something that improves with practice. If you can get flashes, you could probably get them to last longer if you do it a lot. I probably got good at this because I took up drawing, and later painting, so I got a lot of practice working with mental images.
posted by nangar at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2016


I've got all five inner senses, but some more strongly than others, it seems. My inner vision is kind of vague and nebulous, not big on details. When I imagine a beach, I might image golden-brown sand and blue water and a lighter blue sky and maybe some grass beyond the sand... but if you asked me whether the water was still or if it was turbulent, well, it wasn't either until I start to think about that aspect of it. Once I do I can imagine either a calm sea or a rough one, but until I think about it it's like Schroedinger's cat, still unobserved and neither calm nor rough. Say "bicycle" and I can visualize a bicycle. Ask me what color my visualized bicycle was, and it wasn't any color until I started thinking that it should have a color.

But taste! Oh yes, I seem to have a very developed inner taste. Perhaps the best example comes just now from reading the article: I happened to be sucking on a rather strongly flavored wintergreen mint while reading the article. And yet when he got to talking about what pizza tastes like, I could immediately imagine the taste of pizza. And it occurred to me what an unusual exquisite experience I was having: I was simultaneously have the experience of tasting an actual wintergreen mint and vividly imagining the taste of pizza. And it wasn't like tasting pizza and wintergreen together (which I imagine would not be a good combination); it was more like having the simultaneous yet entirely distinct experiences of tasting wintergreen, and tasting pizza.

However, although I'm not aphantasiac, I do seem to have some of the secondary effects Ross describes. I don't visualize anything when I spell words. (I can, if I make the effort to do it, but I don't ordinarily.)

I do build up images (albeit usually vague ones) of what characters and locations look like in books I'm reading — but those images are often entirely independent of any physical description the author provides! I might well imagine a character in a book to be of average height, stocky build, and with brown hair... only to go back to the beginning after I've finished the book and realize that the author had described them as tall, lanky, and blond. If I see a movie version of a book I've read, though, the movie depiction immediately overrides any other mental image I had. It is now impossible for me to see Professor McGonagall as anyone other than Maggie Smith, even though I had envisioned the character as being in her early forties when I started reading the HP books. Which itself is probably independent of whatever J.K. Rowling wrote about her.

I seem to have fewer memories of my childhood than many people do. And I'm not good at remembering events which happened to me personally. No, that's not quite right. I'm not good at coming up with them spontaneously. I've been a member of an organization for 25+ years, and as you might imagine the organization has seem some significant changes over that time. I can list off what some of those significant changes are. But if a younger member asks, "tell us a story that illustrates what the organization was like 25 years ago" I'm at a loss. Unless another older member is there to prompt me with "remember that time when..." and then I can get going. Once I'm prompted with a specific story I can tell it, but I'm not good at coming up with a story unprompted.

Related, previously on AskMetafilter: What does your mental calendar look like? (Spoiler: for some people, including me, it doesn't "look like" anything.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:03 PM on April 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


The highlights for me:

My mind's eye exists but is quite weak. I identify with the camera-flash analogy: I can picture a scene for just long enough to be able to describe its layout and contents and (if I work a bit harder) colors, but it's frustratingly hard to hold onto. Even when I envision photographs I've taken myself, what I experience is dull, and is maybe 5% as strong as the sensation was when I was looking at it with my actual eyes.

This might be a weird way of putting it, but I often feel like my brain is doing things in software instead of hardware. Though someone else may be able to picture a scene with very little mental effort, it would take me a bunch of work to get anywhere near what they can do, and my thought processes would be completely different. Like, I usually remember the color of a thing, but I remember it as a piece of data, rather than as a thing I can see. So all the information is there, but I've got to go through the extra effort of uncompressing it upon recall, which is completely space-inefficient, which means I can hold less of it in my head at once.

I can navigate cities pretty easily if the streets keep even vaguely to a grid system. Austin doesn't always have exact north-south streets or east-west streets, but it's close enough that I can keep a coordinate system in my head. I could never do that with New Orleans (where I grew up) because compass directions are largely useless there — lots of streets are either circumferential (follow the curve of the river) or radial (intersect the circumferential streets roughly at right angles). London is a trainwreck for navigation, so I just have to keep my phone out nearly the whole time if I'm trying to get somewhere on foot. I'm ruined by streets that subtly curve over time or change angles from intersection to intersection.

I nearly always have a song running in my head. Melodies and harmonies are really easy to recall, and drum parts I can usually get close on, but if I want to remember a song's bass line I pretty much have to pay attention to the bass line while I'm listening to the song. I sang in choirs growing up but didn't ever have formal music education, so I don't know how to read music or play any instrument. I sometimes wonder if I'd be able to unpack those song memories better if I had the right vocabulary for it.

And finally: I can identify with the temporal-situational memory, like remembering where you were the last time you heard a song. Lots of ideas that don't have inherent location have nonetheless been "tagged" with locations by my head. For instance, name me a movie that I saw on theatrical release and 95% of the time I can tell you which movie theater I saw it at, along with who I saw it with, even if I was a small child. I remember going to the theater at our nearest mall to see Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but Bogus Journey I saw in San Antonio with my sister on vacation. Hook was at the weird theaters on Veterans Blvd. that they later knocked down to put up a giant shoe store. I really, really wish that I could use this for something other than as a stupid human trick.
posted by savetheclocktower at 2:27 PM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


There seems to be some (weird, frankly) conflation in this thread of visualization and hallucination.

If you're *actually seeing* something that isn't actually there, the next thing you should actually see is a doctor.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:18 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is so fascinating! I have no mind's eye at all.

I had this realization just a couple of years ago when talking to my wife. She asked something along the lines of "how many cans on a fence can you imagine in your head as single objects and not a group" and my honest answer was I could imagine either zero or an infinite number of them depending on how I thought about it. I can't see the fence, or any cans at all, but I understand that a line can be infinitely long, so why not an infinite line of cans?

I too thought counting sheep was a metaphor.

Sound, though, is incredibly vivid for me. I can easily remember individual aspects of musical performances from 20 years ago like I was in the room today. I can't visualize my late grandmother's face, but I can hear anything I want in her voice, and she passed away 16 years ago. My whole waking life is an earworm, effectively, but I can change it at will most of the time.
posted by ndfine at 3:38 PM on April 25, 2016


What is visualization except hallucination that you know isn't real?
posted by wierdo at 6:56 PM on April 25, 2016


wierdo: "What is visualization except hallucination that you know isn't real?"

They're qualitatively different. People capable of visualization wouldn't do hallucinogens if they just produced the same effects as daydreaming.
posted by Bugbread at 7:47 PM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I can see images fairly clearly, always have a song (and sometimes more than one) playing in my head, and can recall smells pretty easily. But I do have the thing where reading complex visual descriptions just bogs me down and I literally can't picture it anymore. Henry James is the one who always throws me off - when he goes on for paragraphs about how people's tiny gestures are nuanced evocations of what each thinks the other is feeling - I just shut down. I have no idea what I'm supposed to be seeing and can't parse what's actually happening in the scene and I have to skip ahead to the next plot point.

The one thing I have that no one seems to have mentioned is that I am constantly struggling with unwanted (but good) taste memories - I can be watching TV or reading, and something triggers the memory of the taste of something, and it's like an earworm but in my taste buds - I suddenly have to eat that thing. Even if I'm not hungry, the taste flashback is so strong that I can't unfocus on it and make it go away - and if it's in the house I almost always go find it and eat some. And if it's not I then grab whatever is closest, tastewise, that is. I am always reading the AskMes here that deal with appetite control when it comes to impulses, because I can't figure out how to override the voice in my head that won't let me stop obsessing about whatever taste I'm thinking of without actually tasting the damn thing.
posted by Mchelly at 8:35 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I picked up my mother at the airport today. On the ride back I asked if she had ever heard of aphantasia.

Mom: "I think so. She was a singer with Prince, right?"

Laughing too hard to explain. Told her I would email her some links.
posted by cwest at 6:37 PM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Right now I was talking with my daughter about the fact that I almost never listen to music. It's because the soundtrack in my mind is almost constant, and with age, it overrules anything I might play deliberately. Right now, the soundtrack is Prince - mostly 90's and 00's, and I love listening to Prince and it's good, but given that he is dead and it is sad, I'd love to alternate with something more contemporary and upbeat. Nope. The brain-music is louder and interferes unless I am at a live concert.
Another issue with "brain-music" is that unlike others above, if I try to listen to the elements (like finding the bass or singing along with the vocals), it falls apart. I can still hear the music, but it becomes primitive and scratchy and incredibly irritating.
posted by mumimor at 12:23 PM on April 27, 2016


The article and this thread make for an interesting read after seeing Inside Out for the first time.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:18 PM on April 29, 2016


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