Aphantasia? Aphantastic!
February 9, 2020 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Twitter user @premium__heart said "Close your eyes and imagine an apple. What do you see?" They also provided a link to a more-complex visualization experiment. Responses have been…interesting.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (124 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It’s a really interesting test! I’m a 1 on the apple scale - I had a picture in my mind’s eye of a red apple where I could see the variations in the skin color. For the ball question, I pictured an orange billiard ball on a pool table, and it moved like a billiard ball, but didn’t fill in specifics for the person. Thanks for sharing.
posted by graymouser at 6:03 AM on February 9

I’m a 5 - I “see” black and think a stream of descriptive words
posted by mrbenn at 6:09 AM on February 9 [7 favorites]

I never quite know what to make of these thought experiments, because I'm not certain of what my own experience is, exactly, so I don't know how to describe it accurately.

I don't think that I have aphantasia. I think that I imagine things in ways that feel at least partially visual to me. When I think of a specific person, sometimes I can't imagine them very well, but sometimes my mind conjures up a snapshot of that person that feels incredibly vivid. It feels as if I can see their face, but I don't think that I can actually see their face. I think that if you actually managed to interpret what my brain is perceiving it would be more like a Picasso painting, with an ear here, a chin there, and maybe also a gesture, a verbal tic and a smell. I certainly find it easier to imagine specific people if I can hear their voices inside my head.

I sometimes have trouble imagining certain things described in text, like the spatial layout of fictional battles -- but that could be because I find them boring, and tend to skim over these descriptions. For a long time I had absolutely no sense of the spatial layout of the city that I lived in for two decades, and found relative, landmark-based directions incomprehensible and infuriating -- but I know for a fact that this was because I didn't drive and therefore did not need to take an interest in this information. Now that I do drive, I have a much better idea of where locations are in relation to each other. I still skim over space battles, though.

There was a similar discussion recently about people who have an internal monologue vs people who don't (and whether or not they're psychopaths, because people on Twitter are lovely). And... I don't know. I have an external monologue -- when I'm alone, I have conversations with myself all the time. When I'm not alone, I guess I sometimes do it quietly. But I would not describe either experience as "hearing voices inside my head".
posted by confluency at 6:10 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]

Huh. I "see" a red delicious, from a slightly elevated view, with a blue PLU sticker on the right side of the upper hemisphere.

As for the ball on the table, it's a fresh (fuzzy) tennis ball on my parents' ping pong table (been gone for years), being pushed by a skinny guy in tan pants and a dark olive shirt.
posted by notsnot at 6:12 AM on February 9

A classic red delicious apple, specifically one I recently picked out of a bin and took for lunch. Though I spent a moment going "well what kind of apple" and having an alternative visual of a Roxbury Russet, green and purple and matte-finish, growing on a tree in a backyard. Then I figured that's not the kind of apple people mean and went back to the Gala. The ball was a plastic multicolor beach ball on a wood table, a random guy in a black sweatshirt pushed it, and it bounced a couple times on the way to the floor.

Interesting that this varies. i've always been aware that I think in images maybe even before words, though I also have an inner voice. Didn't realize that wasn't universal. How little we know about the subjective experience of consciousness.
posted by Miko at 6:17 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

never quite know what to make of these thought experiments, because I'm not certain of what my own experience is, exactly, so I don't know how to describe it accurately.

This and the "inner monologue" thing remind me of back when everyone was saying they had synesthesia.......rare condition turns out to be very common once you just let your hair down and accept all self-reports from social media! Well, maybe.
posted by thelonius at 6:17 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Follow up to my comment above: I'm also the guy who asked this...
posted by notsnot at 6:19 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Nondescript white ball of baseball size on a small kids table we have. Ball pushers head not in frame and not really gendered, just kind of a hand
posted by condour75 at 6:21 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

0, like off the chart mental visualiser. When I'm planning a project I will lie down, close my eyes, and visualise so vividly that I call it "travelling." Things and processes and places get imagined in intricate detail, detailing cause and effect. It's very helpful for my art and "making things."

The downside as previously noted is I have to stay the hell away from real-world traumatic images and especially descriptions or I will fabricate them in my head instantly and repeatedly. Fictional images and words aren't too much of an issue, but like violent news reports are a hard stop.

I used to have a stream of chatter in my head but I learned how to shut it up a couple decades ago, which has been almost uniformly a good thing.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:32 AM on February 9 [27 favorites]

I'm a 5 also. I had always assumed that when people said "picture a beach" it was a metaphor for "consider a beach," but apparently that is not true for most people?

A similar twitter thread which introduced the idea of aphantastia to people: How many cubes can you spin in your mind at once? That's your cubescore.
posted by JDHarper at 6:35 AM on February 9 [10 favorites]

I've known for a long time that I pretty much don't have a "mind's eye" most of the time. I can imagine a sort of crude model of the thing I'm imagining but I don't see it.

I've often wondered if that's correlated with my poor sense of direction and difficulty trying to follow body movements by example.

I'm also a musician who rarely hears music in my head before I write it, or more accurately, before I improvise it and then codify what I improvised.
posted by Foosnark at 6:40 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

The downside as previously noted is I have to stay the hell away from real-world traumatic images and especially descriptions or I will fabricate them in my head instantly and repeatedly.

Wow, thanks for bringing this in. I'm similar - I have zero taste for horror movies because they just give me too vivid an understanding of what happens when people are really suffering from violence and I can't push it away. Other people are like "huh, who cares, it's entertainment" and I always thought there was something strange about that. Maybe they simply don't record it in as detailed a manner in their brains and know they'll have to relive it later.
posted by Miko at 6:42 AM on February 9 [24 favorites]

Giant apple, shiny red, possibly artificial and maybe up to no good, reflecting the afternoon sunlight as it over distant autumn mountains against a bright blue sky, over a wide grassy meadow.

A baseball, muddied with wear, one stitch slightly sprung, rolling across an old dark wooden table, surface stripped and splintered, as if it had been sitting out in the rain too long. The table is in the back corner of what might be a roadhouse bar, with wood paneled walls half lit by a maybe a green shaded lamp over a billiard table or the reflected glow of a neon beer sign. The ball rolls across the table, straight, pushed with purpose by a red knuckled hand of a rangy white man, maybe 40, a couple days unshaven with longish greasy brown hair, hooded brown eyes and a long narrow nose. He’s wearing a stained white t-shirt and jeans. He’s maybe a little drunk and definitely a little menacing because the way he rolled that ball had a real “tag, you’re it” quality, that didn’t suggest he was hoping for a game of catch, but was trying to communicate something darker, like a threat or an expectation to whomever the ball is rolling toward. Me, I guess.
posted by thivaia at 6:42 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

None of those apple pictures accuratey represents my mind's-eye experience. What I picture is like 1 in that it feels like a real apple, with realistic color and shape. But it's also a lot vaguer than a real image, though without being cartoonish or colorless. Some aspects of it aren't clear in my mind and even the aspects that feel clear don't hold up well to close examination. The more I try to focus on any aspect of the image, the more I realize that it's more like the idea of an image than an actual image. That's the way visual imagery usually works for me. It feels like seeing, but it's really more like having a sense of the information you usually get from seeing - color, shape, location in space - without there being any actual visual experience.

I first thought of an orange billiard ball on a pool table, being pushed toward the side of the table, where it would bounce off, and then I realized I was probably supposed to picture a different kind of table. I thought the idea of the experiment was probably to see what you envisioned once the ball left the initial scene you had created. As it flew off the table, would you instantly create surroundings for the table (or would they already have been there) and would your ball interact with the surroundings according to the real rules of physics? So I pictured a soccer ball on a small wooden dining table, flying off and into . . . nothing, really, just a vague sense of a room, because I couldn't picture anything fast enough. I had not pictured anything about the person and my sense of the shape and color of the table was very vague.
posted by Redstart at 6:48 AM on February 9 [12 favorites]

I don't have a very visual memory. Like, I cannot even picture my mother's face, and can't tell you what colour her eyes are without looking it up. I couldn't tell you what colour my childhood homes were (although I could tell you what they smelled like in detail, and what the music we listened to was, and can almost feel exactly how the sunlight felt on my skin in my childhood garden.

But for imagining these thought experiments I was definitely not aphantasmic. The apple was very clear to me, like a 1 or maybe 2, and the ball had a colour and size (but not texture - kind of a 3 on the apple scale), and the table was wood (but didn't have a shape - I don't think I imagined viewing it from enough distance to see the edges). I saw the person's hand pushing it, as a vague shape with no detail, and I did not imagine any other parts of the person - not gender, not clothing, not hair, and not even colour of the skin. The person was definitely a 4-5.

Maybe I'm particularly bad at visualising people rather than objects? Or maybe I can do fictional things more clearly than remembered ones?
posted by lollusc at 6:51 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

I can sometimes, if I try really hard, get a brief flash of a photo in my head that I feel like I can see. But, it has to be an existing photo, and one I have seen a lot. I can't call up random images from my past or make up images and see them in my head. It mostly only works with photos I have spent time photoshopping or otherwise working with directly.

It wasn't that long ago that I was surprised to learn that people to count sheep at night to help them sleep can see the sheep.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:57 AM on February 9 [7 favorites]

Wow, thanks for bringing this in. I'm similar - I have zero taste for horror movies because they just give me too vivid an understanding of what happens when people are really suffering from violence and I can't push it away

I don’t have this experience at all. Horror movies are fiction — they are an artistic and aesthetic communication of ideas about violence and suffering — and I’m a big fan. Those images, those shared experiences, they make me feel more human. But real filmed depictions of violence are a hard no for me, for exactly the reasons alluded to by seanmpuckett above.
posted by Mothlight at 6:59 AM on February 9

I can barely produce just the faintest image of basic objects when I try, and even then they are probably just geometric deconstructions. For example, in the apple test, I am imagining an irregular circle. For a banana, I am imagining a long object. That said, I find it very difficult to, say, focus on any particular part of those shapes. “Imagine a house,” you say? I only imagine strokes I would use to draw it: Couple vertical lines, couple slanted lines, etc.

I remember thinking it was quite amazing, many years ago, when a friend said they did not imagine anything when you ask them to think of a number. I said something like “You can’t picture for dots in your head, or a position on a number line, or how to sketch the 4”. Now I’m recognizing that I really only have a memory of having drawn drawn those objects, or certain burned in images but I have seen many times. But I definitely do not “see” these images when I close my eyes. Also, when I draw them in my mind, the lines don’t stay in place. I’m just getting a sense of their vertical and horizontal placements. I’m a little bummed out about this.

Question for folks to see vivid images. Can you also do this in a dark room with your eyes open? Do you get to just see things if you think about that? Sounds...trippy.
posted by klausman at 6:59 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I saw a green apple on a black background. What does that mean?!
posted by affectionateborg at 7:01 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

seanmpuckett — When you picture a super vivid apple, do you know which apple you are seeing? Does the same vivid apple appear in your mind when prompted, like a stock image, fully formed? Or is it sometimes a new, complete image? Do you recognize it as being an apple you recently had or saw somewhere? If I asked later, could you mentally reproduce the same apple?
posted by klausman at 7:06 AM on February 9

Question for folks to see vivid images. Can you also do this in a dark room with your eyes open? Do you get to just see things if you think about that? Sounds...trippy.

Oh yeah. Or I mean, on a crowded bus with my eyes open. It's always available, it's not like a meditative state or anything.
posted by Miko at 7:09 AM on February 9 [9 favorites]

I hear the Beatles, specifically Abbey Road, and more specifically "Something."
posted by jscalzi at 7:10 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I saw a green apple on a black background. What does that mean?!

ceci n'est pas une pomme
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:11 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Very interesting. I guess I think extremely visually. Not surprising as I spent 20 years of a career working as an art director. Though I think DOING that work for so long also trained my brain to think this way.

I'm also extremely tuned into words-as-images, which is also an advertising thing. Reading "ball on table" throws the image of a pool table, low-angle, close shot of a white cue ball, green felt table, dark background, ball pushed gently but authoritatively towards camera (me) as in, "let's play—your turn to break." It's a white male hand and forearm with the sleeve rolled up, I guess the kind of person I used to play pool with. I easily associate it with the sound of billiard balls connecting or breaking.

Sadly, years of looking at stock photos has likely influenced me as well. The apple is very detailed, red-delicious shaped, but with a hint of yellow as well. Low angle shot, profile. Also a dark background and photographic image. Not an interesting shot at all. More of an illustration of an apple shot table-top.

I have been developing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in a mostly home brew setting. I've been using old habits, hitting Google Image Search to help paint pictures in my head of settings I've already imagined. Again: this was my modus operandi in the ad world. Think of a general concept, then search images to start narrowing down what I was thinking. Select images that are close to my vision, and allowing new, unexpected details to help paint the picture, setting and detail in my own skull. Collect a small library of these evocative images to look back on and possibly share with others.

Having done this work for so long (I do not pretend to be some amazing, renowned art director, just a working guy who had a moderately successful career and NEEDED to get out) I have thought about these concepts—internal visualizing and the like—very often and very hard. But this is a fun, web-based way to play with the ideas and discuss them. It's great to read others' takes on this automatic (but I think trainable) process.

Thanks for this post. I think this is a great topic for anyone and everyone to study, something we do thousands of times a day and almost never consider or reflect upon.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:14 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

Or I mean, on a crowded bus with my eyes open.

Ok, so imagine (sorry) that you are picturing Darkwing Duck standing on that bus. Does he cast a shadow on the ground or other passengers? Does he obscure your view of things behind him?
posted by klausman at 7:16 AM on February 9

klausman, it's whatever apple i want to see. If I want to see a stock image of an apple I can see the same one over and over. If I want a different apple, I just need to specify what it is. Whatever level of detail is needed is instantly there, worms, spots, colour, leaves, stem length, bruises, whatever, in full colour, 3D, or wireframe, or x-ray or whatever.

Also, I can do it with my eyes open or closed. It's not the same view surface, I guess? It's just that other people find it less disconcerting when my eyes are closed because if I'm travelling with my eyes open I'm probably not paying any attention to what I am putatively "seeing" with my eyes. And that can be creepy. Though my partner has gotten used to me staring vacantly at nothing. Yet another reason they're lovely.

And if I do the Darkwing Duck on a bus thing, no it's very clear to me that the duck isn't visually there and it doesn't obscure anything but I can trivially composite in the real world bus with the imagined duck and then act as if the duck were there. I could tell you where the shadows would fall, who would be hidden visually from me by the duck's presence, who the duck would be seeing and who would see the duck, etc. Very helpful on stage, n'cest pas?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:21 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]

Understanding the nature of one's own internal mental states, a necessary prelude to describing them, is notoriously difficult. For example, most of us have a more or less constant internal chatter running through our days. This chatter is what inducing meditative states tends to eliminate, for a time, anyway. The chatter is not audible in any sense, at least to me, but it is there nonetheless.

I have to trust the accounts of those who claim to "see" things in their imagination. "The mind's eye" is a pretty common phrase. But I cannot imagine what it is like to see things with the imagination as clearly as they appear as messages sent from the retina through the optic nerve to the brain. Nor can I claim to know what it's really like to have synesthesia, as fascinating as it is to try to understand it.

So three problems here: 1) The unreliability of self-reflection, 2) The intractable difficulty of using language to describe consciousness, and 3) The problem Thomas Nagel posed in 1974: "What is it like to be a bat?" In other words, the impossibility of really understanding another sentient being's interior experience.
posted by kozad at 7:22 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

seanmpuckett: The first Twitter question was more like "What's the first, immediate image your brain sees?" I can also imagine any variety of apple, cut, whole, wormy, brown, ripe, green, purple, blue. But what is the very first image? (edit: not calling you out specifically, not intending to say you're thinking about this in a wrong way)
posted by SoberHighland at 7:24 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

It seems as though the current experiment is testing associations (and expectations) as least as much as it is measuring the ability to visualize. That we choose a certain kind of apple, with certain kinds of apple-like details, doesn't really reflect whether or not we are capable of envisioning an apple but our favorite/strongest/most readily available idea of appleness. I think that for people who are strong visualizers, evocative bits of description, or certainly guided meditations, could allow them to produce (sorry) any sort of apple that could be imagined to exist, with additional layers of detail and sense-memory depending on whether they can store those kinds of memories or perform that kind of recall (the scent of fallen apples fermenting on the orchard ground, the sting of a sliver of peel piercing your gum as you bite?)

Very little detail is necessary to fulfill the conditions of "picture an apple", so it's interesting that some people prefer to supply more than is needed, but I don't think that it necessarily says anything about their ability to do so. My own baseline apple has a sort of a minimum necessary appleness, but I am able to change it at will to anything else I want, and am certainly influenced by my recent associations (including my daily dose of old fruit pictures). That's what my experience of visual imagination is like. Can some of those whose first image is a level 3 or 4 apple change it to a level 1, either on their own or with assistance? Can level 5s never imagine any visual representation of an apple at all, even if it is meticulously built or rebuilt in their memory through the input of non-visual senses? It seems like this is the case.
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:28 AM on February 9

At risk of universalizing my experience, I think some people misdiagnose themselves with aphantasia because stuff like this makes it seem like they should be able to experience some kind of crazy-ass HD augmented reality hallucination instead of something much more subtle and internal. I have pretty excellent visual imagination IMHO, but I don't literally see images in front of me -- it's at best an impression or memory of a ghostly afterimage that vaguely overlays or exists apart from what I actually see. You can include all kinds of detail in this mental model and imagine it from different angles, but you're still just imagining seeing the thing, not literally seeing it superimposed on your visual field. If you focus on any particular aspect (color, shape, texture, etc.), that might temporarily stand out more in the "mind's eye", while the real world defocuses a bit as you stop paying attention to it. But that's about the extent of it, at least for me.

The Aphantasia subreddit has an interesting experiment that could help people better determine how their visual imagination compares.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:29 AM on February 9 [10 favorites]

SoberHighland, it is a ghost of an apple-to-be, a myriad of possibilities waiting to become chosen by being observed in a particular context. My mind's eye is a room of requirement. If you're asking what my stereotypical apple is, I think that's probably not related to the subject of visualisation? You may as well ask what I think of when you say "locomotive" which is unrelated to whether I could imagine it down to the rivets.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:30 AM on February 9

I also wonder whether visualization is the sort of thing that people can practice. I certainly remember getting better at directions (pre-commercial GPS) after more consistently visualizing a top-down view of the world, a sort of mini-map with me on it.
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:32 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

It's really interesting to see how language doesn't help us talk about what's going on here because yeah my understanding is that "seeing an Apple" is a metaphor for conjuring the idea of an apple in your minds eye. Personally i identified with #4 (cartoonish, idealized) the most which seemed to be the most rare of the twitter replies.

It's also interesting to me that mine didn't come up more often because it's mine, doesn't everyone experience everything just like I do??
posted by bleep at 7:34 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

"If you're asking what my stereotypical apple is"

No. What is the IMMEDIATE image that pops in your head. Not the most general or common. For me I have a vivid, detailed image immediately. But I can "pull up" other versions or change the image easily.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:36 AM on February 9

Klausman, if I visualize, say, Darkwing Duck while I was on the bus, he won't be among the people on the bus with me. He's not in my "real" field of view at all. The field of vision that my eyes can see constitute only a part of the entire 360-degrees-around-plus-zenith-and-nadir extending from "me" who is slightly to the left of center inside my skull. There's an imaginary "screen" on the inside of the dome of my forehead, and another one down in my face somewhere. That's where I "see" things that I am imagining.

Another metaphor: real life that's going on, is the TV in my living room. The story on the TV. When I visualize the apple or the ball on the table, it's like looking something up on your phone while the story on the TV continues.
posted by notsnot at 7:37 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]

Is anyone else in this thread finding it incredibly frustrating at the iPhone automatically capitalizes the word Apple?
posted by klausman at 7:38 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

> What is the IMMEDIATE image that pops in your head.

I don't know if I can make it more clear that I do not have one. Good day.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:38 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

The Aphantasia subreddit has an interesting experiment that could help people better determine how their visual imagination compares.

That's one of the links in the post, just with a different Reddit layout.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:45 AM on February 9

Yeah, I have an incredibly visual minds eye. I imagine things in great detail - it's why I can't watch movies made from books I like, because I have already pictured everything in it, in great detail, including landscaping, the layouts of all the buildings, how furniture is laid out in rooms, and inevitably the film then seems all wrong and different. I suppose yeah, I'm not seeing them with my eyes, but it is like dreaming or remembering something.

What is interesting to me is I can't picture faces. At all. Those closest to me I can sort of pull up, but my imaginary, highly detailed world is full of people with effectively no faces.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:48 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

I am so visual that I cannot even see numbers as abstraction - they all have a specific orientation in space. And so it is inconceivable how people cannot visualize.

If someone asks me: Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring: Is she looking back over her left or her right shoulder?

I then "see" the painting in my mind. I can see her looking back at me and then I can answer the question. I never noted that fact down or thought specifically about which shoulder she is looking back from but it is part of my visual image of the painting.

How do non-visualizers retrieve this information? I'm just trying to understand.
posted by vacapinta at 7:55 AM on February 9 [10 favorites]

We probably don't. There was a trivia question recently about what direction the Mona Lisa was looking and I was like 'dunno'.

I actually can pull up a little flash of the girl with the pearl earring, because I read the book for bookclub, so I saw the photo a lot. On the book she's facing the spine, so I assume she is looking over her left shoulder. I can also picture (though not in great detail) Liberty Leading the People because that was on one of my textbooks in high school. I can do the Scream and one of Monet's Water Lillies and a couple of escher prints, too, because they were on the wall of my dorm room. But only because I have spent a lot of time seeing those precise images.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:01 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

I have no problems visualizing in the greatest detail with actions, reflections, sounds, smells, forward/backward, zoom, whatever. I had all of that in place by the time I finished reading the sentences. But it has to be done with my eyes open and somewhat unfocused. Closed, the images in my head are like the toys whirling and circling in Carol Anne's bedroom in "Poltergeist". They refuse to obey me and are too interesting to watch anyway...
posted by jim in austin at 8:02 AM on February 9

I also wonder whether visualization is the sort of thing that people can practice.

I think so! One exercise I used to like to do as a kid (either with my eyes closed and covered, or in a dark room while trying to fall asleep) was to choose a color and focus on it until it appeared, not just in the form of visualized memories of the appearances of things that were that color, but as a patch of brightness blooming against the dark. The size, illumination, saturation, and speed with which the color developed were all improved with practice. This was more a sort of voluntary hallucination (induced photopsia through sensory deprivation?) than the way in which I normally visualize things, but the experience of conscious visualization seems to have strengthened that ability overall.

Faces are hard. It is much easier for me to remember how someone appeared in a photograph or painting than to visualize someone I've only seen in person; if I think of someone I've seen both in photographs and in person, my mind pulls up the photograph first before providing other visual memories of them, flashes of interaction like short gifs which my brain decided were meaningful enough to store where I could find them again.
posted by notquitemaryann at 8:03 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

I have a strong visual imagination. I always have, and it's really interesting to see what others have. I hope beyond hope that it doesn't mean anything dire for us as a species.

It has occurred to me that when I visit childhood memories, I have an immediate sense of presence, of being awash in the detail of the moment, but if I ask myself specifically about that presence and that detail, I am lost for an answer. I have, for example, a memory of seeing teenagers walking from a tennis court in the early evening, looking extremely early '80s, all quiet and green. When? Where? What were their hair colors; what were their genders? Another memory of peering inside my grandmother's plastic diorama Christmas ornament: what was in it? A nativity scene? A countryside scene? I couldn't say, only that I know I was there, and the tree smelled lovely, and there were so many lights, and--was the ornament red or blue?

What's funny to me is that, for the exercise, I visualized a Honeycrisp--one green leaf, bright and waxy--not because it's my favorite apple, but because it's the most appley, visually speaking. A Red Delicious now says to me piece of crap, grown to be thrown away, not apple. My favorite apples are Ginger Golds, but they're green, so they are filed under "green apples," I guess, which is certainly 100% apple but not default.

The ball is on a single-legged dark table in a blue-gray generic room with checkerboard flooring, the kind you might have seen in a psych illustration or an experimental computer animation from the '80s. (I watched a lot of those.) The pusher is a kid, probably a little boy but not strongly gender-marked.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:11 AM on February 9

I saw this on Twitter and it reminded me of this previous discussion on Metafilter about picturing things vs. the "milk voice."

I'm now fixated on relating this to other senses. Like, if you get a song stuck in your head, what does it sound like?
posted by RobotHero at 8:16 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Faces are hard. It is much easier for me to remember how someone appeared in a photograph or painting than to visualize someone I've only seen in person ...

Something else that's interesting is that I've never been able to draw a decent likeness of my mother or father. Maybe it's that they have very nice faces, and aside from my father's beard, which varies a lot, there's not a single prominent feature that hooks the imagination to build a picture around. Or maybe (and I think this is it) it's also that I know them too well, that I have built years upon years of mental images of them that have only been overlaid, not replaced, so that somewhere inside me, I am seeing a woman in her twenties and in her sixties at the same time.

It may be related to the pang I feel inside when I see someone I have known for my whole life and really perceive that they are old now, even though I have observed this fact consistently and on schedule.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:22 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

The ball one was interesting. I don't/can't just visualize, other senses come with it. I knew what the ball felt like, its weight in your hand, how it would feel when poked, the hollow ping sound it would make on the floor when it tipped off the edge of the table, the smell of the plastic if you held it close.

But I can't place the person who pushed. Maybe it was me, maybe it was someone else. I don't really know. All I imagined was their finger and their intention to push.
posted by bonehead at 8:24 AM on February 9

Man, I really thought Aphantasia was a super rare thing- the sort of condition that would pop up on some "Astounding Medical Curiosities" list somewhere on the net. I never would have imagined so many people deal with this. I always believed that I didn't have a very good mind's eye, but seeing that I'm a 1 in this exercise, I'm feeling very lucky!
posted by Krazor at 8:31 AM on February 9

I can do the Scream...

but have you really ever seen the scream? :P
posted by kliuless at 8:33 AM on February 9

One time, before learning about aphantasia, I tried to explain to my mom that I usually don't dream in images but in concepts, like when you're reading a book. It was a little frustrating when she replied that she vividly imagines images when she reads books, which I didn't think was possible. This kind of gap in fundamental experience can be difficult to even understand.
posted by skymt at 8:45 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Though I wonder if a lot of the 5 responses have convinced themselves they need to literally see the apple, like when you picture something in your mind you need to hallucinate it in front of you or it doesn't count?
posted by RobotHero at 8:53 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

It's hard to say. My imagined apple started out very stylized like a deep red, shiny heart shaped apple from a fairy tale. Then I changed it into a Granny Smith apple at the grocery store. Then into a pink lady on my kitchen counter. But I didn't see it. If I close my eyes I see black or the backs of my eyelids. I'm imagining it. And I can do that with my eyes open or closed. I'm not sure if it is because I don't really want to imagine apples right now, or have lost some of my ability to conjure images, but it felt difficult. I think of myself as someone with an active imagination and as a visual person, but putting this on a scale is difficult because I do see black (but also apples).
posted by marimeko at 8:56 AM on February 9

When I first saw the apple question on Twitter I was like, "'Imagine an apple?' No. Why? What for? Why commit?" then I saw the pictures and was like, "Oh, I'm a 1, I know this already."

I do think visually, I guess. I remember there was a math proof, about compactness I think, where I imagined covering a room's floor with dinner plates. If you are allowed to let the dinner plates "slop over" or "ghost into" the walls, you can cover the entire floor with a finite number of plates. (You can overlap them, that's okay.) If the plates have to stay inside the walls, though, it will take infinite plates. I wonder, can non-visual thinkers see how/why?

I was pretty bad w/ (college) algebra because those things are hard to visualize. These symbols produce these other symbols and that's just kind of it. Visualizing the arithmetic is not same as being able to like, concretize the thing.
posted by fleacircus at 9:05 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

If you ask me to imagine something, I can see it exactly in "my mind's eye". But if my eyes are closed and you ask me to "picture" it on the back of my eyelid, it will take concentration and a few minutes, and if you ask me to see a giraffe, I might see a zebra instead. My mind's eye will see an image in realistic colors; the back of my eyelid will give me neon colors.
posted by acrasis at 9:07 AM on February 9

If my eyes are closed, I'm a #5. But if I open my eyes, I "see" (in my mind's eye) #1.
posted by johnxlibris at 9:09 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

My visual imagination is very poor, I've discovered. Ask me to imagine a beach and I end up with the mental equivalent of a child's scribbled drawing of water, land, and sky, with maybe a couple of those v-shaped birds, if I'm really making an effort. Which I think is one of the reasons I respond so strongly to media-based fanfic. If I've actually seen the actors, I can envision the characters more richly. Otherwise, everything I imagine is very sketchy--sort of vaguely representational, but without specificity.
posted by merriment at 9:16 AM on February 9

My visual memory is kind of like a bad AI portrait. It feels okay for a second because it's got the right general idea/feeling and the individual components are there but upon closer examination nothing fits together quite right and I can only focus on one detail at a time while the other details get fuzzy and approximate. Also, they're always moving around.

So for the ball thing, I really focused in on the movement of the ball because I thought that was what was important; I could see it start to roll through my brain as if across a table, and I just pictured a dark person-shaped blur push it. But I vividly could see it bounce a few times and start to roll and run into a cabinet.

For the cube thing, I could only picture one spinning cube and wasn't able to add another one until I flipped the way I was thinking about it and started picturing 2, 3, 4 cubes as a unit, like a group of three cubes spinning together rather than trying to keep track of multiple different cubes.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:26 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Phenomenology’s difficult.
posted by Segundus at 9:41 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

Those questions about “seeing” the extraneous detail in the imagery didn’t really make sense to me.

I've done a lot of storyboards for 3D animation - imagining the characters, the action, the environment from different camera angles, emotional and physical changes to the characters throughout overall story arcs, etc, etc, etc...and drawn all that shit out. When I read the script and take my first pass at it, I'll generally keep moving on with my first critical impressions but leave wiggle room for any subsequent direction coming down the pipe. I see a small white ball on a dark table (I’ll worry about exactly what kind of ball later when I get more info but for now, I just want the ball to read clearly against the background), then I decide the push will be a gentle poke with the finger (so that the ball stays in shot, in case that's important). The first visual I conjured up for the ball didn’t include anyone pushing it and my framing on the action was such that all I had room for was a tan, slender arm reaching into “frame”. If the next instruction requires me to imagine the person's hair and clothes, I'll do that then but I won’t visualize a lot of superfluous imagery in the first go round.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:49 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]

Like, if you get a song stuck in your head, what does it sound like?

This is me. I almost always have a song in my head, even when I'm asleep. Sometimes it's the whole song, sometimes it's select verses patched together, sometimes a remix of songs, which apparently I can do on demand. (Kesha's "Timber" x JLo's "Let's Get Loud" right now, not that I like either very much.) They're sometimes full fidelity, sometimes off in the background. Usually if I'm actively watching something or goes away. I think it's because some part of my inner self gets bored and wants some entertainment.

I had Lizzo stuck in my head for about 2 1/2 weeks, which was fine. I like Lizzo, it was different songs at different times, eventually it went away. Once I had a certain Rihanna song stuck for about a week and it seriously brought me to the edge of violence. It was not a good song and I can't even tell you the title or think about it much without it getting stuck again.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:50 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

I'm a 2 for the apple, but just because my brain won't commit. Add shiny? Sure. Make it an Arkansas Black, slice into 27 pieces, place next to a golden retriever, but 5 times the size... okay. But just "visualize an apple" isn't enough.

On the flip side, I find things without visualizations quite difficult to understand. Advanced mathematics in particular.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 9:56 AM on February 9

This was interesting. Apple was a Granny Smith for a fraction of a second, then it turned into a red one with lighter stripes radiating from the stem, probably because I prefer them.

But thinking about the ball, I didn't visualise anything apart from it being small and rolling off the table and bouncing.
posted by hat_eater at 10:21 AM on February 9

In one of Feynman's books (possibly one that was transcripts of interviews or talks) he described a conversation he'd had with a schoolmate. Feynman was arguing that thoughts were just words, and thinking was a sort of conversation with the self.

"Oh yeah?" asked his friend, "So you know the cam in your dad's car?"

"Yeah, what about it?"

"What words do you use to describe that weird twisted shape to yourself in this conversation you say you're having all the time?"

And at that point it suddenly occurred to Feynman that thoughts could be visual, too.

I think about Feynman's cam a lot when conversations about aphantasia or the mind's eye come up. How do #5 folks describe that cam to themselves?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:22 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

When I do the eyes-closed apple test, I don't just get an apple. I get a soft halo of a bit of table and the glow of some light from a cloudy day through a kitchen window somewhere. It's not a complete scene, but the apple isn't floating in blackness. It exists in a situation where an apple would likely be, and it flips around between good apples and horrible Red Delicious nonsense.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:27 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Okay, now how many of you can imagine an apple without also smelling it and remembering the context of the first stock picture of an apple that you saw? I got the hard covers of a long ago elementary school text book and their texture and colour as background noise.

Was the hardest part of imagining the apple was the alternation of with a bite out of it/without a bite out of it making it hard to see the colour mottling of the skin because when ever you looked the tooth marks took it down to pulp?

I didn't see the person who pushed the ball. But I know they were white, had bare wrists, had short fingers and child sized proportions. And nicely trimmed fingernails. Clean ones.

I think... it must have been me because I was seeing from close behind the back of the hands. But that's not what my hands look like anymore.

D'you know what an island drawing is? It's where the thing you want to draw is splam in the middle of the page surrounded my negative space. So when you imagine things, what is your negative space? Does it have texture? Colour? How much does it change?

What about the light on your apple and your ball? Can you tell which side the light is coming from and the shadow? I saw my balls shadow as it rolled off the table and the shadow growing and decreasing getting clearer and fading as the ball bounced... not sure what the floor was, but it was white, probably a piece of paper. The bounce shadows turned the image into a simple set of animation or how to draw frames, I guess.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:35 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

"Close your eyes and imagine an apple. What do you see?"

A cheese steak sub, 'cause fuck that apple.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:42 AM on February 9 [5 favorites]

Would be interesting to get responses to these things from different cultures. Probably all of us here grew up with children's picture-books with apples, or saw things like Sesame Street and cartoon apples that meant APPLE to our growing brains.

But what about from a pre-printed book era, or cultures where kids books were not omni-present? Or no supermarkets? People who knew apples from being on trees and saw them growing and ripening all year long, then kept in baskets underground in the winter? It would likely be a very different response.

That's why the ball rolling on a table example was so fascinating to me! So many different possibilities and scenarios, balls, tables, rolling speeds and intentions, etc. I threw that one out to my wife, and she had a very different ball in her mind than my billiards cue-ball. She saw a bright-colored striped beach ball, grapefruit sized. And we both grew up in similar cultures.

And for smell? I STILL imagine a scratch-n-sniff book I had as a child with an apple with a weird, vaguely "fruity" smell. Even though the vast majority of apple experiences I've had since then are NOTHING like that one.
posted by SoberHighland at 10:48 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I was pretty bad w/ (college) algebra because those things are hard to visualize.

I got through second year with functional visualization, but complex analysis defeated me. Loved group theory though. And so, naturally, I went into spectroscopy.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

The ball test was interesting to me. I vividly imagined the ball, could see how it rolled and its entire trajectory as it fell off the table, but it was only on reading the questions that I realized that I hadn't actually visualized the person pushing it at all. The ball post draws a distinction between "visualizing" and "conceptualizing". I had visualized the ball but conceptualized the person pushing it. It's possible for me to mix those two modes in a single scene, even with things that touch and interact.

(For what it's worth, when I read prose I usually conceptualize without visualizing, unless there's a very visual description.)
posted by baf at 11:04 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Immediately visualized a very detailed, vivid picture of a red delicious apple sitting on a kitchen counter that was impossibly similar to my kitchen counter but clearly not in my kitchen, in that sort of dreamworld-y way. My next reaction was to think that red delicious is the most boring apple in existence and wonder why I hadn't pictured a Granny Smith instead, since approximately 99% of the whole, uncooked apples I eat are green and not red. Probably just that kindergarten-level mental programming is hard to shake.

For the ball on a table, I immediately pictured a beach ball - the classic multicolored inflatable kind like this - sitting on a pool table. The person was totally un-visualized (though I can tell you the pool table was in a kind of dimly-lit and semi-empty bar) but when the person gave it a push it just kind of floated nonchalantly off the table like an air-filled balloon would if you gave it a gentle swat. Which is not how an actual beachball would behave, so I dunno. Some odd mixed metaphors going on there.

In both cases, for me, there's a kind of dreamlike, there-but-not-there quality to the background info around what I've been asked to visualize, which makes me wonder what dreams are like for non-visualizer people.

A cheese steak sub, 'cause fuck that apple.

This thread is really making me hungry.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:06 AM on February 9

When asked to "visualize an apple," I don't. I conceptualize an apple. If I concentrate very specifically, almost meditatively, I can slowly draw together the visual elements of an apple. But it's very conscious and very intentional. Just saying "think of an apple" doesn't make anything like an image appear in my head. Sometimes just before dozing off I can feel my mode of thinking switch from conceptualizing to visualizing, and I like to stay in that space for as long as I can.

But if I'm told to visualize an apple, what I can do immediately is call to mind other times I've looked at an apple. Like: I can instantly call up an image of standing in the grocery store and looking at the display of apples. I can move my perspective from the red delicious to the granny smith to the galas and the honeycrisps. It feels visual, although I wouldn't testify that my memory is accurate to the actual grocery store. And I can't, say, reach into the display and pick up an apple and rotate it in my hand, since I didn't do that in the grocery store. But it's something in between being totally aphantasmic and having a mind's eye in the usual sense.
posted by penduluum at 11:16 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I think about Feynman's cam a lot when conversations about aphantasia or the mind's eye come up. How do #5 folks describe that cam to themselves?

I have a degree of space sense for what's happening with a cam, independent of image. Also, as a computer person, I roughly conceptualize it as a function that takes the cam position as an input and outputs the various valve positions.
posted by wotsac at 11:34 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

This is perfect neutral content for our time. Apolitical, victimless, mundane, pointless, and everyone's hot take is equally valid.
posted by glonous keming at 11:38 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]

I'm exactly with you on that, pendulum. My apple has to be a specific apple, or at least an amalgam of specific apple traits that I've seen. I can call to mind apples as I've seen them on supermarket racks, in someone's packed lunch, on a tree in my garden, rotting on the ground, or half-eaten and left on the arm of the sofa by one of my kids. The other thing I can do is imagine elements of a specific apple. I can picture the flexible woodiness of the stalk, the mushy brownness of a bruise, the shape and texture of the calyx. Specific skin patterns may come to mind - a matte russet or a shiny red. But these are all remembered aspects of apples I've seen. What I cannot in any way do is bring an apple to mind in any way that's as immediate as if I went to the fruit bowl and actually looked at one. Everything I 'see' when I imagine something visual has the feeling of memory, because I'm patching it together from remembered elements.
posted by pipeski at 11:40 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Though I wonder if a lot of the 5 responses have convinced themselves they need to literally see the apple, like when you picture something in your mind you need to hallucinate it in front of you or it doesn't count?

I'm not sure what this even means. The question was "what do you see?" In what non-literal way am I supposed to be understanding this question in order to get a "better" score than 5? Because my answer is that I see the inside of my eyelids, maybe vague shapes or lines or blobs in sort of a vague fleshy purple and a greenish opposite. It's exactly the same thing I see as when I close my eyes and imagine an elephant, a galaxy, jazz, stamp collecting, long division or apathy.

Just a couple of hours ago my spouse was watching someone carving and painting The Count from Sesame Street in wood. She asked me, "isn't he more purple than that?" The Count was one of my favorite characters for years in childhood, and purple is my favorite color. I answered "I think he has a purple cape." I was wrong. His cape is black and his skin is kind of lavender and that's exactly what she was talking about.
posted by Foosnark at 11:41 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I'd bet Plato gets a 6.
posted by bonehead at 12:05 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

When I saw this, I also thought of Richard Feynman due to an anecdote in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!:
I keep making up examples. For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they're all excited. As they're telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set (one ball) — disjoint (two balls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn't true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say "False!"
I remember reading that as a 14-year-old and wondering what mental wizardry this was. For me, trying to visualize things like that feels like trying to hold shapes in place on a vertical nonstick surface. I can manage as many about as many shapes as I could manage to hold in place with my fingers, but add more or ask me to move them around and some of them will start slipping away. And even then, it's not like actually being able to see the shape, it's more that I have an intellectual knowledge "that's a red triangle, that's a smaller blue square".
posted by Lexica at 12:20 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Feynman also described an experiment he did in college where he told someone to estimate how long a minute was, and he'd time it and see how accurate they were.

Then he did the same experiment, and mentioned various random numbers to them while the minute ticked away. With some people, hearing the numbers completely messed up their ability to estimate how long a minute was. With other people, it had no effect at all.

He figured out that the ones who messed up were counting out the seconds in their head, so his mentioning of numbers could cause them to lose track. For others, they were imagining the second hand of a clock in their head, and his speaking out of numbers had no effect on their image.
posted by eye of newt at 1:24 PM on February 9 [7 favorites]

Oh I also realised that with the apple exercise I taste the apple much more clearly than I see it. Is that true for others?
posted by lollusc at 2:19 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

I was pretty bad w/ (college) algebra because those things are hard to visualize.

What's interesting about this question to me is that I'm a solid 1-2 if I am trying - I can pick an object, rotate it, examine it, although it's kind of fuzzy - but I don't have any -tendency- to think in a visual way. I found algorithms and algebra much more intuitive than calculus because there was nothing to conceptualize that required geometry - no curves or planes.

Also, if I picture something, by default it's floating in an abstract black void.
posted by solarion at 2:34 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

He figured out that the ones who messed up were counting out the seconds in their head, so his mentioning of numbers could cause them to lose track. For others, they were imagining the second hand of a clock in their head, and his speaking out of numbers had no effect on their image.

I think that's too fine or narrow a distinction. It's possible to roughly estimate a period of time without thinking about it at all, just going by "feel" of the length demanded. I, for example, am pretty good at knowing when lengths of time like 30 minutes or an hour have passed in normal circumstance just by bodily familiarity of some sort. I'm not counting seconds or picturing a clock, I'm just used to a certain physical routine and can more or less use that to judge duration. Outside familiar settings or if engaged in something mentally involving that feeling can be mistaken by intensity of other competing signals.

In much the same way, I'm not sure these kinds of tests work in quite the way they allege. Since most of us can in fact recognize an apple when we see one right away, we are carrying an image of apple within us but when faced with particular questions or wording asking to call up that image or physical knowledge of appleness some draw a blank or lessened figure. That can be potentially laid as much on the form or response of/to interrogation as the ability to visualize or recall.

There are many ways to conceptualize that don't demand a specific kind of response, that some of us favor one over others initially doesn't necessarily suggest the others aren't still implicitly there in some fashion as habitualization and experience can also shape how we conjure thoughts. Exposure to different media, books, movies, computers, can create different analogies for how we see/imagine things that aren't necessarily innate, but remembered or recreated to fit familiar form. Not having access to that kind of immediate translation from concept to image doesn't necessarily mean the images aren't stored any more than it means the manner of access request doesn't fit normal routine or use.

Given there is ability to adapt writing to image, shift between concept and image, and other mental cognitive approach suggests there is a learned aspect in addition to some of the other more built in seeming functions involved, like memory and sensory differences. Our physical selves and our reporting of self through conceptualizing physical inputs are I think more complex than these kinds of exercises show and might well make it seem like the range of differences are larger than they might be.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:40 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]

If someone asks me: Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring: Is she looking back over her left or her right shoulder?

How do non-visualizers retrieve this information? I'm just trying to understand.

I'm not exactly a non-visualizer; I'm a vague visualizer. I doubt I would ever be able to do what you're describing - retrieve information by calling up an image that I couldn't also retrieve without the image. I probably never paid enough attention to whatever the thing is in the first place to have stored an accurate image of it. That famous picture of God reaching down to touch Adam's finger - is God to the right or the left of Adam? I don't know. I can picture it either way. Hairstyle (or even hair color) of someone I see regularly? I probably have only a vague idea and it might be wrong. My daughter quizzes me about things sometimes, like the shape of my car's headlights (I was completely wrong about that) or the logo of the ski area where we have season passes. (My first thought was, It doesn't have one, which I immediately realized must be wrong; everything has a logo. But I couldn't bring it to mind, though it looked familiar when I saw it.)

My mental image of my car includes information like which side the gas cap is on or where the window buttons are. But that's not exactly visual information and I don't need to study the visual image to retrieve it. If I try something trickier, like where exactly on the front passenger seat are those little cuts in the seat cushion, looking at an image in my mind isn't all that helpful. It's not like the image could contain information I don't consciously know. It helps to picture myself sitting in the passenger seat, looking at the cuts and feeling them. But I'm not pulling up a stored picture, I'm using my memory of being in the car in real life to help me construct one, trying out different possibilities and deciding which one fits best with memory. The tactile memory of touching the cuts as I sit there seems as helpful as any visual memory. And I'm really not sure, even after spending a few minutes thinking about it, whether I'm picturing the cuts in the right place.
posted by Redstart at 2:49 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Comparing it to being in a dark room and seeing a photograph flash up on an ohp, I think of seeing as a process like a) feeling the sudden brightness, b) experiencing that flash of an image, c) understanding the image, d) remembering the image.

Visualising things or hearing a song stuck in my head is like c) and d) have happened. The content of the image or sound has been generated from somewhere internally, understood and remembered. Occasionally I get a bit of b), like a hallucination of a spider in my peripheral vision, or starting at a non existent someone yelling my name over the wind. Experiencing a) without it actually being a real event would see me visiting a doctor.
posted by lucidium at 2:56 PM on February 9

Dr. Stephen Kosslyn is kind of the go-to guy for mental imagery, and has come up with some very revealing thought experiments.


For me, such mental imagery will favor my earliest impressions, so I'm seeing a small misshapen crab apple, with varying colors and blemishes, such as grew in a neighboring yard, and that I picked as a child. They were bitter and basically inedible, but they were still apples, and that bitter taste also factors in to my mental image type 1.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:46 PM on February 9

Hmm— fascinating.

I’m a solid five, if I close my eyes and block out all light (and wait for my photoreceptors to chill) I just see pure black, if I imagine anything, nothing changes.

But I have an invisible view of anything. If you asked me to describe the view outside my hotel window during my last trip, I could tell you, draw it out, know the distances to elements, colours, right down to things in windows and iron railings, and more— essentially describe it as if it were a photo— but I never see or imagine anything.

It’s like my mind is spinning up a little siloed process to deal with pulling that memory, then my conscious can query it, without ever having access to the actual view.
posted by Static Vagabond at 4:08 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

... you need to hallucinate it in front of you or it doesn't count? ... I'm not sure what this even means. The question was "what do you see?"

According to Kosslyn's mental imagery experimental results, mental images occur in an ovoid field, roughly at forehead level, which are "projected" out in front of your head, but are experienced and known as being "in your mind".
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:16 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I'm also a solid five. Whether thinking, reading or being asking to "picture" something, I just *think* it, platonic indeed. Even in the example from the Dr. Kosslyn link just above, when asked if a fox has pointed ears, I just know that a fox does - I don't need to picture it first. And I pictured nothing at all in the pushing a ball to make it roll or multiple spinning cubes. I think about them and I have them in my mind somehow.

But I am also horrible at visualization and directions. I give up after the first two sentences of a description of a house, landscape, battle or even person when reading. Most of the time I don't feel like I miss out but sometimes I think it would be fun to have a movie in my head like so many describe.

My dreams are very visual and vivid however. And if you straight out ask me to make an image of an apple in my head, I can. But I don't see (ha!) the point.
posted by mephisjo at 4:29 PM on February 9

This is such a weird topic for me, because I'm an extremely visual, tactile and auditory thinker. I worked as a animation storyboard artist for years, and after reading a script I would close my eyes and just 'watch' multiple versions of the scenes I needed to draw play out in various ways. I was surprised and sort of freaked out when a friend told me she didn't dream in film grammar. On the other hand, i've always found pure abstractions hard to comprehend until I found some sort of visual analog. For instance, road maps (like the old Los Angeles Thomas Guides) were a real headache to deal with, but once Google maps started using arial photography (and that awesome tilt feature) it all made sense to me spatially, although I still suffer from what Chidi Anagonye calls "directional insanity."

I'm really curious about how people who don't visualize experience dreams. Is there a narrative, or just a series of emotional states?
posted by biddeford at 4:38 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

What is interesting to me is I can't picture faces. At all. Those closest to me I can sort of pull up, but my imaginary, highly detailed world is full of people with effectively no faces.

I'm a pretty good visualizer too, and face blind, and ditto. They're different areas in the brain! So this is not uncommon for people who are face blind.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:44 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

When I dream it's like I'm wandering around in real life, I am seeing, hearing, smelling things as if they are happening. It's not like I can't visualize while awake but it is not at all natural for me.
posted by mephisjo at 4:46 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I saw a green apple on a black background. What does that mean?!

like me, you're probably a Beatles fan.
posted by philip-random at 5:16 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

I imagined both the apple and the ball as how they would feel, not how they would look. I also imagined the parts of the apple, the bottom, near the stem, the thinness of the skin, the taste, without seeing the whole. And the ball was slightly fuzzy. I completely ignored the person.
posted by usedsongs at 5:42 PM on February 9

I’m a 5 and I start art school next week!
posted by oluckyman at 5:54 PM on February 9

You beat me to the punch.

What is the correlation between those with aphantasia and art, specifically visualization?

My art history is rusty, but I swear there was some correlation between art styles, and an odd theory or two about why certain styles were more prevalent in certain periods.

Also, how many of you who self-identify as aphatasic are able to draw/paint/illustrate?
posted by daq at 6:11 PM on February 9

Okay so I have a follow up. For people who are 1/0 on the apple scale, is the picture stable or is it constantly shifting around, morphing, switching perspectives, etc.?

I ask because I can imagine a fairly detailed scene — maybe a bit more impressionist than a 1 but more detailed than a 2 — but I can’t for the life of me keep it still. The more I try, the more it perversely starts spinning around or otherwise misbehaving. It makes doing “guided visualization” exercises really distracting.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:26 PM on February 9

I expect visual artists who create imagined scenes are gifted visualisers. Alex Ross, for example.
But I don’t see (!) why realist artists need be. Landscapes, portraits, still lifes etc. are within the reach of aphantasiacs like me.
I suspect visualisation helps with abstract art.
posted by oluckyman at 6:28 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I'm a VERY intense visualizer. I hate it. Every horror story that comes from the news, every description of suffering, every crazy nightmare I've absorbed from my own imagination or some movie I've seen... I visualize it so vividly -- and largely involuntarily -- that I could probably write novels. I once described it to an acquaintance and he said, very unhelpfully, "Dude, I just kill myself if I were you". I try not to engage too deeply with it for fear that I'd just end up curled into a fetal position for the rest of my life. #ThisIsWhyIDrinkTooMuch

That said, I do have a pretty good ability to lucid dream and I'm guessing that's not unrelated and that's been quite a gift.
posted by treepour at 6:37 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

If someone asks me: Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring: Is she looking back over her left or her right shoulder?

How do non-visualizers retrieve this information? I'm just trying to understand.

I have the vague factual memory that the window is on the left side of the painting, and she's not going to be back lit, so she must be vaguely aligned with the window. It's the girl with the pearl EarRing, and if she was looking over her right shoulder, the ear ring would be hidden or look weird. So it must be her left.
posted by wotsac at 7:46 PM on February 9

Having looked it up... no window. And various other color and textural details that did occur to me are also inaccurate.
posted by wotsac at 7:48 PM on February 9

I have no idea if what is in my head is the image of an object or just the sense of recognition that comes with seeing an object. This seems to be unaffected by whether I’ve encountered the object in real life; for example, an apple that is purple.
posted by um at 8:15 PM on February 9

Oh huh, I completely misread the ball experiment, and thought the person walked up and pushed the table to get the ball to roll off. I could imagine that person, but the face was nebulous and I couldn't give details if I tried.

But if I imagine someone touching the ball, it's just a closeup of the hand and ball with the person out of shot. Brains are so wild.
posted by lesser weasel at 9:37 PM on February 9

I guess I'm a 1 -- immediately conjured a... pink lady, maybe? It was very matte, not shiny, and I could see the mottled texture and spots and the stem and everything. I could feel it, too, as if I was running my fingers over the skin.

The ball was, for some reason, a golf ball on a pool table, down to the dimples in the ball, the wood painted gold with embellishments on the side of the table, and the person pushing the ball was an overweight brown-haired man (I am none of those things, so it wasn't me) in a blue shirt and jeans, who walked up to the table, rested his four fingers on the ball, pulled it slightly toward him, then rolled it away (like, there was a wind-up.) It rolled to the end of the table, bounced off the bumper, and came to a stop.

I've always had a strong imagination.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 2:18 AM on February 10

I've commented on these threads before, but just as a data point:

No apple at all. If you say the apple is red then I can picture a hazy version of a red color but no apple.

I can't picture my wife's face, my own face, or my house.

Despite this I am a very visual person in learning style and I'm really good at some visual things (i.e. spotting differences in photos).

I can navigate through a city just fine but I probably do it differently than you.

I can play music in my head, though.
posted by mmoncur at 4:34 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

I'm a 5. I can't picture anything. I'm still astonished to read that people can actually see things in their heads. I'm not entirely convinced that they're not making it up and that it's all a metaphor.

My brain compensates for this by storing visual information conceptually in some sort of mental equivalent of a relational database.

When I learned about the concept of aphantasia, it explained a few things. I've never really enjoyed hard science fiction or other fiction that relied heavily on describing the environment, as I could not picture it - I read fiction mostly for plot and for reading about what happened to the characters. I also realized that if I want to remember something, I either need to write it down or say it over and over to myself.

Like mmoncur above, I can play music in my head.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 7:55 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

I'm not entirely convinced that they're not making it up and that it's all a metaphor.

I can rotate objects based on imagining them or seeing plans/schematics of them. It's a very useful skill when, say, designing a house or trying to figure out a chemical reaction. Funnily enough, my close family are Chemistry professors, Architects and Industrial Designers.

Feynman's trick, as described above, is very familiar, indeed builds on the way analytical mechanics are taught in at least most NA universities. In first year, most students are taught a technique called free-body analysis, which is very much what Feynman describes, and which was very familiar to him, as seen through his lecture notes. It's a very powerful tool for applied math through to engineering.

On the other hand, my wife can hear a melody in her head by reading sheet music, a skill that utterly mystifies me.
posted by bonehead at 8:16 AM on February 10

I'm curious how memory works for those with aphantasia. Not like childhood memories, but can you visualize things you've actually seen recently? Can you see your most recent meal or recall your most recent conversation?

I don't consider myself to have a particularly good visual imagination, and I certainly don't "see" things when I visualize them. But a coworker was in my office 5 minutes ago, and I can still visualize what he looked like, at least in basic detail.

So for me, when you tell me to picture an apple, the immediate image in my head is the spot on my kitchen counter where we have apples in a basket. If pressed, I can "imagine" holding an apple or visualize a different-looking apple, but my go-to is memory rather than imagination. Similarly, the ball from the visualization exercise looks like the Pixar ball, but it was on my own kitchen table, which I saw just this morning.

So for those with aphantasia, are your memories concepts rather than images? Or can you "see" your memories but nothing else?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:40 AM on February 10

I'm curious how memory works for those with aphantasia. Not like childhood memories, but can you visualize things you've actually seen recently? Can you see your most recent meal or recall your most recent conversation?

I can't visualize anything at all that I've seen recently. My brain will store interesting/relevant recent visual data conceptually - well enough that if you wore a shirt that was a particularly bright shade of purple, I will be able to recall that you have a shirt of that colour if you wear it again.

I can hear things in my mind's ear, so I can usually recall recent conversations.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 8:45 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

I also wonder whether visualization is the sort of thing that people can practice.

After reading articles about aphantasia, I sometimes try visualizing things. But I soon have to give up, as it's a mental strain. It's the mental equivalent of trying to lift a rock that is too heavy for me.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:20 AM on February 10

I can't visualize anything at all that I've seen recently. My brain will store interesting/relevant recent visual data conceptually - well enough that if you wore a shirt that was a particularly bright shade of purple, I will be able to recall that you have a shirt of that colour if you wear it again.

That's fascinating. Thanks for answering.

On the other hand, my wife can hear a melody in her head by reading sheet music, a skill that utterly mystifies me.

Yeah, I can do that too, but I expect that's just a different sort of language skill. Like I know what words sound like in languages I am familiar with, and can even sound out Greek because some of the letters are close to Cyrillic and I studied Russian in college, but I can't look at Japanese or Korean writing and have any clue of what it sounds like. I can look at sheet music and hear what it should sound like because I have a lot of experience reading sheet music.

Also, on a separate point, count me amount those with a constant song and/or internal monologue in my head constantly, must stronger than any visualization, which I can do with effort.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:28 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

This was fun!

- I can visualise an object with photo-realism, if it's simple enough - yes to an apple, no to a bicycle - but only for a split-second. I can't hold an image in my mind, I have to just keep re-imagining it. Like trying to tense a muscle that immediately releases again. I can't keep it there long enough to look at more closely - like something in a fairy tale, if I try to look straight at it, it disappears.

- It's much easier with my eyes open. With my eyes closed, the apple is black, because... well, it's dark in here, I can't see colours.

- I can't really visualise continuous motion, just a momentary snippet of movement. I'm not sure if that's just because I can't hold an image for long enough for it to make any progress at moving, or if it's also something about the need to imagine the passing of time with accuracy when time generally runs much faster inside my head than in reality. I can't, for instance, imagine walking from my house to the station, even though I do that every day. Or actually watch the ball roll across and off the table. Or keep the cubes spinning. Counting sheep is right out.

- I can't really visualise people either, including myself. I can get a split-second image of a friend or relative's face, but it's just a fleeting impression, it's not as well-defined as the apple (people's faces are complex), and it's more likely to be a memory of a photograph than something drawn from life. The ball on the table is a specific ball (blue juggling ball) on a specific table (my kitchen table), but who pushed it? Just a concept of a person. In the book I just read, what does the protagonist look like? She's got reddish-brown skin (important plot point), but I don't know what her hair looks like, or how tall she is, or what colour her eyes are, or what her clothes look like.

- I have a constant internal monologue (and constant internal music radio station as well). As a child I wondered what it would be like to just stop thinking, to have that voice fall silent for a moment. It was panic-inducing - how would I ever start thinking again?

- But I dream in a graphically rich world, with movement and colour and recognisable people and everything.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:24 AM on February 10

Count me in as someone who literally can't visualize anything.

I do however have intensely visual dreams and I assume that maybe what good visualizers are talking about is a bit like that.

I also make art. I'm (fairly) good at drawing or painting something I'm looking right at and reasonably good at complete abstracts. I'm also a very good photographer. But what I absolutely can't do is draw something, anything, without a reference.

I first learned that the way I experience the world was a bit "odd" when I actually got in an argument with a cognitive psychology professor who claimed that all thought was image based. He simply refused to believe me.
posted by mkuhnell at 10:30 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

Random thought: Is the high percentage of aphantasics (?) in this thread a reflection of the population as a whole, or are they subconsciously (or consciously) drawn to a text-only website?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:45 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

An interesting game I used to play in high school was seeing if I could mentally travel with my dad after I called him to pick me up from school. I would visualize the 10 min trip as if I was sitting in the car with him. One time I got it exactly right, which was pretty awesome (it helps that there were no stoplights in the route).

I do a lot of mental manipulation to get things oriented correctly in my head. For the Girl with the Pearl Earring example, I visualize the painting, then either rotate my position or the painting so I can see which way she is facing. I need to use my body to orient L/R positions, so I do a lot of mental manipulation. I'll even move my hands as if I'm rotating the visual object to get it in the right position.

I currently work with a lot of maps and construction plots, so it's been an interesting exercise getting everything aligned to North. I'm used to maps having north=top, so having a rotated plan to fit into the page has been really exercising my visualization muscles. I also have to do a lot of walkthroughs without photos, so I'm comparing my mental map/photo with past maps/aerial photos, the current plans and future changes (not to mention visualizing equivalent points inside & outside of buildings).

I guess I didn't realize how much mental visualization is now a part of my identity, so it would be weird not to have the ability!
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 10:50 AM on February 10

Another 5 here. If you tell me to imagine an apple, I can sort of vaguely imagine a motion drawing a silhouette of a cartoonish apple, but that's all.

I also don't dream, or at least I can't remember my dreams. I remember exactly two dreams over the last 20 years, both nightmares, and mostly I remember the anguish associated with them.

My memory is weird. I remember a lot of trivia and stories, and now that I think of it, these are things that I experienced in words, either reading or listening. Though I have a hard time learning things by rote.

My personal memories are extremely bad, and mostly I remember the emotions associated with them, or the concepts. My earliest memory is visiting the "big" school at age 4, nearly 5, and getting a chocolate bar for my troubles. I don't see any images, or remember any sounds or smells, for that matter. In fact, at that point I'm pretty sure I only remember remembering, if that makes sense.
posted by snakeling at 2:12 PM on February 10

Thank you for posting this--depressingly, I cannot visualize any sort of imagery (apple, ball-on-table, takeaway coffee mug with paper heat sleeve).

Can I describe for you what I imagine is a Starbucks takeaway coffee cup?
-White Paper Matte Cup
-Paper Overlap ridge where they glue it
-Green lid with semi-oval drink hole
-Small puncture for air (with little plastic wings pushed up and a lighter-color by the puncture area)
-Strange mermaid logo, TM symbol on the lower right
-Made from consumer recycled material notifier on underside of cup bottom; trademark info
-Squares with text beside them to denote order details (don't remember what they actually say...)
-Light stain where coffee overflowed during pour

Trying to actually see this with closed eyes, mental focus, is completely headache-inducing and impossible! And as I mentioned, depressing. Because I know what that coffee cup should look like. Could I imagine a "brown" Starbucks cup? Yes. But I wouldn't be able to see it, which is sad.
posted by Khazk at 3:39 PM on February 10

Okay, if I were to assume we mean literally see an apple as a result of imagining it, rather than just imagine it, I find I can sort of see an approximate fuzzy version of what I'm imagining? But it feels a lot like when you force yourself to switch between seeing the rabbit and the duck in that optical illusion? Like I'm willingly ignoring the parts of nothingness that don't look like the thing I'm imagining in order to recognize the parts that do.

But the original thing that I'm imagining, that's dead easy. And imagining it still feels like a visual act, even if it's not engaging the visual recognition part of my brain like actual seeing does.

This idea of "imagining" a Starbucks cup, I can only comprehend that as a visual act. I doubt there's any reason to memorize a series of facts about the Starbucks cup, so I can only imagine that as engaging with a visual memory in some way.

Like Segundus said, phenomenology’s difficult.
posted by RobotHero at 4:47 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]

Previously on Metafilter:

- 2015: Methinks I see my father. -Where, my lord?
- 2016: How it feels to be blind in your mind (Blake Ross story)
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:28 AM on February 11

How many cubes can you spin in your mind at once? That's your cubescore.
I am so amused by this as a thought experiment because I'm a visual thinker but can't visually assess a number greater than about 5 or so. Like, I can spin a whole field of cubes but now you want me to count them? That's unpossible.

I've been aware from quite early in life that lots of people don't see pictures in their mind. I'm visual but also wordy: doing word association I get a visual result and a simultaneous verbal result, they don't usually match up.

(It was a plastic foam yellow ball, smooth on the outside - and I can smell it - with a raggedy line all around from the manufacture. It was a cheap pine square child-sized table. The ball-pusher was a guy and I think this is more interesting because he was generic and vague, was white and average in every single way, was wearing a dark jacket and unmatching dark trousers and looked more like a cartoon than a person. So I suppose that's my mental pattern for the category of 'person who animates internet examples of processes', whereas the objects he manipulated were much more from my actual sensory experience. He was careful to push the ball gently so it didn't roll more than a foot and thus stayed on the small table)

So I got all that in the initial calling to mind of someone pushing a ball on a table, I'm able to relate it because I've had a habit since childhood of watching my thoughts as they pass by. It's nifty and fun! It's interesting to me the ball-pusher was generic while the rest was so specific. Of course my life experiences don't figure in theoretical internet set-ups AT ALL and so real-life characters and types familiar to me also don't feature in said set-ups, even though objects and things with less emotional resonance do.

I remember being at an art show once where cupboards and dressing tables (evoking domestic space) were arranged in the gallery which had rails of thick copper piping protruding from the walls. If you held the piping and then touched a piece of furniture, the furniture produced music. Now there was a key painted on the wall to explain, and it was a silhouette of a person, definitely male and quite tall, filled in with stars and planets on a midnight cosmic background. The silhouette was shown making the right connections to activate the singing furniture. I had not a hope of understanding it as the instruction it was, because that silhouette was so definitely not me nor anyone I was aligned to. (And not that their bits were shown at all but the person was nude, like absolutely noone else in the gallery - talk about decontextualising! It was a very good example of trying to create some kind of universal understanding while actively preempting communication with more than half the intended audience.)

I don't know if I'm making any kind of point, apart from how interesting the ways our senses inform the way we grasp ideas are, and there is a tremendous variety in how individuals manage that process. Also that our internal category templates are beautifully various as well, and it's a shame if there is a monopoly of representation. So it's nice to talk about.
posted by glasseyes at 7:37 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Okay, from the Methinks I see my father. -Where, my lord? previous thread, someone does make the distinction between sight and sound.
... I don't really "see" mental images in the same way that I "hear" music in my head ...
For me it feels very much the same sort of thing with different senses. I can play a song in my head, or imagine the taste of strawberries, or the texture of sandpaper. If aphantasia allows for all those but with the specific exclusion of visual imagination, that's a good basis for comparison.
posted by RobotHero at 7:57 AM on February 11

I first learned that the way I experience the world was a bit "odd" when I actually got in an argument with a cognitive psychology professor who claimed that all thought was image based. He simply refused to believe me.

I first learned that the way I experience the world was odd when I wrote a short poem referencing the blackness in your mind out of which comes the voice which describes everything you think to yourself, assuming this was everyone's universal experience. My teacher assured me it wasn't.
posted by penduluum at 1:13 PM on February 12

Apples comic
posted by RobotHero at 1:37 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

But yes, from the "milk voice" in the previously link, I used the same example of how characters in movies think with words, and being astonished there were people who would really do that, like they habitually talk to themselves in their head, giving themselves instructions or something.
posted by RobotHero at 1:42 PM on February 12

In an attempt to close tabs, I've finally read this post.

I have no mind's eye, but do have hugely vivid, cinematic dreams and an encyclopedic memory for where things are located. We have three bookcases with each shelf two or three rows deep but name any book we own and I can find it in seconds. Weirdly, I lack the ability to say where it is. I have to physically get it. Sometimes there are exceptions, like when I was on the phone with my bestie the day after I had been to her house and I told her where her drivers license was after she mentioned she couldn't find it. But otherwise, this location sense of mine feels, to me, entirely like muscle memory, even though that can't possibly be logical.
posted by Ruki at 8:05 AM on February 18

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