Mind's Eye not always metaphorical, linked to memory?
June 30, 2020 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Australian study finds links between aphantasia & autobiographic memory deficiencies. 26 per cent of aphantasic study participants reported a broader lack of multi-sensory imagery – including imagining sound, touch, motion, taste, smell and emotion. “This is the first scientific data we have showing that potential subtypes of aphantasia exist,” says Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper and Director of UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab.
Interestingly, spatial imagery – the ability to imagine distance or locational relationship between things – was the only form of sensory imagery that had no significant changes across aphantasics and people who could visualise.

Original paper in full, A cognitive profle of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia, Alexei J. Dawes, Rebecca Keogh, Thomas Andrillon & Joel Pearson
Alternate writeup

Aphantasia previously
Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory previously

As is common when this sort of topic comes up conversationally, be careful about universalizing your experience/ruling out other people's experiences.
posted by CrystalDave (31 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend with this! They have said before that they always thought ‘counting sheep’ as a sleep aid was a metaphor.

It makes sense that we’d see impacts on autobiographical memory. The fact that spatial cognition doesn’t seem to be impacted though—that’s interesting to me. It’s something I’m particularly bad at, so I do wonder what it’s linked to instead.
posted by brook horse at 6:31 PM on June 30 [3 favorites]

It's been clear to me for a few months since first someone suggested to me I might be aphantasic that I am; that same person recently wrote about SDAM and I'm not only equally sure about that but literally just the other day was wondering to what degree my inability to picture my past might also hinder my inability to picture a future. And there's the study author suggesting indeed there's a link there.
posted by theonetruebix at 6:53 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

I have a friend with this! They have said before that they always thought ‘counting sheep’ as a sleep aid was a metaphor.

It's a funny thing.

If I lie down in the dark and try to count sheep, then as each sheep goes over the fence, what I get is an impression of movement - a kind of abstracted sheep, where I'm aware that there is an obstacle, a series of events involving a moving object getting by it by going over the top of it, and that the events are repeating and therefore countable.

If you press me for details on any of the objects involved I can reconstruct them; the moving object has wool, and wool is soft and smells of lanolin (with a whiff of sheepshit as the back end goes by, and maybe a touch of toejam); I can even tell you what colour the sheep are (kind of beige by default, but I can make them any colour you want) but all of this is representation-building by back-construction; what it is not like at all is re-witnessing a scene from which all these objects were originally identified and their attributes abstracted. And while doing that reconstruction, I completely lose track of the original obstacle-and-countable-jump-events model. It just evaporates.

I'm completely convinced that this is all of a piece with the extreme difficulty I have in making, from memory, drawings that look even the slightest bit realistic. You want diagrams that show functional relationships between things to arbitrary levels of detail? I'm your guy. Make an accurate tracing? Easy. Draw me a specific, non-generic flower or animal or car or scene? Yeah, not gonna happen; there's just nothing like a visual reference in here to draw from.

In high school art classes we did an exercise in scaling up a line drawing by putting a grid over it and then drawing scaled-up versions of the individual tiles on a larger grid. I found this excruciatingly difficult, because I simply could not carry the contents of a small tile in my mind while looking at the pencil making the larger copy; I had to keep looking back and forth, back and forth between the large tile with the growing pencil line and the small source tile and try to work it like a really slow and thoroughly distracted tracing.

On the upside, I have a really good sense of place and direction, find maps super easy to interpret, and very rarely get lost; I'm also very good at knowing how big a thing I need to find to fill that gap or match that other thing. I'm also good at looking at multiple views and being able to tell quickly which of them are the same thing observed from different angles and/or mirrored, with a completely reliable sense of handedness. So the distance and locational relationships finding makes perfect sense to me.
posted by flabdablet at 1:23 AM on July 1 [6 favorites]

I essentially live in a two week window. When called upon, I can retrieve autobiographical memories, but I'm very fuzzy on the details. I almost never think about my past unprompted. There's little or no qualitative difference between my autobiographical memories & a book I've read (and some books become significantly more "real" than my memories -- the most profound of those being Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury).

There has to be a part of my brain that makes actual images, my cognitive abilities seem implausible otherwise -- I just don't ever get to actually see them.
posted by lastobelus at 1:45 AM on July 1 [5 favorites]

a broader lack of multi-sensory imagery – including imagining sound, touch, motion, ...

Aha! I'm not aphantasic, and memories throng so densely in my mind that I sometimes feel almost besieged by them - but I can't imagine objects in motion. Things move in my dreams, but not in my imagination or my memories.

This had an actual real-world consequence for me last year: I tried a phobia treatment that required me to replay a memory of a frightening encounter with the object of the phobia, and it only worked in part. I'm now much less scared of said object than I used to be when it's sitting still, but as soon as it moves, the fear is dialled right back up to eleven.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:22 AM on July 1

“This is the first scientific data we have showing that potential subtypes of aphantasia exist,”

We've talked about that here on MeFi many times. I, for example, have absolutely no ability to visualize at all, and I can't experience taste, smell, or touch "virtually" either. But I can play back real or imaginary music in my head in extreme detail.

I'm pretty good with autobiographical memory too.

It's always interesting to learn more about this even though it's a trickle of studies. I still can't convince half the people I know that I even have aphantasia.
posted by mmoncur at 5:48 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]

I was fascinated by the 2015 study which started this whole thing off and realised I am profoundly aphantasic. More, I have a remarkably 'poor' inner life in general: not only do I not experience mental imagery at all, the same holds true for smell, taste, touch and sound. I've no idea if it is linked but I also lack a 'milk voice' or, indeed, any interior monologue. (This is fine! It is, after all, all I have ever known and a 'rich' inner life seems to me almost unbearably hectic to the point of hallucination. Were I suddenly to experience the 'richness' others take for granted, I expect it would be as terrifying to me as would suddenly losing one's mind's eye to someone accustomed to that.)

I seem to recall that, from quite early on, there was a suggestion that there may well be a link with poor autobiographic memory (as opposed to the retention of facts which is, anecdotally, well above average in my case) and, yes, that, too, is remarkably poor. In fact, I'm sure I read about the autobiographical memory thing at the time as it allowed me to explain to my mum that there was a reason why, when younger, we could visit the same location on two trips some time apart and I would often appear to have no memory at all of the first visit on the second or, after a weekend doing something I really enjoyed, at primary school when asked what I did at the weekend would write 'played with my Lego' or similar, both phenomena she found very frustrating indeed.

One, I think somewhat underexplored, aspect of all this I find utterly fascinating is just how 'late' all these findings appear to be. It seems to me that aphantasia is almost certainly a human constant to some degree - that is, something a small percentage of all humans who have ever lived have experienced - and yet, it appears, only now, many thousands of years into the human experience, have we discovered its existence. (It's not, I supppose, impossible that this is a recently-emerged property or that it is significantly cultural/geographical rather than natural - but personally, I very much doubt that indeed.)

That said, I could be discussing 'an elephant in a hat balancing on a large ball' with someone who is not aphantasic and at no point would the person without aphantasia feel the need to ask whether I'm 'actually seeing' the elephant. When, then, would that difference be noted?

As I say up top, I was fascinated by the 2015 study and must have spent six months administering the five-question simple test to various people. (Pro-tip for early interesting results: in question 1, ask the person to imagine just 'a triangle' - for high-scorers, ask what type of triangle it is and what colour - the results, typically quickly answered with detail, demonstrated to me that those people really are seeing, say, a blue equilateral triangle, even though nothing prompted that specifically.) What I took away from that little project was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that this is a spectrum but also that most people assume that everyone else would score about the same as them. People with - or a tendency towards - aphantasia tended to be a bit less surprised at the spectrum of answers supplied but generally not entirely. (This is true for me as my supposed 'pro-tip' shows.)

I suppose that it shows that, absent any data to the contrary, we have little choice but to assume others experience the world much as we do until we learn otherwise. The fact that we don't all experience the world in the same was - previous threads on aphantasia pointed to other articles asking 'what supposedly universal human experience do you lack?' - itself opens up genuinely fascinating philosophical questions about individual human experience, phenomenology, neurotypicalness, communication, etc, etc.
posted by deeker at 5:57 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]

I have aphantasia. I only learned last Fall that other people -actually- see something in their “mind’s eye” as vividly as I dream. For almost 50 years, I thought “visualize” was a metaphor.
posted by _paegan_ at 8:20 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]

For almost 50 years, I thought “visualize” was a metaphor.

Took me less time than that to figure out that other people really can do this, but yes, equally astonishing on first realization. I can audialize and smellize quite well and I'm pretty good at feelizing and orientizing and relatizing and spatializing, but visualize? Almost totally unable.

I do feel a bit ripped off at being completely denied access to the "memory palace" technique. I don't get the ability to attach fact-streams to pictures "for free" because I don't have the pictures in the first place.

On the upside, though, I very rarely lose track of assorted personal objects in real life; everybody I know personally and know to have a strong visual memory is far more susceptible to e.g. losing track of their car keys than I am.

I'm guessing that this is because for me, replaying a slice of autobiography involves reconstructing it from recalled abstractions; I don't need to interrogate a bunch of remembered visuals to identify whether or where the car keys occur in that scene, because if I remember it at all I'll either have the car keys as part of what I'm reconstructing it from, or not.

It's a bit like having a SVG memory instead of a JPEG one.

Thinking about the way my dreams work: some of them are indeed intensely visual, but the same reversal of seeing and perceiving that applies to attempts to re-see stuff via memory also applies in dreams. I can't recall ever having had a dream where I found myself needing to interrogate a scene and break it down into comprehensible objects; just like my visual memories, my dream visuals are all consequences of, rather than sources of, the objects and relationships I'm dreaming about.

And I think my brain has worked this way since I was a wee babe. As an infant I was quite obsessed with labelling the world properly: my constant question to my mother, by her account, was "'sat?" So I've never been terribly interested in what things look like, caring much much more about what they are.
posted by flabdablet at 9:14 AM on July 1

Wait. What? Neurotypical people can not just conjure up fully formed and realistic images in their minds but they can also "smell", "hear", and "feel" with near perfect fidelity?

I feel like I'm learning everyone else has superpowers.

I can't recreate touch sensation or smells any more than I can recreate formerly seen images or "see" wholly imaginary images.

Can you super people make up smells you've never smelled just like you can "see" things that have never existed?

I only learned a couple of years ago that when people said they saw things in their minds eye they meant it literally and it wasn't just a metaphor.

Now it turns out everyone but me has what amounts to a full sensory VR rig built into their brains?!

How the hell are you people ever bored if you can invent full sensory movies just by sitting around and wanting to?
posted by sotonohito at 10:52 AM on July 1 [7 favorites]

And yeah I'm pretty ok at spatial orientation. Not very good at all with those mental exercises where you're supposed to look at a picture of a 3d object then pick which of the other pictures represents the original object rotated.

But I navigate 3d spaces just fine both irl and in games. I'm only rarely lost.
posted by sotonohito at 10:56 AM on July 1

My mind will be blown if people can actually smell things that aren't in front of them at the moment. Smells evoking a memory? Sure. Smelling something from memory? No.
posted by cooker girl at 11:28 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

can also "smell", "hear", and "feel" with near perfect fidelity?

Can't speak for anybody else but mine are a long way from perfect fidelity. Streets ahead of visuals, though.

Can you super people make up smells you've never smelled

I've been trying to now for several minutes, the exercise never having occurred to me before, and it seems that the answer for me at least is no, they're all memories.

it turns out everyone but me has what amounts to a full sensory VR rig built into their brains?!

I know, right? Jammy bastards.

How the hell are you people ever bored

Don't believe I ever am, not really; I have only a vague idea of what boredom feels like. It's one of those things I've had to piece together from other people's descriptions of it. Near as I can tell, it has something to do with wishing that whatever I'm waiting for would hurry up and happen but personally I like having nothing to do. It feels super peaceful.
posted by flabdablet at 11:31 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Smelling something from memory?

Currently running through several freshnesses of black pepper.

Mmmm, pepper.
posted by flabdablet at 11:32 AM on July 1

Ewww, who got their turpentine in my pepper?
posted by flabdablet at 11:33 AM on July 1

Ah, river fog at midnight. That's better.

(adds in some frog calls)

Nice. Needs more crickets.

(adds crickets)

I like it here. Think I'll stay for a while.
posted by flabdablet at 11:34 AM on July 1

When I was a kid, I had a book of puzzles / brainteasers / &c called The Book of Think. In one part, the book instructs: Imagine the taste of oranges turning into the taste of peanut-butter.

I was obsessed with this exercise as a kid, and would spend hours trying to do it with different endpoints. I'm now much better at imagining tastes than imagining other sensations. It occasionally comes in handy when cooking, and often comes in handy when stuck in a boring meeting.
posted by Westringia F. at 11:34 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

And now I'm imagining the taste of pepper turning into the taste of river water via turpentine. Thanks a lot, flabdablet.
posted by Westringia F. at 11:36 AM on July 1 [2 favorites]

No soup for me tonight, thanks all the same.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

That sound you can't hear in your head?

Cooker Girl's mind exploding.
posted by deeker at 11:51 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

I have absolutely phenomenal spatial awareness, but I am extremely aphantasic. None of my memories are autobiographical (I attributed this to very early onset PTSD and Dissociative disorder, from around 4 onward), and maybe that plays into it? I've tried to force myself to have 1st person memories, but they make me terrible uncomfortable and near panic attack. Again, I always assumed it was because I regularly dissociate.

I am …. enraged that there are people who can see things! Can you like, look around the image as if it was on tv? If someone tells me to visualize an orange cup, I don't actually see an orange cup. I just hold the vague concept of orange cup in my head. I do dream in pictures, though. Sometimes very abstractly (once I was involved in an acrobatic obstacle course which signified the helicopter ride I was on in the "plot" of the dream. I couldn't complete the course and so the helicopter crashed)

I've also been forcefully woken up from dreams because they lacked enough input. It'd be too dark, or empty, and my brain would just turn on. Or I'd go to stand up in the dream, and it would lack the physical sensation of gravity pulling on your body, so my brain would translate that as I wasn't, and couldn't, stand up. I'd spend the rest of the dream stuck to the floor.

I also feel pain in dreams, though not always. It's my go-to check to see if i'm dreaming. As far as other senses go, I can remember smells quite well, though only briefly. I can hear complex sounds and music. I can replicate touch very well. Taste is mediocre, its a mix between recreation and conceptualization.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:52 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

I am …. enraged that there are people who can see things!

It's worse than that. Apparently we are the anomalies.
posted by flabdablet at 11:56 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

I mean, I know what things taste like. But I can't actually *taste* them when I think about them.
posted by cooker girl at 12:43 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: Apparently we are the anomalies.
posted by deeker at 2:03 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Oh, this reminds me. During my cognition class, my professor told us she was going to say a list of words and we should try and remember it. She asked about what we did to try and encode the information, and for most people it went like this:

Professor: Apple...
Student, thinking to themselves: [apple]
Professor: Penny...
Student: [apple, penny]
Professor: Table...
Student: [apple, penny, table]

And so on. When asked to recall, most people remembered the first few words pretty well (since they had been repeated so many times) and the last one or two, since they’d just heard them.

I distinctly remember that the word list was apple, penny, table, key, shoe, book, tree. How I encoded that went like this:

Professor: Apple...
[I picture an apple]
Professor: Penny...
[I picture a penny next to the apple]
Professor: Table...
[I picture the apple and penny on a table]

And so on, adding to the scene with each new word and scanning over what I’d built during the pauses. When asked to recall, I moved in physical proximity in the scene: apple, penny, table, key, book, which were all on the table, which had a shoe underneath it, and which stood in front of a tree. I don’t remember what the actual order of the word list was, but it was different from how I recalled the words.

I’m not sure what that says about visualization and memory, but it was fascinating to me that no one else visualized words to remember them. I remember doing that at 16 during a neuropsych test, which I did very well on. Ironically, though, I typically consider myself to have pretty terrible memory, on the whole.
posted by brook horse at 8:41 PM on July 1

My mind will be blown if people can actually smell things that aren't in front of them at the moment. Smells evoking a memory? Sure. Smelling something from memory? No.

My wife says she can, and when I've asked others it seems pretty common. You can test it at the dinner table: While people are eating, say "Imagine the smell of formaldehyde. Now imagine the smell of rotting fruit."

Despite no fruit on the table some people seem to lose their appetite for a moment when I do that. I can keep on eating while I talk about it because there are no virtual smells in my head.

On the other hand I can imagine the sound of nails on a chalkboard and get the same chill in my spine as the real thing.

I am …. enraged that there are people who can see things!

It's a bizarre thing to discover. I personally discovered my aphantasia 14 years ago here on Metafilter, before the term "aphantasia" was even heard of. In this AskMe thread: What does your mental calendar look like?

In that thread one Mefite after another described the weird visualizations they see when they think about calendars, and I was like YOU PEOPLE SEE THINGS? IN YOUR HEAD???
posted by mmoncur at 11:12 PM on July 1 [3 favorites]

Ask your friends! One of the best tests is to tell them "Imagine a purple tiger." and then ask them for details about the tiger.

My wife will tell me the tiger is in a jungle, and there are birds and snakes, and the sun is setting, and the tiger is reaching one paw forward, and looking to the left, and on and on and on. Some people will say they see Tony the Tiger but purple, and some will say they see a child's drawing of a tiger, or just a tiger's head.

Me? I see nothing, all I have are the words.
posted by mmoncur at 11:20 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]


It really is that shocking. It's like finding out that there are people in the world who GET OFF THE POT AND STAND UP TO WIPE THEIR ARSES. wtaF?
posted by flabdablet at 11:52 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]

I wonder how permanent aphantasia is.

As a young child, I distinctly remember not being able to visualize certain sections of my dreams, and my mind filling those blank sections with white noise- like television static.

I can visualize everything in my dreams now. I've wondered if it has anything to do with my visual arts training.
posted by ishmael at 12:35 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]

I can visualize everything in my dreams now. I've wondered if it has anything to do with my visual arts training.
posted by ishmael at 3:35 AM on July 2 [+] [!]

My aphantasia has gotten mildly better since going to art school. Like, for a small small fraction of a second, I can sort of "see" colors and shapes of something, if I try. It doesn't occur naturally. Its very odd to explain to people, because I can very easily, like, design a room in my head and I know what it's going to look like, but I can't see it, I can just feel it. And I can measure things visually to a great degree. But yeah, all of my artistic ability is just a "sense", the way you can sense what time it is, I can sense how things go together.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:47 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]

I can visualize everything in my dreams now. I've wondered if it has anything to do with my visual arts training.

Two points: first of all, my dreams are 100% visual and I see things clearly in my dreams. In fact, when i'm lying in bed nearly asleep, there's a twilight state where I can deliberately visualize things, and sometimes I play with it and visualize random objects just to see it work. (But am I really visualizing, or is it a dream?)

Second, I don't have much of an art background but I got into pen-and-ink drawing about 15 years ago. The types of drawings I do require staring at a photo (because no pictures in my head) and then at the drawing-in-progress for hours at a time. I found that after working on a drawing for hours, I could visualize that drawing, or photo, for a day or two afterward.

So I think I could be trained to visualize better, but it's on the level of learning a whole new language, and at my age that's an incredibly difficult thing.
posted by mmoncur at 9:21 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]

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