Can I picture this? Do I see what you’re talking about? No! An aphantasia Q&A

Scientists have come up with a word for the inability to mentally picture things. Aphantasia is the new term for having a blind mind’s eye. I’m very excited that I have a word to describe my experience, because it now means I can look up information about it, connect with others who have similar experiences, and point people to articles and interviews to help them understand what it is like for me to not be able to visualise. Kim Hill recently interviewed Adam Zeman, one of those who coined the term and has begun researching aphantasia. I wasn’t quite satisfied by some of his responses, so here are some of my answers to questions from that interview, as well as some questions that friends have asked me.

  1. When did you realise you couldn’t visualise?

I was sitting in a friends living room, with a few people who were talking about what came up in their minds when someone said the word “lake.” I started to think about lakes, the way I always think, in a soundless inner monologue. “Lake. Hmm. Which lake? I suppose the lake I have spent the most time around is Rotorua, but my favourite lake might be Waikareiti, I really enjoyed walking around it.” I wasn’t analysing my thought process, because I didn’t realise it was unusual. My description of thinking would be “it’s like you’re talking to yourself, but you don’t actually hear your voice with any quality of sound, it’s just, well, thoughts.”

Then someone said “I can see the word, and it’s blue.”

What? Huh? Wait, what… you actually see?!

Other people there said they could see a picture of a lake, rather than seeing the letters. Some had other sensory experiences, such as a sense of wetness. I was amazed! Until then, when people talked about picturing things, I thought they were just using an abstract metaphor. I think it was only hearing my friends compare their experiences of text versus pictorial images that I finally clicked that they were literally seeing something. In their minds.

After that conversation, I tried searching the internet to find out more about different mental experiences, but it is very hard to find answers on the internet when you don’t know what words to search for. I’m very grateful to those who came up with a term for my way of thinking.

  1. Can you picture your loved ones?

No, not at all. Now that I know that other people can do this, it makes me feel a slight sense of loss. Photographs of loved ones are very important to me, because without them I cannot see my grandparents or friends who have died. I know things about how they looked, but I couldn’t draw a realistic portrait of them – partly because I have not studied how to draw portraits, but also because the details are too complicated to describe and memorise. A face is more complicated and unique than a novel, and I couldn’t recite a whole novel accurately even if I had read it many times.

Please don’t be offended if I don’t notice you have had your hair trimmed – I have nothing to mentally compare it to.

  1. How do you recognise people or places?

Because they look familiar! It is hard to describe, but I know when I have seen someone or something before. Details of their appearance must be stored away as knowledge rather than as pictures in my mind. However I do struggle to recognise people I have only met briefly, or to recognise people if I see them in a different context. My partner has often teased me about how unobservant I am. I think it is hard for me to store visual information. If we go for a walk and talk to each other, I will struggle to remember what we passed by on the walk, unless I actively thought something about it at the time, but I will be able to remember a lot more about what was said.

I would be a hopeless police witness, as I could only recall details I had mentally noted, for example if I had thought that someone had funky hair, or noticed that their nose was unusually large. It would be hard to describe the exact shape of their nose. However, because I do recognise people and things when I see them again, so I would probably recognise them from a photo – although maybe not as easily as someone who had also formed a mental image.

  1. Could you tell me whether the green of pine tree is darker than the green of grass?

When I look at the world I can see differences in colour and lightness. I have noticed how bright the green of grass is, and how pine trees appear dark and gloomy even on a sunny day, so I know that the green of pine trees is darker. If you gave me 50 shades of green paint, I could look at them and recognise which colours were closest to the green of pine and the green of grass.

  1. Could you paint a picture of something if it wasn’t in front of you?

When I see things in the world, I notice details, and have thoughts and emotional responses to what I am seeing, which I can later recall. I can draw something well if I have noted enough details about it. For example, I could draw a fuchsia flower, because they are one of my favourite flowers (hence my blog name) and I have paid them a lot of attention. Since childhood I have thought they look like flower fairies, and I have noticed the way the outer petals curl up like a skirt and the stamens dangle like slender legs. I have not taken in as many details about the leaves, so I would probably need to erase and redraw them until they looked “right” or recognisable to me. I have not noted anything about the pattern in which the leaves grow on the branches, so I could take a guess or look at a tree or a picture of one before I could draw that accurately. Here, I’ll have a go:

fuschia

(I drew the first picture on the train, after hearing the interview on the radio and trying to figure out how to explain my artistic process. I hadn’t logged in to my blog and seen my cover image for a while!)

I quite like creating artworks which are imaginary scenes, or symbolic representations, rather than realistic images. I often include words in my paintings.

  1. How did you answer exam questions when you studied art history?

I recalled facts I had memorised about paintings. My inner monologue would recite facts I had read in books or written in my notes. It wasn’t my best subject in school, but I passed!

  1. Could you tell me how many letters of the alphabet have low-hanging tails?

Within my head I mentally sense the movement of holding a pen and writing the letters, going through the alphabet.

  1. Could you tell me how many windows are in your house?

Yes. In my head I mentally move through our house, and I mentally stop in each room and think about how many windows there are. I know where they are because I remember standing at the window or pulling the blinds.

  1. Could you decide what to wear if you weren’t standing in front of your wardrobe?

Yes, because I know what clothes I have. For example, I know that I recently bought some pants because I liked the mossy shade of green. I was a bit less certain about the pantaloon style, but the fabric felt nice and light for summer. When I bought them, it was hard to know whether they would go with the clothes I already owned. When I got home I held them up against my shirts, so that I could see how they looked together. Now I have retained the knowledge of which shirts looked good with the pants.

  1. Could you be an architect/designer/illustrator…

I studied at architecture school for two years. When I was designing something, I would have ideas about what I wanted, e.g. that I wanted it to be curvy, or to have grass on the roof. I could be inspired by other designers and architects and want to do something which resonated with their work. When I actually started on a project, I wouldn’t be able to visualise the final work. I would start by doing a sketch, which I would then erase and redraw until it looked good, or sometimes I would cut out pictures and arrange them into a collage and then draw something based on that. Aphantasia may caused me some disadvantage, but I managed to pass my papers. I got higher marks in physics, English literature and politics, which is one of a number of reasons I left architecture school.

  1. Do you enjoy reading books?

Yes! I love reading, and I enjoy writing poetry. The way I think about the world is in words – I guess the word pictures in books invoke emotions and memories, and sometimes I think “yes, that sounds exactly right… that resonates with my experience… that’s an interesting way of describing it.” Just as I can describe a scene using language, I can enjoy someone’s artful description of a scene.

  1. So, you wouldn’t ever get annoyed when the movie based on a book didn’t match up with what you had imagined when you read it?

No. I would only be annoyed if things in the movie actually contradicted what was written in the book.

  1. So you can’t fantasise about someone else when you’re (having sex/masturbating)…

No! OMG, do people do that? That’s seriously disturbing!

  1. Do you ever have any mental pictures?

Many people with aphantasia have involuntary mental imagery as they fall asleep, in dreams, when using drugs, or even just random flashes of images during the day. I think I am at the extreme end of the visualisation spectrum. Occasionally (maybe once a month?) an image involuntarily flashes in front of me as I fall asleep, but it is only ever very dim and impossible to focus on. Sometimes this is of something I have been looking at something for a long time, e.g. weeding a particular plant for an afternoon. Sometimes it is something random and slightly frightening, like a goulish face which wouldn’t look out of place in a Buffy scene… but weirdly not actually something I remember from Buffy (or anywhere else). My brain just seems to have invented it. Anyway, this gives me a vague sense of what visualising is like. Since finding out more about aphantasia I have been trying to catch myself in those moments and hold onto the image, but I haven’t succeeded yet.

I don’t think that I have visual dreams; I wake up with knowledge about what has happened in my dreams, very strong emotions, and sometimes a sense of movements. I don’t usually remember visual details.

So, that’s a little bit about my experience – others with aphantasia may answer the questions differently, so feel free to contribute in the comments. For those of you who don’t have aphantasia, it is as hard for me to get my head around your experience as it is for you to imagine what it is like for me. So I have some questions for you. I would love to know how you think! Leave your responses in the comments.

What is it like to not have aphantasia?

A. If you are reading a novel set in a country you have never been to, how do you visualise a landscape you have never seen? Or if a person is described in a book, how do you fill in the details which have not been described?

B. How can you keep reading the words if you keep having pictures appear in your head?

C. Do you have times when you are not mentally picturing anything?

D. If you are visualising something while your eyes are open (as I am told some people do), what happens to the things which are actually in front of you? Do they disappear behind your visualisation, or is the mental image transparent?

E. If you are visualising something you don’t remember well, is the image blurry or dim, or are there bits missing from the picture, or do you just make a picture up and later realise it was inaccurate?

F. If you played imaginary games as a child, could you see the things you were pretending to play with? E.g. if you were pretending to have a tea party, could you see the food? Could you actually see imaginary friends?

G. How is visualising different from hallucinating

H. When did you first become aware you were mentally picturing things?

You can listen to Kim Hill’s interview of Adam Zeman here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201778750/adam-zeman-aphantasia-and-consciousness

You can find out more about aphantasia here:

http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/exeterblog/blog/2015/08/26/aphantasia/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945215001781

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34039054

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/science/aphantasia-minds-eye-blind.html

http://vanwinkles.com/what-it-s-like-to-realize-you-have-aphantasia

http://discovermagazine.com/2010/mar/23-the-brain-look-deep-into-minds-eye

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Can I picture this? Do I see what you’re talking about? No! An aphantasia Q&A

  1. Pingback: Why therapists should know about aphantasia | Kōtukutuku in spring

  2. Our answers are near identical – except as someone who is mostly kinesthetic I notice haircuts because hair moves differently. I recognise people in the street mostly because of how they move and I’m brilliant at remembering where things are in the house because something that’s out of place interrupts the line or air around it. However I can never ‘see’ it in my mind’s eye because my mind doesn’t have an eye it has a dance and a story.
    I do get annoyed with movies of books, but mostly because they often change small things about the story that alter the plot or the characters rather than something looking wrong. I nearly always rush over visually-based descriptions in books, though ones that use sound or movement analogies are great.
    It is really nice having a description/diagnosis for this.

  3. I am not sure if I have partial aphantasia or not. I first became aware that many people have constant streams of images in their heads at age 18, talking with friends about visual/auditory/kinaesthetic learning. I was most confused, since my learning doesn’t seem to me to be particularly any of these types. I think mostly in words and concepts, no pictures, sounds, or movements.

    However, I do have a good visual memory, I can visualise people fairly easily (did so with you several times while reading your answers above), recognise faces easily, and often plan floor-maps of houses as a way of getting to sleep. I once painted a recognisable portrait of my grandmother from memory. I’m not a great portraitist, though.

    A. If you are reading a novel set in a country you have never been to, how do you visualise a landscape you have never seen? Or if a person is described in a book, how do you fill in the details which have not been described?

    I don’t. Similarly, I don’t pronounce new words when I learn them while reading, so I have no idea how to say some of my vocabulary. It feels like the same thing to me.

    B. How can you keep reading the words if you keep having pictures appear in your head?

    If a writer is particularly descriptive, I sometimes skim past their descriptions (L.M. Montgomery’s sunsets spring to mind particularly here), because visualising things slows my reading.

    C. Do you have times when you are not mentally picturing anything?

    Absolutely. Much of my life.

    D. If you are visualising something while your eyes are open (as I am told some people do), what happens to the things which are actually in front of you? Do they disappear behind your visualisation, or is the mental image transparent?

    Neither. No more than my view of the computer screen in front of me gets in the way of my view of the hallway beside me. They’re not in the same space at all. One exists, one is in my mind. Most of my visualisation of things occurs while my eyes are open. This was a really interesting question, though.

    E. If you are visualising something you don’t remember well, is the image blurry or dim, or are there bits missing from the picture, or do you just make a picture up and later realise it was inaccurate?

    There are bits missing, but not as gaps, just as areas I’m not focusing on (like one has in one’s peripheral vision, rather than like things are if I take my glasses off and stuff blurs). If I try to think about, for example, the vein pattern in a fuschia leaf, I can’t visualise it, because I’ve never paid enough attention to get it clear in my head.

    F. If you played imaginary games as a child, could you see the things you were pretending to play with? E.g. if you were pretending to have a tea party, could you see the food? Could you actually see imaginary friends?

    No.

    G. How is visualising different from hallucinating.

    Can you think of a word but not say it aloud? It’s a similar difference. (NB I’ve never had a significant visual hallucination.)

    H. When did you first become aware you were mentally picturing things?

    Probably in the same conversation when I became aware that I do it less than some people.

  4. my answers to the questions:

    A. If you are reading a novel set in a country you have never been to, how do you visualise a landscape you have never seen? Or if a person is described in a book, how do you fill in the details which have not been described?

    Inaccurately. Where there are descriptions of the landscape, I incorporate those into my image of the surroundings, but everything that isn’t described will tend to look in my mind like places I am familiar with – often like specific places that have no business being in that story. It’s the same with visualising people.

    B. How can you keep reading the words if you keep having pictures appear in your head?
    That doesn’t seem to be a problem, but if I stop reading the images that have already popped into my head will often get clearer because I’m no longer being distracted by words pouring in creating more images.

    C. Do you have times when you are not mentally picturing anything?

    Yes. If I’m actively looking at something then I can’t mentally picture anything.

    D. If you are visualising something while your eyes are open (as I am told some people do), what happens to the things which are actually in front of you? Do they disappear behind your visualisation, or is the mental image transparent?

    The mental image is transparent, so I can look through it to read words or something, but the stronger the image is the less attention I can pay to what I’m looking at.

    E. If you are visualising something you don’t remember well, is the image blurry or dim, or are there bits missing from the picture, or do you just make a picture up and later realise it was inaccurate?

    If I’m only visualising it a wee bit, it will be blurry. If I pay more attention to it, I will make up bits that are inaccurate.

    F. If you played imaginary games as a child, could you see the things you were pretending to play with? E.g. if you were pretending to have a tea party, could you see the food? Could you actually see imaginary friends?

    Yes. absolutely.
    Also, when I played with lego people I could see them twice – I would see the little lego people with my eyes, and see the more realistic person they represented in my mind. I couldn’t see all lego people as real people, just the ones I had decided were important.

    G. How is visualising different from hallucinating

    I don’t have much experience of hallucinating, but I think I have more control over visualising. I can stop visualising something, or change the image in my mind if I decide to.

    H. When did you first become aware you were mentally picturing things?
    I don’t know. I can’t remember a time when it seemed like a surprise revelation.

  5. My answers:

    A. If you are reading a novel set in a country you have never been to, how do you visualise a landscape you have never seen? Or if a person is described in a book, how do you fill in the details which have not been described?
    I think my visualisations in this context are based on composites of images I’ve seen in real life. For example, if I’ve seen an image of an author on the cover of a book, I might imagine the protagonist of the book looking like the author.

    B. How can you keep reading the words if you keep having pictures appear in your head?
    My visualisations live kind of up and back in my head, not in front of my eyes or even on the inside of my eyes. Often they’ll crystallise after I’ve finished reading or listening to the thing that prompts them.

    C. Do you have times when you are not mentally picturing anything?
    Yes. I’m usually not mentally picturing things while I’m fully involved in interactions with others.

    D. If you are visualising something while your eyes are open (as I am told some people do), what happens to the things which are actually in front of you? Do they disappear behind your visualisation, or is the mental image transparent?
    As in B – my mental pictures seem to occupy a different space from what I’m literally seeing. I can focus more on one or the other.

    E. If you are visualising something you don’t remember well, is the image blurry or dim, or are there bits missing from the picture, or do you just make a picture up and later realise it was inaccurate?
    Yes, it’s often incomplete or I zoom in on the details I can actually remember, and the rest is indistinct.

    F. If you played imaginary games as a child, could you see the things you were pretending to play with? E.g. if you were pretending to have a tea party, could you see the food? Could you actually see imaginary friends?
    No. I could imagine imaginary friends in my headspace but not literally see them in front of me.

    G. How is visualising different from hallucinating
    I imagine that hallucinations would be difficult to distinguish from reality, whereas I always know the difference between what I’m picturing in my mind and what I’m seeing with my eyes.

    H. When did you first become aware you were mentally picturing things?
    Don’t know, sorry. I remember doing it from pre-school age, though,

  6. This was such an interesting post and it’s really made me think. Here are my answers:

    A. If you are reading a novel set in a country you have never been to, how do you visualise a landscape you have never seen? Or if a person is described in a book, how do you fill in the details which have not been described?

    I guess my starting point is landscapes or pictures I have seen eg if the landscape is one of snow, I’d think about snow-covered places I’ve visited or photos I’ve seen of Antarctica. I amend the picture according to cues the author gives me. I can’t really explain how I fill in the details I’m not given – I just do. And I adjust them if I read something later that means my mental picture was wrong eg if I found out the character had black hair and I’d been picturing them blonde.

    B. How can you keep reading the words if you keep having pictures appear in your head?

    The pictures are happening inside my mind, in a different part from where the words are. I’m kind of listening to the words as I’m reading them (although I’m hearing them faster than if they were read aloud – I guess you’re dong that too?) and the pictures are conjured up by the words as they go. Maybe the words are happening at the front of my mind and the pictures are more towards the back.

    C. Do you have times when you are not mentally picturing anything?

    Most of the time when I’m thinking, there aren’t really any pictures as such. Although I sometimes see words as I think them. To fall asleep, I often think about words and then I’m mostly seeing (and hearing) the letters rather than what they spell.

    D. If you are visualising something while your eyes are open (as I am told some people do), what happens to the things which are actually in front of you? Do they disappear behind your visualisation, or is the mental image transparent?

    Right now, because I’m thinking about you as I type this, I am seeing your face (somewhere in the back of my mind – you look very happy, by the way) and I am also reading this screen and what I am writing. I can see them both at the same time (although your face is less clear). Your face is not superimposed on the words; it’s somewhere else in my mind so there is no need for disappearance or transparency. Or maybe I’m switching so rapidly between the two that it seems I am seeing them simultaneously?

    E. If you are visualising something you don’t remember well, is the image blurry or dim, or are there bits missing from the picture, or do you just make a picture up and later realise it was inaccurate?

    The image is generally pretty clear and I fill in the bits I don’t remember. I adjust it if I later realise I got it wrong. But right now I’m tying to picture my great-grandmother who died when I was about 4. I can’t really see her face clearly, but the picture isn’t exactly dim or blurry so much as lacking definition.

    F. If you played imaginary games as a child, could you see the things you were pretending to play with? E.g. if you were pretending to have a tea party, could you see the food? Could you actually see imaginary friends?

    I could see them inside my head, but I wouldn’t have seen them in the same way as real friends/food.

    G. How is visualising different from hallucinating

    Hallucinating is more vivid, I think. It’s as though the image is actually there in front of your eyes, even though you know it’s not real. I once hallucinated that someone was stabbing me in the back and I could feel the knife. Visualising happens somewhere at the back of my head and I know it’s not real.

    H. When did you first become aware you were mentally picturing things?

    I honestly can’t remember – just as I can’t remember the first things I saw or heard.

    This has been such an interesting topic to read and think about. Thank you for your post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s