Friday, April 29, 2016

Maybe It's Because I Can't Put Glasses On My Mind's Eye

I recently stumbled across this article, "Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind", and got kind of a kick out of it, partly because this guy's realization, astonishingly late in life, that other people's brains are doing a weird thing his doesn't is strangely hilarious, and partly because it's incredibly gratifying to be able to say, "Finally! Someone who's even worse at visualizing things than I am!"

Because I don't get pictures in my head, either. Or not much. When I try, I might get something really vague. Maybe something a bit like seeing a scene through thick, not-quite transparent glass, where you can get a sense of colors and where things are, but not actually see any details? Except even that seems like too visual a description. Once in a very, very, very great while, I might actually get something like a photograph flashing across my mind, but it's always gone in a split second before I can really look at it, and it always leaves me kind of weirded out. I can imagine colors well enough, though. It's not exactly like seeing them, but I can remember what they look like, if that makes any sense. And other senses are no problem. I can imagine smells and tastes and touches, not perfectly, but well enough. And my auditory imagination is great. I can recall or imagine voices in great detail and at will: pitch, pauses, and everything.

But visuals? I took the quiz linked to in the article, and found it immensely frustrating. OK, I might be able to come up with something vaguely resembling a mental image for some of what they're asking me for, individually -- the color and texture of storm clouds and flashes of lightning are surprisingly doable, by themselves, although the sunset they start out asking me to imagine is almost just an abstract idea of a circle on a flat horizon -- but to ask me to imagine a picture, see it in detail, focus on those details and then change them? Yeah, I'm kind of with this guy: How do the rest of you weirdos do that? (The quiz, by the way, told me I was part of only 5% of the population who sucked this bad at visualization tasks and asked me if I wanted to be part of a study when I was done. I'm not sure if I do or not.)

I do think this is at least part of why I'm not great at faces and why I'm really, really bad with directions and navigation: I don't have a good visual referent in my head to match a person or a street up with.

He also mentions people asking him about whether he's a good speller, which seemed like a weird, out-of-left-field question to me a first, but apparently, when a lot of people are trying to remember how to spell a word, they see the letters in their mind? When I need to think how to spell a word, I imagine myself either typing it or writing it, often with my fingers twitching slightly. So, like the guy says, it's muscle memory.

And now, suddenly, all I can think of is how I read that book called What We See When We Read a little while back and spent the entire time indignantly going, "Whoa there, buddy, what do you mean we?!" Speak for yourselves, you mind-picture-makers, you!


  1. Huh. I don't know that my mind's quite as blown as the author of the article, but it never occurred to me that anyone couldn't visualize things. I'm terrible with directions, and with putting names to faces, but the idea of not having a mental visual landscape seems really alien to me.

    1. I'm an alien! I think my parents always suspected as much, really. :)

      I'm curious... If I ask you to imagine walking down the street where you live, do you actually get, like, a connected, three-dimensional, moving visual representation of the street that you can imagine as you walk through it?

      Because if I try to do that with, say, the street I walk down every day to get to work, what I get is... Well, partly, it's some kind of kinetic-spatial thing, where I imagine my body turning onto the street, and a sense of what is ahead of me on the street and what's behind me. And there's a lot of running internal narration: "OK, now the park is on the right," the inner voice says, because I know that's where the park is, but I'm not picturing the park at all. I do get some sort of visual stuff supplementing the narration, but it's pretty vague and disconnected. Like, OK, what's next on that side? *flash of a memory of brown* Right, those brown apartment buildings. And on the other side is the house with the falling-down fence, and I can actually sort of visualize the fence, but it's in complete isolation, just the fence, not the house behind it or its place on the street, or anything. And then there's that other apartment building, and I more or less remember what that looks like, but it's a memory of an image, not an image itself. Not something I can conjure up and count the windows on. If I really try, I can almost get it, maybe, but it's gone before it tells me anything useful, so why bother?

      And then at some point it's just a lot of houses and they're so uninteresting I can't imagine anything about them at all, until I get close to work, and then it's back to narration with isolated, supplemental visual details.

      Just being able to "see" it all does sound... easier. As it is, if I want to remember the visual details of a place, maybe so I can find it again, I have to describe it to myself in words and then remember the words, which is extremely inefficient.

  2. I don't always get a photo-real, moving visual representation, but I definitely can draw up a visual without any real effort. Maybe most accurately, more vividly of places I visit all the time, like work and home, but also places I haven't been in years. I actually often find my mind wandering off into my grandparents' old house, where I haven't set foot in almost 25 years. (I also have a lot less trouble with directions when I've been someplace before.)

    While I knew there was variation in what people can bring to mind visually, it just never occurred to me that some people -- through no fault of their own :) -- just can't.

    1. Huh. I sometimes think about houses I regularly visited or lived in a long time ago, but when I do, I only get maybe one tiny visual detail coming to mind. The wooden columns in a house I lived in as a kid -- and when I imagine those, I mostly imagine the color and the feel of them to the touch -- or the vivid black-and-pink colors of the bathroom tile in the house I lived in as a teenager. although that may be more an emotional memory of what an assault on the eyes that was when I revisited that house after not being there for a long time. When I think of my grandmother's old house, mostly I think of the comfy feel and brown color of the sectional sofa she had, or the red of the berries on the bushes that grew in her yard. I couldn't tell you what the house itself looked like, at all.

      I guess human life is just a rich and varied tapestry. :)