Aphantasia – What do you see in your brain?
What do you experience when you imagine things?
Let’s do an experiment… Picture a red circle.
Is it a picture?
For most people, the answer is yes. However, not for everyone. An extreme case is Aphantasia, a term coined relatively recently in the journal Cortex. It refers to brain blindness. It means that you can’t picture things in your head.
A fellow by the name of Blake Ross wrote a fantastic piece about discovering that he has it, but more to the point, that most of the world doesn’t. He describes his experience of asking person after person about their mental processes, and was forced to accept that his brain just didn’t play like the other boys’ and girls’.
The piece is brilliant, but it only really addresses one sense. I’ve been surveying people for years, ever since I had a conversation with a pair of roommates with very different imaginations.
One was like Blake, she couldn’t picture anything. The very notion of it confused her. She didn’t need a picture, she understood the concept of a red circle, in the same way she understood gravity, or ethics, or family. However, talking with my other roommate about it did help her understand why some people were so good at replicating images from memory.
That other roommate, had an opposite issue. He couldn’t imagine words. Most people can have conversations in their head, replay things they have heard, compose essays, and the like. He couldn’t. Not even a little. He had no internal monologue at all. All his ideas needed a shape and a form to process. He had a hell of a time writing anything long, and wasn’t fond of reading. However, he was a brilliant story teller, but he said that his stories were descriptions of what he saw in his head, and he couldn’t have written them down if he tried. He was too busy watching what was going on.
Since that conversation years ago, which I can both picture and hear in my head, I’ve quizzed lots of people, and on more senses than just those two. I’ve found that, like with most things, there’s a distribution around normal, and some people can do some pretty cool things in their brains.
My conclusions so far:
The vast majority of people can picture things. Some have to work at it, I’ve met one or two that can only do static images. Few can’t do it at all, but it’s common enough that I’ve met several. Some, like me, can picture things so vividly that it will override our vision and make things like driving dangerous. Jim, here on the blog, is colorblind and says that while he can form images in his mind, they are monochrome.
I have, to date, only met one person that has no voice in their head. A couple say the idea of having a conversation in their head sounds like madness, but they can at least create words and phrases and perceive them like voices. One person said that they always both hear and simultaneously see the printed words that they imagine, the voice in their head is reading the book in their head out loud. Almost everyone can play a song back in their head, lyrics and voices included, but a lot of people seem to struggle to mentally recreate the voices of other people, even friends and family.
Most people seem to be able to sort of imagine the sensation of smells, but only strong, familiar ones. Cinnamon and skunk seem easy to conjure, cardamom and concrete are a bit harder. I’ve never met anyone that claims to have an excellent imagination for scents, so I’m curious if anyone out there does.
Even less recollectable than smell. Most people don’t seem to be able to imagine a flavour. I expect that might be because it’s such a complex interaction. Flavour incorporates not only taste-buds, but also scent, texture, temperature, and even the sound of the food while you chew. You might be able to pull one of those to mind at a time, but all at once might be a challenge.
Some people seem to always have a tactile component to their reverie, but most seem to need priming. Think about being on a beach, do you feel the sand, the water washing over your feet, the warm breeze blowing over your wet skin. Can you feel it? Did you feel it before being told to? That seems to be the key divide.
Knowing where your various body parts are is very important. It’s common to encourage athletes and dancers to “visualize” motions. Part of that is visual, but most people also seem to be able to imagine what their body feels like as it goes through various motions, to some degree. I appear to be a moderate freak in this regard as I am able to imagine what it feels like to move body parts that I don’t have, extra arms, fins instead of limbs, etc., and to perform actions that I’ve never done. It’s likely inaccurate, but my brain can make it feel very real.
The whole five senses thing is garbage. We have dozens of senses. Hunger, the need to pee, acceleration, various forms of pain… With effort, most people are able to get at least a vague facsimile of them in their mind. I’m curious if our television infused world has shaped the senses we use for imagination. I wonder if, in a world before ubiquitous text, video, and audio streams, other senses could be more sharply imagined.
I’m curious about your experiences. What can you imagine, what can you not?
As Blake suggested in his article, imagine a beach… what’s it like?
I guess i have a good smell imagination and good taste imagination. In that I can recreate smells and flavors I have experienced. I can conjure the smell of an ex boyfriend at the end of a workday, sugar cookies, a boy I danced with in a high school musical, the street after rain (and various forms of concrete and asphalt in various conditions), fresh bay leaves plucked from my grandmother’s tree, apricots rotting in the sun… anything I think of. Weird, I’ve never thought about that before.
A friend wondered if people who can imagine flavors would make better cooks, but while I can recreate any flavor I think of, I cannot project them into new combinations.
This is all essentially alien to me. If asked what I think in, I would say “Thoughts”. There’s no sensory experience, no voices or words. I mean, I can think about all of those things can call them to mind, but there’s no sense in which I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.
I have feelings, and memories, and I can walk backward through those, but no senses. That seems like a super weird life.
It’s like an IMAX with surround sound all the time. I choose to “look” at them or not. Though this is very hard to do when trying to sleep. I did picture the beach, I didn’t mentally recreate the feel of the sand and the water on my feet until I read the words, but I could. It’s funny just last night I was outside (before the rainstorm) and it was just the right kind of air (smell and humidity) to remind me of a time 18 years ago or so. It was perfect. And I might not have thought of that time without this prompt. The sound of seagulls always makes me think very vividly of Wasaga Beach and I can almost smell the sand, but thinking about the sound of a seagull doesn’t have the same effect.
Proprioception is something I’m really aware of. Before my first minibike arrived (4″ wheels, 14″ wheelbase), I had mentally ridden it. When it arrived to my surprise (it was a an unexpected gift) My perceptions in my mind were accurate. I literally hopped on and road it without issue. When I created the second minibike (3″ wheels, 10″ wheel base) it was a similar yet more intense moment.
I experience the same effect for riding horses, skydiving, stilt walking, and unicycling, although for unicycles I have to have ridden the specific wheel size at least once before. Skydiving is particularly intense. Back when I was learning, I was jumping without an instructor after the 3rd jump and to this day I still can relieve those feelings. That was almost 20 years ago now. This may be why I’m interested in physically manipulating things. The difference between what it feels like in my mind and how it actually is often very little. This all seems related to the sense of touch. I can feel things mentally on my own, or before they happen. Temperature, wind, course material soft material, it doesn’t really matter. This does take a little more focus.
Otherwise… well it’s a lot of images and an internal monologue with various comedic, cartoonish, and slapstick moments sprinkled in between to deal with life.
*now all of you in my head, be quiet before anyone suspects something*
I’m like you in that regard. Much of how I learn to dance is by imagining my way through the movement.
I’m usually able to just watch someone else, process what it should feel like, and go. I am not infrequently disappointed to find out that my capacity is limited, though. And flexibility and strength hold me back.
Earlier, we talked about the ability (or lack thereof) to imagine the faces of people really close to me unless I remember a specific photo that actually exists. But the smell thing!! Smell is my thing!! Attached to memory for sure – but I think I can also imagine them pretty well. I’ve always described things with smell to a degree that always fascinated my mom. Like yes, I know what a pine tree smells like. But I describe smells more like “it smells like Christmas!”. It can smell like being 10 years old, or snowing, or smell like getting home (to any home) after a long time away, or smell like summer. I have always defined the start of summer as the first night of the year with “the smell”. (Oddly, that was last night, and now it’s going to snow on Sunday…). And I can picture what all of those smells smell like. Those associations are some of my favourite things!
If I know how to spell your name, it helps me remember how to say it…in part because I can picture the letters in a string. (Oddly, though, I do not know if they are serif or sans, no matter how hard I try to think about it.)
I can also put together entire multi-page documents and later have only the slightest inkling of what it says (except at line and page breaks). Which seems somewhat like the inverse of the above.
As far as I can tell, I can imagine a wide variety of senses, to various degrees. In approximate descending order of intensity: sight, hearing, proprioception, smell, taste, temperature, pain, hunger, texture. Something like that.
On the other hand, I distinctly remember not being able to visualize anything. My 3rd grade teacher once asked us to picture something in our heads. All the other kids seemed to be able to do that. I had no idea what she was going on about. No idea how old I was when it finally did develop but it definitely seems to work now.
I’m not as “mind blind” as the author of that article — I can picture a muddy, flickering red circle if I focus long enough — but his experience reading is my experience reading. If I were to actually picture an entire novel in my head, I could only handle a novel every month or so. It would just take so much longer and be so much more difficult. The splendor of Hogwarts is, indeed, lost on me, and maybe this is the primary reason why I’m so lukewarm (to put it kindly) towards the Harry Potter franchise: it’s clearly intended to be a visual fantasy spectacle but I care more about characters, logical consistency, and world building.
My “mind’s ear” is much more attuned to things. I don’t know whether this is an entirely natural predisposition, or something to do with all of the musical training I had from a young age and throughout my school years.
Visualizing something is for me completely different than seeing something with my eyes. I can “think” that red circle, I can take a walk through a landscape I remember or imagine a new one, but it’s a shadowy thing entirely separated from my experience of seeing.
I also don’t imagine conversations as voices, it’s an exchange of the abstract words themselves.
My best friend describes reading books as similar to watching movies, only creating the pictures yourself, which is bizarre to me. Books are good because they are pure story and while I find descriptions of what someone or some place looks like to be a pleasant part of books I also find that if the author makes knowledge of a person’s looks or the layout of a place essential to the story I often have to go back and re-read.
I can do all of those things. I think the weakest for me is imagining touch- but I can definitely imagine most tastes. It’s how I can taste something say, at a restaurant and then come home and recreate it. That way of looking at it might make it easier for other people (at least foodies) to say ‘Oh yeah I can do that too.” And voices, oh gosh yes. I hear all my friends voices in my head when I read their texts etc. And shapes are something I think I have worked on over the years and that is why its so easy for me now. It’s how you imagine a drawing before you draw it. You look at a 2d piece od paper or a canvas and see in 3D. I read somewhere a long time ago, and it may no longer be true (science is so fluid) but people who can visualize cubes and spin them around and look at them from all directions in their mind are less likely to develop alzheimer’s disease. I really think a lot of these things can be taught and honed. For example, I imagine a perfume maker would be better at imagining smell than I.
Very cool post! Concrete and cardamom scents I can definitely smell-agine so maybe I have this power. I wonder if there’s any tests I can do to confirm this…
Oh, hey! I’m months late so this is a necro post, but I’ve got aphantasia and wanted to contribute. I only just found out about all this within the past couple of months, and it completely blew my mind that people can see things in their heads (or hear, or feel, or smell, etc). I’m not a complete aphantasic, in the sense that I can’t comprehend visual information. I can process visual information (I have a GPU) but cannot see it (I do not have a monitor).
I can simulate pretty much sense in my imagination, but I do it without any sensory component whatsoever. So I can think about a visual image, but can’t ever see it. I can play music in my head, but can’t hear it. I can imagine moving (including body parts I don’t have, like a pair of wings), though again, no real sensory component. It lets me do 90% of what any visualizer can do, so I never realized there was anything odd. All the “picture this” that aphantasics always thought were weird metaphors made perfect sense as a metaphor. Sight IS a great metaphor for what happens when I picture an elephant. But it’s only a metaphor because there’s no visible elephant in my head.