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?