Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye

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You've probably heard sentences like this a thousand times:  "Picture it in your mind's eye".  How literally can we take that?

"What Does it Mean to 'See With the Mind's Eye?'" (Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic [12/4/14]):

Imagine the table where you've eaten the most meals. Form a mental picture of its size, texture, and color. Easy, right? But when you summoned the table in your mind's eye, did you really see it? Or did you assume we've been speaking metaphorically?

From Hill Gates*:

Learned a couple of years ago of this condition, which explains a lot about my pathetic capacity to retain characters (perhaps also to retain friends!). Aphantasia is the incapacity to visualize — the mind's eye. I've seen you many times, Victor, and couldn't call up an image of your face to save my soul (although I can say things that describe your face — you have light eyes and fine nose, for example). Nor can I visualize Arthur [VHM:  Hill's late husband], my Mother, the keyboard of my computer, anything. Certainly not one of the few complex characters I can reliably reproduce, because it is "double man, cross eye lion [line] hearted" 德 [dé — "virtue"] in words.  At one time I might have had a few dozen such mnemonics, but ran out of bandwidth after that.

Why I write about this is that there are probably as many aphantasics in a Chinese population as in a Western one (assumption), and for them, fluent reading and writing would never be possible. Does the Chinese Min of Ed know such things? If they did, would they care?

I've made no secret of my feeble control over the Bronze Age chickentracks, …[and yet] I've been able to do a fair amount of work using only oral Chinese….

I was SO excited when I first ran across this research, because I really did try to learn characters, and finally had Harriet Mills [VHM:  Hill's Chinese teacher at the University of Michigan] tell me I was never going to get anywhere in Chinese studies because I was so poor at writing.  Figured I was doing something wrong, but never knew what. So I used what I had; I'm no genius in oral Chinese, either, but do have ears that seem to catch on to the many idiolects encountered as I spent time in many places while doing oral interview/surveys.

—–

*Author of China's Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism (1996), Footbinding and Women's Labor in Sichuan (2014), Chinese working-class lives (1987), and other important works on Chinese anthropology.

Until I received the above paragraphs from Hill, I had never heard of "aphantasia"; it is, after all, a new term.  I had certainly heard of "mind's eye" — one of my father's favorite expressions — but I never dreamed that it might have implications for the (in)ability to picture Chinese characters in one's mind.

From Wikipedia:

The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 in a statistical study about mental imagery.[2] Galton described it as a common phenomenon among his peers.[7] However, it remained largely unstudied until 2005, when Prof. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter was approached by MX, a man who seemed to have lost the ability to visualize after undergoing minor surgery.[8] Following publication of MX's case in 2010,[9] Zeman was approached by a number of people claiming to have had a lifelong inability to visualise. In 2015 Zeman's team published a paper on what they termed "congenital aphantasia",[3] sparking renewed interest in the phenomenon now known simply as aphantasia.[4] Research on the subject is still scarce, but further studies are being planned.[5][6]

—–

2. Galton, Francis (19 July 1880). "Statistics of Mental Imagery". Mind. Oxford Journals. os–V (19): 301–318. doi:10.1093/mind/os-V.19.301. Retrieved 26 April 2016.

3. Zeman, Adam; Dewar, Michaela; Della Sala, Sergio (3 June 2015). "Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia". Cortex. 73: 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019. ISSN 0010-9452. PMID 26115582. Retrieved 24 June 2015. (subscription required (help)).

4. Gallagher, James (26 August 2015). "Aphantasia: A life without mental images". BBC News Online. Retrieved 26 August 2015.

5. Zimmer, Carl (22 June 2015). "Picture This? Some Just Can't". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 June 2015.

6. Grinnell, Dustin (20 April 2016). "My mind's eye is blind – so what's going on in my brain?". New Scientist (2070). Retrieved 9 July 2016.

7. "To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour." (Galton, 1880)

8. "You might not be able to imagine things, and not know it". The Independent. 2016-04-25. Retrieved 2016-12-16.

9. Zeman, Adam Z. J.; Della Sala, Sergio; Torrens, Lorna A.; Gountouna, Viktoria-Eleni; McGonigle, David J.; Logie, Robert H. (2010-01-01). "Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: A case of 'blind imagination'". Neuropsychologia. 48 (1): 145–155. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.024.

The perception of the elements of writing is not constant from one individual to the next nor is it constant from one writing system to the next.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I came to know that some people experience color sensations when seeing letters or characters:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

Then there's aphasia, dyslexia, and, of course, character amnesia, about which we here at Language Log are familiar:

All such psychological conditions that have a bearing on human ability to read and write ensure that there is no single model for literacy in different writing systems and for different individuals.



27 Comments

  1. Guy said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

    I wonder the extent to which this is quantitative instead of qualitative. For example, I find that certain forms of spatial visualization that are simple for me (for example, picturing an object that would cast a shadow that looks like, say, a spiral when held one way but like the letter A when held at 90 degrees to that angle) are totally baffling for many other people, but this number is so great that I don't think they could all lack the ability to visualize.

    I'm curious whether this is limited to visual imagery or whether people who lack this ability tend to also lack the ability to imagine other sensory input, such as sound, smell, taste, or balance, i.e. can they imagine being dizzy? Or can they only call to mind a description of what it feels like to be dizzy? Is this also associated with being unable to dream, or having less vivid dreams?

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:49 am

    @Guy: I'm one of those people to whom "mental imagery" has always been a mystery, but I have a very active "mind's ear", constantly scripting dialogue or playing back snippets of familiar audio. The notion of imagining a smell or a taste is so far from my experience that I can't even make sense of it: these senses are so intimately tied to the physicality of the experience that I don't think I've ever experienced them consciously in any other way.

    In dreams, however, all bets are off. Whatever dreams actually *are*, to the extent I can recall anything about them, they do seem to include the full panoply of senses. But if I just close my eyes and think about something, even something as simple as an abstract shape, all I "see" is the red-and-black "static" of the insides of my eyelids.

  3. Alex said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:19 am

    From a source above

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150826101648.htm

    Cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman, at the University of Exeter Medical School, has revisited the concept of people who cannot visualise, which was first identified by Sir Francis Galton in 1880 A 20th century survey suggested that this may be true of 2.5% of the population — yet until now, this phenomenon has remained largely unexplored.

    That certainly would be alot of people if the % is that high.

  4. Maxime said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:56 am

    I have had this "condition" my whole life but only realised it about two years ago. I suspect most people who have it also have no idea, so the 2.5% number seems entirely plausible. I could have easily gone the rest of my life without knowing if I hadn't stumbled upon an article about it. Without being to know what goes on in other people's heads, I always took references to visualisation and mental imagination to be metaphorical. It still amazes me that anyone is capable of conjuring up a picture in their mind of something that isn't actually in front of their eyes.

    Clearly there's a spectrum ranging from people with incredibly vivid visual imaginations to those with no visual imagination, and also differences in the experiences of different people who lack a visual imagination. I can say from personal experience that this "aphantasia" is not necessarily a hindrance to reading or writing Chinese–my ability to write by hand is terrible now, but when I was studying it at university I had no particular trouble, despite being completely unable to picture the characters in my head. My memory and mental representation of the characters is just purely non-visual. I've read reports from people who say they don't have any visual imagery in their dreams (but I dream perfectly normally) and who can't imagine any other kind of sensory input either (but I can imagine music and voices fairly well).

  5. Guy said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 3:35 am

    @Garrett Woolman

    I don't want to draft you into being a research project or anything, but can you make your mouth water by thinking about food you like? I feel like for me thinking about food only makes my mouth water if I imagine its taste and texture.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 5:36 am

    certain forms of spatial visualization that are simple for me (for example, picturing an object that would cast a shadow that looks like, say, a spiral when held one way but like the letter A when held at 90 degrees to that angle)

    Took me a minute of conscious thinking, but I think I've got one now… have you trained this a lot?

    But this isn't visualization. I can immediately visualize a spiral-shaped and an A-shaped shadow. Inferring what objects, other than a spiral and an A, could cast such shadows is what takes longer.

    Whatever dreams actually *are*, to the extent I can recall anything about them, they do seem to include the full panoply of senses.

    Interesting. My dreams are almost wholly visual. Language occurs, but it's somewhat abstracted from sound; other sounds barely occur, and smell, taste and touch are extremely rare. Temperature is absent, even water temperature in the vast majority of cases, and I'm extremely sensitive to water temperature…

    Once I had sleep paralysis. The starkest difference from a dream is that I hallucinated loud and clear sounds.

    But if I just close my eyes and think about something, even something as simple as an abstract shape, all I "see" is the red-and-black "static" of the insides of my eyelids.

    That's what you literally see, not what you imagine.

    My memory and mental representation of the characters is just purely non-visual.

    Perhaps you remember the movements of writing them? "Muscle memory"?

  7. Zeppelin said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 9:04 am

    I, too, assumed for most of my life that people were speaking metaphorically when they talked about the "mind's eye". I certainly can't close my eyes and see things on command. I can manage…abstract, hazy sensations of what I'm thinking about? But nothing I could examine or describe.
    I draw and paint all right for the amount of practice I've put in, so it doesn't seem to be an immediate handicap there, at least on an amateur level. But it does mean I have to sketch things to figure out whether I can draw them, so to speak. I can't do composition in my head, or draw anything from memory unless I understand how to construct it or can do it by rote. If I want to see the things I imagine, I have to render them externally.

    To learn and recall characters, I go through the motions of writing them in my mind or with my hand. I also describe them verbally. I haven't learned anything more elaborate than Devanagari, though.

  8. Guy said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    @David Marjanović

    I don't think I'm talking about simply inferring. What made me think of this example was this video. After I saw it the first time I tried explaining how the illusion works. I said something like "just picture with your mind's eye the surfaces traced out by lines from your eye looking at its edges from the two directions and see where they intersect to get the 3D shape of the objects". And they reacted like I'd described a superpower. I thought of this example because I specifically used the phrase "mind's eye" and they mocked it, like it was unreasonable to expect someone to be able to visualize this.

  9. Sadaf said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

    Many people discovered that they probably had Aphantasia after reading Carl Zimmer's articles in NYT about Dr. Zeman's work.
    In fact, Mozilla co-founder Blake Ross, after reading the NYT article expressed his amazement about the fact that (most) other people could visually imagine things through a Facebook post.
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/blake-ross/aphantasia-how-it-feels-to-be-blind-in-your-mind/10156834777480504/
    Like many other aphantasiacs, he'd been unaware that other people really could visualise stuff when they talked about seeing with the mind's eye.

  10. DCBob said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    What Garrett Wollman said. AFAICT I have no visual imagery whatsoever, but I can listen to entire pieces of musically more or less perfectly in my imagination; I can feel exactly how it feels to throw a ball, and I can make my mouth water by imagining the smell of orange juice. Visually, nada.

  11. Avi Rappoport said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    I had two kids take the Mandarin language class at Berkeley High. One discovered aphantasia, couldn't recognize the characters, and scraped through the class on teacher charity — Spanish was infinitely easier. The other is having a fabulous time, does very well with the characters as well as the spoken language, and wants to go into Chinese linguistics. Not twins, but pretty nice juxtaposition.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the word "aphantasia", since I know from experience that if I say someone has no visual imagination, they may hear it as meaning that they're unimaginative (dull, uncreative).

  13. tangent said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 10:28 pm

    @Zeppelin, that's really interesting that you draw and paint effectively — in an integrated composition even though you can't prefigure it beforehand? I wonder if there's a part of your brain that holds the whole visual representation, but you don't have conscious access to it, like someone with blindsight.

  14. tangent said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

    I can imagine a visual scene fine I'd say, but it's quite different in experience than actual sight. It's more abstract and less "real" . But it still acts like a two-dimensional field, like a thing seen rather than like knowledge about a thing seen. I think some people have a "realer" visual imagination.

    Other senses each differ. Imagined sound is very like hearing it though not identical. Imagined taste and smell are quite real when they work, but frequently they don't — like my memory of smell. Imagined touch scarcely exists for me.

  15. speedwell said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 1:08 am

    We're on to something here. Yeah, for me visual imagination is quite distinct if static; I literally have to imagine a "filmstrip" of motion. Smell and taste can be imagined closely enough that I can cook to an imagined "goal" flavor. Imagined sound, touch, and proprioception can be made to be so strong that I can often use them to block out real experience: when music is playing, I can "hear" another tune in another key so realistically that I can sing along with it (which is a handy way to irritate other people); when I am feeling pain I can frequently "imagine" I feel something different, and I can "practice piano" by "feeling" my fingers move on the keys. My equilibrioception (balance sense) is frankly somewhat defective both in reality and imagination. I can both vaguely sense and imagine the feeling of sensing my blood sugar levels, which is useful in determining what a food does in the presence or absence of my diabetes medication.

  16. maidhc said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 2:40 am

    When I was young my parents bought a house. The people who lived there before had a piano in the basement and they were trying to move it out, but they couldn't figure out how to get it positioned to go up the stairs. It was so obvious to me that there was no way to turn it around unless they took the banister off, but somehow all these grownups couldn't figure it out. I finally got them to listen to me and they got the piano out. So visualizing spatial relationships is easy for me.

    I also am pretty good at recalling music. If I've heard something enough times I can play the whole thing back with all the background parts, so for some albums I don't need to listen to them because I can play them back mentally. I also often can recall the place I was when I first heard a particular piece of music.

    On the other hand I am totally useless at recalling tastes and smells, although I can recognize many of them. Also I'm not good at faces, although I'm not totally face-blind. And I have a hard time with right and left. I've developed a coping strategy based on driving, but it totally breaks down when I'm in a country that drives on the left, because I interpret "turn left here" as "turn across traffic".

    Chinese characters? I recognize about ten of them. Not that I've made much of an effort to learn them. My boss is Chinese, and she sends her little daughter to Chinese school, and she's always telling me "You only need 600 characters to read the newspaper". Maybe when I retire I will aspire to read a Chinese newspaper.

    I think I deal with language learning separately in oral and visual form, because I frequently get a breakthrough when I connect some sound I've heard to the written form. When I was studying Spanish some years ago, our teacher told us that he had learned to say "Slayter" when you were parting with someone, and he had an epiphany when he finally realized it was "See you later". So like that.

    My mental image of my past is helped immensely by photography. Things become vague when I can't reinforce the image. The layout of my parents' house when I was six is like an engineering drawing because I have no photos. Except I remember my own room and the big red radio where we listened to the Sputnik

    Different people have different brains, I guess.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 6:19 am

    certain forms of spatial visualization that are simple for me (for example, picturing an object that would cast a shadow that looks like, say, a spiral when held one way but like the letter A when held at 90 degrees to that angle)

    Oh, wait. You mean a two-dimensional spiral, right? I was somehow thinking about a three-dimensional helix.

    With a 2D spiral it's easy – glue the spiral to an A at 90° and shine light from those two directions.

    The video is hard; it's a really special case involving the camera angle, the lighting and unexpected shapes ("if you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras" totally fails there).

    @Zeppelin, that's really interesting that you draw and paint effectively — in an integrated composition even though you can't prefigure it beforehand? I wonder if there's a part of your brain that holds the whole visual representation, but you don't have conscious access to it, like someone with blindsight.

    That's said to be how it works.

  18. Zeppelin said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 8:40 am

    Tangent, David Marjanović:

    I can only describe how drawing feels to me, of course, but: I know what major elements need to be in the image, so I'll block those in in places that make compositional sense (if I'm working digitally I'll move them around a lot). Then I look at them and figure out what else should be in the image, conceptually or compositionally, and put that down. I also rely a lot on "happy accidents" — scribbling very loosely, then looking at the scribbles and finding interesting shapes in them that I can use. It's an iterative process. It doesn't feel like I'm extracting a representation of a complete image from somewhere.

    I may get frustrated when I can't nail the emotion or concept or impression I want, or can't get the construction or technique right, but I never think "this looks nothing like what I had in mind". My motivation is more "I wonder what a thing with these properties would look like", rather than "I want to render a thing that looks like this".

  19. Zeppelin said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    Oh, just to be clear: I'm definitely not aphantasic the way Blake Ross describes in that article on Facebook. I can recall music and sound, and taste to an extent, I do have dreams that include vision (though they tend to be focused around other things, mainly conversation), and so on.
    I just can't visualise. I figure I'm just way on one end of the bell curve for that particular mental ability, rather than qualitatively different.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 9:34 am

    The discussion also continues here:

    "The miracle of reading and writing Chinese characters" (3/26/17)

  21. mg said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

    Victor – one, perhaps minor, correction. These are neurological conditions, not psychological. They have to do with how the brain is wired.

  22. Michael Stoler said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    I wonder how this relates to the idea of "thinking in pictures", as experienced by Temple Grandin and others on the autistic spectrum. I believe, though, that many of those who experience this have difficulty with spoken language. Also, research by the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation (www.jocrf.org) has found that the abilities to reason in three dimensions and remember two dimensional patterns are quite separate.

  23. alext said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    My mind was blown several years ago when I discovered that "picture x in your head" wasn't metaphorical; the idea that people can actually hallucinate things at will seems basically akin to a superpower to me. It's all dark when my eyes are closed, with the exception of dreams.

    When it comes to sinographs, I can memorize relatively easily, but writing is difficult enough that I'll never make any headway. I can actually use visual mnemonics when I'm looking straight at a character to remember the pronunciation and meaning, but that doesn't help with writing. Similar to Zeppelin above, I only know what something will look like after it's already mostly written down. So I have to memorize things procedurally and spatially, i.e. "draw a hat, draw a short vertical line and a taller one with a thing sticking out to the right, then a flat line underneath, then you have 企 — yeah, that looks right".

  24. Jamie said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

    I have a very limited visual imagination (mind's eye). I certainly can't see things as if I were looking at a photo (and I find it hard to believe that others can!).

    On the other hand, I can visualise how things that don't exist will look, even though I can't actually "see" the result. We are currently in the process of restoring a house, and I seem to have less trouble imagining which furniture, colours, etc. will work, than my wife does (who was a designer and has "perfect colour" in the same way that some people have perfect pitch).

    I also have no trouble manipulating 3D shapes in my head. When I studied chemistry, I never used the "ball and spring" kit to build molecules to understand the difference between left and right handed versions. Even though I can't tell the difference between left and right!

    And, to get back on topic, my (English) spelling is very good. And when I studied Japanese, I don't think it affected my ability to learn kanji (it was just laziness that was the problem).

  25. Jamie said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

    The BBC had an article about this a while ago which included a test of "Vividness of Visual Imagery"

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

  26. Robert said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 2:09 am

    In Pinker's 'How the mind works' he mentions some relevant research.

    Ask people whether two flat images are the same, just rotated. If they are the time taken to recognise this turns out to be proportional to the angle of rotation, just as if the person was mentally rotating an image in their head at fixed angular velocity.

    Also, if the same question is asked for recognising if one shape of a reflection of another,. the time taken is the same as to mentally rotate the object 180 degrees, as if the person was flipping the image over in the third dimension.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 4:24 am

    the idea that people can actually hallucinate things at will seems basically akin to a superpower to me. It's all dark when my eyes are closed, with the exception of dreams.

    It's not like a hallucination! It's just imagination.

    (And if I had to locate it, I wouldn't put it in my eyes, but… higher up? More like in the places where headaches are felt?)

    In short, Jamie, you don't have aphantasia.

    Admittedly, there are people who really can hallucinate at will. I recently read a firsthand account by someone who described how she stopped smoking by imagining that she was smoking – she could feel the cigarette between her fingers! I can imagine what it feels like to have, say, a pencil between my fingers, but I don't literally feel it when it's not there.

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