But what really blew my mind was when I realized that people think with words. Its always "have an idea, then attempt to serialize it into some approximation in the form of linear sentence or words". I mean, I can chose to speak a sentence in my head, but it is strange and artificial. But from what I hear from others, apparently people actually think about things with words, and which words they have both enable and limit their thinking. I still don't exactly know how that works, but apparently its common?
This isn't common at all, but the belief that it's happening is common.
What's actually happening is that people's thoughts automatically trigger language production, and they hear the words, the output of that process, in their head. But the thought comes first and the mental words are a side effect. Imagine your brain having an internal narrator who constantly reads your thoughts and shouts them out as formed sentences.
The simplest proof I have for the fact that I don't think in words is that I quite often forget a word, and can't complete a sentence. I know exactly what I want to express and have thought it through in my mind, but I can't tell it to someone else because I don't remember the serialization of that idea, and am forced to try to work around it by describing the word and hoping someone fills it in for me.
Every now and then, I'll forget a word in English but remember it in another language. My internal monologue tends to be English-ish (especially right now, when I'm composing a post), but if the sounds for a word are missing, the concept will fill its place...or sometimes the closest equivalent of whichever language I've been thinking about lately. I can also think almost completely in wordless concept-strings, but that sometimes feels forced.
Maybe I should mention that I learned a few words in French, German, and Spanish before I was 8, but the first time that I really studied a language in the usual sense was when I was about 12.
Do you ever get frustrated trying to explain this? I've had people refuse to believe me, and I end up feeling like I'm not thinking "as well" or "as rigorously" as I might be.
I have a feeling that forgetting words isn't particularly unusual even for native speakers though.
After I began to think in English (my second language), I found that I wasn't speaking my first language anymore, I was just translating to it from my second one. And because the two weren't connected in my brain, I started frequently forgeting words and having trouble with phrasing.
Mildly off-topic, but I never realised until recently how much of a difference this can make. I've used French numbers far more, and for far longer, than I have Japanese numbers , but learning that way still results in me going "8 - that's eight, so its huit". Because I learnt the Japanese numbers through usage and without the deliberate English comparison, I go straight to "8 - hachi" without the intermediate step.
It's also weird to me that I can count backwards (say 10 to 1) far easier in Japanese than in French, probably for similar reasons.
 Note I'm a long way from fluent in either. I studied French at school, and have picked up a very small amount of Japanese through usage.
What is quite scary is that my colleagues now understand from tone and context exactly which "thingy" I am referring to...
If its a more passive thing (such as pondering something whilst actually working on something else), or my language 'skills' for lack of a better word are doing something else (e.g. listening to music with lyrics), then the thoughts are more abstract ideas and images, and the monologue only returns when I come to some sort of conclusion. It's interesting to note that this happens more frequently when I've been using languages other than English.
Brains definitely are weird.
I can formulate sentences in my mind, but it feels really slow and cumbersome.
Yes, with great detail.
> If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing.
Yup (and it's spinning for some reason!)
> And mom’s face? Of course.
Not at all!
I've always been intrigued about this. I have a very rich "mind's eye", but always struggle with drawing faces in my mind.
My experience with imagining faces: I get the overall head shape, hair... everything, but the features are blurry, wobbly, and kind of switch nonstop, like my imagined faces were made of constantly changing cutouts of a multitude of faces. It's disorienting.
I (think I) don't have any trouble recognizing people's faces. Sometimes I even remember strangers who I come across occasionally on my city... But I still struggle remembering/imagining the most familiar people around me.
Am I alone in this?
There's lots more information about Face Blindness (prosopagnosia) on the http://faceblind.org site.
For me the feeling is very similar to having a word just on the "tip of your tongue", where you know the word you want, you can feel it, its meaning, etc. You know you'd recognize it instantly if you heard (saw) it, but you can't quite bring it up.
Sometimes I can't even tell if I actually am visualizing a face or not, because it's like for a split second I feel like I can almost see it, but then when I focus on it, it's gone. And other times I know I have seen people's faces in my mind, but it's generally spontaneous, not when I actively try to pull one up. Kind of like seeing something in your peripheral vision, but not being able to focus on it.
Picturing people close to me is way harder. Maybe because I picture the famous people more as "objects" in my brain? Maybe I'm used to see them in still pictures and thus it's easier for me to recall that picture as a cue? Maybe I have so many stimuli associated to people closer to me that my brain can't decide on which one to cue from?
Qualia are so intriguing.
I doubt I am special in this regard, but perhaps just on the lower end of the spectrum for normal. I cannot draw to save my life because I can't usefully imagine it in my head before it goes on paper.
Imagine an image split vertically down the middle. The left side of the image is solid black. The right side is the right half of your mom's face.
Does that make it easier? It does for me.
Lost me there :(
If I think hard I can almost see the face of someone but it's fuzzy and just out of my reach. Then for the briefest moment it's sharp, then disappears completely.
About me: I was formerly a director of product at FB and a founder of Firefox. My YC startup became FB's first acquisition. I'm focusing more on creative writing these days (wrote the Silicon Valley spec script and the Theranos parody that have come up on HN a few times.) Aphantasia was a pretty weird discovery for me given this new focus.
Here's a series of things you could try.
- Sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" out loud.
- Do it again silently -- don't vocalize -- but keep moving your mouth, lips and tongue. If you're like me, you'll also still feel your throat and vocal chords moving.
- Do it again silently, without moving your lips, but still move your tongue and vocal chords.
- Do it again silently, but keep your tongue still, just move your vocal chords silently.
- Do it again, entirely silently, in your head.
I'd be interested to learn which steps are hard for you. When I'm singing a song "in my head" I'm actually doing any one of the latter three actions.
Relatedly, when I'm talking to myself in my head -- which I do often, usually while reliving an old conversation or anticipating a new one -- I often do the throat and tongue motions. Occasionally I even do the mouth motions, which is a good way to get people to look at you strangely :)
You might be interested in an exercise called "image streaming". The idea is to describe an object in extreme detail, as if you were giving someone instructions for how to draw it. Apparently this is one of the few things that allows my coworker to view images in his mind. Also see "backup procedures for people who don't get pictures" 
For example, something as simple as: What is more blue? The sky or a lake?
Or, on a practical note, if you are designing software, do you have a good sense of color theory, to be able to select colors that will look good together, or do you have to put it on screen and do some trial and error?
Also, your concept of the "milk voice" was very alien to me. I don't think like that. My inner voice is my own voice, with full emotion and inflection.
I'm not Blake but I actually can't answer that question. I'd have to ask you what lake and what sky. I've stored some notion of color values for ex. a "stormy" sky and could probably compare that to the color value I have stored for the lake near my childhood home.
The abstract concepts of "sky" and "lake" don't have any color to me though. If you asked me to imagine a plane flying through the sky, the sky wouldn't have a color.
Trial and error for matching colors.
Thanks for the insight on the "milk voice." You'd think by now I'd learn not to assume anything. I thought the "neutral inner voice" was universal.
For me, most of the time, I don't have any kind of inner voice. I don't usually think in words; thinking is more like combining abstract symbols/feelings/concepts in a way that's more immediate and less linear than language.
Personally, like codingdave, my "milk voice" is my own voice. I can "hear" my voice, with texture, inflection, and everything, as if I were reading my thoughts out loud. The milk voice doesn't have to be my own; I can vividly imagine the voice of anyone else I've heard. I have often wondered about that; how is it that with so little sample data (hearing someone talk for only a few seconds) I'm able to imagine them saying _anything_, with any inflection?
If I attempt the red triangle thought, I can place the concept of a triangle in space, but I can't see it.
Similarly for the beach, my mental model is all the concepts accociated with a beach positioned in 3d space, but I don't "see" anything.
However, on rare occasions I have "seen" things in my mind in absolutely perfect detail, but I have no control over what I see. I've also heard complete orchestras but have no control over what they play. Otherwise my inner ear is very limited.
I've always wanted to tame these abilities but don't know where to start.
In fact, I often know I'm about to drift off to sleep when the music in my head starts getting interesting. My dreams are often very intense, visual/audio experiences with plots and special effects, like AAA Hollywood movies.
I'll often wake up when the brass section of my mental orchestra gets too loud and I'll hear the last few beats repeating over and over as I gain consciousness.
I've actually found the multi-media/search aspects of modern chat systems very helpful since I can often reply what I'm thinking by just searching for a picture that represents my thoughts instead of writing out words.
I'm also absolutely terrible with directions on roads, but quite good inside of large complex buildings (my wife is the opposite).
One thought, instead of "giving in" to this fact, I wonder if exercising it might do something. Perhaps take some community sketching classes and work on drawing to see if exercising the unused visualization areas of your mind might activate them?
In essence, people can think visually, kinetically (feeling), aurally (sound).
Most folks imagine with pictures, but many don't. You are not alone.
For example: I'm sure you can imagine what it felt like when something really funny happened to you, right? And you could probably also remember listening to a song you heard on the radio. Now - recall what it felt like when you were on a beach (or a snowy mountain), and recall what it sounded like. If you cannot remember, imagine the feeling of the sun, sound and imagine the sound you might hear.
> I'm sure you can imagine what it felt like when something really funny happened to you, right?
I can't. In fact, the entire notion of how I "felt" in the past seems like a metaphor to me.
> And you could probably also remember listening to a song you heard on the radio.
I can remember the fact that I heard a certain song on the radio. I certainly cannot hear it.
> If you cannot remember, imagine the feeling of the sun, sound and imagine the sound you might hear.
I've been to beaches and snowy mountains and absolutely could not imagine those things. I know in the abstract that a beach is warmer than a mountain, but I don't feel those memories differently—they're just textual descriptions, like what you'd read in a book.
Did you read the whole article? I'm pretty sure he cannot do these things. He mentions he can't really imagine music or sound either and has a hard time recalling experiences in general.
I just took the test on the BBC and got the lowest score, but I'm still not sure if I have aphantasia or not.
I can "picture" scenes in my mind. I certainly don't have a problem with imagination or thinking up different potential realities.
But the picture I have is basically a literary description. If you asked me to imagine a beach I would rapidly compose a narrative composition of said beach: there's turquoise water lapping against the sand which slopes up gradually. Oh and there's probably a rock somewhere along the shoreline. And there are some palm trees. But in my mind this process is occurring exactly how it's happening here: as text.
That being said, I remain unconvinced that I actually have aphantasia. How do I know everyone else isn't having the same experience but describing it with images?
One point is that when I tried to imagine my best friend's face I couldn't come up with more than a general description. But perhaps this is just a poor memory of faces?
Like you, I also have a terrible experiential memory. I barely remember going to high school at all and the few memories that I do have from my life are basically stories—narrative snapshots which I have verbalized enough times for them to be embedded in my mind, just like the plots of my favorite books are. I can just as easily imagine the first time I asked out a girl as when Frodo destroyed the One Ring.
Are there any more scientific tests available?
That said, I think an easier way to differentiate is to imagine a beach you've actually been to. When I tried to do that, the first thing to come to mind was a lake near my house. And I saw more of the lake than the beach actually - the trees behind it, the parking lot off to one side, etc. Thinking logically about that one, my mental picture is actually flawed, because that parking lot is farther away than it is in the mental picture that came up!
It seems like for a lot of people, the pictures actually have a "mind of their own" to some extent. Another comment mentioned imagining a triangle, and it turned out it was spinning. I can totally see that happening. You don't think, "I'm going to imagine a spinning triangle" or something - you just attempt to pull up a picture of a triangle, and your brain gives you a representation. Details you don't decide on will be filled in.
It really is fascinating. And from reading other comments on this post and others like it, it sounds like some people have a far stronger ability to visualize than I do. I'm mildly jealous, but at the same time, the OP for instance has obviously done just fine without - and is also a highly entertaining writer! (Who knows, perhaps even for reasons related to the aphantasia.)
Maybe you'd find it interesting, if you haven't read it already.
May I ask if you feel embarrassment when you think about an embarrassing event in your past?
The adjustment is quite an odd feeling. I use mostly the same language to describe things as other people. I will use terms like 'mental image' or 'yeah i can see you wearing that', but to me it was far more metaphorical. I had the same realization about counting sheep. Now I feel a bit uncomfortable when I use some terms. I'm used to using them but that was when I thought everybody else was using them in the same way as myself.
I had wondered if the Text popups in the TV series Sherlock came from someone with without aphantasia trying to understand a description given by someone with aphantasia. I could describe what I 'see' when I think about something as a cloud of facts relating to the subject, If someone who inherently thought of such things visually tried to interpret my viewpoint I could quite easily understand how they end up with the effect used in Sherlock. It's not what I see of course. I don't see words floating in space. I see nothing. To some the idea of not imagining things visually must seem just as impossible.
I think it's different to imagination though, I can't visualize but I can imagine.
I tried this experiment:
Imagine two identical closed cardboard boxes. In one of them there is a duck.
I can't see the boxes but I can imagine them, and the box with a duck in it is distinctly different to the one without. My friends say they can visualize the boxes and they do indeed look identical, but strangely they still seem to know which one the duck is inside.
As an example, for the cube question, I would generally solve it by visualizing the shape starting out flat and then getting folded 90 degrees inward at each crease until it either forms a complete cube, in which case the answer is yes, or two of the squares are forces to overlap each other, in which case the answer is no. To be clear, I'm not imagining any person's hands actually performing the act of folding, I'm just visualizing the abstract shape floating an otherwise featureless void, folding of its own accord. In fact, here's a video that more or less shows what I would visualize: https://vimeo.com/64926672
I read your inability to use Morgan Freeman's voice in Morgan Freeman's voice.
When you mentioned you were unable to hear the Star Wars theme my first reaction was how badly it clashed with the song in my mind's ear already.
I have a much stronger mind's ear than average. The loss of my mind's eye I would not notice much; sure it would make fiction less fun and dreams less vivid, but eh. But losing my mind's ear would be like going deaf. I have what amounts to a built-in iPod that can call up any sound I've ever heard, and many more sounds that I haven't. Going without a mind's eye would be a curiosity to me, but losing the ear would be like losing an arm.
I do have dreams, but don't remember them ( after 10 minutes, i forgot them for sure).
I never understood how people could draw robot faces to describe a person at a police officer... It seems weird...
I have memories, but trying to describe something i will say "general things" like colors, objects, ... I can't describe my own house in detail... I describe my house with facts...
I had a crush on someone ( i dated her even a couple of times) and i even said her hair was dark-blonde... While i was not paying attention during chatting... ( it was not ...)
I find it dificult to describe color "variations". Not blue or brown, but a color like turqouise says nothing to me.
Is that the same thing then?
What i find similar: you mentioned engineers who have the same thing (i'm a .net architect) and i'm an INTJ personality according to Meyer Briggs ( http://www.personalitypage.com/INTJ.html ) which is also something of 2-3 % of the people ( like you mentioned the % of people who have Aphantasia). Perhaps this has something to do with each other?
Although visual imagination is slightly weaker / less tangible in my mind than the rest - as if recall of audio was at whisper strength and easily drowned out in stronger IRL stimulus, but I don't forget the things I imagined, I just have to focus and re-imagine them when they fade.
Thinking about it now, it might be that my visual short term memory is the limiting factor. Incrementally building visual scenes isn't hard to me, but I have to "paint it out".
I often wonder whether the imagination can be improved like a muscle since I have trouble holding mental image outside brief flashes. I'm not sure if you can relate, but trying to picture something in my mind often feels as though I'm trying to recall the fleeting details of a dream; the harder I try the more foggy it becomes.
I'm not sure if you've heard of it, but there is a memorization technique called "Art of Memory" you can read about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_memory. I think you'll find it particularly interesting since it explains how to process/form mental images in a very thorough & systematic way. It's all about enhancing memory by thinking about information in a visually, and contains examples of how to visualize different types of information.
What is the overlap between aphantasia and absence of memories? The example you gave was that you couldn't remember going to see Les Mis a year before, so that's not stored as a fact somewhere?
There was a (possible hoax) story a while back about a guy who could only remember the previous 15 or so hours of his life. He kept journals and had to jog his memory daily. One interesting proposal was that he was in a unique position to re-watch his favourite movies and compare his previous reviews to see, unbiased, if there was any change in opinion. Aside from the awfulness of the condition, that particular aspect sounded quite cool - you could experience things for the "first time" multiple times.
Does the same thing occur with aphantasia? If you see a movie that you love, presumably you can't remember any scenes from it later (though you I assume you would remember the plot)?
This is probably not the same condition, but those with anterograde amnesia cannot form new memories and will forget things within minutes. The movie Memento was about this, and Oliver Sacks wrote about a man with it in "The Lost Mariner." I could definitely believe that story... Strange and awful things can happen to the brain :-/
I am very curious if they could make that connection. I know LSD puts the brain's visual processing into overdrive, perhaps it might make the connection strong enough to give you this mind's eye, even if only temporary.
Also, I would assume the lack of visuals holds true for dreams as well? For dreams that you remember (if any), what were they composed of? Interestingly, some people dream in B&W and other people dream in color. 
I discovered one 'trick' to get around this: certain music would cause strong, evocative "music video" imagery to be conjured in my mind's eye for as long as I listened to it, with this being mostly directible (i.e. the emotional cues of the song were fixed, but I could constrain the imagery to anything that matched those emotional beats.) I considered myself a writer in my teenage years because I took advantage of those "synesthetic fantasias" to build up scenes and characters in a sci-fi setting of my own creation. Sadly, this ability faded with age.
More recently, I was diagnosed with Inattentive-type ADHD (and, to be clear, it was always there, rather than adult-onset; my parents just disregarded the advice of my family doctor and pretended I was neurotypical.) I began taking medication for it. My visual imagery is not ephemeral any more! I mean, it still kind of is, insofar as mental images will be lost the moment I temporarily lose focus on them—but I can now hold the images for as long as I concentrate on them.
I think I might now actually have access to the full "thought toolset" other people do, but since I developed and rely on this alternate way to go about thinking without it, I don't reach for visually-imagining as a way to do things, so it doesn't get used often.
On the other hand, I notice that, on ADHD medication, I have far fewer fleeting "unrequested" visual images. I can now imagine consciously, but it seems like the visualization capabilities of my subconscious have been switched entirely off.
Though, I do notice, if I go a day without taking my ADHD meds, the second night—when it's all washed out of my system, but my brain hasn't bounced back to producing any dopamine, so the amount in there is even lower than my baseline—I'll have really intense dreams, where the details of every scene are full of "grotesquely real" imagery, as if DeepDream were trained on Zdzisław Beksiński paintings.
This almost makes me wonder whether there's a sort of "cross-fade" potential between conscious and subconscious visualizing, controlled by dopamine. Really low dopamine: vivid dreams, no conscious visualizing. Average dopamine: meh dreams, meh visualizing. High dopamine: no dreams, vivid visualizing. (This would also fit with the observation that visual hallucinations are a symptom of mania.)
Thanks for writing this, by the way. This is totally mind-blowing.
Could I ask if you drink alcohol? If so, do you experience an alternation in your mood like being more relaxed or having a different perspective on things?
I'm really skeptical of this "disorder." I think it mostly amounts to "semantics and variability in human abilities, not pathology."
Metacognition like this is super slippery and is really easy to draw whatever conclusion you want. I've just never been able to draw even mildly realistic anything ever, this doesn't mean I have a disease.
Sure, we can call that a "variability in human ability" rather than a "disorder". I never used the word "disorder" anyway.
And, I mean, you _did_ couch this as a disorder when you made the single-subject case study your proof.
I've been unable to visualize anything except taste since the age of ~10. I figured that was something I had grown out of!
I mulled over that for a bit, and concluded that we all think without words in fact. The thought comes first, then it's translated into words inside our minds. It should be obvious that the brain can only form words after it's formed the thought.
So in your case, I find it impossible to believe that you don't have imagination. I think it might just be inaccessible to you (to your consciousness).
I think most thoughts are in fact unconscious. What we consciously perceive of our own thoughts is just a small part of it, the high level output.
So I'm thinking that for you, the "consciousness barrier" so to speak is just a little higher than it is for most people.
Musical/artistic family, multi-talented all around me. I'd keep my suburban-bicycled paper-route from getting boring by playing back in my head music I'd heard and liked. Stumbled into hardware, then software, as something I could do and do well and get paid to do it. Whatever it was I was doing -- songwriting, drawing, carving, circuitry, code -- I visualized/audialized it first, working it out on the sketchpad viewscreen of my mind before committing the work to physical fact.
And then I found out how easily the whole thing could be shut down. Stressed-out bowstring-taut -- pending divorce,
single-parenting, work stresses -- and it was enough to let
staph take hold, in my elbow of all places -- and suddenly the ibuprofen didn't keep the fevers down and my visualization got fevered and dissolved away and I couldn't code, couldn't create, because I couldn't visualize, until the antibiotics finished killing off the infection.
Anybody else gone through this?
Yes, although I don't think I was able to "see" things in my head before or after. I got West Nile Virus about 10 years ago, and was physically out-of-commission for most of a year. The particularly disturbing part was that even after I recovered physically, it took several more years before I recovered my mental ability well enough to reason about anything complex -- like math, or code. I just couldn't follow equations that once made sense.
Now after a decade, I think I'm back to about 80-90% of peak. I don't know if the small decline is residual from the West Nile, or to be expected with normal aging from 35 to 45. The experience drove home how little we understand the brain, or viruses. Consider how primitive our understanding of medicine was 100 years ago. I think it's likely that 100 years forward they'll look back at now with similar disdain: "They didn't understand anything --- they just let viruses run their course and do their damage!"
My wife, for example, can't process "left" and "right" without great effort.
She's intelligent and is a gifted artist in a variety of mediums, and is not dyslexic in the least. But if you tell her to "turn right" in a car it's very confusing for her to translate that into which direction she should take.
Even more confusingly, she's a very good navigator, much better than I! I process "left" and "right" like a "normal" person and yet I'm legendarily bad at finding my way while driving.
I've tried to get her to explain the left/right difficulty and it's hard for her to put into words, because of course how can you explain how your brain doesn't work? The most she's been able to say about it is that she understands what her "left arm" or "left foot" is but can't translate that to what my "left" is, or vice-versa.
Anybody else ever heard of or experienced anything like this?
Usually I resolve it by remembering that west is left and east is right when looking at a north-up map, but I have to recall it every single time. I have never been able to bind the west / east words directly to directions.
That was my initial response to my wife - "can't you just do the 'L' trick with your hands?" It doesn't work for her. Nor does, "Well, you write with your right hand, so can't you just remember that is 'right'?" She just has a total mental block there. :)
When driving I do seem to have internalized that left = off road and right = across traffic. I never really noticed this until I drove abroad... I quickly realised I had to be very careful not to think too hard about what I was doing, because if I verbalized any of it then I just became confused. I also found it rather taxing to follow directions.
Here's a tip I learned once: hold your hands out, palms facing away from you and fingers up. Point your thumbs at each other and index fingers straight up. The left hand will form an "L" (for left) and the right hand will form a backwards "L".
I think, between the two moments, I had started playing a lot of top-down 3/4-view RPG video games. There's something about having an avatar that has a directional "facing" on a fixed-orientation orthogonal grid (picture a chessboard, where the piece has a face)—and where commanding the avatar with a direction button both moves it and turns it to face the same direction—which seems like it acted to train my brain to reflexively use this "model" whenever trying to figure out a directional visualization. I'd picture myself in the third person, give myself an "origin point", and then visualize where I'd be (in both movement and facing) before and after, relative to the origin.
(All this was without actually 'picturing' anything, in the traditional sense. Imagine having the sensation of manipulating a ferromagnetic cube floating inside a strong electromagnetic flux. The cube interacts differently with the surrounding magnetic field depending on its 3D orientation—it'll feel different when you're trying to add yaw if the "south" side of the cube is the one facing you, vs. the "east" side or the "bottom" side. Now imagine that the cube is a feeling in your proprioceptive system, rather than in your hands. Now imagine that there is no cube, only the feeling.)
One interesting effect of this is that I've found that I now get "acclimated" to cities I live in, and begin to have a very strong sense of where north is in those cities—because, at first, I look at Google Maps on my phone a lot while navigating, and so my "origin point" becomes fixed to North, such that I begin to see the same sort of fixed-orientation RPG grid overlaid on the city, with streets running "up-down" instead of north-south and "left-right" instead of east-west. I will actually have an intuition of "I'm facing up" when I'm facing north.
On the other hand, when I'm in a city I haven't acclimated to, man do I miss that sensation; I get completely lost.
Anyway, I learned left because one time we were walking down a specific street by our house - coincidentally on the way to a beach - and I guess I was asked to walk on the left side of the road or something. For some reason, I knew which side was the left at that time. So from then on, any time I had to know which was was left, I would just pull up a mental picture of that street, and then know that side was left.
What's interesting is, I definitely didn't use the same picture for right. I don't remember why, but I remember that some time later, my "right" reference became a mental image of the swimming pool where I was taking swimming lessons. I was at the edge of the pool looking out, and somehow (I've forgotten how - perhaps deducing from left) I worked out which way was right. So from then on I would visualize that view out of the pool to know which way was right.
IIRC I did it consciously for a period of time, then it would happen automatically, and at some point between then and adulthood the crutch faded away and I automatically knew left and right like most people. (I have no memory of how long that took, but it probably was still as a young child.)
Anyway, aside from whatever general interest that story might have, I wonder whether a similar technique would work for your wife? Pick a specific mental picture to associate with "left", then spend some time intentionally pulling it up whenever leftness needs to be ascertained. Then once it's cemented, do a different one for right.
I have trouble with left and right and I'll often point left and say "turn right." I should also mention that I'm left handed, and our society (in fact, most if not all societies) are geared for right handed people.
The survey is oversimplified, obviously, but it was devised by the Exeter neurologists who are studying this. I got the lowest score (8/40) since none of the questions make sense to me (no image on any of them).
I said vague and dim for most of them, but it feels like fleeting glimpses of bits more than anything else. I can't really imagine coloured objects, though I sort of label an object as coloured. Geometric arrangements are easy to imagine but I don't have a real picture. I have no problems imagining sound, music or voices. I'm not sure if I dream in pictures and rarely remember dreams. (I work in science)
Poses, colors, and movements of people is very shaky, but I can do landscapes OK. But something about the structure of the questions bothers me... It seems like they are implying that I am observing the image, rather then generating it. Like, "how clearly can you see ____?" means I focus a bit and add it to the image, until I can see it better, but very little of the details asked about pop up unless I think about them, take the information asked for, and intentionally integrate it into the image.
For instance, until I was asked to "Rate how vivid the colours of that person's clothes look in your mind?", I hadn't even imagined his clothes being ANY color. Once I decided that he wore a green sweater, I could "experience" the green color vividly.
I heard the story of the Exeter research on NPR while driving back from the airport at night last year at it floored me! I never realized that other people could actually picture images in their minds. I also thought this was entirely metaphorical. I wrote to the researchers back then to be included in further research.
I'm a computer engineer.
Anyone know if there a community group of people with aphantasia?
Even when the question was, "can you imagine their clothes" and the guy I was thinking of is well known for his, er, "drastic", clothes choices I couldn't do it. Much to my own surprise.
I'm also good at visualizing writing. When I was a student, during tests, I would see in my mind's eyes the place on my notes or in the book related to the question.
To go to sleep, I quickly imagine a lot of beautiful landscapes repeatedly, spending maybe a few seconds in each landscapes.
When I remember a book, I usually remember how I pictured the scenes of the book. Even 12 years after reading the dune books, I can remember the gom-jabbar pressing on Paul's neck, I can remember Alia's tapping her finger with the same rhythm as the baron Harkonnen. I can remember Siona running from the wolves.
I work as a software engineer. The rainbow and characteristic body poses are the only thing that I can even vaguely "see" (and that was being generous).
However, on the question about a lightning storm I can hear lightning striking around me but not see any images.
Do y'all visualize objects as amorphous blobs floating in space with little fish hook methods covering the exterior? When writing SQL, do you not visualize the ERD in your head? Might explain why I've always been strong in data modelling, but like everything, probably a downside somewhere else.
All my "images" are descriptions, but for some of the questions I think those descriptions are vivid enough to count as images. (For example, gradient was a helpful term for the sun and the sky.)
I'm an INTJ engineer, in case that's a helpful thing to note. Audio and "feelings" are even harder for me to imagine, because I have less descriptive language
It's actually hard for me to imagine what people mean by pictures in the mind. Surely nobody imagines things the way they see things?
> It's actually hard for me to imagine what people mean by pictures in the mind. Surely nobody imagines things the way they see things?
When I'm focused on imagining something, it's similar to if there were a 5% opacity layer - of what I've imagined - overlaying my normal vision. Only the opacity is really 0%, but I'm still able to perceive it... somehow. I can look at a table, and imagine a mug on it, and I'll "see" the invisible 0% opacity mug there. A 1% opacity wireframe/outline of the mug would be very very similar to what I "see".
I can then close my eyes and "picture" the room still. I can get up and try to navigate the room - it's not working off a collection of factoids about where objects roughly are compared to each other or where I was, it's much more like vision. There are hazards - my actual position and my imagined position won't stay perfectly in sync and will drift apart over time. And if someone moved around the furniture, that won't be reflected in my imagined world, leading me to try and sit on nonexistant chairs or trip over tables that are invisible... within my invisible, imagined, room.
I don't have to base what I'm picturing off of reality, although my imagination struggles to fill out entire scenes on it's own consciously if it doesn't have a template to work off of. Details get left out or abstracted.
I can keep my eyes open and do this as well. I notice that I automatically and subconsciously take steps to reduce the impact of my real senses when I do this - this typically means I look up towards some boring part of the ceiling or sky, defocus my vision, and reduce the amount of attention I'm paying to my senses. I may or may not close my eyes when trying to "picture" something. This all reduces the impact of what's "behind" the invisible "semitransparent" layer of my imagined pictures.
I can do similar with other senses. I can imagine what pizza tastes like - if you took away the flavor of pizza until you're no longer sure or not if you're actually tasting anything, the physical experience is similar to that. Same with smells - just take the real experience, and then dilute it to the point where you're no longer sure if you're actually smelling the thing or not. Interestingly, imagined touch and feel might be a bit more vivid for me - imagining myself on a warm and sunny beach, I do actually feel (still very slightly) warmer.
I never remember images but I do remember feelings/sensations pretty well, so I might not rememeber the sunset, but I do remember the hot feeling on my skin, the sounds and my state of mind.
I know my mom 'remembers' the same way I do.
I almost never dream in visuals.
Nice to finally 'meet' others who are like me.
When I try to picture the examples in my mind, they all start out as a blurry blob like impressions that increase in detail gradually. It's as if I'm watching the drawing process occur step-by-step.
In the beach example I saw the following features appear one after another in this order: the sand, the water horizon, a set of palm trees on each side, a pirate ship, the sun, and a gift shop.
I never see whole images appear instantly but have met people that claim such.
I recall being frustrated by exhortations to "close [my] eyes and imagine" things as a child, as if I was being asked to do something evidently impossible.
And I always assumed that the counting sheep thing was mostly about the counting and that nobody could actually see sheep when they did it. Do people really see sheep?
Notwithstanding my apparently poorly functioning mind's eye, I've never had any problem with spatial reasoning, and have scored +2sd in tests with a spatial ability component. I find myself able to "feel" the forms in a way that seems to have nothing to do with vision.
Does anybody else recognize this experience?
As far as the nature of my minds eye, I definitely don't see pictures at all, but as you said "feel" abstract forms. When I imagine a familiar relative, I don't see an image, but rather I'm reminded of important abstract features of the person. It's as if my minds eye operates on abstractions rather than concrete representations. I also attribute my math ability with being able to manipulate these sorts of abstract visual/spatial feelings, which leads me to believe there's a connection. Even as a programmer my abstract visual/spatial machinery is working to operate on mental representations of the program state.
I wonder differences in ability on this abstract visual/spatial <---> vivid concrete representation axis can help explain differences in programming/math ability.
I have no problem imagining a physical system in my head and running a simulation of it, but it is as if instead of receiving the output of the simulation as images on a screen I am receiving it in the form of instantaneous knowledge of the state of the system.
It feels very similar to modelling program state in my head while debugging or whatever.
I can tell you what the colors are like, but it doesn't replace my current visual image. If I focus strongly on the sunset, I may miss things happening in reality, but reality is never fully replaced.
That said, don't take an internet social science quiz too seriously or think you're deficient. People are different.
Blake Ross noted how this seems to be related to how he just doesn't remember a lot of sensory details that other people find important. So perhaps there is some general purpose sense-memory reconstruction and recombination system. But the nature of what you get might depend on what was available. Perhaps for you, remembering a place would be about reconstructing the layout of it. For others it might be visual details, for still others important events or people they shared the space with.
The strength of it varies with my focus and general mental state (it is easier when I'm relaxed).
I wounder though whether somebody with aphantasia could really understand that description. After all, they would have to actually visualise a reflection to get to grips with it.
I don't take it too seriously. It's just a jumping off point for a conversation about an interesting perceptual quirk.
Unlike glasses or monitor, my "collections of attributes" when asked to actively generate a sense of things ("Picture X") seems more non-visual attributes.
Picture a chair: wood, cool to touch, weighs this much in the hand, makes a scraping noise when slid, fairly clean design with straight high back, no arms but indents for buttocks, sturdy, can be stood on to reach things. I just don't see an imaginary visual of one.
// I can mentally/visually flip through an endless card deck of them, like nielk's Google Image Search example. I don't feel like I can visually put an imaginary one in an imaginary room in my mind.
I've only recently become aware that the way I experience or remember the world is in any way unusual. I'd always thought that mental imagery was a metaphor for something or hyperbole. It also explains why my memory seems deficient. I've no problems with facts, but I have no memory of being a participant in events.
Contrary to the article, I have no problem recognising people. It's like I keep a hash of faces. If I close my eyes I'll have no idea what the person in front of me looks like.
The whole thing has me slightly sad.
Also, when I see movies derived from books I know whether they depict the same setting I took from the book. I know if the characteristics mesh, but don't really recall "seeing" the settings while reading.
Tend to ace those spatial tests. I slaughtered all my friends in Descent -- I almost immediately had each entire spatial 3D map in my head and knew where to go to get anywhere regardless of ship vs map orientation.
So yes, I recognize your experience almost exactly.
I was taking this test and thinking it was stupid, since well, duh, you just have to imagine it, I do basically all my remembering that way.
Basically, there are a lot of cases where people assume something is part of everyone's internal experience but which can be refuted with detailed, literal comparisons of your first person accounts.
For me, it was alcohol. I have never actually liked it, in the sense of "enjoying the sensation of drinking it". The best drinks to me are merely "bearable". I always assumed everyone was pretending as some excuse to get drunk.
I just realized that when I imagine things they are rather sketchy. For example, when I imaging a beach, it is very abstract. When I try to describe what present on it, I do not use an object from the picture, I first remember what could present on the beach like a left towel and then sort-of add it to the mental image.
In school I also had troubles with drawing. I could draw regular shapes like cubes, spheres or beams, but drawing an animal was a nightmare.
A probably related thing is that I do not get why people drink. I do it occasionally for a social aspect, but I do not remember that I ever experienced being more relaxed from it or having any special fun. I just feel more and more intoxicated :(
Unlike the author, I do dream visually (in fact, I tend to have very vivid dreams; the most vivid ones are difficult to separate from reality, even if the subject matter is something fantastic like being part of an interstellar military or something). If I'm in a state between waking and sleeping I actually do have much more of a mind's eye, but when I'm fully awake I don't have pictures in my head...but I remember what it's like to visualize things mentally because of my dreams.
I have at least something of a "mind's ear" in that I can hear music in my head (the detail is usually not as rich; it's often just the melody with lyrics). Additionally, I have a very good memory for song lyrics and when I listen to music the concept of tuning out or not being extremely aware of the lyrics is something that friends I have described but that I rarely experience. I can usually only tune out lyrics in music if it's a song that I'm already very familiar with.
One aspect that I find interesting is that although I can't really picture places I still have spatial awareness in my mental concept of them. For example, if I remember one of the houses we lived in as a child I can "place" various objects in and around the house in their correct spatial relationships without picturing the objects themselves. Do other people with aphantasia also have this experience?
1) I have a phonological loop and can easily imagine music.
2) My visuospatial sketchpad (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baddeley%27s_model_of_working_...) is almost entirely spatial. I don't know the color of the floor in my kitchen, unless I paid attention to it specifically and verbally in the past. But I can use memory palace successfully.
3) I wonder if for me it's just an undeveloped habit which could be improved: I have dreams with pictures and colors once a few months, and sometimes I see pictures when I'm half asleep, but it's really hard to put myself into that state intentionally.
1) I also have a phonological loop - and would consider this the strongest part of my memory. I have a relatively easy time memorizing large volumes of text and my verbal aptitude on tests has always been extremely high. I also have an aptitude for foreign languages and enjoy studying them as a hobby.
2) I would agree. I could probably tell you the color of the floor of the kitchen where I'm currently living, but any past place would be difficult. I've experimented with a memory palace before so I believe it would work in theory but I haven't practiced enough to know for sure.
3) Sometimes I wonder this as well. I frequently have very vivid dreams and occasionally have flashes of things that I think are mental imagery but they're fuzzy and not something I can really do on demand.
Notably, ~gwillen there pointed out Francis Galton's 1880 study of the matter – where he started with the idea that mental imagery was a hoax, as he himself did not experience it. His surveys convinced him that it was instead common, and that only ~3% of people lack it entirely – very close to the 2% estimate Ross passes along from a 2009 study.
So: still surprising people, but known for quite a while.
Aphantasia: A life without mental images (bbc.com)
91 points by adamcarson 235 days ago | 75 comments
Key quote from the article IMO: "I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor." I've always thought the same way about daydreaming, only a few years ago did I realize it's actually something more precise than just 'not paying attention'.
This topic is fascinating, what else some people have that others don't.
Similarly for sounds, except that I can always imagine sounds. However I can only imagine sounds that I can try to 'subvocalize' with my own voice (plus humming, whistling, etc.). When on the verge of sleep I will hear gorgeous, fully orchestrated (as far as I can tell) songs. Sometimes memories of ones I know well, sometimes either something I don't recognize or am subconciously improvising. It's extremely alluring and makes me annoyed that I can't do this at command. (Though friends who always have a tune of music in their heads tells me it gets annoying too.)
Number 8 makes me think the author is even more extreme than I in aphantasia.
Whoa, cool. Like the author, I rarely remember any dreams (last night, total blank) and they are never visual.
I haven't tried psychedelic drugs. Maybe I should start.
If you ever do (and I'm not encouraging you to do so) please document it!
About psychedelic drugs, it's not something I would advocate lightly as it has the potential to mess you up pretty badly. From my limited experience it was more like having my imagination on steroids so I wouldn't know what happens if there's nothing to enhance in the first place... That said I've never taken hardcore stuff like lsd or dmt where some people report having full visual hallucinations.
8. Do you dream?
No, or I don’t recall them. I’ve had a couple dreams but there was no visual or sensory component to them. When I woke up, I just knew a list of “plot points” about things that happened. This is also how I digest fiction.
Anyway, as a quasi-professional, my advice if you were going to pick just one to try, would be vaporized freebase DMT.
Sorry to tell you this, but my inner monologue does have texture and sound :P It sounds pretty close to my voice (or how I imagine my voice, I guess) and my inflections when speaking (even across languages). Even when I read other people's writings, I kinda hear myself in my mind.
> However, most of my friends and family describe what they “hear” as music—not as vivid as the real thing, to be sure, and not as many instruments—but “music” nonetheless.
That reminds me of an anecdote with my older brother: I was very young and I remember telling him I could hear music in my mind when I wanted to, just like if I pressed PLAY on a cassette player. He looked at me like I was crazy (note to self: test if he's aphantasic).
I still can, and (I think) I can reproduce it in high polyphonic detail (even details I don't consciously remember!) I perceive my aural imagination (aurination? audination?) as vivid as the real thing (though real sound kind of "overpowers" my imagination, like my imagination was playing through earphones close to my ears, not quite plugged in, but inside my head!) It's much clearer than my visual imagination, which is more blurry and fleeting.
Maybe that's why I became an amateur musician :)
One tenet? concept? component? of mindfulness is observing without judging, being fully in the moment and fully experiencing it.
The goal of (the various flavors of) mindfulness isn't to eschew emotion and become a Vulcan or anything. Emotions are great! The goal is to more fully experience our lives, including our emotions, by also being mindful observers of them...
I'm also aphantasic and the fun part of reading this was the differences between our internal experiences. I have a great sense of direction and I love navigating and exploring new places.
I don't really have a mind's ear, either, just the "milk voice" as he calls it, although when I started studying Chinese and learning the tones, I had this crazy experience where I heard a melody in my head for the first time. Now I'd say I have something like a speaker that sometimes plays music, but I can't really control it. (Great, now I can get music stuck in my head.)
I have a similar experience with episodic memory, which is strange, because generally I have a great memory. In high school, I could read a chapter of a book and remember it word for word the next day (but my memory was not photographic!) I've always been deeply unsentimental and, instead of being sad about it, my attitude has always been "destroy the past to create the future."
I had a similar experience to the author. Except that it was when I learned that not everyone experiences these intense fantasies. I experience a psychological concept known as Maladaptive Daydreaming. I find it difficult, and at times impossible, to stop visualizing through my minds eye.
It's something you can work on by using your other senses for instance rather than trying to see something, concentrate on what it feels like, or the sounds or the smells. e.g. To picture a beach feel the sand in your toes, the breeze on your face, the noise of the waves or the smell of the salt air.
If you can concentrate with that in your mind instead I find a picture will then quite often form. Especially true if you take the time to quieten your mind first (e.g yoga, breathing techniques, meditation etc).
I have a sense of how things are located spatially and can recall features of things I have verbally described to myself, but there is no way I can see anything that's not before my eyes.
Not sure if that's related, but I have a very bad sense of direction, especially when driving. I'll need to take the same route a dozen of times before I can stop relying on my GPS.
I do think visual imagination varies greatly, even amongst those who have it. Mine is not particularly strong — everything I imagine is very "shadowy" and ill-defined, but nonetheless it is there. It is hard to describe such an intangible phenomenon, but imagining/remembering visually feels qualitatively different from imagining/remembering facts, sounds, words, etc.
For example, I can imagine the painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, and when I do, I "see" the painting in my mind. This imagined image is far from clear or sharp, more like a fuzzy ghost of the original. Also, the imagined image is separate from the sensory input I'm receiving from my eyes. I don't see the van Gogh painting plastered over whatever I'm looking at. Instead, it's as if the two images coexist in my conscious awareness, although it takes a deliberate effort to maintain the imagined one, and the image from my eyes is much stronger and clearer. Closing my eyes can help me focus more easily on the imagined image.
My dreams are similarly lo-fi, visually speaking. The best way I can describe is that everything in my dreams is very poorly lit. It's like being in a darkened room, where you can see objects, but can't make out their details. This tends to frustrate me, and I often spend a lot of my time in dreams trying to address the problem by reaching some more brightly lit environment, and then getting confused as to why I still cannot see properly.
The reason I think people may be exaggerating is because there are very few people with the artistic or mechanical aptitude that I would have if I could produce stable and detailed mental images at will. Also, police sketches.
It would seem like learning to draw or paint might be a good way to train visual imagination. As I understand it, many artists begin by mastering representative art based purely on reference models, then later develop to produce works partly or wholly inspired by mental imagery.
I'm curious if anyone here who learnt to draw or paint during adulthood experienced a corresponding increase in the vividness of their mental images, particularly in areas not directly related to drawing? E.g. did your dreams become more vivid? Are you more able to imagine the specific details of your house, or your friends and family? Do your mental images feel "clearer" or more defined?
There are various meditative and esoteric practices based on exactly that.
Being able to quickly and accurately create mental models is essential to most of my workflows.
Now I really regret not having learned drawing.
In the second category, the engineer Elmer Sperry apparently had a serious facility for visualizing machinery, and would hold out a pen and paper to "just draw a line around it". It's mentioned in Eugene Ferguson's book Engineering and the Mind's Eye:
The way I do calculations used to drive my teachers nuts in grade school. But my systems always worked. I do addition and subtraction as complements, which is how I see them. I do multiplication and division by what I can only describe as folding number lines. Individual numerals have colors and sounds, and what I can only describe as personalities. That is, in base 10. In other bases numbers seem boring and flat. I'm not sure what to make of that. What if I'd been raised using octal or hex? Binary makes me nervous.
I make my living as an illustrator and animator, I've been doing CGI since the late 1970s. I've tried to draw some of these things, but when I try and project them into 2D, I can only get what to most people seems nonsensical. But if I close my eyes or concentrate they are visible inside my head. I don't try and do this very much anymore, because I've found that sometimes this "breaks" the system and I can't see it anymore.
My dreams are very visual. Often my dreams are multi-threaded, with several plots and sets of characters. I'm often more than one person in the dream, or sometimes not present at all. I generally remember the dreams as a linear thing, but they are often connected and "inside" the dreams they seem simultaneous. I've no idea how to describe the experience better than that. When I was very young I used to have terrifying dreams that I can only describe as geometric. Things seemed connected in dangerous or threatening ways.
As I've gotten older, I've found that I have to work on problems with more consecutive steps. When I was younger I could "fold" several operations at once.
When I see a Chinese character I immediately know what it means.
But beyond the most simple characters I cannot summon them into my mind.
As an example, I cannot hope to handwrite them.
I guess this is the difference between recognition and recollection.
The easy fix is the unintuitive one: listen to the song. Then, as soon as you've given your mind closure on the pattern, get your mind out of the rut of analyzing the pattern by listening to something else (also to completion.)
More precisely, the experience of having a song stuck in your head is strongly analogous to the experience of having been half-told a joke. You've sort of allocated a mental context buffer and it's waiting around to receive the rest of the context, so that it can then evaluate the 'punchline'. The simplest way to discard the buffer ("ruin the joke") is to just get the punchline early, without the rest of the context. If you go through a bit of music theory, you can recognize a song as a pattern of building and releasing tension. You could actually just listen to the part of a song that finally releases the tension—closes the matching parenthesis to the opening one your mind is stuck on—and that would do the trick. Listening to the whole song is just easier.
I usually turn off my car's stereo only at the end of musical phrases for just this reason. This phenomenon happens a lot to me.
There is a song, stuck in my head since a little over a decade ago, which ends with a fade out, not providing any closure at all.
It still pops up occasionally, but fortunately I can usually override it by recalling any of a number of favorite other song loops I have collected through the years and haven't gotten tired of yet.