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Severely deficient autobiographical memory in healthy adults (2015) (sciencedirect.com)
206 points by monort 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments



Personally, I have terrible autobiographical memory. I have no concept of the sequence of events as I recall them. For example, I know my father flew in to meet my fiance at the time, but I'm not sure what season it was, and for that matter I'm not even sure what year it was. I have to be constantly reminded by my wife about my important life events. I never thought I had a poor "memory" until my wife started to bring it up.

Curiously, this (self perceived) ailment has not hindered my ability to do well in academia and work. Once I learn a fact, I'll remember it forever - random details from senior chemistry class are still fresh in my mind. I believe it has something to do with my inability to record the sequence of memories, rather than my ability to recall them.

Edit: Hopefully SDAM gets further investigation. If people are wondering what I've learned to do to cope with this deficiency, I've got some recommendations

- Learn to build habits - it's difficult to remember promises that you make to yourself and to others; but habits will stick forever.

- Keep a calendar - for everything.

- Take physical pictures of excursions and life events, and date them


> Take physical pictures of excursions and life events, and date them

I have the same awful autobiographical memory. I've been sorting a collection of photos from the past few years with ExifTool [0]. It's been eye-opening to be able to click through folders sorted by year and month to see what I was doing.

I'm hoping to combine this with some notes into a neat visual timeline tool called Life [1].

[0] https://sno.phy.queensu.ca/~phil/exiftool/

[1] https://github.com/cheeaun/life


Life is nicely done, kudos.

If you want automatic sorting, deduping, and a fun & performant web UI, I'd love to have you try out PhotoStructure (which uses exiftool under the hood, via https://github.com/photostructure/exiftool-vendored.js). For more information, see https://blog.photostructure.com/introducing-photostructure/


From some of the comments here, it seems like it could be correlated with aphantasia. I wonder if it might be also correlated with alexithymia: https://www.alexithymia.us/

I think it's great that we're finally discovering how people's minds are measurably different internally, even when we've all learned to present similarly, and when we all expect each other to have the same inner experience.


How much of this is or isn’t related to schizoid?


I was curious about this, too. I found several studies suggesting that the two disorders are often comorbid, but distinct disorders.

A significant correlation was found between measures on the Observer Alexithymia Scale (OAS; subscales are Distant, Uninsightful, Somatizing, Humorless, and Rigid) and schizoid personality disorder. The correlation wasn’t incredible, however - correlation is described as ‘moderate’, and is mostly prominent under the Distant subscale. Alexithymia and schizoid personality disorder have similar features, but unique variance, so while may features of the two overlap, it would be inaccurate to say that they are one and the same. For the sake of comparison, however, the correlation between alexithymia and avoidant personality disorder was shown to also be significant to a similar degree. Alexithymia, rather than being a syndrome of its own, is described more as a trait that can be found within ‘normal’ ranges of personality, so it’s unsurprising that it would have a strong connection with schizoid personality disorder, major depression, and other disorders while also remaining prominent in non-clinical samples.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23021894

Edit: and for what it's worth, I have a family member who probably has alexithymia, but not schizoid. He is a bit on the introverted side, but can be warm, funny, and engaged in one-on-one conversation (so probably not schizoid). However, when he tries to describe his own emotions beyond really basic stuff (angry, sad, happy, etc.), it's like watching a colorblind person try to describe a flower. He clearly has some real difficulties verbally elaborating on his emotional states, even though those states seem clearly present.


Hey thanks I really appreciate the effort you made there in educating me about this. You've enriched my life. :)


That sounds normal to me. Maybe I also have a terrible autobiographical memory. But maybe your wife just has an exceptionally good memory?


It took me until my mid 20s to realize something was wrong with me. I have a few impressions here and there from my past but can only roughly order any of it and mostly it's just gone, by a day or two later.

Probably why my most dreaded assignment every single year in elementary school was "write about what you did over the break" or "write about a fun time that [something from your past]". I'd struggle with those for way longer than was intended. Not kidding, hardest schoolwork I had K-5. Occasionally things like that would still come up in later grades but by then I'd figured out I could just make up most of it and no-one would care, which solved the problem.


You do seem to have a pretty good memory of those assignments from school though, especially if it goes back to kindergarten.


I remember the general phenomenon. I couldn't tell you about any one of them in particular. That's about how my memory works.

"Oh that was totally a thing, yeah, I feel this way about it."

"Oh neat, can you tell me about a time that happened?"

"Um. No, not a single detail nor do I have any certainty when or how many times it may have happened. More than one I think? A half dozen? Over... years? Starting... youngish?"

Trying to conjure up something relevant I get an incredibly impressionistic snapshot of I think some desks. Row? Pod? Dunno. It's... sunny? That's 100% of what I've got. No people or other objects are present. Just a splatter of colors that may be some desks in some configuration.

The only memories I used to have in any detail were ones where I'd done something bad (I had a perhaps too-well tuned sense of "bad" for a kid, mind, though fortunately that also meant I didn't do bad things that much) and that's only because I'd spend like an hour cataloguing and re-living and ruminating over all of them every. Single. Night. Those are almost entirely gone now too, as I managed to break myself of that years ago.

It's really sad now that I have kids. Mostly I just try not to think about how I'm kinda sorta more dead than most people, in a sense, even as I live. If not for the fact that being clever is so valuable to my family (as in it pays the bills) I'd trade a bit of that for a somewhat better autobiographical memory without hesitation.

I tried to hold on to a couple vivid memories of my kids when they were very young by re-playing them a few times a day, but I slipped too many times and those are mostly gone too. Kept one semi-intact for a year or two, which is really good for me. There's a bit left, but not much. I don't even remember what the others were at all.


Emotional spikes tend to rise above the noise floor of your day to day, so it makes sense that a mundane summer was forgotten, but the anguish of trying to remember stays fresh.


Actress Marilu Henner has an exceptionally good memory she can recall every second of her life in perfect detail she has hyperthymesia. She was on the TV show Taxi in the 1970s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilu_Henner

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperthymesia


I also work in academia and while I hard time recalling what I eat yesterday memory is good for recalling papers I read.

By taking notes (not as often as I would like to) I’m always surprised years later to find that events totally disconnected in my mind happened the same day, or in quick succession.


I have the same memory problem and keeping a journal has changed my life. I can look back and see what I was doing on a particular day and get a clearer picture of my mental landscape at the time. This helps me to stop repeating negative patterns and also is sometimes just nice for nostalgia. I also try to write a summary at the end of each month so I can see where my life has been going over the last year. This helps connect the details to the big picture.


Yes, journal is what I called notes in my post, which is ambiguous because it’s different from my research notes.

I like your idea of monthly summary, I’ll try to implement that and see how it goes.


Also academia - I had an epiphany on the way in to work the other day, hurried into my office to write it down, only to discover I'd already put it on my whiteboard 2 months earlier.


My wife constantly reminds me of things too.


I've always had an extremely bad memory, paired with behaviors that probably don't help at all. I have always thought (non-scientific, highly subjective text ahead) that a big part of the problem (the behavioral side) is that I never talk about the events of my life with others. I'm highly asocial, and even when I end up explaining something, I hate to repeat the same stories twice. I use alarms and calendars for everything. I've come to think that a big problem for my memory is precisely the fact that I never reinforce previous memories, I never link or associate them to new memories (for example, of myself reviving the memories when explaining them to other people). So, there's no repetition, and they kinda fade away sooner than later. The more disconnected the memories remain, the harder it becomes to recall them.


>I have always thought (non-scientific, highly subjective text ahead) that a big part of the problem (the behavioral side) is that I never talk about the events of my life with others.

I've had the same hunch. I think some memories need repeating so that you can continue remembering them. Most of the memories that I have from my early childhood are ones that I think about once in a while. I had three serious falls with a skateboard before the age of 7, but I only remember the worst of the falls. It's the one I always thought of when I was reminded of those falls (broke a tooth, so any time I look in the mirror I might be reminded of it). At this point I only remember that I did fall before the worst one and I remember the extent of my injuries, but I don't even remember the specific place of it.


> I think some memories need repeating so that you can continue remembering them. Most of the memories that I have from my early childhood are ones that I think about once in a while.

I think this is exactly true. And for example if someone else is involved in the memory and you relate it to them they wonder 'how did you remember that it happened X years ago??'. But as you say it's that every now and then (at least with me) you have thought about it and reinforced the memory. The other person has not typically. Which is why they are surprised that you remember the event. So yes you 'remind' yourself I think this is true from what I experience as well.


You sound like me. I've always wondered how the hell do people tell all these stories about their life in such a great detail, while I was struggling with remembering what I did yesterday. Then I learned that I have aphantasia. It was a mind blowing discovery, but it didn't affect me much, I just found it to be an interesting topic to think about sometimes.

Then, I found out about SDAM, and I was utterly devastated. I basically don't have memory when compared to other people. I can learn knowledge about something, but I can't actually remember anything, because for other people, remembering involves "re-living" that situation almost as though as if it was happening again.

SDAM stuff completely drives me crazy, as I feel that I'm missiog out on a something that is fundamental to the human life. So I just try not to think about SDAM further, and pretend that it's all a joke and everybody's experience is exactly as mine.


> I use alarms and calendars for everything

Ironically, this may make your "memory" of the event better than others'.

At work, people sometimes thought I had a bad memory because I wrote stuff down in a notebook...3 years later, when they couldn't remember something...well, I wrote that down, let me check. :-)


Are you looking for a job? In my experience that may be the number one differentiator among employees, how much random crap they keep in their notes and are able to reference again later.


I agree. After I graduated from college my first boss at work gave me a square deal notebook and told me to take a page of notes each day recording important details of what I worked in. This helped me HUGELY.

I am retired now but in my last job managing a machine learning team at Capital One, I did the same thing except using Emacs and org mode, like recording good things that my reports did for their reviews, meeting notes (usually written up after the fact), tech ideas, etc.

I also take notes on vacations, good recipes I run across, etc.

EDIT: I think the act of writing things down helps my memory, regardless of future use of notes.


"inability to vividly recollect personally experienced events from a first-person perspective"

I don't understand that... There is no perspective to my memories of events, they're just things I know happened.

For instance, I went for a run this morning. I know where I went, I know what the weather was like, etc. Am I supposed to be able "vividly recollect" like some sort of imaginary first-person shooter?


It's not a matter of "supposed to", but yes, that's part of the capability that is being discussed.

There seem to be a couple of different dimensions of variation in how human memory and imagination work. One is what is discussed here: the ability to "vividly" reconstruct remembered events "from a first-person perspective". Apparently, some people can do it, and others cannot. Presumably, there's a range of abilities in between.

At one end of the spectrum are people with hyperthymesia, who appear to be able to instantly reconstruct every tiny detail, including visual details from a first-person perspective, of everything they've ever experienced. At the other end are people like those discussed in this article.

Another dimension is how vividly and comprehensively people can construct, manipulate, and experience sensory models in their imaginations. Again, the spectrum seems to run from aphantasia at one end (that's the inability to construct mental imagery at all) to someone like Stephen Wiltshire, who appears to have an eidetic visual memory that enables him to draw large, detailed landscapes with roughly photographic accuracy after briefly seeing a scene a single time.

People with aphantasia generally seem to assume that when others describe mental imagery, they are being metaphorical; that they don't mean that they actually experience mental imagery in a literal sense. Contrariwise, I do actually experience mental imagery in a literal sense. In my late teens I became fascinated with a series of exercises devised by Aleister Crowley, in which you practice constructing increasingly elaborate assemblies of colorful 3D shapes moving in different ways. The goal was to see how many shapes you could manage at once and keep all of the shapes, colors, textures, and movement patterns stable for as long as possible.

I assume an aphantastic person would think Crowley was joking or bullshitting, until they learned that some people can indeed construct and manipulate detailed mental images.

Further complicating the subject, we also know from experiments in psychology of perception that the brain tends to edit memories, altering their content over time. I'd be interested to know how this tendency interacts with the variables mentioned above.

I'm somewhere in the middle on both axes discussed above. I experience memories in the first person, and I remember and dream in color. When navigating, I rely on a 3D model of where I am and where I'm going, and if asked to go somewhere I haven't been before, I want to see a map that I can use to refresh and supplement that mental model.

By contrast, my mother navigates procedurally. She wants a sequence of operations to perform: "turn right here; go a certain distance looking for such and such a building,..." and so on. I _can_ navigate that way, but I find it much more difficult and error-prone than just constructing the 3D model. From what my mother says, I'm not sure she can construct a model like that at all.

Signs of the difference show up in, for example, the kind of information each of us wants when being directed to a new place. She wants detailed step-by-step instructions; I want coordinates in space and some identifying information (like the street address) to confirm when I've arrived at the right place. She will follow directions to the letter. I'll just pick a route that points in the right direction and improvise until I'm close enough to look for the confirming data.


For most of my adult life, I've felt that I have a problem with my memory. I cannot recall much of my past life. I can know things happen, and there are a few circumstances that I can recall visually. The visual recollections are retrieved as a series of photos, not like a video.

A few years ago, I discovered that I had a vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 is a contributor to memory, so I was hopeful that by clearing up the deficiency, my memory would improve. I'd have to say I don't think so, but it's a pretty subjective question. At least, I can say it was not dramatic, if improved at all.

Otherwise, I am quite introverted, on the spectrum. I focus on my thoughts much more than what is going on around me, and that strikes me as a more likely cause. The events are not imprinted because I am not paying attention.


I remember things similarly to you. My high school memories are mostly just a handful of images that I can recall at any given time. But I've found a few ways to jog my memory in those a bit:

* Rereading old journal entries - I didn't do a ton back then, but I did them periodically. Some things in them I'm surprised happened to me, because I didn't remember them

* Rereading old emails and chat logs and forum posts and look at old photos - I'm kind of a digital packrat, and still have a lot of that

* Meet with friends and family and reminisce - I don't do much of the reminiscing, they do, and they remind me of things I had forgotten about.

I also think part of my problem for remembering things is I don't orally tell stories about myself that often, especially repeatedly. It seems that people who do that can recall them that much more easily. Journaling and rereading the journals helps me recall stories about my life though, and tend to be the stories I do tell others when I do.

I was pretty introverted and inward thinking too, especially back then. It's possible they didn't get imprinted but I think it's also possible that memories are fleeting and can go away if you don't actively record them.

I got better for awhile about writing things down right when they happened, and the amount of detail in those journal entries are much, much, more detailed than when I try to record things even a month after the fact. Memories can slip way too easily, I think.

Speaking of which, I've gotten way behind on journaling and need to get back on that.


I'm pretty much in the same boat.

I have an experiment for you. If you listen to podcasts regularly while doing other stuff, pull one up that you've listened to in the past 3-5 days and listen to it again. When I do this, I will periodically get a stream of vivid movies of what I was doing when I listened to it the first time. I'm talking an intrusive replay of the sensory experience I was having previously.

My next step is to fire up a dash cam and listen to podcasts while I'm driving, then re-listen a few days later and record myself describing what I see as I'm listening. Then sync the two videos and see how close my description is describing what I saw the first time.


When I was a teenager I used to read (fictional) books while listening to music at the same time.

For years afterwards listening to the same music would make my mind imagine events in the books I was reading listening to the same music. I'm not sure exactly when it stopped happening though.


Final Fantasy 4 and Stairway to Heaven are inextricably linked in my mind for a similar reason.


For me it’s Stunts and Bone Thugs n Harmony, E. 1999 Eternal. Listened to that CD on repeat building tracks on an IBM ps/2 as a kid.

Also Biggie’s Warning and anything Visual Basic 3.0. I don’t know why


There’s a song that eludes me at the moment, but it always conjures memories of my telescope as a child. I must have heard it one night as I was looking through a star chart waiting for it to get darker.


I listen to podcasts very frequently, and I just tried this. It's pretty effective for me. It also made me a little more aware of how boring and repetitive my life's been in the past few weeks... I now have some impetus to try to do more interesting things.


>A few years ago, I discovered that I had a vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 is a contributor to memory, so I was hopeful that by clearing up the deficiency, my memory would improve. I'd have to say I don't think so, but it's a pretty subjective question. At least, I can say it was not dramatic, if improved at all.

Note that for many vitamins taking supplements doesn't cut it the same way as taking them naturally through regular old food (fruits, vegetables, legumes, meat, fish, etc).

And besides B12 deficiency there could be other aspects to memory problems, including good sleep and less stress, than might even be dominant...


If you are not paying attention. How could you become good at it. You have to be exposed to stimuli to be able to learn from it.

While it would not go so far as say there is causality to things. I would say that your description is better more useful model.


> It's not a matter of "supposed to"

Some expressions from the top of the article: "severely deficient", "impaired", "absence of".

Sounds very much "supposed to but isn't" to me.


With human variation in general, and brain function in particular, it is important to keep in mind the question, "does this (significantly) (negatively) affect your quality of life?"


Well perhaps those people, or some of them, at least, thought it was a matter of "supposed to", but I still don't.


When I try to imagine a simple solid yellow circle fixed in place I can't. Immediately my mind transforms it into something else. It starts disintegrating into different parts, changing color, moving, the background changes color, it starts flashing, it turns into a tunnel or bends in 3D space, it turns into 10 different circles and shapes or all of the above. I suppose this shows that my mind is chaotic. I'd love to have control over the images in my mind but for me I'm just an observer with little influence. Even a solid colour is challenging but I can usually hold a faint solid colour with no shape for a few seconds.


When I close my eyes I just see a dull flashing pattern, similar to tv static. If I try to imagine a simple solid yellow circle.. well this is weird but I feel like my consciousness 'spreads' out as though it was an audience of ants in a stadium, and the circle floats in the center. But, I don't really 'see' it.. rather, the countless ants each knows the circle is there and they each contribute a brief chattering about what they see. So I 'know' I'm visualizing a yellow circle, and I can nimbly focus on what various parts/aspects look like.. but it's more a collective knowledge than a visual scene like my eyes present.


> At one end of the spectrum are people with hyperthymesia, who appear to be able to instantly reconstruct every tiny detail, including visual details from a first-person perspective, of everything they've ever experienced.

Psychology student here, to my knowledge this has never been proven to exist, except maybe the procedural memory of people who journal everything. But they still wouldn't have the level of detail you're describing here. Many people who think they have this kind of memory actually do not (though they may still have a very good memory).


>Am I supposed to be able "vividly recollect" like some sort of imaginary first-person shooter?

Apparently many people can. I mostly can't. Interestingly, I learned this while reading a comic where a plot point was certain memories being visualized in black-and-white versus color. The fact that the author took it as given that you could visualize memories in such detail that color could be discerned was mind blowing. I wonder how many other things we take as given based on our own mental experiences but which aren't close to universal.


I learned of my own aphantasia while watching an episode of House with my roommate. In the show they had a machine which let them view a rough picture of what a subject was thinking of.

I observed to my roommate that this was an especially dumb plot point as people don't actually think in images but only in words. My roommate was quite confused and claimed that he did think in visuals and we had an interesting conversation and Google search thereafter.

I still am slightly torn between thinking that there is some disconnect in explanation versus believing that some or even most people can actually visualize things in their mind. When I think of a "square", for example, I have access to all the facts I know of squares (polygon with four equal length edges) and I could draw a square or trace one in the air with my finger, so I obviously know what one looks like, but I have no visual experience of a square and it's difficult to imagine that other people do.

One reason it's difficult to imagine other people have the visual imagination they think they do is because I so rarely see people just sitting and imagining things for long stretches - which I assume would be borderline irresistible if you had the kind of fantasy machine to show you whatever you wanted. Perhaps people do this in private and don't talk about it much?


It's generally referred to as day dreaming when people do step into their 'imagination devices'. Personally I do that quite a lot, especially in dead moments like on the bus. I find it to be more entertaining than using a mobile phone with terrible internet. Though, it's probably not amazing as you might imagine. For most people, visually imagining things isn't as vivid as real life, it lacks detail, and there aren't really any surprises in what you imagine. But most of all, if you're used to this 'power', it just feels mundane. Someone who can't walk might assume that walking is an amazingly pleasurable experience, but for someone who walks every day, it doesn't particularly feel very special.

And indeed, the contents of what I imagine are rarely something I talk about. It feels private, and like dreams, it's hard to convey the experience to others. You might also not recognize it if I do share something about my daydreams. Suppose I said: 'I was thinking of going to the beach', then you might assume I was thinking more along the lines of your typical thought experiences, while I was actively visualizing said beach.


I would also add that day-dreaming is often discouraged in children. So, there is social pressure to conform, beyond any in-built physiological process which might also suppress this fantasy play activity as we develop.

My wakeful mind's eye is very abstract, representing space, forms, concepts, and connectivity. There is almost no sensory component to it. At best, I can form a fleeting visual which I might liken to a retinal after-image (such as glancing at a bright scene and then staring at a blank, dim wall). And, like such an after-image, I cannot change my focus to attend to a part of image. Chasing the image will erase it. However, my more abstract mental visualization lets me manipulate spatial structures, rotate them, decompose them, zoom inside them, etc.

It is roughly the same for me with sounds. There is an internal experience of the spectra and dynamics which is almost identical between real listing and imagination or memory. But, there is a layer of actual ear sensation which is missing. Compared to the after-images of visual imagination, I can imagine sounds closer to the real thing. They are almost like having a TV playing quietly at night.

I think my other senses are similar. I can abstractly remember or imagine touch, smell, taste, proprioception, and internal senses like arousal, hunger, pain, and nausea. But, these too are a bit abstracted and at arm's length.

I used to think of myself as highly visual, but my understanding of it becomes more nuanced with age, and with hearing how other people characterize themselves. I don't really think "in pictures" but I also certainly do not think "in words". I especially do not have an internal narrative nor monologue, and have to put effort into rendering my thoughts into words.

When planning or anticipating, I might imagine future scenarios including what I and others would say in conversation, and I imagine those almost the same as memories described above. I might conjur a person's mood, posture, tone of voice, and word choices. But I forecast non-verbal activities in much the same way, i.e. a hike along a windy ridge with a hawk circling above, or a dive into a swimming pool with bubbles streaming along my skin.


I am confused as to the distinction between your "wakeful mind's eye" and your "more abstract mental visualization". Can you more precisely characterize their difference? Is one actually embedded in your visual field, and one not? Can they be employed simultaneously?


Sorry, I mean the same thing by both of those. It is quite abstracted. I can, with effort, summon a fleeting visualization which is a bit more pictorial, but it is not what I would call my mind's eye. More like my mind's strobe light?

By wakeful, I was trying to distinguish the day dreaming mode from sleeping dreams, which are vivid and immersive (and periodically lucid). Those dreams are like being in a simulation or virtual reality. Day dreaming may be like running a simulation, but I am outside it, thinking about it more like a script or story board.


>I so rarely see people just sitting and imagining things for long stretches //

You've heard of daydreaming though, or the mind's eye. I assume they're cross-culturally universal concepts?

For my own part my teachers always told me off for daydreaming. When lying in bed as a child I would watch cartoons in my head (whilst awake, before falling asleep).

I can think of a table without picturing one, choose to picture an actual table (eg the one from my childhood home, perhaps on the day my dad revarnished it), or have a sort of meta-table before my mind's eye (cf Bertrand Russell!). The image of that table from my childhood isn't just a photo, it's like a cubist table, I can simultaneously 'see' different aspects of it despite them not being contiguous - like the top surface, the feet and the underside bolts; I can also feel it like a "mind's touch", and similarly with other senses. Scents tend only to appear fully in the context of memory though, or at least they're much stronger in that context (my mother cooking gingerbread, say; or the smell of my grandparents kitchen [poorly burnt gas!]).


When I imagine a yellow square, for example, I definitely visualize it. I can re-shape it, combine it with other shapes, rotate it, and visualize it moving. But it's not like it's replacing my vision, it's more of a secondary display that you can only see individual thoughts for a split second. If I close my eyes, I can do this better, and I actually have spent hours visualizing places I've been, or creating new ones. When I visualize my old homes and cities I've lived, it's like I have super speed and I can dash anywhere, but it's like a video with a very low frame rate, I see individual pictures and they combine with my spatial awareness to give my the feeling of moving. The frames are also very "low resolution", but it doesn't feel fuzzy but more like the frames are so quick that you can't pick out many details. In terms of words, I'm often thinking about memories I see on the "memory film", but the pictures themselves aren't words at all, my internal dialog vs. my visualization are 2 separate processes.


With me if I imagine something it’s vivid enough that it blocks out my actual vision. I’ve had people stand and wave at me and I just stared at a point in space and didn’t see them because I was picturing something.


I have no visual experience of a square and it's difficult to imagine that other people do.

It’s difficult to imagine that you don’t, I’m tempted to suggest that you think visual imagination must take over the eyes and appear as if in front of a person, and if it’s not that vivid it must not be visual. But that doesn’t appear to be what you’re saying.

How do you imagine the Nike swoosh or the McDonald’s Golden Arches or the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower or the moon or anything which doesn’t have a nice spatial reference like forks in your kitchen or a clean fact-based shape like a square?

I can picture Tom and Jerry but not in any way where I could follow the lines and draw them or even answer questions like how big their eyes are compared to their noses, but it’s still visual and pictorial in some sense.

A square, I can “see” it as a white outline on a black background, or like a primary coloured filled blob like MS Paint style or Mondrian painting style, and not anything about it being a right angled parallelogram those are uncertain tenuous words that might change one day or be disconnected and reconnected to another shape.


Words are really the best way to describe my inner thoughts. Thinking of the Nike Swoosh - I know it as a bulging white check mark. That's about all the information I have on it available to conscious access. A visual representation of it must be stored somewhere, because I'm confident that I'd notice the difference between a genuine and obviously counterfeit Swoosh if I were confronted with it and could see it.

For all the other things you mention I'd describe them as you might describe them in text. That's just how I think about them too. If I was trying to describe everything I noticed from a visit to McDonald's I might say something like "I noticed the golden arches, which seemed like an M with gentle curves at the top, perhaps twenty feet high" or something like that. Somewhat like recounting memories from a book you've read.


How would you describe an M, and why?

I mentioned in another comment, it seemed to me that books of fiction would be exceptionally boring if I couldn't visualize them. Really good books, I stop seeing words as I read.

I asked someone else this: what are your dreams like?


Books aren't boring. The process of reading is intuitively similar to thought for me, as my thoughts and memories are like words, reading words is also akin to having thoughts and memories.

I'd actually assume that more visual thinkers would like fiction less as it would be a less compatible mode of thought. Another advantage, I'm never bothered by watching film adaptations and having not "pictured" scenes or characters "that way" - having never pictured them any way at all.

The ability to be visually immersed in a book does seem nice. It also strikes me as probably a bit of an exaggeration. I have a hard time believing people wouldn't be spending much more time reading than I observe them to if reading were really capable of such transport into fictional dimensions.

My dreams are as vivid as my waking life. Regarding describing letters, I can describe them as thoroughly as needed. If I couldn't recall a detail about a letter I could trace it in the air with my hand.

In reality, I think there's very little difference in the life of people with aphantasia, which is why most people don't realize it's even a thing until some circumstance in adulthood. The biggest problem it seems to cause me is with directions. People who know me well (girlfriend, brother, parents, etc) will habitually tell me every direction on the way somewhere if I'm driving. If I don't have someone in the car to direct me I always Google regardless of where I'm going. Without directions I get lost quite easily, perhaps attributable to not having a map in my head to look at. Or, perhaps an unrelated directional deficiency.


> The ability to be visually immersed in a book does seem nice. It also strikes me as probably a bit of an exaggeration. I have a hard time believing people wouldn't be spending much more time reading than I observe them to if reading were really capable of such transport into fictional dimensions

It’s a skill and takes effort. My wife visualizes what she reads seemingly without any trouble at all and can read more than one decent sized book per day.

Me it takes much longer. It’s about getting into a state of flow. Sometimes I just can’t get there and all I see are words and I struggle to keep straight what is going on in the book.

Sometimes I am kicked out of flow by the author dropping a descriptive visual detail late enough in the story that it conflicts with what I had imagined. As in, what do you mean so-and-so has blonde hair?

There have been times where this has happened and I just choose to ignore some of those details and carry on with the thing as I had imagined it.

I often like reading a book after having seen the movie or tv show if one exists because it makes the effort of visualization easier. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes, of which the first season of The Expanse is based. So I picture most of the characters the same. Except for Amos for some reason. He’s different in the book, and right now I couldn’t tell you what he looks like when I imagine him. I’ll have to try to make a point of remembering when I pick it up again.

I prefer books that only give hints of how things appear, to let my mind fill in the rest. It works better for me that way.


Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

I get lost very easily, and have a terrible sense of direction. I particularly dislike directions that are landmark based as what people find memorable about a given scene varies quite a bit.

Plus after the first couple instructions I’m just not going to remember anyway, and prefer people just give me an address for mapping software.


I strongly suspect that you are recalling and processing images, but that it is just never reaching your conscious mind as images.

Even people who have had the "split brain" surgery due to epilepsy are able to do complex visual tasks; they just cannot articulate what they are doing with words.

I can't find the video, but, they interviewed someone with this condition, and asked him to parse a visually ambiguous painting. He couldn't say how he interpreted it, but when given a pencil and paper, he could express it visually.

So that would explain when people say that they can only recall a verbal description of something, I think that their brain actually is creating an image of it, but it is just not appearing in their mind's eye. This could also explain why some studies have shown that people with aphantasia are just as competent, if not slightly better, at solving complex visual puzzles.

So, perhaps if you cannot imagine what something looks like, you might still be able to draw it.


I learned of my own aphantasia in HN in the past (and now I learn that I also probably have this other thing, dang...). Otherwise I could sign my name under the rest of your post. I still have the doubt whether there is a real difference between people or just optimism when they describe how they imagine things. I also wonder why they don't use this visual imagination to entertain themselves.

In fact, I do have a quite concrete musical imagination, not very far from actually hearing the music I want (in fact, I have experienced episodes -especially when tired- of thinking I had actually heard it, when I was only hearing it in my mind) and I do spend considerable amounts of time playing music in my mind just for fun, both as background music for some other activity I'm doing or as a standalone activity.

On the other hand, this makes me thing they are on to something - if it's possible to play music in one's head, why not images? But I just can't with images.


> I also wonder why they don't use this visual imagination to entertain themselves.

As a kid I used to do exactly that. I can recall realizing one day that most people didn't use their imagination like a TV.

I used to have "serials" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_film ) I would watch/create as I went to sleep at night. Here's an odd detail: Every once in awhile my brain would notice that my head was sideways and get confused about how to orient the visual "presentation": vertically in line with gravity, or horizontally in line with my head and eyes, how it would be if I was sitting up or standing. When that happened it felt like trying to watch a TV turned sideways. The vast majority of nights this didn't happen.


This is amazingly strange to me. Not about the music, but the lack of imagery.

If someone asked you what your favorite scene in a movie is, how would you respond?

It would seem to me that fiction books would be exceptionally boring if I was not able to visualize what I was reading.

If someone asked you to draw a sketch of your bedroom, could you? what would you be basing it on?


Another aphantasiac here.

My favorite scene in a movie is a fact, as is what happened in it. I can remember what it was, even if I can't rewatch it in my head. Do you need to replay the whole thing to know what scene you liked the most?

Books are glorious fun. My experience of them is intensely verbal, though - my wife is intensely visual and often gets frustrated with books I loved because they don't use enough visual language for her to construct an internal movie from. So we get different things out of novels.

I would fail horribly if asked to sketch my bedroom. I can regurgitate the basic layout as a series of statements but can't begin to show you what it looks like (despite several years of doing okay in art lessons). If I'm not looking at it, I cannot draw it.


That’s fascinating! It makes me happy to know that you enjoy books.

Have you ever watched any videos by 3blue1brown? I personally find I have difficulty understanding concepts until I find a way to visualize them. Which of course becomes very challenging for abstract mathematics. I wonder if you find things that are traditionally difficult to visualize easier to comprehend. Such as having greater intuition for higher dimensional math.


I have not watched anything by 3blue1brown.

I think it may be easier for me to comprehend things that are hard to visualize. Higher math was a struggle for me at first, as I was not a natural reductionist, but once I had a really good calc prof, and after that it worked pretty well for me.

These days I can barely even do long division because I haven't had to use mathematical skills since I started working as a programmer, but when I was doing more advanced math, it seemed like it was less of a struggle for me than many of my classmates. That was especially true of formal proofs and linear algebra, I think.


What the other aphantasiac said.

I can enjoy good visuals in a movie, it's just that I can't "replay" them.

I think a good analogy may be food. I suppose most people don't have the ability to re-experience taste at will (I hope I'm not weird in that too)! If I ask you what is your favorite dish, you will perfectly know what it is, you will be able to describe the taste to me in a vague, conceptual way (using adjectives like "strong", "sweet", etc.) but you probably won't be able to just think about it and have its taste come to your mouth.

It's not even that the memory of the taste isn't detailed enough. It probably is, because if one day the dish is too cooked, too salty, etc. you can probably notice. So you do know how it tastes exactly, it's stored in your memory. It's just that you can't re-experience it in your mind. And of course, this doesn't mean that you can't enjoy food!

For me, the experience with movie scenes (or anything visual) is very similar to that. The Mona Lisa is stored in my memory, if you show me a copy of the real Mona Lisa and a copy with something changed (the hair, expression of her face, etc.) I can probably tell one from the other if it's not too subtle as well as anyone else, but there's just no explicit mind images involved in that, just like in the case with the food being too cooked.

As for books, I enjoy them a lot, I have always been a book lover. But I do notice that I enjoy more the story, facts, events going on, than the imagery. Those books that have more than 2-3 consecutive pages of descriptions tend to bore me, I long for more action, more events.

That's maybe the only consequence of aphantasia that I can think of in the "outer world", preference for one kinds of books over others. Because the funny thing is that, while it seems like a huge different internally, it really doesn't seem to affect skills or interactions with other people at all. In fact, the only tests of aphantasia I've seen are all subjective (they ask you about your mind images, or lack thereof). It's not like "try to solve this task, and if you can't, you have aphantasia". There don't seem to be real-world things that one can't do with aphantasia - in other conversations about this, people have mentioned the kind of puzzles with unfolded cubes where you have to know if they will be equal or not when you actually build the cube. But I can still solve them, I just don't have an image of the cubes rotating in my head with colors, drawings, etc. but I have the concept of "if I rotate the cube this way, this side will be rotated in such and such way" that allows me to solve the puzzle.


Thanks for being so open in your reply.

Part of me suspects this is perhaps just a minor variation in the brain’s handling/interpretation of information. There is tremendous variation in people’s ability to visualize and how concrete that visualization actually is.

Some artists can completely visualize the art they want to create before picking up a tool. I’m only like that in the vaguest sense. Most of the time my imagination imagery is fleeting and difficult to hold on to. Like seeing something out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn to look, it’s gone.

But my memory is either very visual or very sensory. I may not remember the details of some movie or other that I saw a year or two ago, but I will often still be able recall how it made me feel and whether I liked it or not.

As for food and tasting, I do recall flavors as if I am tasting them again, but to borrow a phrase... it is as though through a mirror, darkly. It’s an echo of the real thing. Less real. Not satisfying.


Another question I have is can these people describe objects?


If they're ones I care about, yes. I cannot see it in my head, but I can remember enough facts to describe it adequately.

If I hadn't really noticed it before you asked, not remotely.

Police sketch artists seemed like demon summoners working black magic to me before I knew it was possible to visualize.


> If someone asked you what your favorite scene in a movie is, how would you respond?

I won't be able to respond, because I have no idea.

If you show me, like, a catalogue with screenshots of 50 different movie scenes from the movies I watched, I could tell you which of these 50 scenes I like the most right now.

> It would seem to me that fiction books would be exceptionally boring if I was not able to visualize what I was reading.

Yes, they are. I've always tried to "read more", and after reading something, I was usually confused of how a book that everyone praises so highly is extremely dull to me.

But now, after I found out about the aphantasia staff, it's clear to me that maybe 80% of the books are written for people who can visualize, by authors whose intent was to express themselves in a way that promotes visual imagery.

If you take that away, most books are useless for me. They don't have a compelling story, and their purpose is to make the process of reading enjoyable. For me, on the other hand, the process of reading is irrelevant. When I read books, I'm looking for compelling stories and interesting concepts. For something to think about AFTER I've read the book.

My favorite book is 1984. The Lord of the Rings books are usually praised by people, but I'll spend a better time reading news than reading The Lord of the Rings.

"The protagonist tries to challenge an authoritarian government and ends up in prison, being lectured about the politics" is a far more meaningful and relatable story, than "The protagonist manages to destroy a certain ring, which somehow makes the evil god go away."

"So, I need to write about what happens to Sam and Frodo after they destroy the ring. Maybe they get stranded on the volcano and barely manage to survive, until a group of soldiers finds them and takes them to a safe place? Nah, it'll be too boring to imagine. Maybe the ancient aliens suddenly drop from the sky and rescue our heroes on their epic space ships made of dragons? Awesome, but it'll be too absurd. So, maybe the eagles appear, and Sam and Frodo fly on them? Perfect, it'll make this scene very enjoyable to imagine, while not being too farcical."

> If someone asked you to draw a sketch of your bedroom, could you? what would you be basing it on?

I could do it. I know my bedroom, and I'll start by drawing some basic lines and details, then I'll look at the drawing to compare it with my knowledge of the bedroom, maybe erase something, maybe add something, and repeat - until I know that I drew the best possible representation of what I know about my bedroom.

The thing with drawing is that I have to have the KNOWLEDGE about what I'm drawing in my conscious mind to be able to draw the thing.

For example, I'll recognize Obama if I look at a photo of him. But if you ask me to draw Obama, I won't be able to do it now, because I have no idea how specific features of him should look like. I can study Obama's portrait for some time, and then I'll be able to draw a better picture of him. But still, I won't be able to draw an accurate representation of him without a reference photo of him.


>One reason it's difficult to imagine other people have the visual imagination they think they do is because I so rarely see people just sitting and imagining things for long stretches - which I assume would be borderline irresistible if you had the kind of fantasy machine to show you whatever you wanted. Perhaps people do this in private and don't talk about it much?

I'm guessing we're wired by evolution to put less value on the imaginary since those prone to it wouldn't have done as well. Some people, however, are prone to spending their time in imagination and there's some research on it as a mental disorder. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maladaptive_daydreaming.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


Visualization is something that lends itself to practice. I remember discussing this with one of my art teachers years ago as they said that they have a complete artist's studio in their head in which they will create things mentally before, or in addition to, creating artwork in a real studio.

Their analogy on how vivid the visualization is that it is similar to hearing your thoughts versus hearing yourself say something. Whether it is worth the time to go through the effort of visualizing something depends a lot on the task at hand, the cost of making mistakes working it out for real versus working it out mentally beforehand.

It's not like virtual reality but it does save me a lot of time in figuring out how to construct and put things together, or identify promising design paths.


For me the visual replay is available if I need to go back and extract information about the scene that I didn't register or consider significant at the time. It's certainly not high enough fidelity/accuracy or continuous enough to just sit and replay memories in my head unless maybe I'm trying to get to sleep...


Suppose you need a fork, and you send me to go to your home to get one. Talk me through how to find your home and your kitchen and your silverware drawer.

Can you do all that without picturing any of it?


Not the person you're responding to, but I also think I have a substantial degree of aphantasia (my "mind images" are quite weak and inconcrete) after reading about the subject in the past. Interesting exercise.

If you ask me to explain that, I do think in a kind of abstract first-person 3D map of the street and my home, which can be pretty accurate in terms of scale, angles, etc. and it is helpful enough to accurately perform the task at hand of describing how to find the fork. But I can't really say I picture it in any meaningful way. Things have no color, but I can't say that they are black and white either, they are just the concept of an object of a given shape occupying a given space. When I mentally go to my home's door, I can stop and think about what color the door is (only with one object at a time) but this feels more like assigning the concept of whiteness to the abstract idea of the door being there, than like evoking an image of the door.


I can give directions without picturing things and actually can't "picture" things at all. Although I can metaphorically "picture" things where I think about the thing and what I know of it.

To direct you to forks, I'd say "stand in the kitchen facing the bar, forks are in the right most drawer." I don't need to picture anything because I've committed directions like these to memory so that I can find forks and things myself. I don't mean that I've memorized phrases like that and I'm constantly chanting them to myself, but it's more like I have a memory of that fact and can serialize my memory into those words.

I couldn't tell you things that I didn't memorize - e.g. is the silverware drawer wider than other drawers? How many drawers are in my kitchen? Is there a handle on the drawer? What does it look like?


What are your dreams like?


I am similar, most experiences are reduced to a set of facts in a pretty short period of time. I realized early on that this is not the way most people remember and the facts that I do remember tend to be more reliable than most people with vivid memories, which is useful. Developmentally, I have always wondered if the fact that I had a voracious appetite for reading books, spending most of my time doing that from a very young age through early adulthood, is either correlated or causative -- to this day my cognition is very text optimized.

Anecdotally, there seems to be quite a bit of cognitive diversity in terms of how the brain processes reality. For example, I have extremely good spatial memory and ability to fluidly manipulate complex spaces, real or synthetic, in my head. When I was a young I assumed everyone had this ability and it took until well into adulthood for me to realize that I was a far outlier in this regard and most people simply lacked any similar facility. I lean on this all the time to achieve complex things in my life, which has real advantages in certain contexts, but people clearly get on in life without it and frequently have compensatory skills.

You have to wonder the extent to which the distribution of these cognitive artifacts influences performance and interest in various occupations, which leverage or rely on these cognitive functions to varying degrees.


I'm the same way with remembering facts. Like a juicer and a sieve I quickly turn experiences into facts, potential facts and general concepts. My memory for facts and concepts is better than most people I meet but my chronological memory is poor. I remember going to lectures in uni and providing I comprehended the lecture and was focused remembering all the concepts and facts presented was trivial. Conversely remembering the order of events like what year I went on that holiday to the USA or what month this year I left my last job is harder. I might remember the season at best.


These researchers should look into correlations between this and so-called aphantasia. There may be a form of recall different from “2D” visual (“watching a film”), more 4D “information geometry”.

Similar experience to yours: recall experienced as a series (fabric?) of facts which tend to be more accurate than my peers, able to describe spatial relationships and manipulate/rotate them; also voracious reader growing up.

If using GPS prefer “North Up” mode which puts all the geometry I experience into a map quite easy to play back later and navigate as-yet-unseen roads in the vicinity of, by projecting/inferring where I am relatively. I don’t “see” the map, I just “know” where everything is relative to everything else.

Unable to actively “picture” myself on a beach, always thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor, yet able to render spatial facts into architectural sketches, or even tell you where on a page a fact was from a text book, and how deep into the book.

I like your term “text optimized”. I’m baffled by the YouTube visual/spoken learning culture — it feels so slow and tedious compared to reading the same knowledge.

This keeps coming up on HN, and I’m struck by similarities in things some self-reported “non visual recall” people are also “extremely good” at relative to norm.

I get the sense researchers are running into lesser-abled, while there may be a cohort who are /differently/ abled, for instance with some almost savant memory abilities instead of the visual recall.


I imagine there's a spectrum and certain strengths are at opposite ends of a gradient. I have weak (but existent) visual recall and imagination, and strong spatial awareness, with a strong preference to text over visual learning. Perhaps strong spatial relationship awareness is one end of a gradient and the other end is strong visualisation.

There are a couple of quite interesting studies about the malleability of some of our cognitive abilities, such as spatial reasoning: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17894600 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22663761 for example.


This is interesting because I never really thought about spatial and visual abilities as opposing- I'd say I'm subpar at both but very strong with language, so I sort of assumed that was the tradeoff. I always thought of daydreaming for example as "hearing" fake conversations with people. Was very surprised to find out that other people did not think the same way. I'd love to see more research on this stuff. But even just reading other people's accounts here has been informative IMO.


It would be especially interesting if we could retrofit some of these abilities into existing neural architectures with the help of technology. For example, one could imagine an implant or indirectly connected device which increases your "L1 cache size" (working memory capacity), or provides supplementary "GPUs" to offload spatial reasoning. They could change the way the brain itself works, or perhaps just act as external modules with fast data lanes which your brain eventually starts to treat as extensions of itself, like it can with prosthetic limbs (or even imaginary "virtual" limbs, like with a mirror box).

It may not actually ever be possible to do it without direct, messy biological/genetic engineering, but if it is possible, I think it would have an incredible impact.


Facts are digital, narrative experiences are analog. Facts are high precision but very expensive, while narrative memory packs far far information but is less accurate (error prone) and precise (memories change with each recall).


Not everyone can do this, but many people (like me) certainly can play an event back like it were a film. I don't find that kind of memory as useful as an actual encoded set of facts, though, and it tends to fade after a few years.


Wow, this is astounding to me! I always assumed people could replay events they had lived, just like watching a video. On top of this I can see and move around in the landscape around me in these memories.


I can "replay" events, but honestly I'm not sure I'm recalling or reconstructing an event; that is, I'm not sure if the images are memories or I'm creating them on the fly, as I can come up with "movies" in my head very easily, actors, sfx, and all.


Recall is reconstruction. The act of remembering something can change the way the memory is recalled next time. You can erase or modify someone's memory by engaging in appropriate chemical or behavioral interventions while they recall the memory.


There's not much difference with regards to the article, where the problem is the inability to come up with "movies", not whether they are 100% accurate on some source material...


What I “see” is a brief flash of an afterimage, something like when you see for a brief second when you close your eyes. This is the limit of my visual capacity to remember. I always assumed everybody is like that. :)


Can you recollect the scenery? There is a condition where one cannot process memories visually, but can still use other semantics to recollect. It's called aphantasia.


>Am I supposed to be able "vividly recollect" like some sort of imaginary first-person shooter?

Yes, especially since unlike an "imaginary first-person shooter" this was real (with the added real-world sensory input this implies) and actually happened to you...

It's like asking "Am I supposed to see a real world landscape in color, like some sort of imaginary landscape painting?" -- when paintings get their colors from our real world experience of them (modern artistic license aside)...


Think about an actual first-person experience you recently had, though. Do you really see a full and clear image, as if you were looking at a true photo or video? If you really try to parse out the small details, can you say exactly what every shade of color was, how the lighting was, where every single thing was located, everything you heard and smelled?

I doubt many people have such an extremely vivid memory. I do think my memories of first-person experiences are in the first-person (if I'm understanding it right), but I feel like I just retain the general impression of "scenes", with details for the important things and vague, "smeared" descriptions for everything else. The information is sort of compressed, and more of it can be decompressed if I correlate the events with other things that happened at the time or do other things to jog my memory, but I think it's still a lossy compression. I kind of figured that's what memory is like for most people.


>Think about an actual first-person experience you recently had, though. Do you really see a full and clear image, as if you were looking at a true photo or video? If you really try to parse out the small details, can you say exactly what every shade of color was, how the lighting was, where every single thing was located, everything you heard and smelled? I doubt many people have such an extremely vivid memory.

Nobody has such an extremely vivid memory. We don't even have it for the present moment. But this is not what this is about.

When walking around and seeing things in real life you don't see "where every single thing was located" or what every shade is either. You only do that for things that you focus on. The rest is still visible but a kind of haze. And things on the periphery are lower res.

It's not about being able to see things with real life detail, as if you walk on some reconstructed 100% replica of the world then, and you get to look around, focus on things you didn't focus at the time, get closer and see detail, etc.

It's about being able to see past scenes as visual replay-like reconstructions.


A computer screen is real. The images are symbolic of non real things, but the images are real.

And especially to the point, since you are (controversially) claiming that raw sensory input is the core of memory, not interpretation of it, it's incoherent to claim that a visual artwork is less memorable than whatever the art represents.


>A computer screen is real

Which is neither here, nor there.

>The images are symbolic of non real things, but the images are real.

They are still not tied to touch, smell, sense of being in place, temperature, wind, and several other things.

In fact they can actively fight your environmental cues. E.g. you can watch a man drink coffee in the African heat on your screen while sitting in a room with no smell of coffee at all while freezing cold.

The real world intermix of sensory inputs tied to each environment work together and help make the scene, and eventually the memory, even more concrete.

>it's incoherent to claim that a visual artwork is less memorable than whatever the art represents.

Would you remember more being in a sea with huge waves rocking you, or having seen some artwork of such a scene?

Do you remember better a car accident you had, or pictures of random car accidents presented to you?


I wonder if there's a connection between memory and creativity here. Perhaps vivid recollections aren't perfect fidelity, it's just that some people devote their creativity to storytelling about their past. Those memories may or may not be accurate, but vividness of memory is used as a proxy for accuracy.


Apparently, different people have different capabilities of imagination.

Not strictly about this, but you might be interested in http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/07/concept-shaped-holes-ca... which briefly mentions this specifically. Relevant quote:

"In the first, Francis Galton discovered that some people didn’t have visual imagination. They couldn’t see anything in their “mind’s eye”, they couldn’t generate internal images. None of these people knew there was anything “wrong” with them. They just assumed that everyone who talked about having an imagination was being metaphorical, just using a really florid poetic way of describing that they remembered what something looked like."


I think this is very difficult to convey in words. Sometimes I think I have aphantasia because I definitely cannot "visualize" things in color "HD", anywhere nearly similar to the quality of actual vision. At least not when I'm awake. Rarely, I do have dreams (lucid or not) that have the exact same visual quality as usual awake vision.

On the other hand, I also cannot empathize with the parent comment that is surprised about first-person memories.

My memories are sort of first person and evoke a feeling of the spatial and semantic layout of the scene. Like I remember and can "feel" that Joe was sitting to the left of me, even if I don't see his face in high-definition or maybe cannot even remember if he had glasses on or what clothes he was wearing.

Sure, I could also transform it and imagine the situation from a different vantage point (still not really a visual rendering), but by default I recall it from first-person view.

I believe that people do metaphorically exaggerate the quality of their visual memories. I recall some experiments that reveal that when these people are poked about specific details of their visualizations they do realize that those parts just were "undefined" and were not actually seeing a "rendered image".


> I believe that people do metaphorically exaggerate the quality of their visual memories. I recall some experiments that reveal that when these people are poked about specific details of their visualizations they do realize that those parts just were "undefined" and were not actually seeing a "rendered image".

Note that there are two components here that you may be talking about: 1) the visual definition or "vividness" 2) the factual accuracy of the content.

I'd say it's likely you'd find counterexamples in either case, but if you're speaking of 1), it seems to me that I personally have a more vivid visual memory than you are describing. When I recollect a scene, I usually see the imagery in moderate detail, with believable colour and textures. These colours are probably not all (perhaps not even most) factually accurate, but I do see actual colours and shapes which are perhaps 3/5 (if you can quantify such a thing) of their visual intensity at the time I'd experienced them. For some particularly memorable events, I'd estimate it at even more.

The intensity and detail also varies with my current surroundings and mental state. For instance, if I'm in a quiet, dark room or if I've just woken up, the visualizations are much stronger. Particularly after just waking up, it sometimes feels as if I'm experiencing it right now.


>I believe that people do metaphorically exaggerate the quality of their visual memories. I recall some experiments that reveal that when these people are poked about specific details of their visualizations they do realize that those parts just were "undefined" and were not actually seeing a "rendered image".

Of course it's not a rendered image (it can't have the same information content as a live image for obvious reasons), but it's an image nonetheless (just rougher than real and based on remembered input).

In experiments when describing such details some people have the same brain activity as seeing the thing, whereas others with aphantasia don't.


That's interesting, my default view in memories is usually third person, often from above and to the side or some other perspective view. I have to concentrate on recalling detail in order to view my memories from a first person perspective. The third person recollection always seems to be more about the spatial relationships between people and things and is certainly not photographic, more like a conceptual understanding with images. Almost a diorama or a scene acted out on a stage. Weirdly this also shows up in my dreams although I do dream in the first person frequently.


Thanks, I've been interested in aphantasia because it kind of resonated with me while being clearly more extreme than my personal experience. What you describe sounds very much like what I feel and it's quite pleasant to read such a clear description of that in-between situation.


Is there any research into differences between people with a "mind's eye" and those without? (learned skills, chosen professions, natural aptitudes, whether it's genetic, etc)

All along, I've assumed this "mind's eye" ability was integral to being a human being.


How it is integral? (I have aphantasia). I don’t see anything in my daily life that would require the capability of visually representing events of the past. I remember the facts and circumstances, and even some visual “contours” or traces, but it is a far cry from seeing a picture like I see the reality.


I assumed, past tense, that it was integral, and with this new information I realize it is not integral, and now I'm curious about it.

(technically: I never heard anyone say they could not do this until now, but I have heard people say they CAN do this (including me). So as far as I knew all my N sample size of humans was positive for this, or at least not negative, previously indicating to me that the ability is "integral" to being human.)


Welcome to the SDAM club friend. It was very difficult for me after I found that I have that, hope it won't be like that for you, or better, that you don't actually have it.

I wonder if this is related to Aphantasia, which popped up a while ago.

I struggle to visualize things, and often only remember my experiences if people remind me of them.


I can see memories, but struggle to remember words I heard.

Coping strategies: lots of notes!!!


Oh yeah, what people said is so hard for me. I'm terrible about telling personal anecdotes, because I just don't remember what people said, so it just sounds like me describing a series of facts. I get amazed when people like my late grandfather could tell a story about himself 40 years in the past and tell back and forth conversational dialogue that happened.

Even if it's not 100% remembered (and I doubt it was) or embellished, or reinforced by telling the same stories over and over again over the years, it still impresses me. I can forget all but the broad strokes of what people said only a week later. The only conversations I "remember" about my past is what I've explicitly put into my poorly kept up journal entries.


Yes. For all of you posting that you lack this capability, what are your dreams like? Do they not have a visual component? When I dream, I see the things that are happening ; recalling memories or daydreaming has a similar visual component.


I don't recall dreaming much at all. Once every few months, maybe (I'm sure I'm dreaming, I just have no memory of it. When I do have a memory of a dream, it's the same as any other memory (just a thing that I know "happened").

It wouldn't surprise me if there was a visual component to dreaming though, even for those of us that can't generally visualize things. Dreaming is a very different regime for your brain, where it is _actually_ engaging the bits that get engaged when you're awake and doing things, it just suppresses the actual motor output.


I am strongly aphantasiac but do on rare occasions get momentary flashes of visual imagery, so I'm not all the way on the end of the spectrum (though my mind was still blown when I realized many people think primarily in visuals - cannot fathom what that would be like).

I rarely remember dreams, and when I do they fade quickly.

They are visual, however, usually first-person though not always.

Other sensations are sometimes strong, too - I've had one or two nightmares involving physical trauma, physical shock, and excruciating pain.


I too have noticed that I rapidly forget experiences I had even just a few days ago. Personally, I only have maybe one or two dreams per year (that I can remember).

I have a hunch that a lot of my own memory issues are related to lack of quality sleep as a student. I tend to dream more when life is less stressful.


I can. Perhaps you have Aphantasia[1]

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphantasia


I do first-person recollection when I try to find an object I forgot.

"I was having my wallet at the restaurant, I remember looking for coins in it."


Reminds me of a line from David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” when the character is asked why he doesn’t like video recordings of things in his life- “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

I think deep down we are all a little like that.


Which reminds me of Ted Chiang's story "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling"[1] about exactly this tension.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truth_of_Fact,_the_Truth_o...


I probably have some mild aphantasia, because my imagination doesn't usually include vivid pictures. I'm also pretty bad at graphic design and home decorating. On the other hand I do see things in dreams. And all my life even non-spatial things, like mathematical/logical/grammatical relationships, have felt like they had a spatial arrangement to them. And maybe this is something else, but I remember it wasn't until college that my own reasoning really started to feel "verbal".

Once I was reading a 20th century philosopher who was criticizing Locke and others of his time for describing knowledge or ideas as mental imagery, saying that of course it's not like we really see pictures in our heads. I wish I could remember who this was. I want to say Saussure or Deleuze. I was personally more sympathetic to Locke, but I could see this writer's point (or not, heh). It's funny to think that aphantasia has influenced philosophy.

I'm also curious what relation aphantasia has to chess-playing ability. I'm a pretty good chess player (for someone who doesn't take it seriously), but I can't see the board in my head at all. Grandmasters can play whole games blindfolded, and Magnus Carlsen has a YouTube video playing ten opponents at a time while blindfolded. I have to try really hard just to "see" a 3x3 position. I guess aphantasia makes it hard to mentally play a few moves and then stop and assess whether the new position is good for white or black, or even just notice basic tactics in it.


I think I'm in the same boat as you. I've discussed this with my spouse and we've determined that my mind's eye is pretty impaired. It's there, but just barely.

I totally agree with the "spatial arrangement" of math/logic etc, I'm a software engineer and arranging and abstracting things into their logical parts internally comes as easily as looking at component parts laid out on a table to me (although it's not really visual).

In regards to chess (I'm pretty decent at chess) I think it's like this, if you wrote a chess program, you wouldn't write it to visualize the representation of the board, you would set up variables to track state, etc. I think my "internal representations" of abstractions are just that, variables that my mind is tracking and understanding the relationships between, as easily as any other sense.


While looking for a way to explain my own aphantasia, I came across the works of Temple Grandin, a poster child of high-functioning autism. Since there is no physiological test for ASD, I believe that the following cognition types may be presented within the general audiences as well, however, they are not treated as outliers as long as their 'owners' have sufficient social skills. Thus, I suggest that you ignore autism/ASD references below:

"I have observed that there are three different specialized autistic/Asperger cognitive types. They are:

1) Visual thinkers such as I, who are often poor at algebra. 2) Verbal specialists who are good at talking and writing but they lack visual skills. 3) Pattern thinkers such as Daniel Tammet, who excel in math and music but may have problems with reading or writing composition." [1]

"<...>Chess masters think not in pictures or words, but are good in recognizing patterns. Pattern thinking is a more abstract form of visual thinking; thoughts are in patterns instead of photo-realistic pictures. Pattern thinkers see patterns and relationships between numbers. Some of the best descriptions are in Daniel Tammet’s book Born on a Blue Day (Tammet 2006) and in Jerry Newport’s book Mozart and the Whale (Newport et al. 2007). The weak areas in pattern thinkers is usually reading and writing composition." [1]

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/07/05/research-shows...


Presumably 'deficient' here is a term of art rather than something pejorative.

Given how poorly people perform at recollecting personally experienced events - as evidenced by fascinating phenomena like false memories - it seems highly likely that the memories are not stored in any particularly robust way.

It may well be normal to access memories similarly to watching a film but there is no reason to believe that is efficient. It is probably a crutch like sounding words out mentally when reading. The fast way is not going to be the visual way, in the same way that fast reading is not done verbally.

I have a well developed minds eye, but it normally sees the world more like a cartoon than a vivid image. Works great for a lot of practical tasks though. There will be an absurd amount of variation out there.


>Presumably 'deficient' here is a term of art rather than something pejorative.

"Deficient" means lacking, there is no presumption that lacking is a negative thing. These three individuals seem to be living normal, productive lives while being deficient.


Few hours ago there was link to article about quantum supremacy claims and one person commented how supremacy might be problematic word.

> The usage of the word “supremacy” is probably the primary thing that rubs people the wrong way. When I first heard of it myself, it did feel a little strange.

What is going on?


Words have multiple meanings, that can often be similar and context matters a lot. The press often uses this fact to sensationalize stories, while a scientific community may have a very specific definition in mind when using those words.


If SRS software has taught me anything, it's that memory is reenforced when recalled.

If you don't have anyone to talk with and share your memories (or perhaps you don't find them important enough to think about), you're going to forget them.

I wonder if they found a correlation between introverts and extroverts here. Because I'd almost certainly peg this phenomenon on that.


I just came back from Milan and while I can recollect certain situations and pictures, by no means I can "play" my memory as if it was happening to me.

Real experience has so much details compared to memory that I always tend to doubt that my memories are accurate.

On top of that, if you have repetitive schedule I can't imagine you can recreate specifics of particular day. You probably reconstruct the situation filling in your image of familiar places with peculiarities of situation you are trying to remember


I'll add my voice to the chorus that says this is a symptom of a more fundamental issue: aphantasia. As a card-carrying aphantasiac, I'm skeptical of the ability of most people to visualize. I recall hearing of an experiment in which people were asked to draw a bicycle from their imagination. The results were laughable, yet, no doubt, the subjects would self report that, sure, they could visualize a bicycle.


Flip side: Total recall: the people who never forget

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/08/total-recall...


This acutely describes nearly all of my childhood, up until about age ten. What little I remmeber vividly is only extremely traumatic stuff: being lost at Stanford on a game day, physical abuse by a relative, my doctor trying to explain to me what cancer was, later on a discussion of the surgery I needed, a corporal punishment episode from a teacher when I was in kindergarten. Other than things like that, I can barely remember words associated with my home and schooling and family, let alone images. Until maybe age 10.

I wonder if that's a linked phenomenon. Most people I know do not have a gap that large in the memory of their early development.


Trauma and abuse are what cause the memory issues. It's well-known in the cPTSD and narcissism recovery communities.


It seems to be quite common.


I'd love to have these tests done. I have a friend from college who serves as my memory of my college experience. She can recall all manner of events and sequences of events from over a decade ago that I can't even vaguely recall. I experience memories of the long past as postcards. A few disconnected images or feelings without sequence or much context. I've always been impressed when people can remember details of times long past and I've observed almost everyone is better at it than I am.


It would be interesting to analyze these abilities from the viewpoint of evolutionary adaptation.

Perhaps from the perspective of a band of proto-humans, it was highly adaptive for some members of the tribe to have strong episodic memories, but not necessary for everyone.

Similarly, it was probably highly adaptive for a few members to be gifted with a structured, logical approach to problem-solving. Given the development of language, the whole tribe benefits from the specialized abilities of various members.


Except there no reason to believe one style of memory is more or less related to being a logical/structured thinker. For example visual thinkers may be better at geometry by flipping and rotating images around in their head. Feynman describes solving logical things by reducing them to simple geometric problems.


I feel like I have bits of my memory and perception that are good and bits that are bad. I struggle with the idea of being asked to help with a 'photo-fit', to describe the person's face and reconstruct the features like you would when describing a suspect to a police officer or sketch artist, I simply cannot recall anyone's face. I can describe build, height, hair and colour, but the face itself is blocked in my mind. I cannot recall the majority of events in my life and most that I do recall are very recent or in some way traumatic or unpleasant, even then I only remember a freeze-frame of the scenario and note the whole event. Being able to remember a sequence of events or a long period of time within the same day is limited to a very small number of memories. I cannot remember most of my childhood or anything beyond a few years ago, just tiny snippets here and there. However... I remember nearly everywhere I've ever been, like a version of map software in my brain is keeping a record. I've re-visited places I've only been to once before many years earlier and been able to navigate the entire area without fault. I can remember the configuration of the shopping malls I've been to and I can even recall where nearly all products in the local grocery store or super markets are.... I can picture these things in my mind with real clarity. This ability also means I have fantastic dreams, often in the same places which only exist in my mind. I often remember dreams by where I was or what I was doing at the time based on which location I was in. I dream in first-person while also aware of what the third person sensation/ experience would be like. I can occasionally lucid dream so I know these dreams involve colour. I cannot remember what anything smells, sounds, or tastes like. If someone asked, ‘what does your favourite food taste like?’ I honestly could not describe it, but I can recall the texture of it perfectly. Yet even though my few memories do not include these details, if I smell something during the day I can easily remember what that is…the same applies to hearing a tune or sound or seeing someone’s face in a TV show. The memories are there but the act of actually trying to recall something simply for the purposes of attempting to remember will result in a blank….passively try and remember something by association of some other stimuli then the memory will come back easy. I worry that now my child is turning 3 years old I can only recall a handful of memories from his life so far, will this get worse? If he ever asks me what life was like when he was just a baby….what will I say?


Memory is a relative new thing, eh? Before we started civilization (about 12k years ago) was there much adaptive pressure to have accurate memories of one's personal history?

As I wrote the above I remembered that many cultures (like in Australia) have oral histories that go back tens of thousands of years. Hmm...


As I worked more and more, in isolation especially, time seemed to fly faster and events seemed less salient. I remember things but not as vividly as when I was 15.

I hope this isn’t a normal thing that has to do with individual years being less fractionally important with age, but just the brain adapting to loneliness.


The perception of time passing faster with age is well known phenomenon. An important secondary character in the novel Catch-22 is obsessed with this. I used to think I was just impatient as a kid when ten minutes felt like forever. Now having passed 40 I can say that I was actually experiencing time very differently.


For most of my life I thought of myself as smart. In my 30s now I’ve realized I just have an unreasonably good memory, both long term and short term recall. In other areas of intelligence I’m average.

I would bet that many of those identifying with this study are excelling in other dimensions of intelligence.


I kind of had the opposite experience. It seemed like I could figure things out quickly, but not especially remember them. Memory definitely helps, and as I got older and my brain doesn't seem to work at the same clock speed, memory helps a lot more and seems easier than figuring things out again all of the time.

So, I kind of thought of it like a computer. You can sometimes have a look-up table of pre-computed things, but if you had more processor than memory, you'd go the other direction and re-compute instead of using memory/storage.


I remember facts & such well and have incredible spatial reasoning ability & related memory but specifically my autobiographical memory is awful.


Am grateful I have an autobiographical deficit. I can’t imagine being one of those people who remembers every slight or bad experience. Think about those people who are still impacted by something that happened to them in school.

Of course, it could be all that skate boarding w/o a helmet.


Unless they can pinpoint some underlying structural deficit in the brain, the title seems to pathologize something rather trivial. I have very low autobiographical memory because I mostly consider it a silly made up story in my head and don't pay much attention to it.


This is me all the time when we go out for a few beers :)


The article seems to lack a clear definition of what "autobiographical memory" means.


It is a technical term: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobiographical_memory

Usually journal articles expect a certain common knowledge of their readers.


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People upvote what they find interesting. ‾\_(ツ)_/‾


People thinking they can view movies or don't view movies in their mind seams a bit strange to me.

The mind works like the mind works. You can describe it in different ways. If you describe your memories like they are movies often enough you will start to think of them as movies. But that is not cause they are like movies that is simply cause you believe they are like movies.

A movie is a movie, a memory is a memory, a picture is a picture, visualisations in the mind are just that visualisations in the mind noting more nothing less. You can describe things more or less accurately with metaphors, but that does not make the thing in to the metaphor you use to describe it.


I'd guess from your comment that you don't experience visualisations or memories as movies - but others, like myself, do so. This isn't a postmodern "I can imagine it like a story, or movie, or song" the memory literally appears as a movie.


If you experience your memories as a movie it can't have subjective emotions cause those are not in movies.

With that in mind you might be able to see the perspective that I have here. You are not experiencing a movie in your head. You just call it a movie cause that is something familiar that you feel is similar.

A movie is a movie, a memory is a memory.

Things are what they are. One might call things other things but that does not make them in to that other thing no mater how similar or dissimilar they might or might not be.


Have you seen Pixar's movie "Inside Out"?

If not, this is irrelevant, but if you have, you will likely recall that the film's core narrative is about memories.

All those memories are depicted as audiovisual records of events, often (literally) colored by an emotional overlay.

I think they represented them that way because most or all of the core project team shared that experience of memory.


I have seen it, it is great movie :)

I am not sure if you are trying to convince me that memories are like movies?

I mean I can describe my memories as movies to, in a way they are like movies in certain ways.

But they are not movies, they are memories, they have properties that movies don't have and movies have properties that memories don't have. They share some properties but that does not make them the same thing.




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