18 votes

Aphantasia: A life without mental images

21 comments

  1. [15]
    Yugioh_Mishima Link
    tl;dr: Aphantasia is the inability to create pictures in your mind. Little research has been done on the topic because a lot of people who have it don't know they do. It blew my mind when I heard...

    tl;dr: Aphantasia is the inability to create pictures in your mind. Little research has been done on the topic because a lot of people who have it don't know they do.

    It blew my mind when I heard about it for the first time and realized that when people would say, "Picture x in your mind," they meant literal pictures. I started asking everyone I knew if they "saw" a beach when I told them to close their eyes and imagine one and every response was, "Yeah, of course. Do you not?"

    For my entire life I would've interpreted that statement as a figure of speech meaning to think about beaches; finding out that everyone else forms an actual image of sand and water and palm trees while I get darkness was... wow. It threw a big wrench into my understanding of how people experience the world that I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

    14 votes
    1. [8]
      alyaza Link Parent
      my mom is like this, which is a curious thing. i am capable of conjuring up very strong mental images (which is neat in a couple ways since they're occasionally strong enough to "alter", very...

      my mom is like this, which is a curious thing. i am capable of conjuring up very strong mental images (which is neat in a couple ways since they're occasionally strong enough to "alter", very briefly, my perception of things around me but not always enjoyable since they're equally capable of flashing unsolicited and quite detailed violent images at me)--but my mom has literally no concept of being able to do this, as i found out a couple of times when i was younger in trying to explain being able to visualize extremely detailed things like that in my mind to her. personally i have no idea how anyone could ever handle that, because almost all of my thoughts are pictoral or have pictoral components to them, and without them the thoughts are basically meaningless.

      4 votes
      1. [7]
        cfabbro Link Parent
        Out of curiosity, does that inability affect how your mother dreams? The article only mentioned dreams in passing but I now I am curious if an aphantasiac? can dream in images like most people....

        Out of curiosity, does that inability affect how your mother dreams? The article only mentioned dreams in passing but I now I am curious if an aphantasiac? can dream in images like most people.

        p.s. If you have a really strong ability to visualize, you should give lucid dreaming a try... I have been doing it pretty regularly for decades now and it's great fun... learning to do it might even help you with those scary unsolicited images you described.
        https://www.luciddreamsociety.com/top-ways-to-go-lucid-dream-now/

        2 votes
        1. Deimos (edited ) Link Parent
          It's not directly related, but something I heard about recently that I thought was fascinating is that it seems like the transition from black-and-white TV to color may have affected how people...

          It's not directly related, but something I heard about recently that I thought was fascinating is that it seems like the transition from black-and-white TV to color may have affected how people dream. I have no idea how true it is, but it's really interesting that there might be a connection.

          3 votes
        2. [5]
          alyaza Link Parent
          it actually does not! she actually seems to have quite vivid dreams even though she can't visualize images in her head, because she'll often recite them in great detail to me. so that's an...

          Out of curiosity, does that inability affect how your mother dreams? The article only mentioned dreams in passing but I now I am curious if an aphantasiac? can dream in images like most people.

          it actually does not! she actually seems to have quite vivid dreams even though she can't visualize images in her head, because she'll often recite them in great detail to me. so that's an interesting little caveat.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            mrbeehive Link Parent
            There are no things to see in my dreams, only having seen them anyway. When I recall a memory of having seen something, the thing that my brain stores isn't an image, but a description of an...

            There are no things to see in my dreams, only having seen them anyway.

            When I recall a memory of having seen something, the thing that my brain stores isn't an image, but a description of an image. What is the object I am looking at, what colors does it have, what is it's function, how is it located compared to the rest of the objects I can currently see, is it bigger or smaller than such an object would normally be, is there anything unusual about it, and so on. Sometimes I forget details that my brain didn't think were important or noteworthy. It's not an image getting harder to recall, but Items on the list of properties disappearing over time.

            When I dream, it's the same experience of visual memory - of knowing a description of an object that I saw - but without being able to see it, because there are no mental pictures to see. When I try to remember my dreams later, it feels the same to me as if I saw the thing, although I realize that I didn't because it was a dream.

            I'm very fascinated with people who have lucid dreams (dreams where you realize that you're dreaming). Most of the methods for inducing them seem to somehow involve focusing on the things you can see in your dream and recognizing that you're dreaming because they're subtly wrong. "Focus on the things you see" is a completely alien concept to dream me, though. There are no things to see in my dreams, only having seen them anyway.

            6 votes
            1. cfabbro (edited ) Link Parent
              Not all lucid dreaming techniques involve visual cues. The technique that I used to first get in to lucid dreaming was to keep a dream journal beside my bed and write in it immediately upon waking...

              Not all lucid dreaming techniques involve visual cues. The technique that I used to first get in to lucid dreaming was to keep a dream journal beside my bed and write in it immediately upon waking up every single morning. At first I could only remember vague impressions of my dreams, but after a few months of journaling my dreams slowly became much easier to remember the details of.

              For some people that journaling process is enough for them to start lucid dreaming, but I had to take it a step further before I could do it; I forced myself into developing the habit of asking myself "Am I in a dream?" at various random points throughout the day and taking a serious moment afterwards to actually evaluate the situation before I answered. It took a few months doing that 8-10 times a day until it finally kicked in while I actually was dreaming and realize the answer wasn't "no" like all the other times, but "yes, I am!"

              That first time I ever lucid dreamed it was like being a passenger in my own head and I couldn't really do much but observe my dream play out. However from that night on I slowly started being able to more consistently recognize when I was in the middle of a dream, often without even having to ask myself the question while dreaming; Simply noticing some weirdness or impossibility would trigger my awareness of being in a dream.

              Gradually I was able to learn to exert more control over the dreams when I realized I was dreaming, too. And now some 20+ years later it doesn't usually take me very long after I fall asleep to recognize I am dreaming and I have almost complete control over the dreams (when I want to, which is not always)... so I lucid dream almost every night as a result.

              Unless I am misunderstanding things, none of those techniques should be impossible for someone with aphantasia to do. And if you ever do manage to lucid dream, I would definitely be interested to hear about your experiences, since now I am super curious how someone with aphantasia would experience a lucid dream. :)

              1 vote
          2. [2]
            cfabbro Link Parent
            Huh... interesting. Thanks for answering. Perhaps that means dreams and conscious visualization use completely different mechanisms or parts of the brain. I'm going to have to do some digging on...

            Huh... interesting. Thanks for answering. Perhaps that means dreams and conscious visualization use completely different mechanisms or parts of the brain. I'm going to have to do some digging on this now since this is all pretty fascinating and something I never really thought about before.

            1. Yugioh_Mishima Link Parent
              An interesting wrinkle I can add to this is that I also am capable of vivid dreams, but occasionally when I'm very tired (but still 100% awake) I'll start to visualize phosphenes, abstract shapes...

              Perhaps that means dreams and conscious visualization use completely different mechanisms or parts of the brain.

              An interesting wrinkle I can add to this is that I also am capable of vivid dreams, but occasionally when I'm very tired (but still 100% awake) I'll start to visualize phosphenes, abstract shapes and bursts of faint color that barely seem like they're there and over which I have no control. It's the only time I ever "see" anything in my mind.

              My hypothesis is that they're the result of my brain trying to drop into a hypnagogic state, which causes some "clog" in the visualization pipeline that only exists when I'm conscious to dissipate and allow normal dreaming.

              3 votes
    2. [3]
      Loire (edited ) Link Parent
      How vivid are the images supposed to be for a normal person? If I close my eyes and try to image something I know, it theoretically takes form but it's still the same black and fuzzy. Am I seeing...

      It blew my mind when I heard about it for the first time and realized that when people would say, "Picture x in your mind," they meant literal pictures.

      How vivid are the images supposed to be for a normal person? If I close my eyes and try to image something I know, it theoretically takes form but it's still the same black and fuzzy.

      Am I seeing the images in my mind's eye or is my brain just going over the details in a way I think is normal? I can't really form a scene that isn't a memory, and I can't really put together a face in my mind's eye. Is it supposed to be like looking at a photo?

      Is that aphantasia or do I simply have a weak imagination?

      3 votes
      1. hhh Link Parent
        I don't think that sounds like aphantasia. From what I've gathered, some people can imagine things with perfect clarity and detail, others are worse at visualizing things, but people with...

        Is that aphantasia or do I simply have a weak imagination?

        I don't think that sounds like aphantasia. From what I've gathered, some people can imagine things with perfect clarity and detail, others are worse at visualizing things, but people with aphantasia can't visualize things at all.

        I personally don't have a very good "mind's eye." I can still visualize things, but they end up very faint, fuzzy and dark. For me, it's more like a visual representation of a concept rather than an accurate picture.

        6 votes
      2. FZeroRacer Link Parent
        I think it more or less has to do with your conscious mind. It's really hard to picture something in your mind when you're consciously aware that it's not there, because you have other stimuli...

        I think it more or less has to do with your conscious mind. It's really hard to picture something in your mind when you're consciously aware that it's not there, because you have other stimuli vying for your attention.

        For me, I've always had a strongly vivid imagination. I can't listen to music while I'm working for example because my mind can get lost within the world that takes shape and the occasions where I end up remembering my dreams they always end up being very tangible experiences. This is also probably part of the reason why I'm slow at picking up mathematical concepts, because it's harder for me to manifest it into something I can 'see' within my mind. I'd be curious to know if there's a link between attention disorders and how people visualize things within their mind.

        2 votes
    3. Gaywallet Link Parent
      It always occurred to me that people would have different levels of visualization when asked to picture something - some people have pictographic memories, for example. I didn't realize how bad my...

      It threw a big wrench into my understanding of how people experience the world that I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

      It always occurred to me that people would have different levels of visualization when asked to picture something - some people have pictographic memories, for example.

      I didn't realize how bad my ability to visualize things was until I thought about every time someone is interacting with a sketch artist in movies and tv shows and whatnot. While I can distinctly remember people's faces, I have a hard time describing how it looks to anyone because I can't even picture anyone's face - not my brothers, my father, mother, my ex who I spent a decade with. I can recognize them immediately, but I would have a hard time describing it because I don't see pictures when I visualize.

      The human mind is a very interesting thing and capable of much more than we ever think. It's hard to get over, but as soon as you recognize that the mind can exist in a way you can't even perceive, it really opens up possibilities. Diversity is perhaps the greatest strength we have.

      3 votes
    4. [2]
      Comment deleted by author
      Link Parent
      1. mrbeehive Link Parent
        (Not that guy, but similar experiences) I remember and imagine images in sounds and words, most of the time. The other senses are "normal" though. For sight, there's no pictures, but more like...

        (Not that guy, but similar experiences)

        I remember and imagine images in sounds and words, most of the time. The other senses are "normal" though.

        For sight, there's no pictures, but more like relationships between objects I have seen. My brain would remember seeing a hut on top of a cliff as a description of the hut on the cliff. Almost like narrating a (rather boring but usually accurate) book. "It was a small hut. made of wood and painted red, on top of a grey cliff with white markings on it. It was raining that day".

        On the other hand, the other senses are more or less an accurate representation of what they feel like to me. Especially sounds.

        My brain is very much an audio machine and not a video machine.

        2 votes
    5. vivaria Link Parent
      I can... kind of see shapes in the static noise sometimes if I focus really hard, but mostly all I see is static noise when I close my eyes. Lots of rapidly changing patterns, mostly "dark" feeling.

      I can... kind of see shapes in the static noise sometimes if I focus really hard, but mostly all I see is static noise when I close my eyes. Lots of rapidly changing patterns, mostly "dark" feeling.

      1 vote
  2. [4]
    Rocket_Man Link
    I thought about doing my undergraduate thesis on aphantasia, but there really is a dearth of research about it. I could've actually done research, but I've got anxiety and wasn't really in a place...

    I thought about doing my undergraduate thesis on aphantasia, but there really is a dearth of research about it. I could've actually done research, but I've got anxiety and wasn't really in a place where I felt capable of it. The part I found fascinating about aphantasia is that it doesn't really cause problems in people's day to day life.

    It rides that line between typical neurological variability and neurological disorder. It's also something I think I've experienced some change in. When I was a kid my ability to imagine scenes and alter them was extremely vivid. When I got older that skill seemed to diminish and while I can still do it to some extent it seems much duller and imprecise.

    This has also occurred with faces, like the person in the article I can't recall faces very well. I can recognize people just fine, but I can't really imagine someones face with my mind's eye. I've also found that starting SSRIs has impacted my ability to imagine scenes. Which is helpful because I would imagine impending social fears.

    I'm sure there will be significantly more research into aphantasia now that it's gotten some attention. It'll be interesting to see what research says about this and if we can start focusing more on understanding peoples individual neurological differences.

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      mrbeehive Link Parent
      I am very aphantasic. I'm also very interested in if it eventually ends up being classified as a disorder or not. Ended up talking about this with a friend whom I know has a very visually oriented...

      It rides that line between typical neurological variability and neurological disorder.

      I am very aphantasic. I'm also very interested in if it eventually ends up being classified as a disorder or not.

      Ended up talking about this with a friend whom I know has a very visually oriented brain. They asked me what my imagination is like if it doesn't use images. My description of my thoughts and imagination ("constant multi-layered monologue with accompanying soundtrack") was just as alien to them, as their description ("movie or a slideshow with an occasional rush of feelings attached") was to me.

      Neither of us feel like we're deficient in any ways - from a sample size of one, it's very easy to assume that what your brain does is what all brains must do - to me, it's just a way that brains can be fascinatingly and radically different.

      5 votes
      1. Rocket_Man Link Parent
        It probably wont be classified as a disorder as long as people don't feel their disabled in anyway by it. But there's been a movement to classify disorders based on neural circuitry. In that...

        It probably wont be classified as a disorder as long as people don't feel their disabled in anyway by it. But there's been a movement to classify disorders based on neural circuitry. In that paradigm it might be described as a disorder.

        4 votes
    2. [2]
      Comment deleted by author
      Link Parent
      1. Rocket_Man Link Parent
        Nope I can't really visualize a photograph either. I can think of a photo and define characteristics of it. But specifics about a persons face aren't possible. That's one reason I got into...

        Nope I can't really visualize a photograph either. I can think of a photo and define characteristics of it. But specifics about a persons face aren't possible. That's one reason I got into photography, I've always had somewhat of a poor memory of events.

        4 votes
  3. Tygrak Link
    I guess I have this but I really don't know if I really do. I certainly can't see an elephant when I close my eyes and think about how an elephant would look - is that aphantasia? It feels...

    I guess I have this but I really don't know if I really do. I certainly can't see an elephant when I close my eyes and think about how an elephant would look - is that aphantasia? It feels unbelievable that people could actually see things like that and feels to me like something from movies. Instead I kind of just think of features an elephant has etc. I feel like it's almost impossible to describe what you see in your mind, so I still think people could still see things the same as me in my mind and just describe it differently.

    2 votes
  4. teaearlgraycold Link
    Due to the human condition I don't know how I'm expected to see things in my mind. I know some people have perfect visual memory (photographic memory), but that's abnormal. I can see things in...

    Due to the human condition I don't know how I'm expected to see things in my mind. I know some people have perfect visual memory (photographic memory), but that's abnormal. I can see things in inconsistent levels of detail. If I were to describe my internal vision to someone who has aphantasia I'd say it's like your normal vision is a big screen you're able to see in crisp detail. But for me there's a secret second, mediocre, display behind me. I'm able to turn my focus to that display (eyes closed or not).

    1 vote