Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Shock of the Unknown in Aphantasia: Learning that Visual Imagery Exists

Qualia are private. We don’t know how another person perceives the outside world: the color of the ocean, the sound of the waves, the smell of the seaside, the exact temperature of the water. Even more obscure is how someone else imagines the world in the absence of external stimuli. Most people are able to generate an internal “representation1 of a beach — to deploy imagery — when asked, “picture yourself at a relaxing beach.” We can “see” the beach in our mind’s eye even when we’re not really there. But no one else has access to these private images, thoughts, narratives. So we must rely on subjective report.

The hidden nature of imagery (and qualia more generally)2 explains why a significant minority of humans are shocked and dismayed when they learn that other people are capable of generating visual images, and the request to “picture a beach” isn’t metaphorical. This lack of imagery often extends to other sensory modalities (and to other cognitive abilities, such as spatial navigation and autobiographical memories), which will be discussed another time. For now, the focus is on vision.

Redditors and their massive online sphere of influence were chattering the other day about this post in r/TIFU: A woman was explaining her synesthesia to her boyfriend when he discovered that he has aphantasia, the inability to generate visual images.

TIFU by explaining my synesthesia to my boyfriend

“I have grapheme-color synesthesia. Basically I see letters and numbers in colors. The letter 'E' being green for example. A couple months ago I was explaining it to my boyfriend who's a bit of a skeptic. He asked me what colour certain letters and numbers were and had me write them down.  ...

Tonight we were laying in bed and my boyfriend quized me again. I tried explaining to him I just see the colors automatically when I visualize the letters in my head. I asked him what colour are the letters in his head. He looked at me weirdly like what do you mean in "my head, that's not a thing"

My boyfriend didnt understand what I meant by visualizing the letters. He didn't believe me that I can visualize letters or even visualize anything in my head.

Turns out my boyfriend has aphantasia. When he tries to visualize stuff he just sees blackness. He can't picture anything in his mind and thought that everyone else had it the same way. He thought it was just an expression to say "picture this" or etc...

There are currently 8652 comments on this post, many from individuals who were stunned to learn that the majority of people do have imagery. Other comments were from knowledgeable folks with aphantasia who described what the world is like for them, the differences in how they navigate through life, and how they compensate for what is thought of as "a lack" by the tyranny of the phantasiacs.

There's even a subreddit for people with aphantasia:

How did I find out about this? 3  It was because my 2016 post was suddenly popular again!

That piece was spurred by an eloquent essay on what's it's like to discover that all your friends aren't speaking metaphorically when they say, “I see a beach with waves and sand.” Research on this condition blossomed once more and more people realized they had it. Online communities developed and grew, including resources for researchers. This trajectory is akin to the formation of chat groups for individuals with synesthesia and developmental prosopagnosia (many years ago). Persons with these neuro-variants have always existed,4 but they were much harder to locate pre-internet. Studies of these neuro-unique individuals have been going on for a while, but widespread popular dissemination of their existence alerts others – “I am one, too.”

The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) “is a proven psychometric measurement often used to identify whether someone is aphantasic or not, albeit not definitive.” But it's still a subjective measure that relies on self-report. Are there more “objective” methods for determining your visual imagery abilities? I'm glad you asked. An upcoming post will discuss a couple of cool new experiments.

ADDENDUM (July 21 2019): the follow-up post is finally here!
Is there an objective test for Aphantasia?


1 This is a loaded term that I won’t explain – or debate – right now.

2 Some people don’t believe that qualia exist (as such), but I won’t elaborate on that, either.

3 I don’t hang out on Reddit, and my Twitter usage has declined.

4 Or at least, they've existed for quite some time.

Further Reading

Aphantasia Index

The Eye's Mind

Bonus Episode: What It's Like to Have no Mind's Eye, a recent entry of BPS Research Digest. There's an excellent collection of links, as well as a 30 minute podcast (download here).

Imagine These Experiments in Aphantasia (my 2016 post).

Involuntary Visual Imagery (if you're curious about what has been haunting me).

In fact, while I was writing this post, intrusive imagery of the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in Delta BC (the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria Island) appeared in my head. I searched Google Images and can show you the approximate view.

I was actually standing a little further back, closer to where the cars are parked. But I couldn't quite capture that view. Here is the line of cars waiting to get on the ferry.

During this trip two years ago (with my late wife), this sign had caught my eye so I ran across the street for coffee...

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At June 30, 2019 10:44 PM, Blogger Janelle said...

I remember your other post on aphantasia. I remember reading and thinking, "wow, that's interesting that some people don't have mental imagery!" And then on this post, you have that tweet about the red star. Well, I only get #1, maaaaaybe #2. And I swear that I have excellent mental imagery! But I don't literally get a picture, I'm just imagining it, it guess. When I picture my husband's face, I close my eyes and see just blackness. If I think of my pizza lunch, my sweet pet, or my messy work desk, I get no actual visual image. I could probably describe all of that well enough to a police sketch artist to get a wonderful drawing. So....I'm feeling a little weird right now! So, the average person in their mind eye sees #5 or #6??? That's not actually true, really?

At July 01, 2019 2:32 AM, Blogger maalaria said...

I have the impression that "aphantasia" may result from differing conceptions of "seeing" and "visual imagnination" rather than from impairments of the actual thing. "Participants typically became aware of their condition in their teens or twenties when, through conversation or reading, they realised that most people who ‘saw things in the mind's eye’, unlike our participants, enjoyed a quasi-visual experience." (Zeman, Dewar and Sala, 2015) The "quasi-visual" experience can mean everything and nothing. At least, all these confounders, like the conception of "visual" in "visual imagination", the ability to report imagined things and so and so forth, cannot be dissociated from the notion of aphantasia precisely because it is subjective at heart, just like you say in the beginning of your post.

At July 01, 2019 11:05 AM, Anonymous Thomas Leahey said...

I am a historian of psychology. Francis Galton effectively discovered individual differences in mental imagery, including the existence of people with no mental imagery (such as myself), back in the 19th century. Here's a link to his paper:
It was also studied by the English psychologist E. B. Titchener (of Cornell). The best discussion of his work is in his lab manuals for experimental introspective psychology, for which I'm afraid I don't have a handy reference.
I suspect the shift of focus from consciousness to behavior in psychology in the early 20th century led these lines of research to be abandoned.

At July 01, 2019 5:03 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Janelle – I’ve often wondered whether some people overestimate the vividness of their imagery. I need to do more research on the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (self-report) and other tests such as binocular rivalry. I’d also like to find out the origin of that star figure (I just pulled it from a tweet). Like you, I would find it surprising if most people say they can imagine a red star that looks like #5 or #6. If someone says to me out of the blue, “close your eyes and imagine a red star”, the best I can do is #4 (or somewhere between #3 and #4). BUT if I look at the image first, close my eyes, and imagine a red star, I can “see” #5 or #6 even if it’s not immediately later. I tried it this morning. The interesting thing is, the location of the image migrated down to where I was holding my phone – it didn’t appear in the darkness behind my closed eyes.

maalaria – The differing conceptions of “seeing” and “imagining” is an important point. Another interesting aspect is that Zeman et al. (2015) noted a dissociation between voluntary and involuntary imagery (I have a LOT of the latter):

“Within the group of participants who reported no imagery while completing the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, 10/11 reported involuntary imagery during wakefulness and/or dreams, confirming a significant dissociation between voluntary and involuntary imagery.”

Thomas Leahey – Thanks for the reminder about Galton. I cited his 1880 paper in my earlier post. {I didn’t expect anyone to know that.} One fascinating point was that aphantasia was bizarrely overrepresented in Galton's colleagues:

“To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. ... They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware.”

At July 01, 2019 5:36 PM, Blogger Tom said...

A friend of mine learned that he had Aphantasia as a result of another friend doing a documentary on it. Our families eat dinner together often, and over dinner he discussed the matter. I was fascinated, trying to imagine what life would be like for him (as he went on about the slightly disturbing realization that a large percentage of the population can hallucinate on demand).

Later that night, I was discussing it with my wife, still excited by the concept and how weird it was compared to "us normal humans" (I was joking...).

Her reply was a slightly icy "us?"

Uh oh.

Turns out that despite being a novelist, she's has almost no visual mind's eye, either. (She ended up being interviewed for the documentary as well.)

The things you learn after 25 years of marriage.

It also explains why her editor keeps nagging her for more description :-).

At July 01, 2019 7:29 PM, Anonymous Thomas Leahey said...

My old mentor, Bill Brewer of U of Illinois/Urbana, published a replication of Galton's study and a re-analysis of it, finding that scientists aren't deficient in imagery. Here's the reference and abstract (the only link I could get ran through my university's proxy server).

Brewer. W. F. & Schommer-Aikins, M. (2006). Scientists are not deficient in mental imagery: Galton Revised. Review of General Psychology, 10, 130-146.
In 1880, Galton carried out an investigation of imagery in a sample of distinguished men and a sample of nonscientists (adolescent male students). He concluded that scientists were either totally lacking in visual imagery or had "feeble" powers of mental imagery. This finding has been widely accepted in the secondary literature in psychology. A replication of Galton's study with modern scientists and modern university undergraduates found no scientists totally lacking in visual imagery and very few with feeble visual imagery. Examination of Galton's published data shows that his own published data do not support his claims about deficient visual imagery in scientists. The modern data for scientists and nonscientists and the 1880 data for scientists and nonscientists are in agreement in showing that all groups report substantial imagery on recollective memory tasks such as Galton's breakfast questionnaire. We conclude that Galton's conclusions were an example of theory-laden interpretation of data based on the initial responses from several very salient scientists who reported little or no visual imagery on Galton's imagery questionnaire. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)

At July 02, 2019 2:47 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thomas Leahey - Thanks for that reference. It did seem like a preposterous finding!

At July 02, 2019 3:24 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Tom - It was hard for me to find the documentary (or to guess which one it was), since so many people have made YouTube videos on Aphantasia. Is it available online?

At July 02, 2019 3:44 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Janelle - I found a non-scientific poll on Twitter with a self-selected population of 164. A whopping 39% of respondents rated their imagery as a 6. However, the poll included the 6 choices, instead of asking people to imagine a red star first, and then to rate the strength of their imagery afterwards.

Keegan Ead got to the crux of the matter, which is similar to what I was trying to explain earlier.
"There are two distinct experiences for me here, and I'm wondering which one you mean.

One is where I close my eyes and imagine a red star, It's like 6. Now to be fair, I don't actually see the star. And I picture it exactly the same with my eyes open as with closed."

"The other experience is closing my eyes and visualizing the star. Like trying to SEE it appear out in black space in front of me. This is very very difficult, I can sometimes hold onto a 2 for a brief moment. Or maybe a 4 if it's just before I fall asleep."

At July 02, 2019 7:11 PM, Blogger Tom said...

At the risk of outing my wife :-), it was Quirks and Quarks, a weekly hour-long radio science show by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. You can find the episode in their podcast back catalog (it was about a year ago).

I hope I didn't get your hopes up about a in-depth "documentary". That's the term they use for independently produced 10-20 minute segments that they occasionally make part of the show.

At July 09, 2019 5:14 AM, Blogger Grixit said...

I don't have aphantasia, but i do have some trouble visualizing. I can make an image but unless i focus, it's more like i'm feeling, rather than seeing it. People often think of the process of thinking as either involving words or images, but i don't think either is correct. My theory is that we all think in concepts and that producing words or images is a secondary process by which we present our thoughts.

At April 13, 2021 1:25 PM, Blogger AphantasZach said...

Hey Neurocritic,

Thanks for writing on the topic of aphantasia, and pointing to resources like the VVIQ and Research Index for newly self-discovered aphantasics and imagination enthusiasts!

I am the associate editor at Aphantasia Network, I've been meaning to reach out for a while! Please feel free to reach out if you are working on another aphantasia focused article and would like some help cross-promoting! Happy to help if we can :)

Also, I wanted to provide you with an updated link for the VVIQ, once we get the remaining backlinks updated we'll be removing the redirect to improve the on-page performance - we've had an increasing number of submissions over this past year! The updated link is:

Please shoot me an email if you are interested in connecting further, would love to collaborate!

Zach D

At April 21, 2021 3:46 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Zach - Thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay in responding. I updated the VVIQ link and will get in touch if I write a new post. One topic I've been interested in is the manifestation of intrusive symptoms in aphantasics with clinically significant PTSD (as opposed to the general population in Dawes et al. 2020).

Also, there have been several new publications in the last few months!


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