What it's like to have aphantasia, the inability to create mental pictures

I used to think I was somewhat face-blind, but after a few of these threads, I suspect I may be hypophantasic. If I think about one thing in a scene, I can sometimes get a flat image of a very narrow cone of it (e.g. the shop doorway question - I could ‘see’ a small and relatively detailed section maybe a 1-2 feet long, but nothing else. Maybe only my color receptors trigger this kind of memory?)

I do sometimes get very vivid, full color and motion memories that can sometimes even shove aside my ‘present’ visual feed and get my full attention. But that’s rare, usually (not always) related to something traumatic, and always related to memory, not imagination.

My imagination tends to rely more on shape, dimension, and spacial relationships than images. When I used to sew, I was eventually able to fold, flip and invert pieces in my head, even imagine them fastened together and transformed as a unit, but it didn’t really come as images per se.

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I am a bit this way, mainly for faces. I can’t conjure a face in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you what my wife’s or children’s faces look like, unless I’m looking straight at them, and even then my description is going to be useless because I can’t bring up anyone else’s face to compare them against.

I can visualise parts of faces: eyes, nose, the curl of an eyebrow, the purse of a lip, I just can’t put those parts together into a whole face.

I can recognise faces well enough. When I see my wife’s face, I know it’s her. I just can’t remember what she looks like if I’m not looking at her.

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I have one of his books on my ‘to read’ list. I’m even more interested to read it now.

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I find it interesting that the author describes aphantasia as an impediment to writing descriptions.

My own experience has been that, while scenarios of the ‘imagine you are looking at a picture of it, now describe it to me’ flavor are challenging because I can’t imagine the picture; what I ‘see’ when I think of something actually strongly resembles what I ‘see’ when I have the something directly available to look at; but for some reason I remember and work from that intermediate internal description rather than remembering and working from a mental image; so the act of imagining something and the act of describing it are actually quite closely intertwined.

Catastrophically bad if you are being asked to recall something that didn’t strike you as terribly relevant when you saw it; since there’s no option to just pull the tapes and have the homunculus re-watch them; but pretty workable for describing the impression something left on you, since what you do remember basically is that, just before the cleanup and formatting you do before speaking.

The bit that I really don’t understand, though,(not that I understand how memory works in general, this just strikes me as particularly witchcraft-y), is when you find yourself recalling a particular detail that apparently was part of your impression of something; but you would not have remembered was part of it if you’d just been asked for your impression of something.

By way of example, when I saw the below picture used as stock art on an Arstechnica piece

I was immediately struck by the fact that it was almost certainly a T40 or T60-series Thinkpad; because I spent a lot of time with a T42 in college and the shape of the protective overhanging ‘lip’ at the edge, the position of the latch mechanism and concealed screws; and the proportions were instantly familiar; but if you’d asked me to describe the laptop I used in school I very much doubt that I would have remembered to mention any of that, except perhaps the existence of the latch, given that the shift from latching to latchless laptop designs was very noticeable historically.

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Yes? I can easily picture a cube rotating, then disassemble it into each of the 6 sides and fold it into other shapes. That’s how I typically understand how things work. I visually exam what ever it is, and then study those images in my mind visually. Like operating CAD on the computer.

I’ve wondered if people can’t see images in their mind then what do their dreams look like?

Can people imagine something projected or existing in their visual field (think of augmented reality)? Simple objects are fairly easy for me, but complex things with a high level of detail are much more difficult to hold steady. I can feel my brain having to think about creating the image, but if I’m picturing that same image in my mind it’s far easier. It’s like the data connection the image is coming to merge into the visual cortex isn’t as fast as the internal mind’s visual system. :person_shrugging:

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Everything you said, yes. Although I want to make the movie of the “Man Game” before someone else ruins it for me.

I think I range across the spectrum, generally from medium to the vivid end. It degrades if I am tired, or I am reviewing a report that needs a heavy edit and I can’t form the appropriate images for what is intended to be said.

Also, no mention yet of orientation of a scene from any angle or elevation/depth. Ie casting one’s mind’s eye above or below the imagined scene.

I am also thinking being phantastic is a liability in settings where image forming is not necessary. I’ve blurted out things I regret when the reality is not the reality I constructed for myself. Or I fail to form an image and therefore don’t grok the message.

This is interesting; Yes, me too. I don’t sew but I deconstruct / reconstruct things in my mind and learned to appreciate this art. But the last bit - what is it then? A feeling in your hands?

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Ooof, like trying to explain what color is. It’s…knowledge, largely divorced from sight. Sometimes glimpses of a specific edge or abstracted shapes aligning, but mostly just a certainty of the position/relationship.

Actually, the closest I can think of how I imagine manipulating objects is the sense of proprioception. I can close my eyes and move my limbs and know where they are in relation to each other or when they’ll touch without visualizing it. So I conceive of objects in space. It’s like navigating the place where you live with the lights out. I suppose others may overlay their vision with where they believe objects to be, but I largely move with the knowledge/memory of where things were relative to each other.

Maybe it’s a crutch or some form of synesthesia, but especially when I’m working with a challenging subject or some knowledge or emotion that I’ve only recently internalized, that concept is also associated with a position in space - usually around and sometimes intersecting my head. Trying to explain myself in this reply is like a pressure around my right eyebrow, which I hadn’t really noticed until writing about it.

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That’s interesting. Recognizing faces of people I don’t know is a challenge. There’s an image, where I saw it, what I was doing when I saw it - all these visual cues that remind me of when I saw the person before. Can I remember their name? Nope. It’s worse when I’ve encountered the person multiple times, and can recall where and when, but not the detail that’s most important to them. :thinking: Maybe trying to visualize a name tag would help - not sure if I can manipulate the image in a way that would last.

In my mind, my eyes are the camera. Even in dreams, I never see myself unless there’s a reflective surface somewhere. I’m directing the scene or involved in it and observing the action. Since I’m afraid of heights, the imagined scenes reflect that, too.

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Thank you everyone for sharing your experiences. Fascinating!

Whereas I elevate my view or can dive under if I want to. As a kid I would float above my bed before falling asleep. Freaked my parents out when I described this to them!

(Suppressing urge to spell all F words with a pH.)

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Hm. Like off-loading some of the thinking to the graphics co-processor.

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I have heard that aphantasia and other visuospatial sketchpad challenges are sometimes co-present with autism, and anecdotally I’ve observed something of a trend among my autistic friends. Apparently it’s also borne out by at least some research (e.g.):

I don’t think this suggests that one is necessarily a consequent of the other (Temple Grandin, for instance, once described mind as a "search engine that searches for photographs) (*). But it is interesting to ponder these co-occurrences.

(* Regarding the diversity of the autistic experience, there’s a saying in the autistic community: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”)

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This is so fascinating. The more I read about this, the more I realize I don’t have the greatest ability to picture things in my head, but I’m still 90% sure I can do it a little bit.

I’ll get a flash of a face or a moment or an object, but nothing too well defined or lasting. Yet, it seems when I’m reading about it, I can better visualize what I’m reading. When I’m reading a book or a novel, I kind of drift away. I think the words are triggering some kind of visual cue in my head that takes me into the what I’m reading in a vague-ish way. I’m there for the scene, but I never stop seeing the words.

It’s hard to explain and I’ve never really thought about it before. But I’m seeing a lot of comments that echo my experiences.

It’s really interesting to see the comments about writers and artists. I can’t help but wonder if this has helped or hindered my career as a writer :thinking:

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Here’s another interesting aspect of this - language. I’ve studied a few languages, and have recently been working on German. After reading Gabriel Wyner’s tips on improving memory, my approach now includes visualizing images of new words with a personal meaning*, and in colors that reflect gender. It never occurred to me that there was any difference reading in languages other than my mother tongue. I still see images, either way. :woman_shrugging:t4: This will encourage me to compare the experience, to see if they are less detailed or powerful.

An opposing study appears here:

*Examples of this are for the word “cat,” imagine one with which you have an emotional attachment, in the gender color of your choice. The same goes for inanimate objects (use familiar ones, not generic ones).

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I have done that test (or a basically identical one) before. The result was that the vividness of my visual imagery is somewhat diminished. That seems like it could be about right, but I find it incredibly difficult to give meaningful answers when you are not on ever extreme of the spectrum. I am definitely not fully aphantasic, but none of my of my mental pictures are “as vivid as real seeing”. But are they moderately realistic and vivid or realistic and reasonably vivid?

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Red. I saw a red hard rubber racquetball.
The table was tan unstained oak with a matte polyurethane finish.

This kind of thing is my interior life most of the time.
I never had a name for it.

Tibetan Buddhist practices (Tantra famously and chiefly) harness the power of visualization often. I remember a pretty complicated Medicine Buddha empowerment and I realized just how far along one must be in one’s meditation practice to really keep up with what the lama teaching.

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That’s really fascinating. I don’t have that level of detail, but visualization is very much a thing for me. I will often blank on a name i am searching for, but see the face plain as day in my mind. I just learned about folks who have no inner dialog going. I was flabbergasted! Like, how do you think? But here, again, people are weird, variable creatures with a wide range of ways of being. It’s what makes us human, after all.

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Wow. I have interior dialoging all day every day. Huh.
Ok yeah how do those other people think?

:exploding_head:

The human species has wild and novel variations.
I can’t really fathom how we have gotten as “far” as we have, TBH.

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Yeah, weird.

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Visualization Practice in Tantra

i think practice has got to be at least some part of it. visualization seems like it’d be a skill or a muscle… for those that have it even a little i mean

i myself am not sure how well i “see” things. i definitely “feel” them though. a sense of dimension and shape. when i call up a visual memory, it’s like the sense of that thing - i know what colors there are - but i don’t literally see the color

i do some computer coding, and that’s how i “see” code as well. everything sits somewhere in space, has a sense of shape and connection. i do a lot of “pushing” and “pulling” to see how bits fit together and i find it forever strange that the aesthetic shape in my head has any bearing on whether the code is correct… and yet it somehow does

this is totally how i feel too. and while im not sure i “see” them the way you’re describing, i can still remember every detail. :confused:

similarly, repeat watching of tv shows doesn’t do a lot for me because i usually remember it all once ive seen the minute or two. kind of a bummer that. ( though if it’s dialogue heavy, i don’t remember nearly as much. )

i was just talking to myself about this an hour or so ago while doing chores. specifically: wow, brain. can’t you take a break?

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