As some of you may know, I possess an overactive imagination. In addition, I can remember large chunks of my childhood in great detail. However, this essay discusses how my memory works compared to yours. And if you read this post, you will more than likely discover how your memory works, as well. So, let’s get started.
With your eyes closed, imagine an apple floating in front of you. Now see if you can rotate it around in your mind. Look at it from the top, bottom – does it have any blemishes? How clearly can you see it? And do you see it in color or in black and white?
Some people see the apple perfectly, like watching a movie, or looking at a photograph while others have a very poor wavering image. Although it might be hard to believe, a very small proportion of otherwise healthy people report having no visual experience at all. In other words, their minds along with mine are completely blind – no matter how hard we try, we can’t see the apple. This phenomenon describes exactly how my mind works, and until very recently (about six years ago at the tender age of 67) I thought everyone else’s mind worked the same as mine. And the day I discovered that most people’s minds can visualize their pasts, I was staggered and amazed, basically to the point that I didn’t believe people could actually visualize images in their heads even when they reported otherwise.
In fact, individuals like me are often startled to discover that people are not speaking in metaphors when they say, “I pictured it in my mind’s eye.” This phenomenon of mind blindness has only recently been given a proper name – ‘congenital aphantasia’ is the medical term for my condition.
One of the creators of the Firefox internet browser, Ross Blake, realized his experience of visual imagery was vastly different from most people’s when he read about a man who lost his ability to imagine and view images in his head, after surgery. In a Facebook post, Ross said:
“What do you mean ‘lost’ his ability? […] Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever had that ability?”
Many people who have experienced a similar epiphany to Blake’s are astonished to discover that their complete lack of ability to picture visual imagery is different from the norm. In many respects, I’ve never viewed (pun intended) myself as normal even back when that was something I strove for – although, I no longer do. I’ve made peace with who I am. But it took several decades to do so.
Visual imagery is involved in many everyday tasks, such as remembering the past, navigation, (I get lost easily) and facial recognition, to name a few. Anecdotal reports from aphantasics indicate that while we are able to remember things from our pasts, we don’t experience these memories in the same way as someone with strong imagery. As mind blind folks, we describe what we “see” as a conceptual understanding of things that occurred rather than a movie reel playing in our mind’s eye.
As Blake describes it, he can ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. He knows there’s sand and water and other facts about beaches. But he can’t conjure up beaches he’s visited in his mind, nor does he have any capacity to create a mental image of a beach. And neither can I. For example, I lived on the beach in the Outer Banks, N.C., for four years. I walked the beach nearly every day. And I can describe my experience in great detail, but I cannot picture a damn thing related to my four-year sojourn on the beach.
Research on the general population shows that visual imagery involves a network of brain activity spanning from the frontal cortex all the way to the visual areas at the back of the brain.
But there may be a silver lining to not being able to imagine visually. Overactive visual imagery is thought to play a role in addiction and cravings, as well as the development of anxiety disorders such as PTSD. It may be that the inability to visualize might anchor some people in the present and allow them to live more fully in the moment. This analysis befits me. I don’t spend much time thinking about the past because I can’t see it. And I’m not one who spends much time worrying about the future. I stay grounded mostly in the present and by default, I live one day at a time. But it has only been recently that I discovered why. I live in the present, mostly, because I can see it unlike the past or the future.
Verbal vs. Visual
What I described in detail above involves people who think visually. I did not discuss how those of us who can’t see mental images, think in words, only. This notion of verbal thinking (exclusively) is a whole new area, and it would take another 1,500 words to flesh out, so I’ll pass at this juncture.
One of the reasons I have spent over 1,000 hours in meditation is because when I meditate, I can see things in my mind’s eye. I don’t see in color but rather 10,000 shades of gray. But I see images in great detail, however they are not from my past. I travel to new places, sometimes otherworldly. On very, very rare occasions I will see color like a blue sky and whenever this happens, I get excited. But the color fades into nothingness within seconds.
I’ll end this musing with a question – the eye is an extremely fine-tuned instrument, with over half a billion years in its evolution. And it’s designed to see color because light photons put out different wavelengths with blue having a shorter wavelength than red, for example. So how is it with no light photons floating around inside our brains can we see in color in our mind’s eyes? I don’t know the answer but perhaps you do?
Greenville and surrounding areas – I gave you a lot to think about and if you made it this far thank you for the precious gift of your time.