Blind in the mind's eye, or language barrier?
At the beginning of episode 198 of Blocked and Reported, Katie Herzog discusses recently discovering she has Aphantasia. I recommend listening, because what she describes will be incredibly familiar to anyone who - like I have - come across this term later in life and been absolutely floored by its implications.
Aphantasia is the name given to the state of having no visual internal world, to be “blind” in the mind’s eye. I first came across the term in 2019, in an interview with the legendary Ed Catmull of Pixar, discussing this condition:
The former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios says he has a "blind mind's eye".
Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images inside their head such as counting sheep or imagining the face of a loved one.
But Ed Catmull, 74, has the condition aphantasia, in which people cannot visualise mental images at all.
It is now coming up to five years since I discovered this term, which potentially describes my own experience, but also that I still cannot say for certain how widespread it is, how much is a real phenomenon and how much is simply the limitations of language.
What you very quickly discover when trying to explain this to other people is that all of our metaphors for how our brain works - seeing, visualising, picturing, imagining - are visual.
I have taken part in a few online studies, and the types of questions are always the same, as are my answers. Picture a horse or a beach or a meadow or a face or a sunset. Now rate 1-5 how clear the image is.
No image at all, I only “know” I am thinking of the object
Dim and vague image
Moderately realistic and vivid
Realistic and reasonably vivid
Perfectly realistic, as vivid as real seeing
I am always at the bottom of these scales. Always a 1. Typically around 3% of people answer this, with a further 8% in the “dim” range.
And I am astonished, time and again, when people I have known and loved for years answer anything other than 1 to these tests. To me, the idea it could be anything else is inconceivable. That I could have spent over four decades interacting with friends and relatives every single day of my life and not know that their every waking moment was radically different to mine is quite profoundly upsetting.
So listening to Katie Herzog’s slightly shellshocked discovery in this podcast was highly relatable.
Picture a horse
Are you picturing it? Now describe it.
At this point many people describe its setting, its colouring, its flowing mane, how big it is, what it is doing, how it is standing.
Me, I will make things up as prompted and try to remember the words I have said. A horse you say. What colour? Well, lets go with black and white. Which parts are black and white? Er, I don’t know, maybe some patches on the body? How big? Average horse sized. Where? In a field.
And so on. These are just words. It never occurred to me that to anyone else it was anything other than words. I am assembling facts about a fictional horse. There is no picture, no visualisation, no image. There is only a featureless void, and mental connections being made between abstractions.
When you say picture a beach, I think the word beach. I know what a beach is, I know what its properties are. It is the abstract concept of a beach. I can’t describe the things on it, or what the sand or stones are like, or what colour the sea or sky is or the warm breeze, because all I think is “beach”. If you ask, I could make stuff up, and probably forget quickly enough.
I always assumed that there were people out there who had very strong mental imagery, who could picture and play back the world in three dimensions and technicolour, but I always assumed that anything resembling sort of facility was a vanishingly rare exception. Savants with a photographic memory and suchlike. What I never grasped was that the vast majority of people, when picturing something, do at least see something, somewhat visually, in their heads. Even if not quite the same as seeing with their eyes, there is still something that can be compared more accurately to visualisation than simply repeating the word “horse” in your head. It seems there exists a spectrum between that dazzling facility to picture inside your head, and the blackness inside mine, and the great majority exist in the space between.
And yet I still cannot ever know how much of that difference is genuine, and how much is the limitation of language, of not being able to see inside someone else’s head, or they into mine. Of never being able to truly share your personal experience fully, without the mediation of crude language in between.
I have seen showmen like Derren Brown explaining their superhuman feats of memory as making use of techniques like “loci” and “mind palaces”. That is, to remember seemingly impossible sequences of information, they build rooms in their head and populate the rooms with items, and attach the information to these items.
This never made any sense to me whatsoever. There is no benefit to the mind palace, when the mind palace is just another thing to remember. Without some sort of visual, spatial awareness of these imagined rooms and items, there is nothing for the information to attach to. I always thought I was just doing it wrong, but I now think it is just a metaphor that simply doesn’t work without visualisation of some sort.
This link between the visual and what we remember is why my memory is so hazy, and indeed another aspect of Aphantasia is that of having a generally terrible autobiographical memory. Unless events are part of some narrative I have told and retold, then they are lost - and even then, if I remember the narrative, do I even remember the events? What does this mean for a sense of self, and identity?
Every time Aphantasia comes up in popular media, I see more and more people say they experience the world this way. Perhaps after all we are not the tiny minority it was first thought.
Or maybe, again, this is the barrier of subjective experience and the limitations of language to truly convey our experience outside ourselves.
I cannot ever know the answers, and any difference between what other people experience and my own internal world will remain forever mysterious.