Brain Science: How Do You Imagine?

by Jami Gold on April 26, 2016

in For Readers, Writing Stuff

Theater curtain opening to reveal text: Featuring... Your Imagination

Over the weekend, I posted a link to a really cool article on Facebook that led to an even more interesting discussion. The article is about something called aphantasia.

Aphantasia is the term for when someone can’t imagine something in their mind. As the article’s title alludes to, it’s “mind blindness” or not having a “mind’s eye.”

The author, Blake Ross, says:

“If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. … You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.

But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.”

He’s not alone, as this condition seems to be present in a small percentage of the population. (Scientists currently estimate 2-3%, but they’re just now starting studies on the topic and further investigation might push that number higher.)

As writers, this perspective not only gives us all sorts of story and character ideas, but it can also raise many questions about the concept of imagination itself. Let’s take a look…

How Our Imagination Affects Our Life

Some people who are aphantasiac don’t dream at all. No daydreams or fantasies for some of them either. The inability to call an image or sound to mind can also affect drawing or playing an instrument.

Our sense of direction might depend on the ability to visualize a map. Even spelling skill can be affected by our ability to picture whether a word looks right on an imaginary whiteboard.

Many who love reading talk about imagining themselves as part of the story, picturing the characters, setting, or story world. Yet for aphantasiacs, that experience doesn’t apply.

On my Facebook post, we got into several interesting discussions:

  • How those visuals actually appear in our head:

Others probably have different experiences, but I described my experience as “feeling” the image forming inside my brain so strongly that I “see” it. If I had to assign a location to the “movie” screen, I’d say it was on the inside of my forehead. That’s not quite how it is, but when I visualize things, my eyes often naturally tilt up (and to the right) a bit.

  • What it means to think conceptually rather than visually:

Jo Eberhart, an aphantasiac, explained:
“Visualise the following things in your mind’s eye, one at a time:

* A beach
* An orange traffic cone
* A hammer
* Justice

Chances are, when you got to the word “justice” there was a moment when you had a very clear conceptual understanding of the word, but you hadn’t yet come up with a picture to represent it. (Because it’s a concept rather than an object/place.) That moment of conceptualisation is how I imagine EVERYTHING.”

  • Whether people’s experiences with visualizations have changed over time:

Language can shape brain processing (such as how cultures without a word for pink see fewer differences between the color red and what we’d consider pink), so before movies, were people less likely to visualize books? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question. *smile*

  • How our imagination sensitivity might affect our overall sensitivity:

Serena Yung theorized that her strong memory for touch sensations might be part of the reason she doesn’t like being touched by others, and FloppyJaloppy and I were comparing notes on how our sensory memory might explain our dislike of horror movies. Perhaps those who are easily overly stimulated by certain sensory information experience them stronger in their brain processing centers as well.

Does Our Imagination Affect Our “Talent”?

In many fields, people talk about talent vs. skill. Some have natural talent, so things come more easily to them, while others can succeed through harder work.

This made me wonder if our imagination affects our talent. Or if the concept of talent is misleading, and that “talent” might be (at least partially) just how our brain processes and recalls information.

Perhaps “talented” painters are more easily able to hold an image in their head while they make the canvas match. Or maybe “talented” composers are more easily able to hold all the contributions of an orchestra in their mind while they capture the notes of each instrument.

Others can certainly paint or be musical, but just as when we’re less talented at something, we might focus on skill to bring us up to speed. Blake described his ability to spell and play the piano as muscle memory rather than anything visual or auditory based.

Blake is an author, and I first saw this article from another author who shares this functionality, and one of my Facebook author friends chimed in on my post to say her brain worked this way as well, so obviously this condition doesn’t prevent the ability to imagine ideas, concepts, or stories. Rather, it can affect someone’s ability to add sensory information to those concepts.

How Does Our Imagination Affect Our Writing?

When discussing aphantasia, scientists often focus on the visual aspect of sensory imagination, but similar issues can occur for the other senses as well.

  • Can they visualize a beach?
  • Can they visualize someone’s face?
  • When thinking of a song, do they hear the complete arrangement of voice, instruments, and beat?
  • Can they recall flavors and tastes?
  • What about smells? Or touch memories? Or emotional memories?

In thinking about my ability to imagine various elements of my story worlds, I started to wonder if my sensory strengths and weaknesses affect my writing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the question should be how my brain affects my writing rather than if it did.

Case Study: My Imagination Blind Spots

As part of my reading about the condition this past weekend, I learned that the ability to visually imagine places or things is different from the ability to visualize faces. Prosopagnosia is the term for “face-blindness.”

While my ability to visualize in general is strong, my ability to focus on faces is not. As I said on Facebook:

“My facial memory is zero—unless I bring to mind a photograph of someone, and then I can visualize a bit. And when I say zero, I mean that I can’t even visually remember what my mother looks like. I know her hair, but that’s it.

When I dream, I never see faces. They’re all blurry, like on Google Street View. *smile*”

After thinking about it, I realized that when writing, I often don’t focus on my characters’ faces. I’ll describe their body language and hair/eye color, but I don’t think about their face at all, much less write about it.

I think I subconsciously realized this blindness a few years ago. For my first (currently under the metaphorical bed) story, I found images for all my characters and all the settings.

For my next story, I tried skipping all that work and didn’t use any visual references. However, while I didn’t miss the images for settings, I found I missed my characters.

So for my last several stories, I found images to focus on when writing my characters, which helped me include facial expressions and features. (Ha! My Pinterest activity is necessary. *grin*)

As for my imagination ability for my other senses…

“My audio memory is about the same as visual, maybe even better. If someone asks me to remember the Star Wars song, I’ll hear it full-orchestra style with all the instruments. And unlike with visual memory, the details often don’t fade over time.

For taste, I remember the texture of foods, but not so much the flavors.
For scents, I remember the adjective descriptions, but not the actual smell.
For touch, I remember if it was good or bad, but not the details.”

This matches my experience when writing about senses in my stories. I often easily focus on the general visuals, sounds, and character voices, while faces and the other senses take more effort for me to include.

If nothing else, learning about how others differ from our own experiences can give us unique character ideas. But maybe by being aware of our imagination weaknesses, we’ll remember to not neglect them in our writing. Skill for including sensory information can be learned after all. *smile*

Do you see “movies in your mind” when you read or write? How has your sensory imagination affected your life? Do you have blank spots in your sensory memories (such as for faces)? How strong or weak is your ability to remember or create with your different senses? How do you think those strengths and weaknesses affect your writing?

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18 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Davonne Burns April 26, 2016 at 7:10 am

This makes me wonder how it affects our readers who might have be aphatasia. Do they have a harder time getting into a story that’s highly visual with lots of word pictures? Could this be why some people find reading boring?

Sometimes I think I suffer from the opposite problem, though overactive imagination doesn’t quite cover it. Being able to mentally *see* things has never been an issue, it’s getting it to turn off.

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Nan Sampson April 26, 2016 at 11:59 am

Wow. This is fascinating. My best friend (who is also a co-writer) seems to have many of these “symptoms”. She’s a brilliant writer, but cannot “see” the scenes in her head. She’s ace at dialogue, interior monologue and character development and has the cleanest first drafts ever – but she can’t do description or action to save her life (which is why I handle the plot-y bits and she handles a lot of the character stuff). I have to share this with her. So cool! Thanks, Jami. You always inspire!

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Renee Regent April 26, 2016 at 12:32 pm

Wow. I never imagined (no pun intended) that people have various levels of ability to imagine. I have no problem, except maybe sometimes it is too powerful, too detailed. My imagination has gotten me through some very tough times, using it as a coping mechanism. I wonder how people with the condition you described would handle stress differently. Interesting stuff!

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Christina Hawthorne April 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Oh, oh…fun topic! My imagination works overtime. At the beginning of this piece “beach” was mentioned. In a flash I cycled through the beaches I’ve visited and their differences (Long Island, north shore and south shore; Florida, both coasts; and California). Then came beaches on lakes. Then came other coastlines. Yet, my ability with faces isn’t as well honed. Not bad, but not great.

So, yes, I see books. I also see music, often visualizing a performance, but more often seeing it in the context of a story. That’s been true since I was little, which was long before music videos became popular. I’m just thinking about it now, but all my senses are triggers. I smell diesel and visualize myself on a street in New York City amidst crowds, cars, and skyscrapers…the sounds and scents follow. Texture is another. Yes, of course, skin, but also rock. Sandstone. Granite. Mica. They’re all different. I’m better at identifying different bark textures than the trees that go with them. My sense of taste is probably weakest, possibly because I was raised in bland-eating households.

The result? I’ve had to learn to not over-utilize locations and move characters around like jumping beans. In the early days stories would expand to absorb more places. I’ve (mostly) tamed that beast. My characters often come in contact with surfaces, but they don’t eat elaborate meals often (hey, I’m a starving artist so they can be starving characters!). In the end, though, it just means I must work harder to compensate in some areas while coasting on some and curbing others.

The downside is an amazing ability to worry because I can visualize the worst (and the best) outcomes. The picture that results depends on the self-talk used.

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Glynis Jolly April 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm

I don’t have Aphantasia, thank heaven, but when writing, I have to push myself to see beyond the general stuff. Example: I can write about someone sitting on a sofa (the word I use most commonly for that piece of furniture), but it’ll take me time to come up with the type, color, whether it is comfortable or not, etc. It’s all there in my head but bringing it forward is a little strenuous.

I feel such sadness for those afflicted with Aphantasia. The visual world must seem so bland to them.

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Saralee Etter April 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm

This is fascinating! I always wondered how writers did it when they said that writing a scene was like writing down what they saw happening in a movie. I’ve never (well, hardly ever) had that complete sensory experience. But I can layer stuff in later.

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Serena Yung April 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Hurray, I got mentioned again! 😀 Lol! Just want to make one little correction:

How our imagination sensitivity might affect our overall sensitivity:

Serena Yung theorized that her strong memory for touch sensations might be part of the reason she doesn’t like being touched by others

I would say my sensitivity to touch sensations may be interrelated with my great touch imagination, strong touch memory, and how I don’t enjoy being touched much (due to being easily overwhelmed by the human touch stimulus, as you mentioned later).

So I would say my great touch sensation memory isn’t one of the reasons for my touch aversion, but rather that they may be related. I.e. My imagination, memory, and aversion to touch may be joined together by my general high sensitivity and receptivity to tactile sensations. 😀 This might simply be a fine distinction, but yeah, just wanted to clarify it, haha.

More things!:

For human beings touching me, though I don’t really enjoy it and am sometimes even repulsed by it, sometimes I do like it when someone touches me because of the emotional meaning behind the gesture. So, though I may not love the physical sensation of my friend tapping me on the back, I do love the ASSOCIATED EMOTION expressed by this, because it shows that my friend cares about me and is giving me a gesture of affection. 🙂 (In fact, a platonic crush of mine did just this, and I was so thrilled and happy about it. But again, my joy wasn’t due to the actual physical sensation of being touched, but due to the implication that my platonic crush, who is also my friend, likes me and feels comfortable enough with me to do that, haha.)

Yeah I’m such an emotion vampire in general, if you know what I mean…Even when I write about human contact in my stories, it’s usually not really about the physical feeling, but about the sentiments or messages communicated through that touch. For instance, a sister kissing her younger sister’s cheek to show her unconditional love for her. (Yes, I know I’m such a sappy person, ahahahaha!)

About my quite fabulous taste and touch memory (if I may be allowed to boast about something like this XDDD), I’ve always known since I was a kid that I can re-imagine the taste of e.g. delicious junk food REALLY vividly, that it feels like the BBQ potato chip I’m imagining on my tongue is actually real. Haha I was only amused by this when I was young, and just assumed that everyone could do this. But now I realize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses–my visual memory isn’t as good as I once believed it was once I heard about other people’s experiences, hahahaha!

(Yikes, now I have to stop imagining all those very specific tasty food dishes I’ve had, or else I’ll be torturing myself because I can’t get them immediately. =_= Sometime ago, I was rabidly fantasizing about this fish dish my mom made in HK, and felt agonized because I wouldn’t be back in HK till a VERY long time…Haha okay okay I should stop talking about food. ^^)

On auditory memory, I am able to imagine and remember the whole orchestra of instruments playing a song, not just its melody and lyrics. My mom actually thinks I have a pretty good music memory. I’m not sure how good my sound imagination and memory are in general, though. I can pretty much remember my friends’ voices, and often imagine them having conversations with me with those voices. Yeah…I guess my auditory memory is okay, haha. But sounds do seem less powerful and less “compelling”, than touch, taste, and sometimes even smell sensations in my imagination.

Oh I have a complicated relationship with my sense of sight. My imagination of places, faces, people, creatures, and objects are rather vague–more like the bare bones, nothing more than what is absolutely necessary. It was only recently that I realized that many people can imagine and remember much more detailed (and realistic) faces than I do. When I picture my characters, they more or less just look semi-cartoonish, just like in my drawings, or often even less detailed than that.

Ah I believe I have slight prosopagnosia too. It generally takes me quite a while to remember new faces, and I noticed that most people around me have much higher facial memory and facial recognition skills than I do, which makes me a bit sad, haha.

Anyhow, what makes my relationship with my visual side complicated, is that despite how I’m relatively weak here, I think I’m still quite a visual person, in that I can understand images easily and can represent concepts with pictures in my mind with ease too. When I read the list above with the beach, hammer, and justice, I imagined this white-haired, caricature cartoon judge smashing his hammer down onto his table and ripping the table apart, like a karate master. Ahahahaha. Oh so maybe you could say I’m a visual learner? But then I’m kind of a kinesthetic learner too, as I do find actually DOING the thing hands-on more helpful than just hearing or seeing the thing, at least sometimes.

Ooh that’s intriguing that our different sensory strengths and weaknesses could be related to our “natural talents”. Hmmm, I don’t know, but as you said, our relative strengths could affect how we create our art (and writing). My lack of visual detail in my imagination could be related to how I’m so sparse in my setting descriptions and so unwilling to describe my characters’ physical appearances much (or at all!) I want my readers to focus on my characters’ personalities, not on their looks, after all. =_=

Yikes, I apologize for such a long comment yet again, but hope it was interesting to read, lol.

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Kat April 26, 2016 at 2:50 pm

Fascinating article!

I am very visual, I see scenes playing out, but I have no ability to remember faces in real life (including my family). I am quite musical, can hear all the different parts etc, and have an excellent memory for voices, even from 20+ years ago. I recognise people mainly by voice.

My husband is not a big reader, and I discovered last year that he doesn’t see scenes when he reads, so I can understand why he doesn’t find it as pleasurable as I do. Interestingly he does read comic-books (including serious ones).

When I am writing stories, especially when feeling all the strands and interwoven subplots, it feels to me like polyphonic music, but when I am editing it feels like modelling – I can feel the words with my hands. There must be some weird sensory cross-over.

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Kat April 26, 2016 at 2:57 pm

Sorry, forgot to mention… I’ve been told (by a psychology professional) that I have an extremely visual memory, but that it is problematic, because it can make traumatic memories feel more real, and can lead to catastrophisation (the seeing of catastrophic (imaginary) consequences). I have been writing partly to give my visual imagination something nicer to chew on.

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LeeAnne April 27, 2016 at 2:33 am

I think I am inbetween. I can ‘see’ somethings but I am terrible with others. To give you an example, I was at a family (extended) function. I walked into the room and stood just in the doorway for about five minuets (it felt like more) trying to find someone I knew. I kept going back to this one man, he felt familiar but I could not place him. I come from a family that came from a small backwoods town so people married the siblings and cousins of their in-laws. After a bit the familiar man looked at me just right and I realized it was my grandfather. So I can understand where this can be frustraiting.
Where some people see everything in the ‘impossible concept’ form I see many concepts in ‘movie’ or ‘picture’ form. When we were asked to imagine the list of items I could ‘see’ them all. I think justice was the easiest for me, the first thing that came to mind was a courthouse entryway with the statue of lady justice, then I saw a police officer, then I saw a teacher giving instructions to a class. The last one may be a streach for some but to me it was that right and wrong has to be tought to us before we can understand justice.
I never comment on articles but this one gave me quite a bit of food for thought and I wanted to say thank you for that.

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Jessica Kruppa April 27, 2016 at 9:12 am

Wait… people actually see… a movie set in their head when imagining stuff?! I seriously thought that was just a cinematic way to show an intangible concept like imagination. I have never been able to visualize a movie set in my head (or the candle or garden they want your to visualize in guided meditation). It’s dark in there. I also can’t visualize my mother or children’s faces and probably couldn’t describe them to a sketch artist. I had to ask my husband if he SEES pictures in his head…and he does. So… thats’s a thing. I had no clue.

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Emma Lowe April 30, 2016 at 12:01 am

Crikey, reading this I found it was like reading about myself. I love writing. I love the worlds it takes me too. But often I find myself frustrated by my lack of visual imagination. As I read this I closed my eyes and tried to imagine images of my husband, my mum, my kids, a beach and realised that all I could see was black. I could describe them – their scars, their faces, even the way they smell, but visually I couldn’t see them at all. It’s made me realise just why I use images when I’m writing. I post pictures of houses, places, cars, faces, and as I write I glance at them intermittently to try and draw information from them. How fascinating it is to be able to put a name to this.
When I discuss plots with my husband I get frustrated with his ability to visualise. Everything for him is like a movie in his mind, so that when I get stuck with a plot he merely sits for a moment, dwells upon it and then comes up with the entire scene.
Fascinating 🙂
Thanks for this.

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Carradee April 30, 2016 at 11:30 am

Hmm. I’ve been mulling on this, trying to figure out where I fall, because I don’t fit the aphantasia…but I can’t do that “clear visual image in malleable 3D”, either. That could be due to a general obliviousness towards details that most folks heed, while I focus on particular ones that most don’t.

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Bev January 18, 2017 at 1:21 am

I have aphantasia. I didn’t realized it till my youngest daughter, age 22, and I were discussing story writing (we both like to write). Endless frustration resulted from these periodic discussions and finally led us to the realization that, unlike her, I can not create scenes… or anything else in my mind as images. She then found an article and links to the research being done in Europe (Yes, I’ve completed the survey). Do I love reading? Yes. Do I enjoy writing. Yes. But I retain no images… everything happens only in words. I couldn’t describe my husband or children to a stranger, unless I had translated the features into words already. I can’t recall the sound of music or songs (voices) in my mind either. The discussion about how this relates to imagination is interesting… and confusing. I have a very active imagination which is one reason I don’t read or watch horror. But I am horrible at anything that requires spatial planning or games like chess where you need to plan steps in advance.

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