Phantasia and the lack thereof.

It’s not often that an article blows my mind.

But I read one the other day that introduced me to something I had never heard of before, and—if you had asked me—I would have thought impossible. Apparently, some people cannot visualize images in their mind. They have no “mind’s eye,” so to speak. They have, literally, no imagination—although saying that doesn’t mean what you think it does.

This condition is known as aphantasia, or the “absence of fantasy.” When I first read about it, it struck me as entirely bizarre, although in saying this I don’t mean to cast those who have this condition as freaks of nature. I may have a sense they do not, but maybe they have something else to compensate which I lack. Or maybe my difficulty in understanding the experiences of those with aphantasia is a limit of my own imagination. In fact, one of the things that struck me as most fascinating about Blake Ross’s account (from the linked post) is that he writes. As in: creative writing! For fun!

In other words: imagination and creativity are different—as in separate—mental functions.1 I would have thought this thought this was impossible, and yet, here is a person entirely lacking in the former who is yet highly skilled in the latter.2

I think the mistake comes in using the words interchangeably. Imagination, in the phantasia sense that those with aphantasia lack, is the ability to produce mental images. To see things that aren’t there, that may never have existed, or that may never happen. Creativity seems to be more about taking ideas and translating them into things that can be experienced. It seems strange to me that someone who has no figurative vision could still come up with interesting ideas and turn them into something real and functional, but there you have it.

This is a little scary to me, because I’ve always been a highly imaginative person, and I assumed that the one thing would naturally lead to the other. But what if I’m better at the former than the latter? What if these skills are like muscles, and I’ve spent years strengthening the muscle that helps me imagine stories, but have neglected the muscle that creates stories in a form others can experience? (Can you imagine? What a nightmare.)

Francisco Goya—The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

The more I got to thinking about this, the stranger the idea became. Imagination is something I have always taken so much for granted that it never occurred to me to think too hard about what that process was like. But ever since reading this article, I’ve found myself more closely examining what it feels like to perceive mental images, and doing so has given me a greater appreciation for exactly how weird it is.

So, at the risk of explaining what is probably very obvious to most of you, indulge me as I try to describe my experiences of putting my mind’s eye to work.

1. Picturing real locations.

When I first came home from Edinburgh after college, I used to lie in bed and envision different street corners—perfectly ordinary ones—from various parts of the city. I could mentally trace steps from my appartment, through the Meadows, up to George Square, and on, street by street, through the rest of the city. At times, the sensation was so strong that it almost became an out-of-body experience. I would open my eyes and feel disoriented to still be in my own room. Even doing this now, I sometimes feel so out-of-place that it makes me a little sick. (I wonder if this is part of what homesickness means?)

When I went back and revisited Edinburgh a year and a half after my graduation, the picture I had been maintaining in my mind matched what I had been holding in my mind. I didn’t have the shock of feeling like anything had changed—on the contrary, it was exactly as I remembered. More importantly, I didn’t have the sense that I had forgotten anything. I had been picturing Edinburgh so clearly in my mind that returning felt as natural as though I had never left.

2. Generating images from books.

I wrote recently about the sense of immersion that comes from reading a good fiction book. I suspect this dislocation is part of why people talk about getting “lost” in a book. I don’t experience this as strongly—if at all—when reading non-fiction, and I wonder if that’s why people often display different preferences for one or the other.

For instance, I enjoy both thoroughly, but I find non-fiction more challenging. On the other hand, I have met some people who do not at all struggle with non-fiction who find it very difficult to read fiction. I am very much against trying to attach value statements to these preferences (both are valuable, neither is better than the other), but I am curious about why these preferences exist.

Perhaps some people find it more difficult (or impossible) to picture the worlds described in fiction using their mind’s eye? And perhaps others depend so strongly on their mind’s eye to read that the relative lack of image-inducing content in nonfiction makes the process more challenging?

3. Vivid dreams.

As I’ve said before, dreams are, to me, very vivid, and a bad one can be hard to shake. A truly stressful dream can make me anxious for most of a day, even after I’ve identified it as a dream, and determined the source of the stress which caused it.

Possibly unrelated, but I also experience auditory hallucinations when I’m very tired. They are not uncommon when someone is experiencing Stage 1 Non-REM sleep.3 Mine sound like a big band ensemble finishing up a set—a chaotic mash-up of brassy instruments and drums playing loosely without lyrics. It starts foggy and far away, but as I grow more tired, the hallucination becomes louder, nearer, and more encompassing—as if the sounds are in the same room as me, but not coming from any particular source.

Vassily Kandinsky—Composition VII
Kandinsky was an abstract painter famous for creating visual representations of music which he described as “compositions” or “improvisations.”

4. Daydreaming.

“Daydreams” to me are highly literal. I can easily lose track of my physical environment for half an hour at a time, during which I am thinking about places I would like to go, how I might decorate a room, or settings for a scene in my book.

Anyone who has watched me move houses over the past couple years has seen this in action. I spent months prior to each move mentally painting walls, arranging furniture, and hanging pictures. When the time came to actually do all this, it was very satisfying to me to watch everything come together as I had envisioned.

That said, most of the time, when I’m bored, I will pick a scene from one of my stories and play it back in my head, shifting some of the details till I get them just right. I can occupy myself this way for hours, which brings me to…

5. Writing.

This weekend, I was working on an introductory chapter to my current book project. In it, one of the main characters is showing another character through her house. Here is what I wrote:

…she lead the way, suddenly conscious of the peeling paint on the wooden front steps, the holes in the porch screen, and the clutter of shoes in the entryway. “The the stairs lead up to the second floor, kitchen is to the right,” said Sophie, not turning around. She walked him through to the dining room, showing where the back of the staircase led down to the basement, then how the living room circled round to connect with the entryway…

I’m not going to pretend that’s fantastic prose because it’s just a first draft of a paragraph that will probably be heavily revised or deleted at some point, and the reason why is because of how much it focuses on the details of a floor plan which may or may not be necessary for readers to know.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know when that floor plan sprang into being, but the moment I went to write about it, it was there. I had, in my head, a vague idea of what the house looked like. But it wasn’t until I went to describe the house that I became aware of details that I never consciously chose. I don’t remember ever deciding the house was white, but if you’d asked me, I could have told you with the same assurance as describing the color of my actual car. At this point, if I were to ever change the color of the house, it would be as significant a decision as repainting an actual house that I actually owned.

Other details fill themselves in more slowly and are more subject to change, but the more I settle on one detail (the living room is to the left of the entryway), the more firmly others click into place (it has a fireplace on the far wall, the one facing the stairs, and there is a stone step in front of the fireplace that runs the length of that wall, and the flooring throughout the house is a light wood, like, maple or pine, but like the paint outside it hasn’t been maintained very well, and the walls are all an off-white color and in need of a new coat of paint, and the overall effect is very homely, lived-in rustic bearing the signs of heavy usage and designed and decorated with an eye for practicality and affordability over taste).

Again, what fascinates me isn’t that I was able to describe a house, but the order in which the house and the description of the house came to happen. I didn’t look at a list of house design elements and then choose ones that fit the story I wanted to tell. I thought of my character seeing her house, and then I described what she saw.

It is both crazy to me that I created her house this way, and also crazy to me that anyone could do it any other way.

Phantasia meets the Theory of Mind.

The Theory of Mind, to Quote Wikipedia, is

…the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc.—to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

Clearly, it’s a pretty fundamental part of human social development. And yet it’s funny to me how, once I began to think more carefully about this thing that was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I never questioned its existence, it immediately challenged the Theory of Mind on two fronts.

First, it was hard for me to understand the experience of an aphantasiac. I automatically assumed that they must experience the world the same way I experienced the world, and accustoming myself to the idea that they don’t, and yet still experience the world in a totally valid way, was hard to do without in some way diminishing their experiences in some way.

Second, once I got to thinking about my own imagination, it was stupidly easy to view myself as being somehow extra special—as if the entire rest of the world were suddenly aphantasiacs, and only I had this amazing and unique ability to see unreal images with my mind.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder—The Tower of Babel
The most famous testament to human arrogance and the breakdown of communication.

Once I got past this, though, I started thinking about how, for as delighted and amazed as I am about my own imagination, most the people I pass on the street every day experience their own vivid interior worlds, and that even those who don’t experience a figurative mind’s eye must have a mental world that is fascinating and wonderful for being so very different from my own.

That should be obvious, and maybe to most of you it is. But to me, it’s amazing.

A lot of study has gone into understanding how Theory of Mind develops in children and infants. Infants begin to develop attention skills when they are around 7–9 months old. As they get older, children begin to realize that others have desires that differ from their own, that others may know things that they do no (and vice versa), that others may have different beliefs and opinions, and finally, that others have false beliefs and are capable of deception.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if there are more stages of Theory of Mind—more ways in which we can be failing to fully appreciate the variety of thought processes that differ from our own—that only develop if we encounter a need to form them.

I guess that’s why reading about aphantasia was so incredible to me. It is easy to say, scornfully, about another person, that “they have no imagination.” But what if that is a literal truth? What does that say about that person, that they are able to understand and intuit and accomplish so much without the aid of a cognitive tool must of us can’t comprehend living without? And what does it say about us, that we’re so quick to criticize someone for not having an ability the rest of us take for granted?

My biggest takeaway from all of this is: people are incredible. Psychology is incredible. And most incredibly of all, there are more things to discover about our fellow human beings that even those of us with the biggest imaginations can begin to understand.

1I am not a neuroscientist and cannot comment on how creativity and imagination function on a psychological level beyond what I have inferred from Ross’s account of aphantasia.

2Creative writing aside, Blake Ross is best none for co-creating the Mozilla Firefox browser—something which requires a high level of creativity in the form of technical ingenuity but not, apparently, what we would typically call “imagination.”

3This phenomenon can also include visual hallucinations, and is the source and explanation for many ghost stories.