Mind Blind? On the Contrary!

A bunch of my Facebook buds have been posting a link to a BBC article that came out in 2015. Go read it; I’ll wait.

Oh, okay, it’s about the fact that a significant number of humans do not picture scenes in their minds when thinking. It’s called mind blindness, or aphantasia. I have to admit that, in all my endless reading about how brains work, I had never realized that this is as common as it is. Apparently it affects 2% of the population!

What do you mean, some of us see stuff others don’t!? From chiller856 via Twenty20 (original and appropriate caption: The eyes are useless when the mind is blind…💀

When someone posted a link to the article and said they were mind blind, I was really surprised. I’d never have guessed. Later, people said they found out their spouses were that way and they’d never known. I got suspicious, and asked my own spouse, whose perceptions have sometimes baffled me. Yep, he has it at least to some extent, and definitely has the related issue of being face blind (THAT explains why he found me attractive!). Well, huh. I knew he was color blind (try picking out paint with that guy), but I hadn’t known this!

The article goes on to say some people become upset when they find out other people have movies going on in their heads. I don’t know; I think if I was born a certain way, it would feel normal, like being short, or prone to being gassy.

I also wonder if there’s research to show that people who are mind blind prefer to read nonfiction over fiction, as an anecdote in the article suggested. I guess it’s nice that if these folks read a book and see a movie, they aren’t bothered that the characters don’t look how they pictured them!

This also makes me wonder if some other traits correlate to mind blindness. Some of my friends have suggested their attention-deficit traits and/or social skills issues associated with the autism spectrum may go along with this. However, many people I know don’t report this. I want more research! (Here’s an article with more research, but not on my questions.)

The Other Side

What’s going on in there?

Why was I not surprised to learn that there’s another way of perceiving things called hyperphantasia, or super-visualizers. These folks have very detailed mental images and can describe what they see easily. They are folks who have been termed to have “very vivid imaginations.” According to the researcher in the article, people usually fall somewhere in between aphantasia and hyperphantasia. That makes sense, knowing how mental traits tend to work out.

My Story

In case you were wondering about me, I’m one of the 2% on the extremely vivid mental imagery side. I’ve always been that way, so I never knew any different. My mom said as a toddler, I was always wandering around talking to a tree. When she asked why, I said I was talking to Jose, who lived up there. Where this little Anglo girl got that name is beyond me. So, either I was seeing fairies, or I had a vivid imagination. It’s all the same to me.

Don’t shut the car door on meeeee!

I had an imaginary gang of cartoon characters that went with me everywhere, too. My parents loved to tell the story of the time Mom shut the car door on Theodore of the singing chipmunks. I apparently didn’t take it well. I was also a Highly Sensitive Person, ha ha.

My whole life I played stories in my head. It helped pass the time, since I was not the most popular child, and certainly not the most popular during the early teen years! I had an entire life I lived during the time between going to bed and actually falling asleep. In this soap opera, I was strong, smart, and always said the right thing. What a nice world. I also had very cute boyfriends, especially the one from the comic books who was the smartest guy in the universe, and also green.

Teen superheroes make for a fun imaginary life. Hey, don’t judge. All my human heart-throbs died.

This internal life was very vivid and had touch and smell, as well as visual aspects. I now fall asleep without my “dreams,” for the most part. I think it lessened so dramatically when I started anti-anxiety medication. I will gladly exchange that loss for my mental clarity and ability to handle things more calmly.

I still can enjoy a little mental vacation by imagining things, like what’s going on in the towns I drive through, or what animals and plants may be perceiving. I find that fun. No wonder I’m not bored easily (if ever).

More on Hyperphantasia

I found it interesting that a 2010 study by Adam Zeman and others (reported in New Scientist and linked below) of people with hyperphantasia found them to have smaller visual cortex areas in their brains, but larger prefrontal cortexes (the part of the brain that tells other parts what to do). The way my mental images feature smells and such is confirmed, too:

…[P]eople with very vivid imagery tend to say that they have good autobiographical memory and no difficulty remembering faces. And there seems to be an association with synaesthesia, a neurological trait in which senses overlap so that it is as if you can hear in colours or see in sound.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232330-300-how-people-with-extreme-imagination-are-helping-explain-consciousness/#ixzz6Df05sWEB

I’m pretty low on synesthesia, as we spell it in the US, but it’s there. The study also found:

People with hyperphantasia say they spend more time daydreaming than most, presumably because they have such vivid material. They also seem to be more prone to emotions fuelled by imagery, such as regret, longing and nostalgia.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232330-300-how-people-with-extreme-imagination-are-helping-explain-consciousness/#ixzz6Dez3TTOc

Well, there we have it. Suna’s issues explained.

What’s Your Story?

Don’t we all wonder?

Does this fascinate you? I could not stop reading about it last night! I would love to know if you think you or a loved one are among the extremes in this area. How has it affected your life? Do you have a little world to retreat to, like me? Do you remember things with words, not pictures? Let me know!

Do you wonder if you have aphantasia? Here’s a link to a test you can take.

Here’s some more to read:

Blind in the Mind

How people with extreme imagination are helping explain consciousness (you have to be a subscriber to read it, though)

My Mind’s Eye Is Blind, So What’s Going on in My Head?

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

4 thoughts on “Mind Blind? On the Contrary!”

  1. I have aphantasia–even when I dream, I don’t see images. But, I love fiction–I read constantly, I am anxious if I don’t have a new book at the ready before I even start my current book. I also enjoy non-fiction, but the bulk of my reading is fiction. So, while aphantasia may affect some people that way, it does not affect all.

    Since learning about this a few days ago, I have been paying more attention. Even when I dream, I don’t see images, BUT, i can accurately describe the things happening. I don’t see words, but the words are there. You know how books are usually better than movies because you get so much detail in the writing? It’s like that. But, like books vs movies, it takes longer to tell the story, so not as many stories get told (I imagine. Since I don’t live in a world with images in my head, I can’t say for sure how it compares, just guessing.)

    I am one of the ones who has been kind of sad to learn that most people see images in their minds, a trait I am missing. This is mostly because I love participating in things like group meditations, but I almost always end up feeling left behind or lost, because while I’m still trying to build the first thing the meditation leader asked us to see, they are off on the next step and I never catch up. I didn’t realize it was because others were able to quickly see actual images, while I’m over here creating the whole thing with words. But, really, that is the only place where I feel a loss. I don’t think I have less of an imagination because of this, it is just a different kind of imagination–and I probably don’t spend as much time in it as someone like yourself, because it is a lot of work.

    I have long been fascinated by the differences in how brains work and love learning new things like this and am able to appreciate how they make the world a more interesting place. BTW, I learned about aphantasia on a Twitter thread in which Neil Gaiman commented that he is like you–easily able to visualize entire worlds. I guess it is no surprise he is a fantastic writer. I definitely want more of that in the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susan! That’s so interesting! Your point about imagination is good. I think I may have been wrong by equating mental images with imagination. Thanks!


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