Aphantasia

post by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-28T01:55:33.951Z · LW · GW · 23 comments

This is a question post.

James_Miller mentioned Aphantasia and it blows my mind: "What?...imagination has been my greatest portion of thinking...and there are people who cannot imagine..." To me, weak but constant visualization & audioization come right after reading any texts, and I stop reading when my brain can't visualize properly. I once suspected my sister(very young at that time) does not like reading books because she was not used to imagine while reading. 

How do people with Aphantasia read texts and process while studying?

Answers

answer by mingyuan · 2021-05-28T16:49:45.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't even know how to answer this because it's coming from a place that's so foreign to me. I have a quite weak visual imagination (not full-on aphantasia), and I've never heard a voice speaking words in my head when I read (although actually, now that I've listened to a lot of audiobooks, I can force this to happen briefly if I concentrate). But I've always enjoyed reading! To me, I guess I would say, words are just sort of fundamental? Like, the word itself, the shape of squiggles on the page, is the thing that has meaning, and I don't have to visualize anything beyond it to understand it. It's like the difference between reading a foreign language you're not that good at, where you still have to translate every thought into your native language to really understand it, versus reading in your native language, where there's no translation step.

It might be true, as quoted in Mo's comment below [LW(p) · GW(p)], that people with weak visual imaginations are less likely to enjoy extremely visual-description-heavy fiction like Lord of the Rings – I indeed found reading the LotR books mind-numbingly boring, borderline painful. But in almost all works there's a ton of content that can be enjoyed without imagining it into being: concepts, emotions, even most kinds of events. I also find myself very drawn to beautiful writing, wordplay, and just skillful use of language in general, and now that I think about it, this is probably why. Neat!

The same applies to nonfiction – building an understanding of the connections between concepts doesn't have to rest on any sort of visual framework. The concepts can just become connected, literally/physically, in the structure of your brain.

I do think that I would have struggled less with university-level physics and the related math if I had more of a visual imagination. It's quite hard to keep track of things when it all just feels like symbols you're manipulating; I imagine that being able to visualize things would have let me viscerally understand connection between the math and the physical systems being described. As it was I just sort of, knew explicitly that they were connected. But it was all very vague and confusing.

I hope this helps you understand the experience somewhat. Feel free to ask me followup questions.

comment by mingyuan · 2021-05-28T16:54:16.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, and I also notice that despite my weak visual imagination, movie adaptations can still 'ruin' books for me, not exactly because they lock in a certain way that things look, but because they lock in the characters' personalities and the general vibe.

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T02:30:35.896Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the detailed description, I can sense how aphantasia is like much better now:)  

And I realized I have a very similar experience with you, because visualization is not happening everyday in my brain. Now I feel that It just makes content memorable when it happens, and that makes me think I do visualization often. But when I read a name of someone, I am reading his or her name, not imagining the face of the person.  And I still can recall a sense of the person just by reading it. I can grasp your concept of “fundamental” with this. Also In my physics class, I had more comprehension on kinematics than on atomic physics, because I could imagine an object in motion but not the ionization of an atom. 

I remember reading Lord of the Rings was tedious at a young age around middle school. I had fun reading the Hobbit and Harry Potter series(by J.K.Rowling), so I suspect Tolkin put something hard-core inside LotR :p 

As a native Korean, I find your language analogy working really well! Nowadays I have no problem reading and writing in English, however, I discovered myself generating more humorous and interesting results in Korean. This is similar to the gap between reading paper material and online material.

By the time movie adaptation happens, movie makers modify the book's contents and charming points, often severely, so I don’t watch them most of the time. I appreciate how you analyze that “ruining” because I didn’t sensitively identify why I don’t like it.  

In conclusion, I think our brain processes work pretty similarly regardless of aphantasia. I may consider aphantasia into the personality category rather than biology category. 

answer by Selueen · 2021-05-28T14:59:45.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I first learned about aphantasia, I thought It described me - I don't naturally visualize when I read. But after closer inspection, I found out that I can visualize if I put some effort into it. Images might not be terribly vivid, but recognizable enough.
So technically I don't have aphantasia, but my experience is pretty close, and it's all kinda confusing . For the most part of my life, I did not even realize that was not normal. 

I was always fast reader because of that, you can save time and mental resources by not visualizing, so that's an upside. As for downsides, I can't imagine them, haha.
 

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T02:54:57.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I first saw this test, I choose #6 directly without really imagining a red square. And I realized it and tried again. For first some moments I saw #1-3! And could not move to #6 really when I concentrated on. Although at this time, closing my eyes, I tried to “see” the image crystal clear, and it will be a hallucination if it happens. 

I am a bit confused now how to balance between aphantasia and hallucination. I know I am not aphantasia based on several moments that mental images striked my memory. I am also not seeing hallucination, it normally does not happen and I haven’t experienced it yet. But I can't really see the exact and obvious red square except the feeling I am imagining it.

Which one do you think is your case?

Replies from: selueen
comment by Selueen (selueen) · 2021-05-29T05:40:41.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have not tried the square test before, and it's weird. At my first attempt I just completely failed. I've certainly seen enough squares in my life to imagine them, but it just did not happen. Then I imagined drawing that square - not the tactile sensition of it, but just the process of going from A to B to C to A, but that only gets me the 3rd type of square. I can push it to the 4 with additional effort, but I can't seem to get past that just yet. So it's far from red.
The shape is certainly easier for me to imagine than color, colors tend to be really bleak.
It reminds me of another classic example, where they ask you to imagine an apple.
At my very first attempt I found that difficult for some reason, but after a while I have no trouble imagining any apples I want - green, red, yellow, mixed color, stem with leaf or without leaf, no stem, partially eaten, cut in half, partially rotten, with a worm inside it, etc etc.
But then again I have a lot more experience paying attention to apples then to abstract red squares, even if I do see squares way more often. Maybe it adds to effect. Or maybe all the possible transformations of shape distract me enough from color so that I fail to notice how poor my imagination of it really is.

 

answer by beriukay · 2021-05-28T20:08:27.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Everything everybody else has said resonates with me as well, but there's one thing nobody has really hit on yet, so I'll talk about that.

While I have no visual imagination, I have a fairly rich auditory one. While thinking up an example, the McDonalds jingle that goes " ba da bop ba baaaa, I'm loving it" played in my head. I can recall it at will, and pitch shift it as I want. I make no claim of having perfect pitch, but I do have decent relative pitch. 

My internal voice has internally repeated nearly every sentence I have ever read or written, unless I deliberately shut it off. I can recall voices and sounds, and I think it helps me identify accents and languages. This doesn't make me a perfect mimic, but I have yet to mistake an Aussie for a Kiwi , which apparently happens.

Movies definitely affect my reading of books, but I usually don't mind these changes. I'm never going to read Samwise in a voice that isn't Sean Astin's, and that's fine by me. My reading speed is average. And in a good book, I will often stop and reread particularly pleasing prose, which is generally (but not necessarily) alliterative. The pleasing effect can either be in hearing the sounds play out, in my head, or in the way it would feel to say the sounds. So while visual readers may enjoy a book for the color of the roses, I am often doing similarly, by admiring the susurrations of those same roses. This may be related to ASMR in some way.
 

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T03:09:34.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am physically nodding to you right now:)

I do hear the voice of comic book/novel characters that my brain synthesizes automatically, everytime. I noticed this when there is an audio/movie version of a book and disparity exists. Actually, audiozation comes more often. I read and write texts with an inner voice, and sound gets clear when I read slower. That's why I stay to be a slow reader.

answer by James_Miller · 2021-05-28T13:16:53.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although I have Aphantasia, standardized tests indicated that I have high reading comprehension.  I wonder if my Aphantasia contributes to my reading very quickly.  I read fast enough that when one of my students asks me to read a paper in office hours if I read at my normal speed I figure she will think I didn't actually read her paper.

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T03:03:22.459Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally have been a slow reader, so it sounds reasonable that people with aphantasia read fast. I am going to bring this topic to my friends and find out who may have aphantasia haha

23 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by uncomputable · 2021-05-28T02:59:40.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Despite the meaning of the Greek word underlying it, aphantasia does not mean that you can't imagine. It means you can't create mental images.

As an aphantasic, I can imagine just fine. If you consult the Wikipedia page on the subject, you'll find a number of famous authors listed.

Replies from: peterson-yook
comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T03:17:07.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

After I posted the question, today I experienced a handful of moments when my brain didn’t work to visualize, even though I can. Also I am assured mental images are not the only source of creativity. Thank you for pinpointing out.

comment by Mo Nastri · 2021-05-28T08:53:12.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may be interested in this essay by Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox and ex-director of product at Facebook, on discovering he had aphantasia, an insight that explained a million little things about his own personal experiences that seemed amiss relative to others. Quoting some passages (attention conservation notice -- there's ~1,000 words below):

How do you write fiction if you can’t visualize scenes?

I “imagine” scripts conceptually as described earlier. It’s easier to write for characters that have already been realized on the screen, especially when so many of them share my dry, sarcastic personality. If you reread the Silicon Valley script, you’ll find it’s heavy on ideas (what if a lawyer had a clock that counted money not time? what if Erlich compiled interview questions while stoned?) and light on descriptive language. Same with the Theranos parody.

Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.   

...

And, suddenly, fiction clicks. Paty says I used to worry that “I feel like I’m doing reading wrong.” Descriptive language in novels was important to her but impotent to me; I skip it as reflexively as you skip the iTunes Terms of Service. Instead, I scour fiction like an archaeologist: Find the bones.

The slender, olive-skinned man brushed the golden locks out of his hazel eyes. He was so focused on preparing for the assassination that he burned his tongue on the scalding cuppa joe (hazelnut, light cream).

That becomes: There’s an assassin.

I hurdle over paragraphs and pages, mowing down novels in one night because—while others make love to the olive-skinned assassin—I’m just fucking his skeleton. Some books are so fleshy they’re opaque: Lord of the Rings numbs. But Lord of the Flies gnaws, because I could meditate on the idea of society-gone-wild forever. Animal Farm is awesome. 1984. The splendor of Hogwarts is lost, but the idea of a dementor is brain fuel. And 2 + 2 = 5.

Nobody likes an author who shows off, of course. But friends tell me it is the written imagery—when done well—that delivers the very joy of reading. I can’t understand that, but I finally understand this: You really are annoyed with the actor in 50 Shades of Grey. It’s really not how you pictured him in the book.

...

I’ve always felt an incomprehensible combination of stupid-smart. I missed a single question on the SATs, yet the easiest conceivable question stumps me: What was it like growing up in Miami?

I don’t know.

What were some of your favorite experiences at Facebook?

I don’t know.

What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.

So I compensate. Ask about Miami and I’ll tell you, almost to a syllable:

I didn’t love it. It’s very hot, the people there aren’t ambitious at all. Also everyone is kind of angry, there’s like a lot of road rage. It’s fun to visit but I basically went as far away as I could for college, ha ha.

Facebook?

It was awesome getting to be there in the early days. I remember I would practically run to work in the mornings because I was so excited to share ideas with the team. There’s really no better feeling than seeing someone in a coffee shop using your work.

These lines are practiced. They are composites of facts I know and things I’ve read. I perform them out of body, with the same spiritual deadness that you might recount the Battle of Trafalgar.

And if you ask about my day, there’s a good chance that—having had no time to prepare—I’ll lie to you.

It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why. And there is a sadness, an unflagging detachment that comes from forgetting your own existence. My college girlfriend passed away. Now I cannot “see” So-Youn’s face or any of the times we shared together.

I have, in fact, no memories of college.

I once proposed to Paty that, since we were visiting my brother in DC anyway, let’s train over to the Big Apple and see Les Misérables. She said, we did that last year—for my birthday.

Often I ask my oldest friend to tell me about my childhood. Stephen and I joke that we’re the couple in The Notebook, but there’s an undercurrent of: Am I an idiot?

I’ve always chalked this up to having “bad experiential memory,” a notion I pulled out of thin air because “bad memory” doesn’t fit: I can recite the full to-do list of software I’m building. On a childhood IQ test, my best performances were on Coding and Digit Span, both memory-driven. Given an increasingly long string of random numbers, I hit the test ceiling by repeating and then reversing 20 digits from memory on the fly. My three worst performances were on Picture Completion, Picture Arrangement, and Object Assembly. I couldn’t put the damn images in order to save my life.

Perhaps none of this is aphantasia. But when I ask a friend how he how-was-your-days, he gives me a tour of the visualizations in his mind. The spaghetti bolognese; the bike ride through the marsh; the argument with the boss, and the boss’s shit-eating grin, and gosh how I’d love to punch him in the mouth, and can’t you just see it now? He says that looking back on his life is like paging through a Google Image search sorted by “most engaging.” He tells me that when he’s on the road, and loneliness knocks, and the damn Doubletree bed is a little more wooden than usual, he replays the time they tried to make sushi together—but the rice kept falling apart!—and we couldn’t stop laughing!—and did you know it burns when sake spews out your nose?—and that’s when she feels closer.

I wonder if it’s why I have such an easy time letting go of people.

Apologies for quoting all of that, and it's not quite an answer to "how do people with Aphantasia read texts and process while studying?", but what Blake wrote resonated pretty deeply with me -- I'm partially aphantasic, strong on conceptual imagination but a lot weaker than most on visual-auditory.

Replies from: mingyuan, mary-chernyshenko, peterson-yook
comment by mingyuan · 2021-05-28T16:30:46.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whoa...

The slender, olive-skinned man brushed the golden locks out of his hazel eyes. He was so focused on preparing for the assassination that he burned his tongue on the scalding cuppa joe (hazelnut, light cream).

That becomes: There’s an assassin.

This resonates so hard for me! When writing fiction I've always felt a bit like I'm doing it wrong because I write almost solely about the characters' feelings, motivations, and internal monologuing. Visual descriptions are something I shoehorn in because I feel like I'm supposed to have them, and figuring out the blocking of a scene is always a nightmare (has this person stood up yet? how far away are they from the thing they need to go touch?) – it feels totally extraneous; I just want the characters to take the plot-relevant actions and not have to figure out where they're standing when they do it! God forbid I ever try to write a fight scene. That would not go well...

So yeah thanks for the link; I really like the essay!

Replies from: Viliam, peterson-yook
comment by Viliam · 2021-05-28T20:40:53.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this also apply to you?

What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Because I find it difficult to imagine how such person could function in everyday life. Like, they go to a shop and they don't remember what they wanted to buy? Or is it different if they decide in advance that it is important to remember the shopping list, and the "don't know" only applies to things they did not consciously choose to remember? Or is keeping written notes a necessary coping mechanism?

Replies from: mingyuan, peterson-yook
comment by mingyuan · 2021-05-29T04:25:02.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it used to apply to me more – as a kid if people asked me something along the lines of "what did you do today?" I would automatically say "I don't know," and then if I thought they wanted a real answer, I would think for a bit. But I could almost always answer after thinking for a couple seconds.

I think part of your confusion comes from conflating experiential memory with verbal memory. In the essay, he also mentions that he's really good at remembering arbitrary sequences of digits; I presume that extends to things such as grocery lists, and possibly also intentions that he's formed. For me, I have very few memories of my childhood or even specific experiential memories of more recent years, but I have no trouble remembering what I need to do in a day.

(I do keep a LOT of lists and always have. But I have no idea if this is related.)

Replies from: mary-chernyshenko
comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2021-05-30T06:40:31.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being around people who value talking about abstract things makes me more attuned to the "word content" of the day. It's like, I can remember going to work on a sunny day or I can remember someone asking her colleague "how do you see/define the depth of a surface in a painting".

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T03:54:39.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Normally I would say it happens and people forget details. But his case seems like he has a biological issue. I think something serious is happening to him. 

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T04:06:42.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect personality, skill level, and now aphantasia in your case impacted on fiction writing. Right now, I put personality as the top reason for this. I like comic books and web comics, thus my fiction consists of a series of images and motions in my head, and I don’t really write them down in texts. In this path, I am also not confident of writing a description with a variety of vocabulary. Oh, at the end, lack of time is the main issue, sadly;) 

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2021-05-30T06:32:49.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fascinating! My first "thought" on reading the description was that I see the golden background around the olive-skinned man, like on an old painting, and I know how his body is tilted. Then, "there's an assassin". What? :) I mean, sure he's an assassin, but let's not be hasty here :)

And this reminds me of how some writers compress visual imagery. Pratchett's "complex interplay of forces" (when a man throws a dagger, I think in the beginning of "The Pyramids") really did a lot for me. It's the successional character of the movement, half-conscious but ever so controlled, so living-muscle, which draws the attention very tightly and maybe makes imagination cheaper in the process.

comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-29T03:51:14.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The essay has several shocking parts. I enjoyed reading it. 

Besides being aphantasia, I like short, easy and clear writings, few sentences summarizings, and facts without decorations. Generally that is journalism writing. And if this is related to aphantasia...that’s interesting. 

Although I am not an aphantasia, I agree that fiction writing will be impacted by it, in addition to limited vocabulary, lack of practice, etc. And the graphic art will be the same case, as reference images and its mental processing are important.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2021-05-30T06:17:45.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder how that relates to visualizing the development of chess positions. For me it's kind of in-between imagination and just seeing the board as is (and I seldom can imagine it beyond one exchange of moves).

Also, imagining "trivial" things like sitting on a riverbank with a fishing rod is easier for me than imagining things from, say, a dictionary of botanical terminology. It has always been a pain to the extent that I can't describe leaf shapes etc. like they are supposed to be described, beyond the elementary level. But that might be a different failing, an inability to sort things accurately. For some reason, I can still use identification keys which require one to choose between several options, even when the key says "the combination of features is different". I guess people make them as easy to follow as possible, stripping the vocabulary to the basics.

Replies from: peterson-yook
comment by Crackatook (peterson-yook) · 2021-05-31T15:57:01.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My gaining here is that people without aphantasia still have weakness in creating mental images. Aphantasia people just have more. Writing a visual description, creating a mental image for art, or remembering every moment of life are obviously difficult tasks to normal person, while trained aphantasia person may be able to. In my experience, intention of creating mental image directly turn to the "feeling" of creating the image(most people stops here), which can be scattered easily if I try to look up the image clearly. 

Based on unreliable online source, aphantasia comes from the error of response from visual part of brain. Then brain's memory ability can be unrelated issue. Well, it is intuitive to remember something we know well and vice versa. We can lead to more memory issue.