Thursday, June 18, 2020


What does your childhood home look like? How many windows across the front?

Can you imagine what a fortune cookie looks like? Can you visualize a ten-speed bicycle?

People who can't conjure up any images of these things at all may have a condition called aphantasia, the inability to visualize images in the mind.

My mental images are usually hazy at best, almost never vivid and clear. I've noticed that when I've had a very high fever, very clear images arise in front of my mind's eye, but they're largely involuntary. 

I'm better at visualizing things when I attempt to draw them. There seems to be a feedback loop between drawing something and visualizing it. 

An action that I've done with my body, such as splitting firewood. is also easier to visualize. I have a harder time visualizing milking a cow, because I haven't tried it, even though I've watched someone else do it. 

According to Wikipedia, aphantasia is only recently named and not well studied. Here are some questions about it:

• What's the relationship between drawing something and imagining it?
• Does actual tactile experience with the world (like waxing a car) aid in visualizing?
• How does virtual interaction, such as in a video game, compare to actual experience? 
• How is visualizing an object different from visualizing an action?
• Are the same parts of the brain active when mentally visualizing as when actually seeing?
• How is the condition related to inabilities to recognize objects or faces (prosopagnosia)?

Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, surveyed employees about their ability to visualize things, and discovered that the artists didn't visualize things as strongly as the production managers. 


Sam Bleckley said...

I wonder if the artists were less able to visualize, or if they were just more adept at recognizing the weaknesses of their visualizations. A sort of visual-memory Dunning-Kreuger, where only years of attempting to draw from imagination have made it clear how lacking imagination can be.

But Catmull's a brainy guy, so maybe he was able to control for that.

Kevin Mizner said...

A fascinating subject, for sure. It seems the more we look into the brain/mind the more mysterious it really is. For myself, when I'm playing with an idea, I fly around it in my mind's eye, seeing it from different angles to get the best composition. So, to a chronic hypochondriac like me, at least I don't have to wonder if I have an acute case of Aphantasia...

madillstudio said...

The artist Stephen Wiltshire comes to mind. He can recall everything from a helicopter ride over a city with uncanny precision as he draws from memory later on the ground, and gets it right. He suffers from a form of autism, I think, which some have attribute to his uncanny ability to recall things with such great detail and to draw with a micron pen with such deliberation.

CatBlogger said...

I wonder if this is connected to the learning sttle that involves movement to enhance learning (I think it's called kinesthetic learning)?
Drawing definitely enhances understanding of an object or scene that doesn't come (to me at least) with simple observation.

Susie said...

I'm an artist with Aphantasia, I find I spend more time on thumb-nailing images than friends and a bit more of a reliance on reference images when working from imagination. Typically though once i'm familiar with a subject I can draw it fairly reliably against a mental checklist of features rather than a mental image.

Tyler J said...

This subject a while back on Twitter with the scale of how you can envision an object like an apple.

I was astonished to see how many artists I followed were at the far end of the spectrum, where they had little to no ability to see it in their minds eye.

Here's a link if you want to see what I mean:

jeckert55 said...

You can look at certain artist's work and recognize the strength of their visualization. Shishkin was flawless, just like Stephen Wiltshire. So was Da Vinci. Cezanne, Gauguin, Lautrec, and Van Gogh probably had Aphantasia, which they wrangled into a style that worked for them. Aphantasia was a blessing for Cezanne because mental pictures didn't distract him from what was coming together on the page.

I was always bitter about having aphantasia, but I came to terms with it very recently when I realized how it was such an asset to the post-impressionists. I think it helps my artwork too (or could do so).

For Science nerds, here's the deep analysis of Wiltshire's (and Shishkin's) neural circuitry:

Unknown said...

This never occurred to me as a condition. My mental recollection of images is incredibly sharp.

It's another part I am lacking in, my ability to process conversations and sound is challenged, both verbal and written.

Ellie Clemens said...

I am an artist, have been for years. I'm also a mathematician, writer and editor and used to be a computer programmer. I’ve always been able to visualise memories quite precisely. At 75, I can still see my childhood home and I’m sure I would be able paint a detailed picture of it. In fact, I’m surprised to find that everyone can’t conjure up this sort of image. That said, I’m terrible at remembering people's names and have almost no sense of direction. Aren’t our brains amazing organs?!

CerverGirl said...

For me, I believe everything is vibrational, including memory. Things repeated continue its vibration, and so some vivid memories are strong, some retold can be, and things repeatedly looked at can be called to mind. Very interesting subject for sure, because I see elderly recalling old memories, while not remembering breakfast. But the same can go for me at my middle age. I’ve never considered myself good at drawing without reference, but easily see in my mind the fortune cookie, my childhood home I can visualize, but I’m not sure I could draw it well.
Thank you for this!

Rafal Ziolkowski said...

Personally my visual memory works best in connection with emotions, both good and bad. If something made me feel I have tendency to remember it much better than events which are neutral for me. It as amazing as it works actually both ways, if I look at certain picture it will conjure similar emotions as I felt at the time.