“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.”
Introduction, Background, and Context
One of the enduring mysteries of my subjective life has been the absence of visual imagery in my mind. Although I dream normally, in an ordinary waking state my mind does not make visual pictures of things. It was not until relatively recently that I learned that there is a name for this. It is called “aphantasia” or “mind-blindness”, defined as a deficit of mental imagery. (The interested reader is referred to www.aphantasia.com ).
First described by the English scientist Francis Galton in the late 19th century, aphantasia is now known to occur in 3.9% of us. It exists on a continuum, with the most extreme form manifesting as an absence of imaginative imagery across all sensory spheres (vision, hearing, touch, etc.) Imagery deficit is often correlated with other cognitive traits which depend upon visual memory, such as poor autobiographical recall. Rather than being considered a mental “disorder”, aphantasia is now considered a variant of normal; a form of neurodiversity. Its neurological basis has been quite clearly demonstrated by fMRI and other measures of brain activity, in which areas of the brain known to subserve imagery show up as totally dormant or relatively inactive[i].
It is difficult for some people to wrap their minds around what the subjective experience of aphantasia could possibly be like. Friends have asked me with puzzlement what is in my mind where images would normally be? The answer is, simply knowing what something looks like without being able to see it; concept devoid of visual image. Rather than thinking in pictures, my mind thinks in words and metaphor. I believe we should define the “mind’s eye” as the mental faculty of conceiving imaginary or recollected scenes, with or without visual imagery.
I first became aware that my mind functioned differently from others during the early years of my psychology education. The theory in vogue at that time was that some people were “visualizers” while others were “verbalizers”. No question which category I was in: I have a highly verbal mind and an aptitude for abstract thinking.
As a child, I can recall that pictures formed in my mind as I was read bedtime stories, so I am not congenitally aphantasic (as apparently some people are). My own personal theory is that, as a consequence of learning to read at a very early age, my cerebral “real estate” was reallocated from pictorial images to concepts. In other words, I posit that my left hemispheric/verbal dominance overshadowed the development of my visuo-spatial capacities. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems quite plausible.
It is not my purpose here to elaborate on what is known about aphantasia or its neurological substrates. Rather, I want to focus on what I now recognize as my life-long fascination with the the “mind’s eye”. More specifically, I want to describe what has become for me a deep inquiry about the nature of visualization and its importance. This inquiry has involved research, contemplative reflection, and a series of subjective meditative experiments. Subsequent sections of this essay will describe different facets of my inquiry and what I have learned in engaging with this process .
The seminal question that came to me as I embarked upon this inquiry was Why?
Why was the subject of aphantasia so compelling for me?
Why should my lack of imagery be more significant to me than my lack of directional sense or any other cognitive capacity? What was at stake?
As I reflected on this, I recognized that I hold several beliefs about imagery which confer it with special importance. First, imagery is the language of reverie, poetry, fantasy, and archetype. It taps into deep layers of the psyche, both expressing feelings and opening a channel into the wisdom and creativity that flows within each of us. Imagery has a privileged connection with the realm of the unconscious. As such, the language of imagery is one I long to speak and understand.
As I sat with these reflections, I also recognized that studying aphantasia, even under the umbrella of engaging in a deep inquiry, was a pale substitute for what I really wanted: to regain the imaginative capacity and visual imagery I enjoyed as a young child.
Second, it became clear that I connect the ability to visualize with spiritual capacities referred to Indian philosophy as the “opening of the third eye”: the gateway that connects the inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness.
In this regard, it may be relevant to note that aphantasia became a “problem” for me only after I first began to meditate in my 20’s. In one Tibetan Buddhist gathering I attended early on, for example, meditators were asked to visualize the Buddha, golden and radiant on a throne, gazing out with boundless love and compassion. This instruction was a non-starter for me. I came up against a similar barrier in other consciousness-oriented workshops where guided imagery methods were taught. All I found in my mind was a black blankness; extremely frustrating to say the least.
Fortunately, this particular “problem” was solved when I discovered that there were many pathways into deep meditative space which did not require visualization. However, the sense that imagery was an important mental capacity remained. Indeed, I felt the absence of access to imagery as something important missing in me; a deep flaw.
As I continued to explore the capacity to visualize, the next focus that emerged in my inquiry had to do with the question of what? Beyond “visualization” as a generic concept, what specific perceptual capacities did I lack? Attempting to answer this question experientially has been, for me, a deep dive.
“Aphantasia” is often described as the inability to “think in pictures”, but I find this concept too general and superficial to be very helpful. In its place, certain basic distinctions emerged for me.
First, the primary capacity connoted by the concept of “visualize” is the ability to voluntarily create a picture of something in one’s mind — for example, when one is asked to picture a familiar object such as apple, or the face of a loved one. (This primary capacity seems to be closely connected to visual memory).
Calling an image to mind in this way seems quite distinct from the unbidden imagery that emerges in dreams as well as at the transition between sleep and waking (“hypnagogic imagery”), deep relaxation, hypnosis, or meditation. This type of imagery may consist of seemingly isolated mental pictures or may occur in more storied forms, such as “mental movies”, daydreams, reverie, or fantasy. My working understanding is that this type imagery is likely to emerge whenever we let go of our engagement with goal-directed activities[ii]. In other words, it is state-dependent.
I surmise from reading many accounts given by people with aphantasia that there are a lot of individual differences; perhaps different profiles of visual imagery experiences. To cite some of the complexity of my own experience, voluntary imagery is entirely absent for me, but I dream in images and have hypnagogic imagery occasionally. I do not think I have ever had a “daydream”. Also, in striking contrast to my aphantasia , I enjoy very easy access to “pareidolic imagery” – an eyes-open type of imagery in which the mind perceives pictures projected onto random patterns such as the clouds in the sky or the texture in a carpet.
On a very few occasions, I have experienced a doorway opening in my mind and found myself in a state of mind in which hypnagogic imagery suddenly becomes very salient. I have no clue what is different for me at those times. Regardless of why this occurs when it does, clearly my capacity to generate imagery is intact!
Can The Capacity To Image Be Cultivated?
Proceeding on the assumption that the capacity for imagery may be a kind of mental muscle which can strengthened with exercise, I have been in the process of exploring various methods which I hope will enhance my mind’s ability to image. One such method is meditating on the after-images which appear in the mind’s eye following a period of focusing on a candle flame. With very little practice, these images have already become noticeably more stable and longer lasting. I have also been practicing recalling colors and simple shapes to mind.
The basic method I have been using in order to cultivate imagery is sitting meditation with a focus of attention on my visual field. The first thing that struck me when I began to meditate in this way was the somewhat shocking realization that, despite a lifetime of sitting meditation practice, I have seldom devoted much time to looking! In any event, when I began to persistently inspect my visual experience more closely, with relaxed and receptive attention, it did not take long before the general impression of black blankness began to reveal underlayers of fine grained geometric lines and patterns which had variations in both brightness and color. The field was dynamic rather than static.
I realized that if I wanted to “invite” my mind to make images, I would need to focus my attention on what I actually do see when I look into inner space, rather than on what is absent.
Reflections and Conclusions
Cultivating the capacity to image remains a work in progress and my intention is to persevere with it. However, I am also aware of a subtle contradiction inherent in these experiential “experiments”: on the one hand, it seems skillful to practice whatever one seeks to improve; on the other hand, I am also aware that on some level I am still invested in trying to “fix” something, and that effort is not skillful.
As I have reflected on this contradiction – or confusion? – several additional insights emerged which I have found helpful:
- It has felt liberating to realize that imagery is only one form in which the mind expresses meanings. Although for whatever reasons my brain/mind does not readily make images, I do however have a highly developed visual capacity which readily hones in on external images I encounter which express what I feel.
- Whereas previously I had unconsciously assumed that aphantasia was a limitation, it became apparent to me in this inquiry (as in many prior inquiries) that the assumption of being limited was the real limitation.
- The feeling that there is something basically wrong, missing, or insufficient in us is a common, perhaps universal, human experience which has to do how our minds organize the experience of self. It was quite apparent to me that aphantasia had become the focus of these feelings, and it also became quite clear that learning to image would not address this issue.
- It is in my nature to focus on concepts, and while my mind does not readily make images, what it does do well is apprehend the big picture – a capacity to see things clearly and with discernment.
- Spending more time with pictures and less time with words would likely be helpful in inclining my mind’s eye towards visualization.
- And, last but not least, I have recognized that aphantasia notwithstanding, visual beauty – and especially my experience of light – has been and continues to be the most important “dharma door” for me: a gateway which awakens transcendent experience and amplifies my experience of being alive and present. In this way, at least, my mind is far from blind. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
[i] Fulford, J. et.al. (2017) The neural correlates of visual imagery vividness – An fMRI study and literature review.
[ii] Those readers who are familiar with the science of meditative states may recognize that the imagery-conducive conditions I am describing are similar, or perhaps identical, to changes in the function of the “default mode network” of the brain which accompany the practice of meditation, but that discussion is beyond the intended scope of this Newsletter.