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Monday, 31 August 2015

The Eye's Mind

For many years now I have sought opportunities to talk to people about how they think, by which I mean whether they have access to visual imagery. Most do - in fact I have yet to come across anybody who hasn't, though the question often prompts discussion about just what is meant by visual imagery. My impression is that very few people have really considered their thinking process, and generally assume that everybody thinks in more or less the same way they do. The discussions are usually non-productive, mainly, I think, because language is inadequate to convey mental experience in any way which allows two people to communicate effectively.

So, I was pleased to read recently that a research project has started in to the phenomenon of "aphantasia" - the name suggested by the researchers for a lack of visual imagery. See http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/ for more information including an interesting presentation summarising the experience of a number of visual artists.

I have no visual imagery now (I am aphantasic!) but I think I did have some visual imagery as a child and young person. I can remember having had visual daydreams and have recently recalled an experience from my mid-teens when, during an history exam, I can recall that I "saw" pages of text sort of hovering in front of me and was able to copy it onto my answer paper. I also think that I have visual imagery in dreams, though I rarely remember dreams - perhaps that is because I lack visual imagery in waking life?

So what do my thought processes consist of? What am I doing when I access a memory? It seems that language is at the centre of my thinking; my sense is of an almost constant internal monologue (sometimes a dialogue) which I am "hearing". I do in fact feel as if I can hear sounds in my head so I have a mind's ear if not a mind's eye. It would be interesting to know if those people who have strong visual imagery also have an auditory imagination, or is there some trade-off between the senses? I also have a strong spatial sense; it is as if I can "feel" the physical relationship between things even though I can't see them. As for remembering, if I try hard to bring say a person to mind then it is as if I am hearing myself describe them, usually unsuccessfully.

I find this a fascinating topic and am looking forward to the outcome of the Exeter research project, though I suspect it will throw up more questions than it does answers.

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