April 12, 2024

Aphantasia is a spectrum. Here’s what it’s like to have a completely “blind mind.” : ScienceAlert

Look at these images. Do you see a cube on the left and a face on the right?

What do you see? (Derek Arnold / Adobe Stock)

Can you imagine seeing things in your head? Can you hear an inner voice when you think or read?

One of the authors, Loren Bouyer, can do none of these things. To Loren, the left image looks like a jumble of two-dimensional shapes, while on the right she only sees a mop.

Loren cannot imagine audio or visual sensations or hear an inner voice when she reads. She has a condition that we describe in a new article as ‘deep aphantasia’ Frontiers in psychology.

‘A Blind Mind’

Both authors are aphantasics; we cannot imagine visual experiences.

Aphantasia is often described as “having a blind mind.” But often we can’t have other imagined experiences either. So an aphantasic may have a blind and deaf mind, or a blind and feeble mind.

We are often asked what it is like to be aphantasic. Some analogies may help.

People have a multilingual mind

Most people can experience an inner voice when they think. You may only speak one language, so your inner voice will ‘speak’ that language.

However, you understand that other people may speak different languages. So you might imagine what it would be like to hear your inner voice speaking multiple different languages.

We can similarly imagine what your thoughts must look like. They can be diverse, experienced as inner visual or auditory sensations, or as an imagined sense of touch or smell.

Our minds are different. Neither of us could have imagined visual experiences, but Derek may have imagined audio sensations and Loren may have imagined feelings of touch. We both experience thoughts as another set of ‘inner languages’.

Some aphantasics report that they don’t have that each imagined sensations. What might their thinking experiences be like? We think we can explain it.

Although Loren may have imagined touch sensations, this need not be the case. She has to choose to have them and it takes effort.

We assume that your imagined visual experiences are similar. So what is it like when Loren thinks, but chooses not to have touch sensations?

Our subconscious thoughts

Most people can choose to pre-hear their speech in their heads before speaking out loud, but often they don’t. People can start a conversation without hearing themselves beforehand.

For Loren, most of her thoughts are as follows. She writes without any prior experience with the written content. Sometimes she pauses, realizing she’s not ready to add more, and starts again when she feels prepared.

Most of our brain’s actions happen unconsciously. For example, while we don’t recommend this, we suspect that many of you have had the experience of driving while distracted, only to suddenly realize that you are headed to your home or office instead of your intended destination. Loren feels that most of her thoughts resemble these unconscious workings of your mind.

What about plans? Loren can experience this as a combination of imagined textures, body movements and recognizable moods.

There is a sense of completion when a plan is formed. A planned speech is a sequence of imagined mouth movements, gestures and postures. Her artistic plans are experienced as textures. She never experiences an imagined audio or visual summary of her intended actions.

There are major differences between aphantasics

Unlike Loren, Derek’s thoughts are completely verbal. Until recently he was not aware that other ways of thinking were possible.

Some aphantasia patients occasionally report involuntary imagined sensations, often from unpleasant past experiences. Neither of us has had an imagined visual experience, voluntary or involuntary, during our waking lives.

This emphasizes diversity. All we can do is describe our own specific experiences with aphantasia.

Frustrations and the humor of misunderstandings

Aphantasics can become frustrated by others’ attempts to explain our experiences. One suggestion is that we may have imagined visual experiences but cannot describe them.

We understand the confusion, but this may seem condescending. We both know what it’s like to have imagined sensations, so we believe we can recognize the absence of some kind of imagined experience.

The confusion can go both ways. Recently we were talking about an experiment. The study took too long and had to be shortened. So we considered which visual scenario to eliminate.

Loren suggested creating a scenario in which people are asked to imagine seeing a black cat with its eyes closed. We thought it might be hard to see an imaginary black cat against the blackness of closed eyes.

The only person in the room who had been able to imagine visual experiences started laughing. Apparently, most people can easily imagine seeing black cats even when their eyes are closed.

Deep aphantasia

Researchers believe that aphantasia occurs when activity in the front of the brain fails to generate activity in areas at the back of the brain. This ‘feedback’ would be necessary to allow people to imagine experiences.

Loren appears to have a form of aphantasia that has not yet been described. Failed feedback in Loren’s brain appears to result in atypical experiences of actual visual input. So she can’t see the cube at the top of this article, or the face instead of a mop, or have any number of other typical experiences with visual input.

We coined the term “deep aphantasia” to describe people like Loren, who are not only unable to imagine sensory experiences, but also have atypical experiences with actual visual input.

Our goal in describing our experiences is to raise awareness that some aphantasics may have unusual experiences with actual visual input, like Loren. If we can identify these people and study their brains, we may be able to understand why some people can evoke sensory experiences at will, while others cannot.

We also hope that raising awareness of the different experiences people have when they think can promote tolerance when people express different thoughts.The conversation

Derek Arnold, Professor, School of Psychology, University of Queensland and Loren N. Bouyer, PhD Student, Neuroscience, University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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