What Can You See That I Can’t?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I just read “This man had no idea his mind is ‘blind’ until last week” by Helen Thomson at the BBC Future. The story is about a 42-year-old man who can’t see mental images, a condition called aphantasia. WTF? I don’t see clear mental images when I close my eyes. Do you? I sometimes see dark, fleeting shadows, that are sometimes shaped like something.

Close your eyes and visualise the face of the person you love the most. The colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, the detail of their skin. Can you imagine it? Philip can’t.

Although Philip, a 42-year old photographer from Toronto, is happily married, he can’t conjure up his wife’s face because he has no images of any kind in his mind’s eye. When he thinks about a face, it comes to him as an idea, as an intellectual concept, rather than a mental picture.


Like Philip, I do see imagery in dreams. When I was a kid and smoked pot, I used to have visuals. And sometimes, out of the blue, I’m startled by very vivid mental pictures. But that has lessened since I’ve gotten older. I think I must have aphantasia. I found, “Can’t Visualize? You May Have Aphantasia” which offers a series of test questions. They go on to say,

Intriguingly, while they can’t summon mental imagery on demand, Zeman insists that aphantasia is a condition and not a disorder. “Most of them knew what it was like to visualise as they experienced imagery in dreams, or as they dropped off to sleep,” he said.

This was confirmed by two World of Lucid Dreaming readers with aphantasia.

One said: “Dreaming and seeing imagery on psychedelics aren’t a problem at all, sometimes I think I’d be overwhelmed if I could visualise imagery.”

Another explained: “I definitely CANNOT visualize in my mind’s eye whatsoever. Never ever. I’ve even taken courses on meditation in order to get better at this visualization – with zero success! I always thought people who can visualize volentarily were actually in the minority and I was in the majority.” He added: “However I have caught myself visualizing when I’m close to the dreamstate… I can say that I am a natural lucid dreamer”.

This suggests that hypnagogic imagery and visualization close to the dreamstate draws on a different mechanism to daydreaming and visualizing during full wakefulness.

Also on the positive side, Zeman notes, “their capacity for abstract thought was well developed” and that “an inability to visualise does not imply an inability to imagine: imagination is a much richer, more complex capacity than the specifically visual ability lost in aphantasia.”

These people sound like me. How much do you see what you close your eyes?

I wonder what I missing? It might explain why I love photos.

I’ve always known I’m missing various mental abilities. I can’t remember tunes – neither the melodies or lyrics. My wife practically can’t forget them. I’m terrible at languages. But I have mechanical, spatial, directional, mathematical skills that some of my friends lack.

Articles about aphantasia are popping up on the net. Here’s a long one, “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.”

If it was April 1st, I’d think this was some kind of joke.


9 thoughts on “What Can You See That I Can’t?”

    1. I just keep plodding away, year after year. Daniel, your site looks great. So I think you know what you’re doing. What we have to learn is how to tell a story that interests people. I keep experimenting with how to tell the story and what to tell.

        1. What were you hoping for Daniel? I’ve been blogging for over ten years, so hang in there. It takes a while to build a readership. It helps to share your posts on social media, and to hang out on other blog sites. It’s very hard to write something that gets you at the top of a Google search, but it is possible. Every day I get 20-30 hits on my old essay about dreaming of dinosaurs. If you search Google for “Dinosaur Dreams” I sometimes come up first. But I didn’t plan that, I just wrote about something few other people have that some people search for every day.

          I consider blogging piano practice for writing. It’s a way to put in your 10,000 hours.

  1. James, I am of the same tribe. Your blog post has helped to wake me up to just how weird aphantasia seems to others and how much it has impacted on my life. Last night I discovered my friends can summon up images of their family members and that was a heartbreaker. I am jealous. Otherwise I find it fascinating and funny. Do you?

    1. It might explain why I’m not artistic.Or when I write, why I don’t use lots of descriptive detail. Now I understand when people say things like, “I can see it like it was yesterday.” They really mean it. And it might relate to why I can’t use imagery for mnemonic triggers.

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