The Reality Behind Aphantasia

I’m writing these words in a hammock on my back porch. Laying sideways in the hammock as it swings back and forth, a pen sits in my hand and pad of paper, subjectively motionless, rests on my knee. A triangle shaped patio canopy bobs in my vision, stretching across the tall Pines and Redwoods that litter the creek behind my house. A slow moving trance bassline plays from a Sonos speaker behind me, set to the Buddha Bar station on Pandora. The dog paces back and forth before plopping down in the sun, which streams in pencil-like fashion through thousands of Maple leaves hanging above us. It warms my feet as I swing and write.

Most of your ability to form a visual conception of this scene in your mind, if you can visualize, comes from a phenomenon we have yet to understand — Visualization. Like a long list of other phenomenon we take for granted each and every day, the origin of a “Mind’s Eye” visual remains a mystery to us.

Due to the vast deluge of information on the Internet, you may or may not be aware there appears to be a small percentage of humans without the ability to utilize their “Mind’s Eye” to see things visually in their consciousness. This “absence” of the visualization capability has been recently termed Aphantasia. People like myself, whose Mind’s Eye does not support visual-based components, are termed Aphantasics.

Personally, I prefer the term “non-visualizers”. If you happen to be in the 1–2% of humans who do not visualize, and were not aware that other humans do, then sit down and take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.

The Mystery of Magnets

Speaking of the mysteries of the unknown, I recently visited a new friend named “Doc” in Las Vegas. His real name isn’t “Doc”, but it works here for this story, given he is the five year old son of a coworker who I used to commute with daily into San Francisco. Doc loves magnets.

Michael Faraday and His Magnet

One night during my visit, I pointed out the behavior of the magnets “sticking” to each other was called “magnetic attraction”. “Why?”, Doc asked — a typical response of youthful exuberance. I shook my head and explained to him while waving my hands about, “We actually don’t know why magnets attract each other. We can definitely describe what they do as they attract each other, but we don’t know why they actually do it.” “About a 150 years ago a man named Michael Faraday spent a lot of time trying to figure out how and why magnets did what they did. As a result, he ended up inventing the first electric motor and discovered a bunch of other things about electricity that has led up to us being able to build computers and the Internet to which they are all connected. While we understand how some things he discovered work, we still don’t know why magnets do what they do today.”

“Did he ever figure it out?”, Doc asked. “No”, I replied. “In fact he was so stumped by it that he actually wrote down in his notes that he thought all of this around us was a dream.” Docs eyes widened and he looked down at the magnets again with renewed curiosity.

ALL THIS IS A DREAM. Still examine it by a few experiments. Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency. — Michael Faraday.

Later the next day, Doc’s dad and I went to pick him at preschool. As we were leaving, the teacher called out to Doc, “Don’t forget your magnets!”. Doc turned around and grinned at me. “Tell her how magnets work”, I prompted him. Doc turned to the teacher. “We don’t know!”, he exclaimed shrugging his shoulders. She smiled, “That’s right, we don’t. Maybe you’ll figure it out someday!”

My money's on Doc figuring out why magnets do what they do and maybe why Faraday thought this was a dream. In the meantime, I’m asking the hard question “How do we continue doing what we do, without knowing why we do it, without going a little mad in the process?”

Rationalization and Thinking About Thinking

We somehow rationalize that not knowing how magnets, visual imagination, consciousness, Aphantasia or a whole host of other phenomena we use each and every day, is somehow OK for us to hold as unknown. I mean, we just have to accept we don’t know, don’t we? We have to accept a certain amount of “unknowingness” to this place in which we dwell, this reality. We do this by labeling the unknown, or the irrational, “Why?”. With that interrogative in hand, we’re appear to be 100% OK with leaving the “Why?” unanswered, at least for most things.

At the same time, it is interesting to observe we don’t usually question our irrational assumptions, such as not knowing why magnets work, but instead use them in just about everything that is electronic OR not knowing why people visualize the way they do with their Mind’s Eye but still keep utilizing those visuals to tell stories to each other about what appears to be real and truthful, even if it’s not factually true of reality. Given the source of our perceptions themselves appear to be highly irrational, and a good deal of what we say to each other is irrational, at least under the surface, it would seem that asking “Why?” serves a purpose to enable us to arrive a shortened “truth” of the beliefs we hold about the reality around us. This allows us to “short circuit” the unknown amount of work required to hold an irrational thought as true.

In fact, I propose this phenomenon behind “Why?” is the actual source of human perception or consciousness. I assert that, by being able to be a bit irrational in a subtly rationalized way, human consciousness is formed.

If this wild-ass assumption is true, it immediately raises a more traditional question to answer which is, “If reality defines human consciousness, then are we really capable of understanding how consciousness is implemented here in this place, given we must use it to understand itself?”

Alan Watts

Alan Watts, an English Zen philosopher, took a cut at answering this age old question using concept he called “thinking about thinking”. Alan indicated, according to Buddhist teachings, thinking about thinking is to be avoided due to the suffering (work) it creates by limiting the ability of perception, which contributes to obscuring the true nature of reality. The “clinging” we do, by constantly thinking about things and applying them in a way that layers our perceptions, is what most Buddhist teachings present as the root source of all our suffering (which I liken to an unknown amount of work). In fact, the Zen concept of “indirect pointing” attempts to give an individual the means to find the “truth” behind reality by working around these layered perceptions. This type of logic, according to Buddhism, Janism and derivative religions and philosophies, leads to discovering the truth may only be discovered by the non-process of not thinking — which manifests as the Taoist concept of Wu wei, literally non-action or non-doing.

Link Between Aphantasia and Mindfulness?

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking, wasn’t this suppose to be about Aphantasia? Why is am I reading about magnets and Eastern philosophy? Well, OK. I’ll tell you what I know we know about why Aphantasia does what it does, but it isn’t much to go on, rationally.

Aphantasia is apparently the lack of what appears to be the visual component of the “Mind’s Eye”. This is “factual” because according to both myself and others like me that I know, we don’t experience creating visual images directly in our mind, while awake. You can liken the idea of non-visualizing to the concept of non-action, at least for visual based component “actions” in our brains.

People who do not visualize simply lack the means to perceive a visual image in their mind from the larger “idea” of a materialized object or scene. I say materialized, given I myself am capable of recalling or conceptualizing a past or imagined object or scene in my mind, without visual components, and I am able to query that object or scene for materialistic information, such as motion, size, texture and relative location and distance. Without exception, I have conscious control over this process.

According to my wife, she experiences both consciously controlled visuals as well as spontaneously occurring images, of which she is not in conscious control. She attributes her ability to dismiss these images more easily today than in the past to her current state of mindfulness.

I assert the type of “querying” non-visualizers do to an object is a type of consciously controlled perception, one which we all share, which is directly linked to the idea of consciousness, or at least conscious control. My perception of “objects” in my mind may be different than that of a visualizer, but I can still get answers from my mind about what it is I am perceiving if I demand it. Moreover, I appear to be conscious of this process occurring, in as much as a visualizer may be conscious of willed visual image recall (or creation) and the resulting conscious perception of it by their brain.

Counting John Malkovitch’s Doors

For example, I can recall the number of windows in my house, without seeing the house. To do this task, I recall the house in a shrunken form, and then run my “virtual mind hand” over it to count the windows. It sounds weird when I explain it, but I’m able to do this quite accurately and so are my kids, who are also non-visualizers. When my wife, again a visualizer, attempted this task, she used a visually recalled image, but forgot several windows because she ended up unconsciously “standing” in the wrong spot to count them, forgetting to “move” her view to see the other windows.

The perceptions resulting from holding a “virtual” object in your mind or creating a visual image of the object itself are both highly irrational and confusing. They are irrational simply by the fact we do not understand how or why these processes occur, and it requires additional work to determine a truthful outcome that we may understand without it being confusing to us. Remember, confusion typically occurs in us because we fear what we do not know. Could these “unknown amounts of work” themselves be responsible for implementing our consciousness? Given the fact a good chunk of philosophy concerning consciousness (Buddhism) is dedicated to the idea of limiting work or “doing” to achieve a temporary reprieve on our suffering and confusion here in this reality, the answer could very well be “Yes!”.

If I were to summarize a main point for this post, Aphantasia isn’t something that can be researched or discussed scientifically in a trustworthy way, given it is a lack of a broader phenomenon that we simply don’t understand very well and represents the absence of one part of a broader set of apparently conscious and unconscious phenomena which needs more study. Research for Aphantasia may be better approached from a more holistic philosophical perspective by simply asking the hard questions, “What is consciousness?”, “Why does it do what it does?” and “How does it play a part in determining how we visualize?”

I’m surely not the first one to ask these questions, and I likely won’t be the last. Aristotle clearly understood the type of dilemma we face with holding the “Why?” of things unanswered. He provided us a means by which we could argue, persuasively, our position on matters which we find difficult to present to each other, at least through direct observation and the scientific method:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; (and) the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos]. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.–Aristotle

Given the topic is mind itself, I find it difficult to put the audience, or myself, into a certain frame of mind regarding this topic — especially in light of the fact we all apparently perceive things differently. This may be especially true of those who think Aphantasia is a topic for scientific study, instead of philosophical debate. I beg to differ here, quite emphatically.

Please help me do a better job here by commenting on and sharing this story, assuming you find it interesting of course. It is only through active debate that we can address the broader phenomenons of visualization and Aphantasia!

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