One of the enduring mysteries of my subjective life has been the absence of visual imagery in my mind. Although I dream in images, in an ordinary waking state, my mind does not make visual pictures of things. It was not until relatively recently that I learned that this inability to visualize has a name: “aphantasia” or “mind-blindness”.
As many readers will undoubtedly know, aphantasia is now recognized as a form of neurodiversity. Its neurological substrate has been quite clearly demonstrated by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) 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].
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). This is called non-congenital aphantasia. 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 visuospatial 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 basis. Rather, I want to describe what has become, for me, a deep inquiry into 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.
Why Is Learning About Aphantasia So Important to Me?
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 in 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 20s. 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, I continued to feel that the absence of imagery was something important missing in me; a deep flaw.
Having No Mind’s Eye: Defining the Deficit
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? “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. This seems to me quite distinct from the unbidden imagery that emerges in dreams as well as at the transition between sleep and waking (“hypnagogic/hypnopompic imagery”), deep relaxation, hypnosis, or meditation. Hypnagogic imagery may consist of 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 of imagery is likely to emerge whenever we let go of our engagement with goal-directed activities. In other words, it is state-dependent.
I surmise from reading many accounts of aphantasia that there may be a lot of individual differences. 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.
Most puzzling, on some occasions, I have the experience that a doorway opens into a mental realm 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 Generate Mental Images Be Cultivated?
Proceeding on the assumption that the capacity for imagery may be a kind of mental muscle that can be strengthened with exercise, I have been in the process of exploring various methods, which I hope will enhance my mind’s ability to generate images.
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.
Insights From My Pursuit to See With My Mind’s Eye
Cultivating the capacity to generate images remains a work in progress for me, and my intention is to persevere with it. However, I am also aware of a subtle contradiction inherent in this endeavor: 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 reason, my brain/mind does not readily make images, I do, however, have a highly developed visual capacity that 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 that has to do with 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 visualize would not address this issue.
- 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 toward visualization.
Aphantasia notwithstanding, visual beauty – and especially my experience of light – has been and continues to be a gateway that awakens transcendent experiences for me and which amplifies my experience of being alive and present. In this way, at least, my mind is far from blind.