The Apple Illusion: A Glimpse into Visualization
For many, picturing a red apple in their mind’s eye comes naturally. Yet, for those with aphantasia, this seemingly simple task is an enigma. How can one explain the experience of visualization to someone who has never experienced it? Enter the apple illusion.
This optical illusion offers a brief window into the world of visualization. By staring at an object for an extended period, one can experience a fleeting “image” even when the object is no longer present. This illusion has more to do with visual perception than imagination. Still, it provides a useful example for those with aphantasia to grasp what visualization might be like for some visualizers.
How Does the Afterimage Illusion Work?
The magic behind the illusion lies in a phenomenon known as an afterimage. When you fixate on an object without moving your eyes for about 30 seconds or more, the receptor cells in your eyes, responsible for converting light into electrical signals for the brain, start to tire out. These cells gradually deplete their photopigments, essential for transmitting signals. As they deplete, the brain adjusts, interpreting the decreasing signal level as the new norm.
When the object is removed, the least exhausted receptor cells spring into action. These cells, which had been observing the darkest parts of the image and thus taking in minimal light, now operate at full capacity. This sudden surge overwhelms your visual system, leading it to interpret the input as a negative of the original image, even in its absence.
This experience is a lot like visualizing something in its absence. Just as the afterimage allows you to “see” an object that isn’t physically there, visualization involves creating a mental image without the presence of the actual object. It’s a similar process of the mind filling in the gaps, conjuring up an image where there is none.
So What’s It Like To Visualize?
Experiment with the apple illusion to see for yourself. Keep your gaze focused on the centre point without moving your eyes for about 30 seconds, then turn your gaze to the blank white space and blink several times. You’ll briefly see an afterimage of a red apple.
Visualization, Perception, and Aphantasia
In the vast realm of human cognition, the lines between perception, visualization, and aphantasia can sometimes blur. While the apple illusion offers a glimpse into visualization, it’s essential to differentiate between the direct sensory experience, the ability to conjure mental images, and the lack of phenomenal experience despite having knowledge of an object or concept.
Perception is the process of recognizing and interpreting sensory stimuli. It’s grounded in the present moment, relying on our immediate sensory inputs. For instance, when you physically see an apple with your own eyes, it’s perception at work. This process doesn’t involve recalling past experiences or imagining future scenarios; it’s about directly experiencing the object or scene in real time.
Visualization, on the other hand, is the ability to form a mental image. It involves forming a picture of an object or scene without direct visual input, using imagination and memory. Our capacity for visualization varies widely. While some can create incredibly vivid and lifelike mental images, for the majority, visualization tends to function as a weaker form of visual perception, often resulting in less detailed and more fleeting images. It’s not like real seeing, why it’s often called seeing with the mind’s eye.
Aphantasia is a unique phenomenon. Individuals with aphantasia lack the ability to voluntarily form mental images. For them, all they have is perception, as they can’t “see” with their mind’s eye. The idea of mentally “visualizing” an apple baffles the image-free mind. While the apple illusion is a product of perception, it offers those with aphantasia a fleeting insight into the experience of visualization.
Hyperphantasia and the Spectrum of Imagination
Aphantasia represents one end of what is commonly referred to as the visual imagination spectrum. At the complete opposite end lies hyperphantasia. Individuals with hyperphantasia possess an exceptionally vivid and “perception-like” ability to visualize images in their mind.
Imagine not just seeing an apple but being able to visualize its every detail—from the shiny reflection on its skin to the tiny imperfections and blemishes. For someone with hyperphantasia, the mental image of an apple can be as crisp as seeing a red apple in front of them.
However, it’s important to note that hyperphantasia is relatively uncommon. Contrary to what is often portrayed in movies and popular culture, most people do not experience visualization in such a highly detailed manner.
For more on the individual differences and where you might fall on the visual imagination spectrum, check out this article on Visualizing The Invisible.
Associators vs. Projectors: The Modes of Phantasia
Beyond vividness and clarity, there’s another dimension to consider: the mode in which individuals experience mental images. This brings us to the distinction between associators and projectors, as articulated by D. Samuel Schwarzkopf in this 2023 editorial entitled What is the true range of mental imagery?
- Projectors: These individuals perceive their mental images as if they are superimposed onto their actual visual experience. It’s as if their imagination and reality merge, with the imagined images potentially interfering with their actual perception. For a projector, visualizing an apple might mean “seeing” it appear in the space in front of them as if it were really there.
- Associators: On the other hand, associators have a different experience. While they can have clear visual representations of what they imagine, they don’t “see” these images in the same way projectors do. Instead, associators might describe their mental images as being located “off-screen,” “inside their mind,” or even “behind their head.” They have a strong sense of the imagined object, like an apple, but it doesn’t interfere with their actual visual field.
Understanding these distinctions is crucial in grasping the vast landscape of human imagination and its impacts. It emphasizes that imagination is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Instead, it’s a rich tapestry of experiences, with each individual having their unique way of “imagining things,” shaping their perceptions and interactions with the world around them.
For example, while some tend to imagine visually, others imagine concepts without necessarily visualizing them. For more on the distinction between visual and conceptual imagination, check out the Ball on the Table experiment.
Insights From the Apple Illusion
The apple illusion, while a product of perception, serves as a bridge to understanding visualization. For those with aphantasia, it’s a rare opportunity to “see” what visualization might feel like for some visualizers. While no analogy can perfectly capture the essence of visualization and all its varieties, the apple illusion brings us one step closer to understanding the cognitive diversity of human imagination.
How does your internal experience compare to this illusion? Are you more of a projector or associator type? We invite you to share this apple illusion graphic with friends and family to spark a conversation about our invisible differences and delve deeper into the many wonders of human imagination.