A few years ago, my friend Chris discovered his aphantasia – a term that I and most of our friends had never encountered before. One evening, Chris and I were sitting together with our friend Hannes who simply did not want to believe that aphantasia exists.
“Well, I cannot visualize a photorealistic banana either,” Hannes said after Chris explained that he saw nothing with his inner eye when thinking of a banana. “It’s more like a yellow, curved shape. But not nothing.”
“Wait, you do not see a photorealistic banana?” I replied, “Because I see a crystal clear still life. The banana next to other fruit on the table of a fictional, yellow-painted kitchen.”
In that moment, we realized that the question of whether or not we can form mental images could not be answered with only Yes or No.
Visualizing the Invisible Became My Master Thesis
Since that conversation with Chris a few years ago, I have been fascinated by our individual ways of thinking and visualizing and decided to examine mental images from a designer’s perspective for my master thesis in Communication Design.
These are the questions I wanted to explore:
- Can you visualize the spectrum of visual imagination?
- Are there ways to depict the mental images experienced by people at different points on the spectrum – so that those who want to learn about the topic know what we mean when speaking of the spectrum?
After a lot of desk research and looking into other people’s attempts to do so, including different methods and questionnaires to measure my visual imagination abilities, I decided to create my own tests.
Exploring How Mental Images Are Experienced
To begin, I put together a list of characteristics or categories in which mental images may differ from person to person, like saturation, movement, or clarity. Based on that list, I designed two sets of cards. The first set contains twenty cards with questions that aim to inspire a conversation about a reflection of an individual’s personal mental images. For example:
- How long can you hold a mental image before it starts to fade?
- Does it become more or less blurry the longer you concentrate?
- Is the image static or does it change?
- Do you see a complete object or details only?
The second set shows different edits of the same photograph. I took a picture of a sea shell (an object everybody has seen before) and manipulated it in as many ways as I could think of, playing around with its saturation, blurriness, etc. The idea was to show people an array of images and have them choose one that resembles the image they see with their inner eye. The sea shell serves as a placeholder. Really, it is not about what you visualize as much as it is about the quality of that visualization.
I also wanted to offer a selection of cards that potentially represent the nothingness aphantasics experience. What does that nothingness look like? Is it white, gray, or black?
Then, I gathered small groups of friends to go through all the questions and had them pick an edited photo. As it turned out, all of them were able to form mental images. But I could have never imagined any of them would actually visualize a sea shell the way some of my edits were depicting it!
As a next step, I wanted people to manipulate an image themselves. I created the website www.mentalesvisualisieren.de, where you can use four sliders to adjust a picture, trying to resemble the quality of your mental images as closely as possible. Four characteristics can be adjusted: the picture’s blurriness, saturation, contrast, and opacity. Of course, countless other characteristics could be added, but I needed to start out somewhere.
I shared the link to my website with people from different job backgrounds and ages and asked them to send me back their edited images. I also tested the site with some friends so I could observe them adjusting the sliders.
The results were fascinating. Those with weaker visual imagination seemed to take much longer to figure out what they needed the image to look like. The more vivid someone’s visual imagination was, the faster they fulfilled the task.
One friend with mild red-green colorblindness sent me a colorless picture – even though he can perceive and imagine color, he prefers to mentally visualize in black and white.
Vividness of Visual Imagery Is Difficult to Quantify
When I tried to put the results in order, arranging them on a line from no mental images to photorealistic images (or from aphantasia to hyperphantasia, so to say), I was amazed to find out it was not possible! Some images were true to color and contrast but quite blurry. Other images were crystal clear but so low in opacity as to be almost not there.
The vividness of a mental image is determined by many factors. We can not simply talk about one spectrum of visual imagination; different layers of that spectrum or multiple spectra seem to exist.
After creating a selection of edited images for people to choose from and having them edit an image themselves, I now wanted to try having people recreate a mental image “from scratch”.
I conducted a workshop with my fellow design students and gave them the task of depicting the mental image they experience when hearing or reading the word “eye” in a medium of their choice or one that translates their mental image best.
If they “saw” a three-dimensional eye in their mind, I wanted them to 3D-model that eye. If they “saw” the eye of a specific person, I wanted them to hand in a photograph of that person’s eye. And that is exactly what happened.
- One participant “saw” his friend’s eye. He asked her to send him an image of her eye, which he then edited in Photoshop to make it look like the image in his mind.
- One person “saw” a photograph she took herself, but since she couldn’t recall all the details, she decided to draw what she remembered instead of handing in her original photo.
- Another participant watched an animated series before attending the workshop and immediately visualized an eye in that series’ illustration style, so she tried to illustrate an eye like that herself.
- A lot of people did not mentally visualize the face surrounding the eye, but an eye that kind of floats onto and fades into a black background.
- A participant with weak mental imagery handed in a short video presenting the inner dialogue she experiences instead of “seeing” an eye.
Discovering a New Way to Visualize the Visual Imagination Spectrum
All those experiments created inspiring and insightful conversations about our individual mental experiences. We discovered that individuals can not be arranged on one line from aphantasia to hyperphantasia. It is not only photograph-like properties that differ in mental images from person to person but also the images’ presence, arbitrariness, or controllability.
Forming a mental image with realistic details or colorfulness does not equal being able to call up that image again and again, like a computer file or a printed photograph. Our exchange showed that it is not an easy task for everybody to create, hold or modify a mental image.
Some people can only visualize things they have seen before. Some cannot visualize at all. Others only do so when needed, while a few have no control over what visual imagery they experience or when they experience it.
However, the type and vividness of one person’s mental images often vary. Depending on the person’s emotions or the media they recently consumed, mental images of different styles and quality are generated. Even having their eyes opened or closed while trying to visualize a specific thing leads some people to form mental images differing in various aspects.
My participants and I learned new things about each other and ourselves. This helps with communicating and understanding other people’s way of thinking and their individual strengths. Our mental images differ from each other in many ways, and I am sure there are a million more nuances yet to be discovered.