I’ve been surprised so much watching a clip about “aphantasia” saying “your mind is blind” just because a picture does not pop up in your mind when you think of something. I’ve always considered myself a visual thinker. Most of my thoughts are in “visual” form, or at least non-verbal form. I can imagine any shape, 2D, 3D, even 4D, not only in static but usually in dynamic state, let them move, transform, etc. But as I close my eyes, I see nothing but a black screen! It’s much harder for me to imagine things eyes closed than when eyes open. If I try a lot (when eyes close)… I can imagine some simple things but very flickering. So with eyes closed, I’m clear “aphantasic”, and with eyes open, I’m almost “aphantasic” (according to VVIQ), while I spend all of my life thinking with visualization instead of saying internal monologs.
Where’s the root of that “contradiction”?
It lies in the abstractness of my mental image and the “low resolution” of my mental screen. It’s a trade of for my multi-dimentional & connectional visualization. With such a low resolution, I can only visualize limited amount of details at one time, but I can traverse the vast “network of connections” from the overall shape to a specific detail.
1. Visual (Pictorial) vs Abstract
When eyes open, I usually “see” the imagined things as “transparent” shapes overlaying on the scene in front of my eyes. Actually those stuffs have various abstraction levels in various dimensions. At the most abstract level, an imagined stuff doesn’t have any shape, just a abstract idea with all of its complexity and connections with others as well as with its properties, with its other representations in other abstraction levels, etc. Following those connections, I can refine it to details, shapes, behaviors, colors, textures, etc. That process of visualize things from abstract to concrete representations is very much like how a car is designed and rendered on computer. But much more than the 2D flat screen of the computer, my internal “screen” is multi-dimensional, not in geometric sense (3D- 4D), but in informational sense. Only if I have to “project” all of them onto a 2D screen in front of my eyes, I see the imagined shapes overlaying on the actual scene outside.
In contrast, my wife feels much easier to visualize things with eyes closed than with eyes open. When eyes open, she’s distracted with the external scene. But when eyes close, she can concentrate and see vividly the internal scene with full details… and no abstract! She’s very difficult to understand abstract concepts, so when explaining things, I usually have to use concrete examples.
2. Abstract vs Verbal
Many ones may think that without pictures popping up in mind, you must think in words (internal monolog). But that’s not my case. From a child I was in a low end of autism spectrum, thus had difficulty expressing what I think in words, just because I didn’t think in words. Growing up, I’d tried hard to learn using language to express my ideas, then ended up running many monologs inside my head just like normal people. But that verbal expression is just for my communication and theory forming (I’m a theorist scientist). Whenever thinking deeply about new things, I first visualize them, manipulate them, do experiment with them to observe the result etc. Only after I “see” them clearly inside, can I find words to describe them, or sometime I must “coin” my new terms to express what I’ve seen inside. So, even I do use a lot of verbal tools to capture the rich abstraction & complexity of the internal world, I don’t think in words at first hand.
3. Verbal vs Logic vs Connective vs Kinesthetic
After learning both natural languages and formal languages, I’ve used language as a tool to express my ideas and logics. But not only the ideas, the logics also does not come from language. For example, I think of a formula like “If P then Q” like “If you hit me then I’ll be angry” not as a sentence, nor as a diagram “P → Q”, but as a bundle of connections from P to Q with all of its complexity. Thus I usually don’t say “think” but say “see” the logics. Only when I need to write/draw it down, I use verbal language and graphical language (diagram).
Moreover, my mental images are basically dynamic, thus they are constructed, transformed, and manipulated by my “mental hands”. That kind of thinking is very much kinesthetic, and it’s related to my strength in sport and dancing.
4. Abstraction & spirituality
The contrast between me and my wife reflects clearly on the suggestibility in hypnosis: while she’s very easy to be hypnotized, I’m good at hypnotizing and very difficult to be hypnotized. When eyes closed, she can immerse into the internal scene just like in real life, while I almost see nothing. However I’m good at meditation. My meditative state is nothing similar to the real life. In that state, I can chose to enter the emptiness or chose to observe the internal working of our minds (my mind as well as the minds of others around). Although that meditative state is usually easier to be reached with eyes closed in a quiet environment, but that’s just to reduce distraction. In everyday life, I usually enter meditative state on site to observe various things around and my reactions inside.
The only time I can actually see things like in real life with eyes closed is when I dream. As a part of meditation, I usually observe my dreams and they are various, too. From the flashing scenes to continuous scenes, from abstract objects to concrete objects, my dreams are so various. In a dream, I passed by a tree crown but didn’t see it clearly, then I decided to do an experiment: I got back and stared at the tree, the abstract shape of the crown refines itself into individual leaves; looking more at the leaves, they becomes colorful. So there’s also a process of abstract to concrete refinement in my dreams, just like in my awake thoughts, but much faster and automatic. Actually, in the real life, everything I see also generates images in that abstract to concrete way, but it’s so fast and automatic that I can only recognize that process when observing them in meditative state.
Although my wife is clearly (hyper)phantasic, my case is no way clear between “phantasic” and “aphantasic”. I think there would be much more than just “phantasia” vs “aphantasia”. At least AphantasiaMeow’s proposed a new term “prophantasia”.