Semantic Processing


I'm interested in how we process and access the meaning of words. I'd be grateful if some people would think of the meanings of "tip" and then try to explain what went on in their minds as they thought of each meaning. In my case, there was what I can only describe as an impression, which would be a picture if I didn't have aphantasia.

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How do we access the meanings of words? Great question! I’m not sure we can down to the root of the matter, since there are a lot of unconscious processes going on in our brains all the time.

Let me start with your own description for the word “tip”, which you describe as as an impression, which would be a picture, except that you have aphantasia. My experience might be similar (or not), except that I would describe tiny motions, such as the slight tilt of my head to one side when I read the text asking for an explanation of what went on in my mind as I thought of the meaning of “tip”. I became much more aware of the role of small muscular contractions in my thinking when I first became aware that I had no mind’s eye, about 35 years ago. I learned that, if I wanted to stay quiet, it was a good idea for me to sit on my hands. No hand motion, fewer words…but that may just be me. You may not experience anything like that at all.

Then, since the right side of my computer screen showed a hat for sale (Aphantasia Merch!), I thought of the phrase, “to tip one’s hat” which has both literal and figurative meanings. Associated with that came the sense of what it would be like to lift my hand to grasp the brim of a hat.

And then, I thought about tip jars next to registers, and I wondered about why “tipping” means adding something extra to payment for service. No images, and no muscle movements either, for that one. Just a sense of where tip jars are generally located in commercial establishments, as well as where you add a tip on a credit card slip. So this last meaning was mostly associated with spatial relationships.

My guess is that all of these impressions or even visualizations come after the mind has already accessed the meaning of the word, and that those manifestations are just a possible means of bringing that into consciousness, for words that are amenable to that kind of process.

How would you manifest a more conceptual word, such as “inconceivable”? What would a visualization or impression even be? But I know the meaning of the word, and you probably do as well. So there have to be other processes involved in accessing the meanings of words, even if we aren’t conscious of them.

This is extremely interesting Alice. My pet theory is that we visualize just like anybody else, but aren’t able to access it in our consciousness. For instance, how can you think about tip jars next to cash registers without some degree of visualization somewhere? You are probably right that any “impressions” we have come after we’ve already accessed the meaning of the word, in which case my line of inquiry won’t be much use. Thanks for taking the time to help out.

To answer Daisy’s question : “how can you think about tip jars next to cash registers without some degree of visualization somewhere?”

I wouldn’t use the word visualization to describe anything that doesn’t actually involve seeing something in your mind’s eye. My imagination is spatial, not visual, and I don’t think visualization is necessary to my imagination. I could even argue that, since a major use of vision itself is to help us navigate 3-dimensional space, visualization in someone’s mind’s eye is often related to some more fundamental spatial knowledge. Most of the evidence I’ve seen is that, when compared to the general population, people with aphantasia are not deficient in their sense of spatial relationships. We just have a different route to get through tasks that seemingly rely on visualization, at least from the perspective of visualizers.

There are some interesting articles on this site about how much variability there is in how visualizers picture things in their minds eye. It’s not one thing. For example:
People with aphantasia may also have very different types of internal imaginations from each other, so I don’t pretend to speak to anyone else’s experience.

This all may be a semantic distinction without much meaning. I can imagine where things are in space in relationship to each other and to me if I imagine myself to be in the same space. I can imagine properties of things that I do not imagine seeing. It’s as though I have all of the information available to me that I would need to create some kind of mental visual image, but, since I don’t do that, I don’t think what goes on in my mind is at all the same as visualization, or even some kind of pre-visualization. I might as well ask, what happens in a visualizer’s mind before their vision appears? Maybe it is similar to what happens in my mind, but maybe not.

Re: “Visualization is something that happens in the mind’s eye.” I’m coming from the position that the mind’s eye is part of the conscious self, the onlooker that observes what is going on in the unconscious. And that onlooker doesn’t necessarily know the whole story. Words refer to mental concepts. What mental concepts are, I have no idea. But they could be some kind of representation of sensory experiences, including visual ones. O.K. I have a question. Recently after recovering from a surgery, i was plagued by visual images every time I closed my eyes. One of those images was a picture of sun shining on polar trees, a picture from a music video I watch on YouTube. I have never been able to see that picture in my mind’s eye before or since. But it is obviously stored somewhere in my mind. So wherever it is stored, does that qualify as a visual image? I need to think this through.

About visions after surgery: I’ve seen distinctions made between “voluntary” visual imagery while awake and “involuntary” visual imagery while dreaming while asleep or in the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states between wakefulness and sleep. Many people with aphantasia have visual dreams. I don’t, but apparently visual dreams are fairly common, even for aphantasics. The vision system of the brain that is engaged in interpreting what we see (not a problem for aphantasics) is also engaged during visualization, whether while awake or dreaming.

Do you have visual dreams? Whether yes or no, it may be that the stresses of the surgery caused you to have with involuntary visions while awake.

I’m interested that you describe the post-surgery visions as plaguing you. One of the questions that comes up in discussions of aphantasia is whether aphantasics would like to have the ability to visualize. Some would, but the most common response I’ve seen is more qualified: yes but only if it can be turned off.

If you are not familiar with hypnagogia and hypnopompia, you might be interested in this article on this site:

Three meanings came to mind. For each meaning, what I describe below flooded me instantaneously.

1. Tip, as the tip of my tongue. I had a proprioceptive feeling of my tongue, moving generally from the middle to the end, along with a semi-visual sense of narrowing.

2. Tip, as an additional amount given to a waiter. I had a sense of a large, open, indoor space that could be filled with tables and chairs, as in a restaurant, but as yet had nothing in it.

3. Tip, as in tilting to the side. I had a sense of sitting in a small shell of a boat, kind of a cross between a rowboat and a canoe, very round on the bottom and therefore unstable, with a width that enabled me to grip both sides simultaneously in an effort to remain upright, and a length about the same as my own body. My knowledge of the dimensions comes from the feeling of being inside it and simultaneously seeing it from above, as often happens in a dream. In my waking dream, I was not able to hold the boat steady and felt as if I might tip over.