Use of visualisation

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I have been aware for some time about this phenomenon, in a peripheral way – and then was drawn here by the very excellent article by Carl Zimmer (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/08/science/minds-eye-mental-pictures-psychology.html), which provided a link to the site. I’ve done the test, and joined and donated, and…I seem to be phantasic verging on hyper-phantasic!

I have always had vivid dreams – to the extent of sometimes carrying around “memories” that I only later (sometimes months later) realised were dreams, and did not really happen. These include killing someone with my car (never!), a love affair with someone I have actually never met. I have also finally managed to train myself in lucid dreaming at the tender age of 66, and regularly have a very vivid just-before-waking private film show.

I work in a field that is inherently very visual – microbiology – and FAR prefer visual presentations to text; I accordingly structure all my teaching media that way – and was rather surprised to find early on that other folk DIDN’T necessarily like that. I now make an effort to do two versions – text-heavy and graphics-heavy – for everything, even if my graphics ability is not up to my ability to visualise things. And it really isn’t: I can SEE molecules rotating in 3D in my head; I could design assembly of a virus particle from subunits swooping in from all around, BUT I can’t draw worth a damn, and my design ability is really sketchy.

Picturing diagrams from a book read 40 years ago, though – no problem! It does rather help when trying to figure things out, except that I often can’t remember the names of the people who did the diagram.

So it goes. I would really like to explore this more )

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Wow, the examples you gave seem like pretty heavy ‘memories’ to carry! Have you developed any heuristics to help distinguish these vivid dreams from real life?

Your description of visualizing microbiological systems is fascinating, it actually invoked a realization over a personal story that made no sense to me at the time: I heard this eccentric researcher, Bruce Damer, telling the story of how he came up with a new promising theory on the origins of life, which sounded like it involved taking ayahuasca or some other type of plant-based psychedelic and visualizing the origins process unfold.
This made no sense to me because my experience with ayahuasca and like-substances has often been one including ego-death and awe for all things, especially the natural world, but no sort of revolutionary visualizations or coherent messages from the beyond. But for hyper visualizers, these sorts of mental scenes are likely often at play, especially when it comes to your line of work. So his visualizations, while they may have been profound in concept, weren’t necessarily earth-shattering in respect to his ability of seeing a biological process unfold in his mind.

I’m curious, have many scientific insights come to you during the process of visualizing?

I seriously went around for a while with the weight of having killed someone – without a distinct dream of it happening, just the MEMORY of “remembering” it in a dream. My heuristic? Interrogate that “memory” until I can definitively say “It didn’t happen!” B-) I wrote a story based on my imaginary love affair, BTW: here. 

https://www.nature.com/articles/4541028a.pdf?origin=ppub

I routinely picture the way things work in diagrammatic form in my mind (I’m just not good at transferring them onto computer) – and it profoundly changed the interpretation of one of my PhD student’s work, because she had it pictured backwards. Until I sat with her staring into the middle distance and rotated the whole thing mentally…and said “That’s wrong, it works like this!”. So yes, it basically informs the way I work to a large extent.

WOW! I can’t imagine what that’s like, to have a memory of a memory from within a dream that is so convincing you believe you actually killed someone. My experience with memories is quite the opposite – I have to interrogate my mind to recall if something happened. A fairly common experience when reconnecting with long-cherished friends is being told of a shared experience in which I have no/little immediate recollection. I have to ask for details and then slowly the memories reveals itself from the mist.
You may have read that aphantasics apparently have an easier time moving on from things. This is wholly true for me, and this ease manifests itself in various ways:

  • I am a nomad who’s cultivated many wonderful relationships with people around the US, however I almost spend no time maintaining these relationships virtually as I am often single-mindedly aware of the people, place, things, goals, and challenges that share my current position in space and time. Mental time travel is something that I do intentionally, far more than I do passively.
  • I also rarely think of capturing moments with photos or documentation. I like looking at photos, but I don’t vividly re-experience moments when I see or hear about them. So when I’m looking over a majestic landscape or reconnecting with the people I love, I very rarely have the urge to take a photo or video. I find giving all of my attention to those moments far more meaningful.
  • And when I lose someone I do grieve, however the grief is far more somatic than it is mental. I feel the ache, but I do not ruminate endlessly. Instead, I usually begin framing the situation pretty quickly. If it’s a death, I take on the purpose of supporting others through their own grieving process. In the case of a break-up, I begin asking myself how this was the best thing that could happen to me (both the relationship and the break-up). And in most situations, I am almost always asking myself “what can I learn from this?”

But the other side of hyper-vivid imagery sounds pretty awesome, being able to hold and manipulate complex mental models. This was something that didn’t make any sense to me prior to learning about aphantasia. I’ve always felt inclined for systems thinking, however I often have to put it all down on paper or spreadsheet if there is more than a handful of relationships at play within a given system. It’s fascinating to learn more about all this, especially when it comes to being able to apply my improved  awareness and understanding of neurodiverse cognitive strategies within my real-world team and leadership roles.

What you describe is so foreign to me. I have to convert images into words. I loathe all the video everywhere today. I imagine that many people less visual than you need more verbal content. Kudos to you for making it available to them. 

Interesting to read Edward. I also clearly have aphantasia and do not have any memory but for years I have had the fear that I murdered someone in a bus and hid the body (I didn’t!! For the record) but in a strange way that dream years ago was so vivid, in combination with the fact that I do not trust my memories that I was never certain it actually happened or not. Luckely people around me have memories and confirmed that it could never had happened… Strange no?

Thanks for sharing your story.. Makes me feel better