Back in February, I wrote about why I don’t read fiction: mainly, because I don’t seem to be able to visualise texts as I read them. When I read fiction, my focus is on how the words flow, how they sound. My mind’s eye – which I recently discovered is actually a thing that generates mental images, rather than just a fluffy metaphor – is blind.
And my mind’s eye has always been blind. I dream in pictures but, if I consciously try to generate any kind of mental image, I am met with nothing more than darkness. Further, if you were to ask me to draw a close friend’s face, I would have no mental photographs to draw upon – all I would have to go off of would be those distinguishing characteristics that I have at some point consciously registered. (Sally wears black, thick-rimmed glasses. Billy has a strong jawline and a mole below his right eye. Or is it his left?) Obviously I can remember my friends when I see them, but often when I meet people for the first few times I have issues recognising them as familiar unless they have some sort of distinguishing feature (e.g. big nose). A similar thing happens with music: I may remember the tune of a song, but I cannot mentally replay that song in its final produced form as some people seem able to do. I just… recognise it when I hear it.
My initial post about my inability to generate mental images sparked quite a bit of discussion both online and in person. Some people were just confused, unable to fathom how I managed to get this far in life without experiencing the magic of mental imagery. One friend, though, offered a little nugget of information that led me down a mini research rabbit hole: this inability to produce mental images is called ‘aphantasia’. The word comes from the Latin phantasia, meaning fantasy; that little a preceding it means ‘no’. So… ‘no fantasy’. Just words.
Aphantasia got some public attention in 2016 when Firefox browser co-creator Blake Ross wrote a blog post called ‘Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind‘. He writes:
If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.
You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only ‘see’ a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.
I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought ‘counting sheep’ was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.
Ross’ expression of amazement upon realising that people can visualise things in their minds is similar to how I felt upon being told that most people’s mind’s eyes could actually see things. Like Ross, your telling me to ‘picture a beach’ will evoke all the facts I know about beaches – there’s water, sand, a lifeguard, and so forth – but I will not see a beach in my mind. To use Ross’ words, ‘I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.’ But my mind’s eye remains blind.
In 1880, Francis Galton published was is often deemed the first modern statistical study. This is ‘Statistics of Mental Imagery‘, wherein Galton reports the results of his asking 100 male peers to picture a breakfast table in their minds. Galton concludes ‘that scientific men as a class have feeble powers of visual representation.’ The reason for this, he suggests, is ‘that an over-readiness to perceive clear mental pictures is antagonistic to the acquirement of habits of highly generalised and abstract thought, and that if the faculty of producing them was ever possessed by men who think hard, it is very apt to be lost by disuse.’ Basically, people who can’t see mental images set that ability aside because it distracts them from smarter pursuits. However, in Galton’s words, ‘men who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures can nevertheless give life-like descriptions of what they have seen, and call [sic] otherwise express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination. They can also become painters of the rank of Royal Academicians.’ There’s room in the art world for aphantasiacs, says Galton.
And then a 2006 study completely negated Galton’s conclusion that scientists had ‘feeble powers of visual representation’. But by using only male participants, as Galton did. Eugh.
But, for a while, that was that.
And then in January 2015 the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) began funding the University of Exeter’s ‘Eye’s Mind’ study, ‘a study of the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture […] Our current research focus is on the experience and neurobiology of the extremes of visual imagery, “aphantasia” and “hyperphantasia”.’ The project kicked off with a frustratingly short and vague Letter to the Editor in a scientific journal called Cortex, but the points made within that piece have since been fleshed out in a number of academic and popular outlets. Of course, this whooooole AHRC-funded project when, in 2010, the eventual Eye’s Mind principal investigator, with some others, published a report about a 65-year-old man’s sudden loss of the ability of generate mental images. And all of those with living with aphantasia, who’ve never been able to conjure mental images, were just amazed that some guy once actually had the ability to see pictures in his head. Huh.
Nevertheless, it was Firefox Ross’ post that brought aphantasia to public attention. Both people with the capacity for mental imagery and people without are interested in learning more about this condition. If you want a not-so-scary introduction, consider checking out the book called Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions, and Insights, which was published at the end of last year. For the sciencey types, here’s a 2017 article detailing a small-scale test some Australian researchers did with aphantasiacs. Don’t want to read the available literature? Let me summarise it for you: we don’t know anything about aphantasia. Some people even doubt it exists. Those people can suck it, because I still ain’t seein’ no mental images, but still. There’s so much work to be done.
But what does all of this have to do with book history?
To be honest, I’m not at all sure. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether the inability to produce mental images is a good or a bad thing. Am I really missing out? How does this quality affect my thought processes, or the way my memory works? How does it affect the way that I interact with those written or printed materials that are at the centre of my field of study?
All I can say for sure is that mental imagery doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my ability to critically engage with textual artefacts, or the history of those artefacts. My inability to generate mental images, however, may be a factor in my not-so-romantic perception of texts and their containers. While others talk about how much they love reading because books transport them to other worlds, I love reading because it is a means for communicating with others across constraints of space and time. I’m interested in communication, not escapism. I scribble in, and dog-ear the heck out of, my books; I don’t revere them. Maybe this is because there is a barbed wire fence surrounding the escape exit of my brain.
And maybe this barbed wire fence is hereditary. Father Henrickson is likewise unable to generate mental images, although he’s the only other member of the Henrickson clan who seems to have this issue. But he was just as surprised as I was to discover that the mind’s eye isn’t a metaphor.
I think about this a lot, y’all, and I still have no idea what to think.
We may just have to wait and see what the science says.