A Bit About Aphantasia

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.

A Letter from a Vegetarian Bacon-Lover

If you’ve ever gone to a rare bookshop, you’ve probably noticed a massive section dedicated to Francis Bacon. If you’re thinking back to your bookshop treks and can’t remember seeing a Bacon section, stop reading this post. Walk, run, or unicycle to your nearest rare bookshop. Enter the shop, tell the proprietor that you want to see his or her Bacons, and lose yourself in the collection for a few hours. Then come back here to finish this post.

I’ll wait.

Who the heck was Francis Bacon?

Good ol’ Pork Chop was, according to Wikipedia, “an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, and author.” Oh yeah, and some people believe that he actually authored all of Shakespeare’s works.

I know – that’s not a particularly helpful description. After all, any schmuck can call himself a philosopher, a statesman, or a scientist. We’ve all made a few pretty solid baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. What makes Pork Chop so special?

Cue the next Wikipedia paragraph: “Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive and careful observation of events in nature. Most importantly, he argued this could be achieved by use of a skeptical and methodical approach whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves. While his own practical ideas about such a method, the Baconian method, did not have a long lasting influence, the general idea of the importance and possibility of a skeptical methodology makes Bacon the father of scientific method.”

This Little Piggy changed the way we look at the world. He didn’t just do science, he is science. Annnnnnd someone on YouTube was so excited by Bacon’s scientific method that he/she tried to make a trailer(?) to get other people stoked:

So, fine. You win, Bacon. Your scientific method might be a bit more legit than my baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. It is certainly more legit than that horrendous YouTube trailer.

Slva sylvarum, or One of the Books that Clearly Illustrates Why Bacon is Amazing

One of my favourite Bacon books is Sylva sylvarum, or A Natural History in Ten Centuries. This is Bacon at his best. And it’s written in pretty accessible English! Annnnnd, if you want to own one, quite a few copies are available for purchase from antiquarian booksellers. Just throwing that plug out there.

Sylva was first published by William Rawley, Bacon’s personal secretary, in 1627, shortly after Bacon’s death in 1626. Sylva is a collection of writings with chapters like: “Of Meats and Drinks most Nourishing”, “Of Articulation of Sounds”, “Of Winter and Summer Sicknesses”, “Of the Hiccouchs”, and “Of the Glo-worm”. Each chapter is an “experiment”, although it’s not entirely clear what is meant by the word “experiment”, as some of the chapters seem to be just ramblings.

Interestingly, though, one blogger notes that more than half of the “experiments” Bacon writes about have been ripped off from philosophers before him, and “obviously untried by Bacon himself and accepted on dubious testimony.” But let’s give Porker the benefit of the doubt here: he heavily rework a lot of these stolen bits to make them accessible for contemporary readers. He places them in context. He juxtaposes them in new ways. Heck, it sounds more like Bacon was writing a solid undergraduate paper than plagiarizing. He just needs to work on his citation style, that’s all.

In the letter to the reader preceding the text, Rawley explains what Bacon intended the book to do. The letter reads: “Those [other] Natural Histories which are extant, being gathered for delight and use, are full of pleasant Descriptions and Pictures; and affect and seek after Admiration, Rarities, and Secrets. But contrariwise, the scope, which his Lordship intendeth, is to write such a Natural History, as may be fundamental to the erecting and buiding of a true Philosophy: For the illumination of the Understanding; the extracting of Axioms, and the producing of many nobles Works and Effects. For he hopeth by this means, to acquit himself of that, for which he taketh himself in a sort bound, and that is, the advancement of Learning and Sciences.”* In short: all those other Natural Histories are People, while Bacon’s Natural History is Time. This is not Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Rawley implies. This is serious stuff, sans pictures. Oh yeah, and “he, that looketh attentively into them [the experiments], shall finde, that they have a secret order.” What does that even mean, Rawley?! People are still trying to figure it out.

To be clear, at no point does Bacon toss his belief in God. Science and faith, then and today, do not have to be mutually exclusive. Bacon uses a lot of biblical references throughout Sylva to support his points, and the opening engraving of the book even includes (among other obvious biblical references) the oh-so-famous Genesis text: Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona (“And God saw the light, that it was good”). 17th-century readers would have dug this.

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Sylva sylvarum‘s opening engraving (9th edition).

There seem to be 17 editions of Sylva sylvarum in total, and each edition has a slightly different version of the text. However, all versions (weirdly?) include New Atlantis, which is Bacon’s unfinished utopian novel that some believe to be a commentary on the then-newly-settled America. This text has been subject to some intense analysis, and is still a topic of conversation within Bacon-lovers’ circles today. Collectors who want a first edition of New Atlantis need to get their hands on the first edition of Sylva and flip to the end, where it seems to have been included as a supplement to Bacon’s Natural History.

*All quotations from Sylva sylvarum are taken from this copy, which is a ninth edition from 1970.

So why am I writing about this?

Bacon takes up a lot of space in rare bookshops, but it seems like a lot of people don’t know why. When I was recently at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, I found myself explaining to quite a few attendees why they should care about this guy, and why they should fatten up their collections with his works.

Collectable Bacon books don’t have to be very expensive, since there are a lot of additions and copies to chose from. However, don’t let the affordable price fool you: these are important books, and are valuable both economically and culturally. You will never, ever be wasting money on a Bacon, even if it’s just a $.50 copy of his essays that you pick up at your local university book sale.

So get out there and gobble up some Bacon! He is, after all, a total babe.

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Such dainty hands (frontispiece, 9th edition).