Friday, May 20, 2016

Finding out you're weird. Then finding out you're really, really weird.

When people tell you to imagine something, like a beach, or a polka-dotted elephant, does an image come to mind? Most people, it seems would say yes.

I didn't realize for a long time that this was true. I always took phrases like "mind's eye" as an abstract term for constructing concepts in your mind. But somewhere along the way I discovered that most people actually picture things. They can "see" a beach; see the color of the water and the shape of the birds flying through the air, much in the way I can "hear" a song in my head. I can imagine Yellow Submarine, and hear Ringo's voice, and the sound effects; not so clearly that I can throw away my stereo, but I can conjure it up.

So I figured that much out. And I thought, well, that's weird. It didn't bother me much, though, since it didn't seem like a terrible useful ability. It did explain  some things, like a famous quote that had always puzzled me. In the early days of television, some kid was asked if he preferred radio or TV, and he said radio, "because the pictures were better."

That sounded insane to me, but if people can picture the stuff they hear on the radio, then I guess it makes sense.

I didn't realize how much other people's brains use that facility until I talked to my girlfriend, Laurel. As I understand it, all her memories are visual. If she thinks on the past, she sees it. I had thought of the mind's eye as something you could turn on if you wanted, but from Laurel it seemed that it was just a constant thing. Shortly after our conversation I saw the movie Inside Out, and the main character does experience her memories visually, and I thought that perhaps this is how most people's minds' work.

The subject came up again yesterday when I read an article on Vox by Blake Ross. His mind had been blown by a 2015 article in the New York Times about a man who had lost the ability to picture things. The condition had just been given a name that year, Aphantasia. And his reaction was, like mine, people can do that?

If you have Aphantasia, the Times article seems really bizarre, because it acts like this is an extraordinary thing. Imagine you'd been blind your whole life, and no one had ever told you, and then one day you read about a guy who "lost" his sight, and you suddenly realize almost everyone in the world except you can look up and see clouds and stars, and there's this whole thing going on you had no idea even existed.

As I read the Times article, I could see that people use their mind's eye for all sorts of things, because the researchers were amazed at what could be done without it. They asked aphantasiacs, how many windows are in your house, and were stunned that people could answer without picturing the rooms.

And I thought, that's how people remember things? They picture them?

Why wouldn't I know how many windows were in the house? I mean, you look at them, and your mind makes note of where they are, and if someone asks you, you can answer. The number of windows is a fact. I know a lot of facts. Water boils if you heat it on the stove. Cats have four paws. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I don't even understand why you would need to picture the room to answer a factual question. That just seems weird.

While I asked a handful of friends about the mind's eye, Blake asked everyone he knew. He asked them to picture a beach, and they did. They could see the color of the water, the waves rushing in, people sunbathing.

It appears it's not something you turn on and off, it just happens. When Laurel read Blake's article, she said when he talked about picturing a red triangle, a red triangle just popped into her head. When Blake asked a friend how often he pictured things, he said a thousand times a day. The shocking thing is, for 98% of you, italicizing that doesn't make any sense: it's just normal.

This explains so much. It explains why writers will spend two pages describing a forest; it's because people use that information to picture what's happening in the book. It explains why people claim it's impossible to not picture a polka-dotted elephant when someone tells you not to picture one. It explains how people count sheep (they actually see sheep and a fence), how people with a fear of public speaking picture an audience in their underwear to calm their nerves. It explains how people can tolerate meditation; with their eyes closed, they aren't actually locked in impenetrable blackness.

Some people are really bothered by aphantasia, one they know they have it. They feel they've been cheated. They think they might have other skills if their brain worked properly. But I doubt that.

Blake says he's been asked if he can draw, and he says he can't. I can draw, and at one point majored in art. How do I draw without picturing things? Kind of the same way I can tell you how many windows I have in my room. I store up facts. I look at a face, and see the nose hooks down slightly. So I look down and draw a nose that does that and look up again. I see a short upper lip, look down, draw that, look up. Look up, note, look down, draw. It's easy.

If I had a mind's eye, perhaps I could just look at a face and hold it in my head while I drew it. That would be convenient, but it's not essential. I manage with what I've got. It's certainly less of a problem than my face blindness, which can make it difficult to make friends (because I treat people I've had interesting conversations with like total strangers). I think of aphantasia more as a curious condition.

At the same time, now that I realize how much people use their mind's eye, I feel aphantasia actually makes me more of an alien than my face blindness. I don't just lack a capability others have; I fundamentally use my brain differently than everyone else. (Between my  face blindness, aphantasia, and perhaps an auditory processing disorder, I have to wonder exactly how much my brain is diverging from the rest of humanity's.)

It also makes me wonder: is there anything else? Will I learn someday that there is something else other people can do that I didn't realize was possible? Are there other phrases that I've been taking figuratively when they are literal? Do people really shoot the breeze? Do bad dancers really have two left feet? Can people do handsprings when they're happy? Do hearts actually jump when people feel joy and break when people are sad?

Right now, I think I know how atypical my brain is, but I am prepared to learn, once again, that I don't know the half of it.

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