Monday, 12 October 2015

Can You See A Sunset Without Looking? Exploring the Visual Imagination

by Addy Farmer

I wonder if you can summon up the image of a glorious sunset inside your head? Can you capture the nuance of colour in the sky, the shape of the sun, the texture of the scene? I'll leave that one with you for now.


This ability is sometimes referred to as 'the mind's eye':

The phrase "mind's eye" refers to the human ability to visualise i.e., to experience visual mental imagery; in other words, one's ability to "see" things with the mind.
I have always had this ability and I have always assumed that everyone else was able to do the same. It turns out after a quick delve into history, that this is not the case. 

A Brief Peer into Visual imagination. 

In an interesting blog summary I found:

"There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Francis Galton, a nineteenth century psychologist, gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't."
Francis Galton - close your eyes and then try and recall the detail of his lovely sideburns
Recently, a new word has been added to the medical lexicon, Aphantasia, which brings us back to that sunset. The University of Exeter has taken up the work of Galton and come up with a new study.
She ... realised that her ability to conjure a mental picture differed from her peers during management training in her 20s. She said: “We were told to ‘visualise a sunrise’, and I thought ‘what on Earth does that look like’ – I couldn’t picture it at all. I could describe it – I could tell you that the sun comes up over the horizon and the sky changes colour as it gets lighter, but I can’t actually see that image in my mind.”
Dame Gill has a successful career and does not feel hindered by her lack of a “mind’s eye”. But she said: “I became more aware of it when my mum died, as I can’t remember her face. I now realise that others can conjure up a picture of someone they love, and that did make me feel sad, although of course I remember her in other ways. I can describe the way she stood on the stairs for a photo for example, I just can’t see it.”
What does this mean for readers? Beyond being presented with images in a book full of pictures, is a reader hampered by an inability to conjure images in her head? Crucially - does it put someone off reading non-illustrated texts when they are older? In the Exeter summary, a bookshop worker says
Niel works in a bookshop and is an avid reader, but avoids books with vivid landscape descriptions as they bring nothing to mind for him. “I just find myself going through the motion of reading the words without any image coming to mind,” he said. “I usually have to go back and read a passage about a visual description several times – it’s almost meaningless.”
And is there a knock on effect for writers? For example, does a limited or non-existent visual imagination stop a writer, wether knowingly or not, from writing longer more descriptive stories. Might a writer avoid writing, say, a ghost story, where creating atmosphere is crucial? I know that there are children's writers out there who have this condition to some degree - I wonder what they think?  

Okay - which part of my fevered brain did this come from?
How Good is your Visual Imagination?

I love a quiz and the BBC have helpfully posted a way of finding out where you come on the visual imagination register. Give it a go! 


Clearly there are some cases where you may benefit from a bit of brain re-training. In his book, The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks talks about a case of, "alexia sine agraphia" which means the inability to read while retaining the ability to write. The patient was a crime writer called Howard - how would he ever write another detective story if he couldn't read his own plot notes? In a novel (sorry) approach, he trains his brain to understand what he sees by tracing the outlines of words with his tongue. Weird but true or as Sacks puts it, "Thus, by an extraordinary, metamodal, sensory-motor alchemy... he was, in effect, reading with his tongue." And so he goes on to write another novel.
Consider this, the strangest of facts: your thoughts, memories and emotions, your perceptions of the world, and your deepest intuitions of selfhood, are the product of three pounds of jellified fats, proteins, sugars and salts – the stuff of the brain and as tough as blancmange. It's absurd, wonderful and terrifying. The Guardian Review of The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks
The brain can do remarkable things. I am not advocating licking your words to find a deeper meaning (feel free) but maybe shaking ourselves out of our 'normal' way of thinking may give a different perspective or unlock a way of writing you had not considered before. 

Beware moving vehicles
A Bit of Brain Re-training

You might try these exercises lifted from here

Pick something simple at first, such as a plain mug or even a small piece of blank paper. Until you get good at this, stay away from complex items such as car keys or anything that has lots of colours, designs or textures.

Sit down and get yourself comfortable (not too comfy). Put the object on the table in front of you. Lean over where your face is two or three feet from the object. Now with your eyes open, look at the object. Study it in detail. Notice any glare from the light in the room. Pay attention to its texture. Is it smooth or is it coarse? Study it and get as many details as you can.

Now close your eyes. In your mind's eyes, picture the object as if you were still looking at it. If you have a rough time at first, just make something up. Try to get as many details correct as you can. Now open your eyes again and look again at the object. Study it in great detail for a few moments.

Keep going back and forth like this for five or ten minutes. Play around with the exercise a couple times a day to become good at this skill.

As you improve, start playing around with more advanced visualizations. Imagine what a room would look like from a top corner. Image what a city would look like from a tall building. The whole idea is to be able to visualize anything that exists – to be able to hold a good, clear and detailed picture in the mind's eye. As an aside, the most common mistake people make with this is not making the visualization clear and detailed.


BUT this simply does not work for everyone. One person with a very limited visual imagination who wanted to improve this skill tried this:

1. Explicit imagery practice. He drew simple shapes, like a square or a ball, then stared at the shape, closed his eyes, seen the shape for as long as it stayed visualisable, opened his eyes to refresh, repeat. But he only retained a brief after-image.
2. Staying in visualization situations. When he found himself in the just-before-sleep state, he stayed there for a while and played with imagery. But he reported no increase in his range of visualisation states or ability to visualise.
3. Object drawing. He tried 3D constructions of blocks and tried drawing them from different angles on paper. But there was no actual imagery or mental rotation involved.

Are Artists Natural Visual Imaginers?

Are there any artists who CANNOT conjure up a sunset? Presumably, actual haunted houses, the Moon, a jungle clearing to give just a few examples, are not always within easy reach to copy but the image can be captured in an artist's head like a writer's voice is captured on the page. I do wonder how far illustrators 'see' picture books in their heads? Is it just broad brush to begin with, then the details come with the image on the page?

In an interesting interview Jim Kay explains how he uses models for his work (presumably for consistency as well as a means of creating a beautiful image).


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-34448224
Imagination Plus Experience

Back to that sunset. I find that when I try and visualise it, it is not a crisp photographic vision but more a feeling or approximation of one. For me it is not an identical process. There seems to be a fuzziness in the border between the visible and the conjured. I like to believe that my mind's eye alone is able to colonise the story landscape, mastering and portioning, fixing places and deepening the scene. But is this necessarily so?


What can deepen writing of course is experience. Actually going somewhere and using your senses can enhance your story so that your readers really feel what you feel. So, writing a night scene could be enhanced by actually going outside and feeling the cold and hearing the owls and sniffing the air, well you get the idea. It's not just the visual but the smell, touch, feel of the night. Which is all great if you don't have a scene in space.
Marcus Sedgewick talked about falling in a ditch full of snow whilst researching and transferring the experience of gasping cold into his writing. 
There are of course heaps of writers out there who write without the joy of the mind's eye (and it is a joy to me) and still have the joy of writing. Just as there are writers who do not experience everything in order to write well about it.

Perhaps the more interesting questions which remain are about how the visual imagination or lack of it, might impact on the individual reader and how this might limit her engagement with a text. Or in the case of a writer how this might limit their range of writing.    

Whatever kind of writer we are, we should be sponges. We have to suck up life, shlurp (?) up conversations and read, read, read until we are rubbing our spongy eyes. Whether these stories materialise as something like a film or photographs or a voice in your head or a lickable page, I suppose it doesn't matter. In the end, the stories will come and we will write them.





27 comments :

  1. Really interesting stuff! Likewise I always assumed everyone can conjure up images in their mind - whether made up or from memory. It's something I've taken for granted.

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    1. Me too! I began talking to people about it and dfound some notable exceptions! My ghast was flabbered.

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    2. I can't visualise. But I can imagine through words and feelings.

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  2. Addy this is fascinating - i had no idea! I thought everyone could visualise - I didn't even think it was a thing!

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    1. I know! It is a thing! And I love the phrase, Aphantasia which sound like a Disney movie ironically enough

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  3. I'm with Teri and Kathryn on this one. It never occured to me that every other human being wouldn't have the same ability to visualise as I do. It also explains different learning styles; auditory, visual and kinaesthetic. At school I was purely auditory because I could visualise what the teachers were talking about. No wonder some children need visuals and hands on! Wow!

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    1. I wonder if it's the norm with writers and if so which kind of writers? I'd love to know e.g how many picture book writers have limited visual imagination. I want to know how it works for them!

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  4. Interesting. As a writer it's an encouragement to go beyond the visual in descriptions. I would think a reader will experience the subject via their usual channels of recall which may be sensory or emotional.

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    1. Yes, maybe we should not rely so much on the visual - I know I'm guilty of neglecting the other senses sometimes!

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  5. So interesting! Like Teri, Kathy and Gill I see easily with my mind's eye - including seeing feelings and things purely imaginary - but I've also been aware for some time that not everyone does. Thanks for a great post, Addy.

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    1. Thanks, Nicky! It was fascinating to me!

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  6. I am someone with a relatively poor visual imagination - in that BBC test, I scored 20 out of 40 which puts me into a segment with 9% of the population. I can't hold a distinct image in my mind for more than a few seconds - it just sort of floats away. So I will try the exercises with interest!
    What's interesting is that I've often been complemented for the visual quality of my writing, even though I avoid long descriptions and prefer to concentrate on dialogue. Perhaps because I have to work so hard to describe visual things, that means I must by necessity concentrate on the telling details? There's certainly no risk of me over-describing!
    The flip side of all this is that I have an excellent auditory memory. I can hear exactly how my books sound by reading them in my head, and I can identify people who I haven't met for years just by the sound of their voice - even if I can't remember their name :-)

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  7. That's so interesting, Nick. When you write something descriptive are you 'seeing' it in your head and 'copying' what you see or is it something other? I wish ones visual memory extended to attaching names to faces! Or, I suppose I could try what an aunt used to do and that was assign someone a name if she couldn't remember them.

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    1. I have to make lots of notes about what is in the environment I'm describing before I write about it. I love action scenes but find them particularly taxing to write because there's a lot of description and they often rely on spatial relationships, which I can't visualise very effectively.

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    2. I focus on emotional arcs and save descriptions for later!

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  8. I'm afraid I'm like Nick.I don't "see" anything I read (or write). And when I draw, the first time I see my drawing is on the page. When you picture things, how detailed are they? I have a vague notion but I see nothing.

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    1. I don't think hat I have very detailed visions unless I really out my mind to it and go into, say, a 'close-up'. Then, if it had to be a face I can tell myself to give this character green eyes or freckles or whatever but it usually ends up as the detail of a face I've seen elsewhere.

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  9. The article -and doing the BBC test actually made me cry a bit! I thought I was being quoted because their experiences were so uncannily similar! And the test didn't make sense when it said now something else is happening (in the image you're picturing) -how clear are the colours...? WHAT COLOURS?! I scored 5 which put me in the lowest category but even then I was kind of being generous with my memory. But like Nick, I had a brilliant auditory memory. As for books with descriptions, I could never read Wuthering Heights or anything with descriptive language because it means nothing, and I've no more idea at the end of a book what someone looks like than at the beginning. But until people asked bizarre questions (like "What do you think X looked like in this book?"), I had no idea that other people did. I'm going to come back to this article and do the exercises very soon.

    At least I'm in good company -Candy and Nick! Thanks for a fascinating (and oddly moving -first time I've ever read about aphantasia which I've clearly got) read. Looking forward to reading it again soon.

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    1. Thanks, Clare! I was blown away when I first heard about it. And I was sort of sad that beautiful evocative descriptions might evoke nothing for some people because the reading of such passages makes me 'feel' more. But then that's not to say that this is the be all and end all cos clearly it isn't. It's just a difference.

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    2. But Addy, they DO evoke something. Just not something visual. However if you still feel sorry for me, I will not turn down a slice of cake.

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    3. This is what I was trying to fathom, I suppose. Maybe we should share a massive chocolate cake between us and coffee and maybe some Prosecco.

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    4. that truly sounds like a wise and wonderful plan!

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    5. I guess it's somewhat related to face blindness. I have to meet someone a few times before I can describe their face. I'd be hopeless at identity parades. There's a test for that as well https://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

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    6. There's been a lot in the news recently about super recognisers. I took a test and turns out I'm better than 8 out of 10 people who took the test! Interesting. Thanks for reading, Ana.

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  10. Really interesting to hear Candy and Clare's feedback. I talked to my wife (also called Claire) because I had a suspicion that her visual imagination was similar to mine - and it is! She is a very accomplished artist, but she can only work from life and finds it impossible to draw "out of her head" - presumably the lack of visual imagination is the reason for this. Like me, she enjoys books with lots of dialogue that aren't heavy on description.

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    1. This is fascinating. The University of Exeter is still looking for people to contribute to a study - I'll find the link

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    2. The weird thing though, Nick, is I CAN draw from out of my head, I just can't SEE it in my head. I too find it hard to write action scenes. The whole spatial thing is weird though because I do have a good sense of spatial awareness and in writing, rather than visualising, I have a sense of how things fit together and a kind of rhythm in the story - I feel gaps in the flow of the story that I have to fill with words. Hmm. All fascinating. Must stop being distracted by this now and get back to lovely word assembling.

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