Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Remarkable variance in visual imagination

Not remotely scientific, this twitter poll nevertheless is really interesting:

When told to visualize a red star, what do you see?

Apparently, when told to visualize a red star, a rather sizable proportion of respondents don’t see a red star.

That’s so interesting. Stumbling across evidence that many people don’t live in the same sensory world you do is always so jarring.

Now I am literally unable to decide whether I’m really visualizing a red star, or maybe something that is actually not red or not a shape or whatever. I feel like I might have the idea of a red star in my mind, without a clear visual image. Yet I think I must have a pretty adequate ability to visualize scenery. I mean, I kind of do that all the time. Or something that I think of as “visualizing scenery.”

It’s all very odd. So I have a follow-up question for you all:

Look away from the screen and visualize a blue half-circle. Are you sure you can visualize a blue half-circle? Or are you possibly doing something else and calling it visualization?

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7 Comments Remarkable variance in visual imagination

  1. Kim Aippersbach

    I don’t understand this exercise at all. For one thing, when told to visualize a red star, I thought of a real star, so I imagined a red dot, and then a large, fiery red ball. But I didn’t “see” those things on the back of my eyelids; they were just in my brain. Are there people that see imaginary things with their eyes?? Maybe I am incapable of visualizing. That could explain why I’m no good at art. (I can’t picture faces in my head; are there people who can do that?)

  2. Rachel

    Kim, pretty sure I can picture faces in my head, even though I’m moderately face blind and have significantly more trouble recognizing people than average.

    And yet, I’m not sure that what I mean by “picture faces in my head” is the same as what other people mean.

    I got this link from Scott Alexander, who says this about the red-star exercise:

    “I was surprised by this poll which apparently found that many people imagine in black-and-white, in outlines, or just in faded pastel colors. Huh? For me a shape as simple as a red star would be near-perfect (though it feels somehow insubstantial, or perhaps strobing in and out at a very fast rate.)”

    I think Scott’s experience of visualization is different from mine. I kind of think I know what he means by “somehow insubstantial,” but I can’t wrap my mind around what he could possibly mean by visualizing a red star that is “strobing in and out at a very fast rate.” And when I think of what I would mean by visualizing an “insubstantial” red star, I mean it . . . may not be very red. It seems to me that maybe I’m visualizing a pastel-ish star. I did not expect that, and I’m not even sure it’s true.

    Nor do I at this point have any idea whether some people have the perception of visualization as actually involving their eyes, or if everyone perceives visualization as happening in the brain . . . and what can it mean to have no visual image at all when asked to visualize a red star?

    We sure seem to live in a much more varied world of the mind than seems plausible at first glance.

  3. Hanneke

    My experience is similar to Kim’s.
    Dreams can be very visual for me, but it’s not something I can do consciously. “Visualizing” to me means calling up a sort of mental ‘gestalt’, that feels like opening the drawer in my memory filing cabinet that contains the thing to be visualized (so stuff that’s related to it becomes more accessible), but not really seeing it.

  4. Kim Aippersbach

    Yes, Hanneke, that’s exactly it!

    So hard to know what goes on in other people’s brains. But then sometimes words work to communicate—miraculous that that even happens at all!

  5. Allan Shampine

    English is a difficult language to use when discussing cognition. I understand that sanskrit, for example, has a huge range of terms for mental processes that do not have equivalents in English.

  6. Allan Shampine

    A fun experiment I like to have people try with respect to perception is to close one eye and study an object with varied but bright colors, then switch eyes. Compare your perception of the colors with one eye to the other eye. Blink back and forth quickly. Most people will find that the colors look different in one eye than the other. For me, for example, the background on this web page is a light mottled brown akin to parchment, but through my right eye, the tone is greyer and more muted, while in my left eye it is a warmer brown.

    Now, when imagining an object entirely in your mind, the perception of color will be tinted by the context of the discussion and the memories fueling the imagined object. Picturing it at a different time under different conditions, the “same” object will not be identical, even for a given person. How much more so, then, between different people?

  7. Rachel

    I will have to try that, Allan. This is all just so strange. My perception of visualization is nothing at all like opening a drawer of related concepts, or whatever you all mean by that. That does not even begin to approach what I perceive when I “visualize” something.

    You know those little floaty things you see in your field of view sometimes? My experience of visualization is more like those little floaty things, only more in the shape and color of a red star (or whatever). But I think complicated scenery and faces are each different from that and different from each other. I do seem to visualize faces fairly well — even though I am moderately faceblind and have difficulty recognizing people I haven’t seen many times before.

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