Writing Fiction With No “Mind’s Eye”

An interesting post that leads to a fantastic exercise in imagination: Aphantasia: Writing Fiction With No ‘Mind’s Eye’

I’d been writing fiction for more than a decade before I encountered the term “aphantasia,” which describes a rare inability to see mental images in the mind’s eye.

I’d been instructed many times to visualize an image to meditate, relax, remember or write, but when I tried, I saw nothing. Over time, I assumed that “visualize” and “mind’s eye” were figures of speech. I didn’t know other people could literally generate images in their minds without a real-life image to look at.

Media reports suggest aphantasia affects about 2% of the population, or one of every fifty people. The condition may be genetic or the result of trauma. By their own reports, my parents see mental images; my sibling doesn’t.

People with aphantasia learn to substitute other mental processes to work around the lack of mental images to some extent. Instructed to “picture a lemon,” I can think of the color yellow and the classic shape of a lemon. Asked to “picture the letters of the alphabet,” I can sketch them in my mind’s eye, in monochrome, up to about the letter “h,” then I get a vicious headache and have to stop.

This is just so difficult to imagine! I know that undoubtedly plenty of people have a better visual imagination than I do, there’s no doubt a wide, wide range of phenomena in this regard. But knowing that and being able to imagine what it might be like are completely different.

Whenever possible, I visit my settings in real life and write notes about what I observe.

In writing my Fantasy novel, I stuck with Contemporary Fantasy — our world, our time — rather than write about an imagined world. Setting the story where I live, in Ventura, California, gave me plenty of places to see in real life. I scheduled time to visit my settings during the same season and at the same time of day as my characters.

That’s a reason to write contemporary fantasy that never occurred to me!

The link that’s supposed to go to a quiz where you can assess your visual ability is … well, too complicated for me, I guess, or else it makes you sign up for a newsletter, which I don’t want to do. Buzzfeed steps in to fill the need for a much simpler to access, if possibly less valid, quiz. It’s all self-assessment about how clearly you can picture stuff.

Regardless of the validity of quizzes like this, aphantasia and other variability in imagination is just plain interesting. I wonder if anybody has ever written a telepathic character who was puzzled or baffled or confused by the variability in the internal worlds of the people around him. This didn’t occur to me. I’m not sure it’s ever occurred to any author who’s written a telepath.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Fiction With No “Mind’s Eye””

  1. As your post mentions, some people cannot create internal mental images. There’s a range there as well–some people can create mental images but only at a simple level, while others can create entire worlds. But there are also people who lack a metacognitive voice! Most people talk to themselves in their head, but some people do not!

  2. It’s so interesting to try to imagine other people’s mental worlds. Also, kind of impossible.

  3. Wow, I didn’t know this was a thing, but I think I may have it. As the original writer says, I just figured that it was a figure of speech, and nobody really *saw* pictures in their ‘mind’s eye’.

    If told to picture a lemon, I make my eyes trace a path shaped like the outline of a lemon, and tell myself the inside of that path should be yellow, rounded, a bit shiny and dimpled – but I don’t see anything except the insides of my eyelids, or whatever is in front of me.
    More complex ‘visualisations’ tend to lose me as soon as they contain more details than I can keep in mind at once, so then I have to start over again, and usually just give up and try to call up the feelings supposed to be associated with that image, like calm and peacefullness during yoga meditation.

    I can sometimes (rarely, that I remember) see a vivid film in my head when I’m sleeping and dreaming, but not when I’m awake.

    Maybe that is why the emotions, how a story feels to me, are much more important than the visuals to me, and I often don’t notice discontinuities in that unless I’m paying attention?

    I wonder how that works for someone with aphantasia who get PTSD, as that is said to have people reliving the trauma and seeing the traumatic situation repeating before their eyes. If you can’t see mental visualisations, do you still re-see the traumatic event, or do you blank out your vision and purely relive the feelings of it?

  4. That’s really interesting, Hanneke. I do sometimes wish I was a telepath just for the experience of seeing the world through other eyes. To me, it definitely sounds like you are experiencing the world with aphantasia. I know I don’t have as concrete a visual imagination as some people describe, but I think I visualize a lemon. I know I don’t draw an outline of a lemon and tell myself that it’s yellow.

    I feel like someone with PTSD would flashback to the emotional experience even if not the visual or auditory experience — but that’s a guess!

  5. I remember the Teen asking me to look at a story and help figure out what was going on in it that the writer was managing to convey “character on the last dregs of energy”. I spotted that the visual cues were going down, and sound & tactile cues were going up. Vision took too much work. Eventually vision cues dropped completely. A chapter or two on, the character collapsed. That was an excellent use of lack of one sense cue to convey something else. I think writers can figure out how to use this aphantasia to mimic what that one did but for all sorts of uses, not just collapsing.

  6. This is fascinating. I do wonder what that would feel like? I had a similar experience when I was younger, but I’m not sure there’s a word for it. You see, I somehow didn’t realize that most people ‘feel’ feelings . . . with their bodies, not their minds, and that phrases like ‘butterflies in my stomach’ explain how a feeling is experienced. So when I’d get nauseated because of anxiety, etc., etc., I would assume that I was actually ill. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that those common turns of phrase . . . weren’t. Or weren’t just.

  7. EC, at a particular time in my life, I realized that “a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach” was a literal description of a real, actual, physical feeling. Not a great realization to have, but interesting.

    Lightheaded is another one that’s literally true for me. I mean, on rare occasions, but I’ve experienced this literal physical feeling too.

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