A Picture is NOT worth 1000 Words — the Buddha Dharma is a Tradition of Words — A Guide for Those Who Can’t Visualize (Aphantasia)

I remember during a few of Andrew’s Hangouts one of the participants mentioned the inability to visualize. I thought this article might be of benefit for others who may have similar obstacles.

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Hey Barry, this sent me down a rabbit hole, culminating in reading the article Can You Picture This? Some People Can’t, and…crap…I think I may have aphantasia – this is my tentative and rather distressing conclusion after learning that people with aphantasia can still have rich visual dreams and occasional involuntary mental imagery (both are reasons I thought I couldn’t have aphantasia).

My next thought is: is it possible for someone with aphantasia to somehow learn to voluntarily visualize? :thinking:

OK, someone on this Reddit thread thinks they overcame aphantasia.

Apparently there is an objective test for whether someone has the condition:

scientists came up with a way to test for this. You show a series of green vertical lines to the left eye and a series of red horizontal lines to the right eye. The brain can only register one of these and has to choose. You can influence this choice by priming the participant’s brain beforehand (“think of a series of green vertical lines”). It’s a little bit telling someone to imagine the cutest Corgi and then asking them to choose between a real-life Corgi and a German Shepherd. You’ve already primed the brain with the Corgi so this should influence choice. When aphantasics were asked to visualize these lines beforehand (which they thought they couldn’t do, but maybe they could but weren’t aware of it), there was no effect on the test. The priming didn’t work. It seems these aphantasics really cannot voluntarily see in their mind’s eye. Scientists are starting to map out the differences in the brains of aphantasics using functional magnetic resonance imagery, but these studies to date have been quite small. (LINK)

Not that this would be an easy test to get access to.

In any case, I need to look into this more. So…thanks…I guess :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

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Arthur, as I recall, the Hangout participant (October/November?) who brought this up was clinically diagnosed. He is also a long-time practitioner, back from the 60s-70s, with much experience in, and exposure to Dharma. Andrew did not have much knowledge about the subject but was interested in learning more.

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@ArthurG Hi Arthur, what about visualizing a lemon with your eyes closed. Before you visualize it, try to remember the sourness and then try to visualize with eyes closed.
Wonder if that works for you?

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Complete absence of imagery…

When trying to visualize, I sometimes get the impression that somewhere in my brain/mind there is a visual, but I don’t have conscious access to it. So I could tell you things about the “image,” but I’m not seeing it, not at all.

I’d be very interested to know if there is a separate part of the brain that represents images to the “mind’s eye” (whatever that is), and I don’t have that, or if there is a part of the brain that is visualizing, and it’s not connected to the part of my brain that would be consciously seeing it – if the latter, is there a way to connect those parts?

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Question Arthur. When you remember a dream do you “picture it” like the way you’d visualize a movie you’ve seen?

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I remember what I was doing, and what things looked like – I could describe to you the shape and arrangements of rooms, how things are arranged in relation to each other etc. I remember seeing it…but I don’t see it again.

If I’m reading a book I don’t see what the author is describing, and I find it difficult to imagine or hold in my mind what things look like based on that verbal description. If I’ve seen something in a movie or (better yet) a VR experience or a dream, I do much better in knowing what things look like, because I did see it at the time – but I’m not literally seeing it, even faintly, when I’m remembering it

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UPDATE: Here is an article that helped me understand some of the visualization processes I am trying to cultivate. Answers a few questions for me about the mind’s eye, though there are some interesting comments about using void instead of emptiness:

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From the article:

In order to understand the various levels and usages of visualization, first we need to throw the word visualization out of the window. It is the wrong word because the word visualization implies something visual. In other words, it implies working with visual images and it also implies working with our eyes. This is incorrect. Instead, we are working with the imagination. When we work with the imagination we’re not only working with imagined sights, but also with imagined sounds, smells, physical sensations, feelings – emotional feelings – and so on. Obviously, we do that with our minds, not with our eyes.

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@ArthurG What helped me to improve visualization is to use the after-image. I chose an object with eyes open, focused on it and then closed the eyes. For a few seconds there are remnants of the image which I then try to „see“ the details of. At the beginning it’s just basic lines, color swabs or simple shapes.

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Yes!! There seems to be an interesting relation, though, between the experience of seeing - and - experiencing a visualized image in the space of the mind when the eyes are closed.
It is true that both are not happening in the same sensory field, but I have noticed the following shift while practicing a meditation with visualisation with my eyes closed:

Initially, the visualized object or scene is shifty and unclear. At this stage, I still feel that the mode of seeing (with eyes closed) is a mode similar to using the eye-sense. I continuously refresh the shape and attributes of the chosen object (with some effort).
Progressively, while refreshing the image again and again and trying to connect to the emotion coming up with that image (more and more trying to feel the image), it is important to relax into this intially effortful process.
At some point, when the effort is released even further the space of mind becomes more stable and the image remains stable as well. It seems to be a shift from effortful seeing to effortless self-arising.
This is very much like the shift from a visualized “A” at the throat (which does not self-arise initially) to liminal dream imagery, which self-arises out of a state of relaxation.

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How about “images” that are seared into our consciousness? These are present through the assistance of our emotional investment in them. I wonder if someone with aphantasia could close their eyes and see their mother’s face, or their spouse’s or perhaps objects or places of reverence?

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@_Barry Good point, perhaps @ArthurG can comment on that?

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With the caveat that I have not been formally diagnosed with aphantasia, and at this point suspect I have the condition, and speaking of my own experience: if I try to picture my mother’s face with my eyes closed, or the other examples you mentioned, I can get some vague “sense” of the image, but I’m not actually seeing anything. I could tell you things about the “image,” but I’m not seeing an image – at all. In such cases it sort of feels like somewhere in my mind is an image, but I can’t access it. But maybe that’s incorrect – perhaps I have some kind of non-visual model that has information about the face or whatever I’m trying to recall. This is also true of traumatic or charged imagery.

Side-note: I’m also very bad at describing people, even if I’ve just seen them, if they are not in my field of view at that exact moment.

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Arthur, in the article above, he mentions that,

n other words, it implies working with visual images and it also implies working with our eyes. This is incorrect. Instead, we are working with the imagination. When we work with the imagination we’re not only working with imagined sights, but also with imagined sounds, smells, physical sensations, feelings – emotional feelings – and so on. Obviously, we do that with our minds, not with our eyes.

. . . which leads me to posit the “images” I see of my mom (dead since 1980) are like detached pictures, semi—luminous, semi transparent, not finely detailed and not like a normal visual image. I think the author is correct in saying that visualize is not a very precise way of describing what we are doing.

Cool. The “images” I “see” are not visual at all, so maybe that’s different from what you’re describing

From what you’re saying, I’m guessing you’re around 3 or 4 in this scale. Put me down for 5. I know people who would probably rate their internal imagery at 1 or 2. I’d love to hear from other people in this forum where they would put their voluntary imagery on this scale

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I am in the 1 to 2 range. Conscious dreaming practice has definitely increased my imaging ability over recent years…or perhaps it has made me more aware of it.

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Depends on the image for me. The more personal and emotional 1-2, neutral objects 3-4. Im trying, much like @Steve_Gleason, to bring special images such as Green Tara, Guru Rinpoche, into 2-1. When I think of The Budda, I immediately go to the visage I have from the ZEE-TV SERIES about Him and it’s 2-1.

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@ArthurG Having read your descriptions, I was wondering how the following points are in your personal experience:
a) You wrote that you usually have some vague memory of your dreams the next morning, correct? If yes, that means you are experiencing dream imagery during the night.
b) It would be interesting to know how your experiences of liminal states has been so far. Have you been able to explore the liminal mind states by taking naps and extremely relaxing while “keeping the light of awareness on”?

  • If so, to what extend come shapes, colors, pictures etc up?
  • If not, what are the obstacles to the liminal state for you?

Since the ability to visualize and liminal imagery are extremely closely related, becoming more proficient in accessing the liminal state may drastically improve the ability to visualize.

In case of interest, my morning practice routine is as follows:
When already almost awake, I take the extra couple of minutes to deeply relax body, speech and mind.
I.e. laying in the dead corpse position (Shavasana) and relaxing every tense muscle I am aware of. Here I take a couple of minutes, because layer upon layer of tenseness appears until the body is truely loose.
Then, I listen to the silence in my throat. This calms the inner dialogue.
After that, I turn my attention to the mind space where thoughts and images may or may not instantly arise. The practice is now to continue relaxing and just observing even the slightest motion of… whatever appears. If nothing appears, that’s fine! Continue to enjoy this relaxed state. If something appears, that’s fine! Allow the (basic) shapes, imagery, emotional waves or whatever appears to do its’ thing and just view it in a relaxed fashion. Don’t engage in it to early.
After a while, these spontaneous fragments of motion become more stable and if one is relaxed and stable oneself, they may even become a dream. Then it is a WILD.
But don’t try to achieve anything, remember to continue to deeply relax body, speech and mind and just be attentive to the motions in the mind space, regardless of any outcome.

What does that have to do with the ability to visualize?
In my experience, it is way more easy to visualize when one is in this relaxed liminal state, i.e. at a second stage one can influence the imagery of the spontaneuously arisen imagery.
This is the same “muscle” and the same “space” as when one would visualize in waking state. So this method works by increasing habituation/acquaintaince via the liminal state.

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As noted in my initial post in this thread, “I think I may have aphantasia…after learning that people with aphantasia can still have rich visual dreams and occasional involuntary mental imagery (both are reasons I thought I couldn’t have aphantasia).”

Based on reading a few articles, it appears to be the case that the key element of aphantasia is that people do not have voluntary imagery, i.e. if they try to visualize something, they see nothing; however, they may be able to experience involuntary imagery. If so, then no matter how great an aphantasic’s access to involuntary imagery, they are not going to be able to deliberately produce imagery.

So far, this appears to match my experience. I’ve tried to produce the simplest possible imagery, e.g. a black square on a white background, or vice versa, and I get nothing. Zip, zilch, nada. However, if I can relax enough with my eyes closed, I sometimes get liminal imagery. Most of the time the imagery is very simple, e.g. bursts of color. Occasionally I get flashes of detailed imagery (a face, an object), and rarely a whole scene (usually very tiny) plays out for a period of time. If I’m in a liminal state and I try to direct the imagery, or produce my own imagery, I get nothing (in fact such an attempt seems to tend to end the liminal imagery).

A long time ago, in Canada, I experimented briefly with ibogaine, a psychedelic medicine that was unregulated – that is to say, not illegal – in Canada at the time. During one experience, I went through a period of a couple of hours in which I repeatedly experienced intense visual experiences that would occupy small areas of my visual field – they were like pop-up videos that would arise, play out for a minute or so, then fade. I had no control over these visuals.

All of this keeps coming back to: I definitely have access to involuntary mental imagery (though not as much as I’d like), but (so far at least) I appear to have absolutely no access to voluntary mental imagery.

Currently I plan to continue to work on cultivating access to involuntary mental imagery. I’ll probably occasionally try to produce voluntary mental imagery, but at this point I don’t have a lot of hope that this will succeed.

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Perhaps seek a medical evaluation/disgnosis to confirm?

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