I can’t see you but I’m not blind

If I ask you to think of an elephant, do you see an elephant in your head when you close your eyes?

elephant picture
Elephant Picture – I can’t see you

I don’t see a picture. Regardless of how descriptive the images, story, or text are, I can’t create any images in my head. Two percent of the population cannot see a picture either. This inability to visualize is called fantasy.

I never knew that this absence of mental imagery was even a thing until my daughter pointed out that she and I were missing something that my wife and another daughter had. Ask us to visualize a rainbow or a sunset, and we just don’t see anything. We cannot create images of objects, people, places or experiences in our head.

Where others can visualize these things, we cannot. This means that we do not visualize people, memories or images from the past or the future. When people used to say “imagine” or “visualize”, this in your mind, I thought it was a change of expression. Now I realize that other people were actually seeing something in their heads.

Look at the apple, close your eye and imagine it again. Can you see it in your head?

Suppose you want to see what anxiety looks like: look at the picture of the apple. Now close your eyes and try to imagine the apple, seeing it mentally in your mind. If you don’t see anything, you may have a fantasy.

How can I find out about afantasia?

For a more detailed test, see the Visual image vividness questionnaire.

Are your thoughts yelling at you or are they silent?

(I also realize that when people describe that they can hear the sound of their voice in their head (a train of thoughts), it is not just a metaphor. But my thoughts are silent).

What about learning?

My reaction to knowing that most people can create visual images It was, “huh.” I lived my whole life thinking that the word “visualize” meant “to think about what this means”, without actually being able to “see” it.

Reading that other people actually see images in their heads was like learning that there was another feeling that most people had that I was missing.

I was baffled that I had lived my entire life with the equivalent of seeing the world in black and white and discovering that other people see the world in color. (The only exception to this is that I often wake up remembering visual images from my dreams.)

Visual images
Visual Images: I can’t see you, but I’m not blind

Is being able to visualize everything a disadvantage or an advantage?

My inability to visualize does not seem to have impeded my imagination or creativity. On the contrary, I am constantly thinking of new things, I just do not see them as images (nor do I listen to them).

I’m not sure what those other guys can’t do. Maybe I can blame him for my failure in sports? Or my inability to sing or dance? It probably explains why I am left empty when my wife asks me what someone was wearing or what their house was like. Or, more revealing, why I can’t visualize descriptive language in poetry or a novel.

How do you communicate with those around you?

The interesting thing is that the lack of what most of the others seem to be able to do can explain how I think, communicate and process information. Perhaps this explains how I carry out the creative process. For example, when I want to describe an event that happened, I don’t mention the visual images of what places or people looked like. Instead, my stories are from what I remember about the events, data, and conversations surrounding the event.

Principles, Ideas, Patterns

It could also explain why pattern recognition and abstract thinking (the ability to think of principles and ideas that are not physically present) are easier for me. This is possibly because I am not distracted by the visual images associated with the data that others see. Instead, I only see raw data.

divide concepts into simple steps
Divide the concepts into simpler steps

To develop complicated ideas, I often make diagrams of ideas and concepts (but don’t draw pictures of things). Then I divide ideas and concepts into simpler steps by drawing each part. Dividing concepts into easy steps helps me simplify ideas so that I can explain them first to myself and then to others. Then I translate the diagram into words.

At times, the result has been transformative for more than just me.

The way I’m connected has given me (and probably other founders and those in other fields) an edge. So how can others with fantasy consciously take advantage of that? And for those who see images in their heads, is there anything they can learn from those of us who don’t?

(I wonder if I could have benefited from a modified classroom curriculum if this had been discovered so early. Or if I had been taught to visualize. But what would I have missed?)

Advantages and disadvantages

When I first heard about afantasia, I wondered if those of us who had it would tend to excel in specific fields and avoid others. I was surprised to find that someone I already did a study which showed that people with low or no visual images are more likely to work in science and math industries.

And does having hyperfantasia (people with the opposite condition, having extremely vivid mental images) predispose people to work in the arts? It makes me wonder if trauma / PTSD response and recovery have any correlation with those who have the ability to visualize those memories versus those who don’t. (Here’s a tremendous study area for the future Veterans Administration.)

We are just at the beginning of understanding

This last recognition of afantasia as a neurological difference is only a decade or more (although references in the literature date back to the 1890s).

My bet is that as science continues to explore neurodiversity (brain differences between people), we will gain a broader understanding that people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in many different ways.

Hopefully we will discover how that leads to different strengths in understanding, pattern recognition, and problem solving. We will probably discover more connections.

I’m curious if there is anyone else who can’t see images in their head.

Let me know.

Image credit: Elephant, Pixabay; Pexels; Thanks!

Image credit: Man on Tree: Lukas Rodriguez; Pexels; Thanks!

Image Credit: Apple; Juan C. Palacios; Pexels; Thanks!

Cover Image Credit: Asiama Junior; Pexels; Thanks!

Steve Blank

Steve Blank

Steve has been the part or co-founder of eight Silicon Valley startups. These have spanned a wide range of semiconductors, video games, personal computers, and supercomputers. (MIPS, Zilog, Rocket Science, SuperMac, Convergent Technologies, Ardent, ESL) Steve’s last company was E.piphany, an enterprise software company. Steve currently teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and Columbia University.


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