I am coming to believe that our differences in “conscious experiences” or “experientials” is a most important factor in our ability to create a viable HUMANITY. I have written in various places on my own lack of mental imagery in all sensory modalities. A few others have responded and tried to describe their own subjective space, phenomenologically. I believe we need a renaissance of research in phenomenology.
What follows is my response to an email query by Alex on his reporting his subjective experiences (mental imagery). This is just the beginning of a dialog. Alex, if your can, comment within my blog. Others are invited to contribute their phenomenological descriptions of their subjective spaces. i include some reporting of incidental experiences in my life, which reflect on my own experientials.
Larry Victor I didn’t know whether I should email this to you or what, so I have chosen to say it here, publicly, because I think others might benefit from it.
As others might not know, we have spoken a great deal over the years about a great many things. One thing that you have spoken about on your website and in places like this is your inability, or deficit or whatever you want to call it, with regard to what I would call “seeing images in one’s mind’s eye”.
In any case, I’m a visual artist, but also in general I’m a very visual person. I’m also a conceptual thinker, often I am think in something resembling logic, and more often than not, I seem to experience a form of “thinking” kinesthetically, through my body – either through movements of my articulations or moving my body around. It might just have to do with being a very anxious person all my life. I am constantly squiggling around.
Anyway here’s the thing. I have had similar realizations before, but not like this. I just realized that I am COMPLETELY INCAPABLE of imagining or “seeing” SYMBOLS in my mind. That is, I can’t “see” numbers of letters, mainly.. I can maybe see like a plus sign if I really try hard, or a cross, but I definitely can’t “spell” something in my mind’s eye, or else do simple additions and multiplications and so forth, at least not with extreme and prolonged efforts.
Very interesting. I once met a person who had the opposite. All he experienced was text in his visual imagery. Sometimes letters and words would swirl and then coalesce into text to read. Many people good at mental arithmetic do it visually in their mind’s eye. Variations of mental imagery in the population has never been adequately researched (as far as I know).
That’s it. I thought you might find it interesting. I knew this about myself. I always told people when they asked me to count or calculate something that I needed to do it on paper. Give me a pad of paper and a pencil and I can do miraculous things. But without a pencil, I can hardly multiple two 2-digit numbers.
I am exactly the same. My grades in math in elementary school decreased from A to D, as word problems depended on imagery. I got an A in algebra and A’s from then on out. Higher math need not be done in one’s head. This insight led me to define MATH AS A FAMILY OF VERY CONCRETE LANGUAGES, USEFUL IN REPRESENTING ABSTRACTIONS. They myth that math is abstract blocks many from learning-to-learn math. “Higher math” does require special minds in being able to perceive/comprehend visual mathematical expressions.
It’s cause I can’t “see” the numbers.. They disappear on me. I can’t form the actual numbers in my mind.. It’s the same with letters. If someone asks me how to spell a word, I need to write it down. I need to SEE IT. I can’t tell you how to spell something unless i see it.
I sometimes sub-vocalize the spelling and it may appear OK or wrong. But I never visualize words. I never visualize, period – EXCEPT, a few times – in the distant past – so I know what I am missing. It was my first visualization that informed me that I lacked mental imagery most of the time.
I gave a test to each of my Intro Psy classes to assess their visual imagery. I had all stand and keep their eyes closed. Then I gave them a sequence of visual instructions.
When they couldn’t visualize I asked them to sit down. The instructions were:
Image a pink elephant standing in front of you.
Imagine it grow in size and walk around.
Imagine a friend walk on the scene and stand by the elephant.
Imagine your friend jump on the back of the elephant.
Imagine the elephant flying with your friend on its back.
Now, OPEN your eyes and still see the elephant and your friend and have it land on the chalkboard and walk down it.
Occasionally a few would sit down on the first instruction. More sat down on each instruction. Once in a while there was a student standing after the 6th instruction. I wish I had kept records and published it as research. In my strange mind, I occasionally thought of it, but then forgot.
It’s really strange because otherwise, all things equal, I am a super visual person. When I play the guitar or the piano, it’s obviously kinesthetic, there’s muscle memory and whatnot, the force of habit, but there’s also a great deal of visualization.
Can you hear music in your mind’s ear? Can you sit in a chair and feel your body moving in your mind’s body (dancers and athletes can)? Dancers and athletes can practice and improve moves in their body’s mind. Some visual artists compose in their eye’s mind and then have the challenge of replicating it, so that eyes open perception is close to what was visualized. Some portrait sketchers simply trace the image on the sheet. The same with musicians and composers. Some will hear the fully composition in their auditory imagery, and then score it for playing. Mozart claimed to experience a composition WHOLE, and THEN heard it in his mental imagery. I knew a musician (colleague at the college I taught in) who had powerful synesthesia with visual and auditory. His compositions in music were driven by his visuals. I once conducted an experiment with a friend who had powerful auditory-visual synesthesia. He claimed that every “sense” perception triggered an “imagery chord” in all other “senses”. I wondered how he functioned, as he wondered how I functioned without any mental imagery. He had never heard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and the sleeve of my record had a description of the landscape scenes as described by Grieg. I asked my friend (Dave I think was his name) to describe what he visualized to the music – and it was very close to what Grieg “saw”.
Do you experience the same visuals when you play or hear music at different times?
You see, I can imagine extremely complex mathematical objects in my mind. I can run crazy and crazily complex simulations in my mind’s eye. I can do anything that I please. I can do that with sounds too, in my mind. But I can’t do anything that resembles any kind of writing or notation or the manipulation of symbols.
What do you mean by:”I can imagine extremely complex mathematical objects in my mind”? I know of no mathematical objects that are not composed of symbols and notations. Please describe what you do visualize, as if you were describing something real happening before your eyes.
I also know, and have known for years, that I can’t “read” in my dreams, though I think that this might be true of almost everybody, if not everybody. The words, you try to read them and they just keep “morphing” into something else.
I do have visuals in some of my dreams, but not all. I have never attempted to read in a dream. I have had dreams when I seemed unable to use a phone or cell phone. I never have dreamed about a computer. I am usually lost or trying to find my way to a place in many of my dreams – the place is never as I remembered (in my dream). I never dream of things or objects.
When I wake I can’t replay the dream as I have no visual imagery. If I talked to myself or thought during the dream, I might remember some of it, and might be able to quickly write down a “description”. The emotions I was having at the end of the dream can continue for minutes.
ANTARCTIC MENTAL IMAGERY
During the long Antarctic winter I had to take a visual observation every hour. I had a mattress under the observation dome and had a loud alarm set to go off every hour. I would often wake in a dream and immediately pick up my notebook and pen and describe the dream. I would really like to find that dream journal (in boxes in my shed). Patterns of dreams were discovered.
After recording the dream I would climb into my 5’x5’x6′ box with a plastic clear dome and a bench. To keep it defrosted with -40F outside I had heaters and kept the temp in the box +125 with a fan blowing – my long hair and beard. I sleep nude (but with shoes). Sometimes I would notice some of my equipment on the roof of my tower needed cleaning or adjustment. I would pop out of my hot & windy box, run across the top of my work bench, open the hatch, and pop up on the roof of the tower. Sometimes from +125 to -40 in less than a minute. Great sensation on the skin, but not feeling “cold”. Never outside more than a minute. This was dangerous and never done if it was windy, let alone in a blizzard – that really shook the tower. At the initial construction of Byrd Station in 1956, the tower was 40 feet above the flat, compact surface of the glacier. The surface was always hard and like Styrofoam, as it is made from wind blown impacted snow picked up somewhere else. The Antarctic is a desert with very little new precipitation. The wind would often carve this hard foam like ice into weird shapes, called sastrugies.
But, in the five years until I got to Byrd, the blowing snow had covered the station with 40 feet of packed snow. To keep the buried building from collapsing under the pressure, there were pillars of wood and oil drums everywhere. It was like living in a forest of different types of pillars. The temp in the buildings was kept comfortable, but the temp in the tunnels between the buildings was always well below zero. But, with zero humidity, we could move about between buildings without putting on extra clothes. We always checked the weather outside before going out and were never cold.
My friend Perkins and I would test different weather conditions – but never were cold. The worst was 40 below and 40 knots of wind. We had to keep hold of ropes so as not to be blown away. We stayed out only a few minutes. Perkins was studying electromagnetic radiation and had to have a little station with his equipment a distance from the main station – away from the EM radiation produced by our generators. He had a rope that he used to guide him back and forth. His replacement, the year after us, somehow got lost and was never found. Our most interesting adventure was when it was 70 below and calm. We walked to his station to get away from the noise (Byrd was noisy all the time from the generators). We lay on our backs looking at the stars and the aurora.
Back to my tower. Now the surface of the snow was level with the bottom of the tower. I still had to climb a 40 foot ladder to get to my workshop and living space. It had a trap door that I kept closed. No one ever tried to visit me without first calling. I got good at climbing up and down with something heavy in one hand. Outside, the wind had created a funnel under the tower, slippery ice about 10 feet deep. Had I ever fallen off, or blown off, the tower I would have slid down into the funnel.
All the above about the Antarctic was channeled from nuet to Larry and made his finger type. There was no memory of those experiences, simply reports outputted. It is as if the adventures were by someone else. I do have many slides, and when viewing them I get a weak sense that it was me.
So anyway I think that we might be onto something here.. Why would I be able to imagine massively high-dimensional mathematical objects and structures in my mind, but be unable to multiply 11 x 11? I even knew the answer.. that’s the thing, with numbers often I just spontaneously know the answer, I have an incredible memory. But to multiply all the 1s and all that and then add the 1s and get a 2 and finally get 121… it took me like 5 minutes.
Sometimes I am forced to do mental arithmetic. I speak the operations, fast, and repeat because I can’t remember. If I have to “carry” it becomes more difficult.
I wonder if the modality you use for your “massively high-dimensional mathematical objects and structures in my mind” is visual imagery. Visualization is limited to three dimensions!!! Until I had my first visual image at age 22 I “thought” I visualized. At least I never was forced to question what I was doing. Even difficulty with mental arithmetic didn’t inform me of my lack. I think my father also lacked visual imagery, yet he was a designer of the largest electrical generators made by GE – with very elaborate coils of wire.
You may have visual imagery that accompany your mental processes working the high-dimensional entities and haven’t distinguished them. Your basic creative thinking is probably unconscious (as is mine). The output of your unconscious thinking may be sequences of visuals, that you “grok” as “what it is that is the whole of your experienced”. There is context behind all conscious experience that gives meaning to the SENSORY part of the experience. The “groked meaning” is also “part of the experience”. This is confusing.
Today, most of my creative thinking is with my fingers, reading what I write. If my typing is slow I may sub-vocalize words just prior to typing them – but I never consciously chose words. Sometimes my subconscious will send me an alternative, and I experience choices being made. I never consciously chose. I now have considerable difficulty just thinking. I sit there blank or have routine sub-vocalizations. The exception is when I have a flash of insight. The best I can describe my experience is that of a rapid flashing of concrete abstractions in a field of some seventh sense. It is an experience, part of my experientials, my consciousness. It may be accompanied by sub-sub-vocalizations of labels of concepts. I know/grok that patterns in nuet are shifting, and it is “beautiful”. My conscious mind may be attending more to the emotions and groked implications. It is very easy for this thinking to be diverted to ordinary thought – although the insight remains and will influence future writing. Often, I will stop what I am doing – if the insight is triggered by what I am reading or writing – and try to compose a few paragraphs – again channeled by nuet. I have many hundreds of such insight drafts. I seldom get the emotional strength I initially had when reading my drafts later. Yet, often reading will trigger a continuation of the insight.
Alex – what we need to do is have a Skype or zoom exploration of our thought process – and record it.
Funny enough, I even have trouble multiplying by 10 or powers of 10. You’d think it would be easy, right? You just add 0s.. But I can’t do it, it’s as though the numbers appear there briefly in my mind, but they are “slippery” and I can’t get hold of them with my mind, no matter how much power or effort I try to throw at it. So I can’t even COUNT in my head basically.. When I count, I count out loud, or with words under my breath..
I also sub-vocalize counting, as when watering plants I “count” to 40 for average plants and my hose flow. Most of my number work today is concrete – I either see the numbers on paper or screen, or they appear as I type them. I use a small pocket calculator for ALL computations, which is easier than bringing up the calculator on the computer.
I’m sort of embarrassed about this because I consider myself a highly intelligent person, and it feels kind of stupid to have such cognitive limitations, deficits.. I know I make up for it in other areas, capacities.
Alex, you should not ever be embarrassed. From the phase space of all human competencies, each person occupies only a very small part. I metaphor minds as wire sculptures. Quality teams and crews are when our different wire tracings both overlap and supplement each other.
Your problem may be related to your ability to control those images. This is a variable – many people can’t control their mental images. Many highly disturbed persons have horrendous, unbidden images. I discovered this when I worked as head psychologist for an institute for “emotionally disturbed children”. Query them about their imagery and you would be surprised. My step daughter is instructed on living details by voices and she know I have invaded her mind and try to make her fail. She works as an addiction counselor and is working on her Masters in counseling psychology.
When you attempt to do math or spelling, you aren’t channeling your equivalent to my nuet. How are you in imaging past events in your life, or landscapes or objects? When you read novels do you visualize the movie? Most novelists start with inner movies and then describe what they “see and hear”. Their novels are channeled from their own “nuets”.
I think there is something important there, though. I have a poorly functioning “working memory”. I can basically hold roughly 3 items in my mind.. and if I need to hold them for more than a few seconds, I need to keep repeating them to myself, and often after 3 seconds I begin losing the items, one by one.. So I’m constantly writing things down. I suffer from “hypergraphia” a really bad case of it too, I might add. I am writing, basically if I’m awake I’m writing things down, on paper, notepads, on calendars, in agendas, on index cards, on chalk boards, whiteboards, everywhere.
George Miller’s famous 7+/-2 Law cites human limitation for holding that number of independent variables in their working minds. Given that relations between two variables is also a variable, the limit is actually 3 or less. You are perfectly human. Persons differ greatly in their memory retention, and it decays over time. Some, accidentally, develop techniques for remembering long lists. Oven one took a mental imagery walk on a familiar route and hang the items you need to remember at key places. Then you repeat the walk, looking at what you hung, and recite them. With my lack of imagery I couldn’t use them.
Alex, I think you may be more like me than you think. Things you cite further on make me wonder if you might actually lack sensory imagery. If I don’t write something down I am likely to forget it. I have no remembrances and often don’t even have conceptual knowledge of events I am told I was part of in the past. At 81 it has become much worse. I can keep focus if what I am doing is being perceived/engaged and keeps my attention. But, between episodes of focus I wander.
We are what we are, and make the best of it. My special creativity is in compensation for my lack of imagery, my disability. Your creativity might also be in compensation for what you lack. Everyone lacks more than they have – which is why the cult of individualism is so dangerous.
Just holding a writing instrument in my hand is enough to get my mind to “focus”. Like I said, moving around helps me focus too. Moving my limbs, gesticulating.. making random sounds with my mouth.
It is a well known phenomenon that creators often need to “just start doing”, to get the juices flowing. Often I open my computer (I have to keep everything shut when no here of the cats lie to walk on, and even sleep on, keyboards) just to record a brief note or update my PIM, and before I know it I have devoted a few hours to composing.
My students used to play with me because I was continuously twirling my beard. Without a beard I have been known to stroke my cheek – I hypothesize trying to prove I am here, because my own self perception is weak. I have been picking skin off my fingers since age 12. A few years ago I began clicking my finger nails and got so carried away that I separated one nail off. To stop this I purchased some plastic finger tips, used by persons who turn pages. My finger nails are now fine, but I am seriously addicted to my “fingers”, as Eloise and I call them. I am using one now as I type, taking it on and off; moving it around with my thumb. I go to sleep with my “fingers”. I drive with my finger. When I get up in the morning I put fingers in my pockets. I only wear tee shirts with pockets, so I can always have my fingers available. If I am without my finger I MUST find my finger. There are days when I can go for many hours without my finger. My proprioceptive sense is so weak I don’t know where my feet are pointing without looking. This makes skiing impossible.
Singing helps a great deal. If I want to remember something, I can turn it into a melody.. and then somehow I can “bypass” my limited working memory.. I have musical genius and can “hold” extremely complex musical compositions in my “mind’s eye” or “mind’s ear” (inner ear etc., it’s both visual and auditory, and conceptual too).
We need to explore exactly what you do and experience with your music. How do you perform you compositions? Do you compose while performing? Do you really hear the music in auditory imagery, much as you would with real sound in real ears?
In high school I played trumpet in a professional dance band (the musicians union forced our school dance band to go professional if we were to play at proms at other schools) – but I had to read the musical scores. I made $4/hour playing trumpet and $0.50/hour working overnight in a bakery. Sometimes I would go from a gig to the bakery. My musical ability is quite poor, but I learned to perform with the instrument to printed music. My father had a trumpet that I inherited, and my first lessons were by his cousin, Frank Frederico, who had a “big band” in the days of “big bands”. I learned trumpet playing to sheet music of Benny Goodman’s compositions. We rode to the Country Club in the “big bus” he had for his band. Frank and my pop, Joe, were the first “workers” to break into the Country Club – to play golf. My dad was called “communist joe” in our little town of Ridgway, PA – because he supported FDR! During WWII, dad made piece work in his machine shop in our attic for the USA military, but the neighbors called the FBI, because he was Italian.
In 1944, the company my dad worked for, as a designer/draftsman, the Elliot Company, got an order for motors and generators from Russia (our ally). They filled the orders, to exact specs, from plans that had earlier used to make motors and generators for The Manhattan Project.
I never could ad lib, I had no sense of chords and would not always notice if I was playing in the wrong key! Today, I wonder how my band buddies tolerated me. I became a permanent sub when their trumpeter moved away. Some fellow musicians reported to me that they heard what they were to play ad lib a short time ahead (in their auditory imagery) of when they made the real sounds. In college, the dance bands didn’t use printed scores, so that ended my musical experience (except for the marching band at RPI). Getting into the folk music crowd (and being a snob for awhile) I learned to “strum” a guitar, play a harmonica attached to my neck, and sing – always out of key.
The problem, though, is that I have another deficit, I can’t remember sentences.. sequences of words.. I have been writing music, songs and other compositions for 20+ years, and I never knew ANY of my own lyrics by heart.. Not even one verse.. in well over twenty years, songs I have played hundreds if not thousands of times.. I just can’t remember the sequences of words.. I remember everything else, my memory for melodies, musical phrases, chord progressions, is phenomenal.. So I can maybe turn a phone number into a melody if I want to remember it.. but I have to keep repeating it over and over again, but then I know I can remember a sequence of numbers of some length, especially if I use “chunking”.. like remembering them in groups of 2, 3, or 4.
Again, you may be just normal – within the range of variation. We can’t compare ourselves with those special savants with wildly excessive memories. You must really attend to something, with the intention to remember it, to even put it into short term memory.
In my days of folk singing, with guitar and harmonica, I would memorize ballads with many verses – some of my own composition (new lyrics to old tunes – I have never composed tunes). I would sing verse-one many times until it was automatic. Then verses 1 & 2, then 1, 2 & 3; then 1,2,3 & 4. I had to start at the beginning. I guess it was nuet outputting as I observed myself strumming and singing. If something stopped me, I had to start at the beginning. My voice is usually off tune. I could never play guitar (and sing) with others – what I did was always inner directed. However, I could put considerable emotion in my “singing”. I found they had a trumpet at Byrd Station , Antarctica and I took a small guitar with me, so I could make music up in my tower where no one could hear me. Today, I can’t remember even how to start most of my favorite songs.
Musical and word memories are quite different. It is often that a person can have memory for one and not the other. It may be that our musical memory is channeled output from your subconscious and you are trying to overlay it with consciously recalled words. I expect that actors channel their parts.
It’s one of the reason’s I’m always paraphrasing everything.. I can’t even remember any songs lyrics from childhood, you know the children’s songs everybody else seems to know. It was embarrassing when I was a kid, I never knew the lyrics to the simplest songs… I hardly even know the lyrics to Happy Birthday… I have to follow the others. But I can improvise complex musical compositions spontaneously on the piano for hours at a time.. a skill that some especially skilled musicians can only dream of, I mean musicians who are great “technical” players, but have no ability to spontaneously “invent” music.
Again, you are among many who can remember music and not lyrics. Inventing is a different competency from using or performing.
That’s it for now. Hope this is the right place for this. Your original post was addressed to me, among others. I want to talk about this stuff. And I encourage others to share stories about their capacities/capabilities. I think it’s important to know who one is talking with. I’m an artist and researcher, and I have a funny brain. I can remember everything I ever experienced basically, going back to when I was maybe 2 years old.. I don’t remember the dates, cause like I said, I can’t imagine numbers or letters.. or sequences of them.. But all the physical, kinesthetic stuff, all the other sensations, emotions, feelings, moods, attitudes.. thoughts.. I remember all of my thoughts, that’s mostly what I remember, and my dreams.. I remember everything from a first-person, subjective reference frame / perspective / point-of-view.. I also have a great memory for concepts and conceptual things.. the more complex the better. My way of meditating is to read something like Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. It just calms me down. Or Hegel’s Science of Logic is a good one, or Husserl’s and Formal and Transcendental Logic..
When you claim good memory of your past, is it that you can bring up a rdetailed emembrance when asked for, or must you wait for spontaneous recall?
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