1 EAGLETON NOTES: Aphantasia

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Saturday, 5 January 2019

Aphantasia

My maternal uncle was able, in his 90s, to read pages from schoolbooks which he could see in his mind's eye. He had a photographic memory.  

Some people, though, have little or no ability to visualise things ie they have no visual memory. I am one of those people. If, for example, I am trying to compare two things (perhaps pictures or sets of numbers or whatever) even if they are side by side I have to do it tiny bit by tiny bit looking from one to the other constantly. If there are seven individually distinctive skiffs sailing in the harbour, the second I look away from them I have absolutely no idea what order they are in unless I've managed to commit that to words and can remember the words. I have pictures on my walls that I have gazed at for hours but could still not describe them to you in anything but the most general of terms.

Those examples are, of course, very simple and only a small part of what it's like not to have visual memory and it is only within the last decade that I've become aware that, apparently, relatively few people have this affliction 

If you are curious as to your ability to visualise things then close your eyes and imagine walking along a sandy beach and then gazing over the horizon as the sun rises. How clear is the image that springs to mind?

Of course, every police office and defence lawyer will tell you how poor people's visual memory is as evidenced when it comes to describing an incident and those participating, in the way the police would require of a witness. 

I know someone with prosopagnosia, also called face blindness, which is a cognitive disorder of face perception in which the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one's own face (self-recognition), is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision-making) remain intact. Apparently it is a separate thing to lack of visual memory.

How alone am I in my blogworld?

44 comments:

  1. Very, but not as alone as I am. Excuse the Oxford but. I bet you could get some letters after your name all children now have letters after their names. Maybe even compensation.
    Seriously I think you can train the brain to a certain extent. Playing a musical instrument or some sports doesn't require conscious thought nor does speaking a foreign language. It's why so many folk give up. If you have to think hat in English then rake up Chapeau in German then the conversation has moved on and one is lost.
    I am reading a book by David Baldicci, the hero a chap who can't forget anything. Baldicci is Italian for hairless.

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    1. Yes, Adrian, I'm sure the brain can be trained to a certain extent but I think things like aphantasia and prosopagnosia are probably inherent in one's makeup. Baldicci....haha.

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  2. I prefer words to pictures. I have never before heard of either aphantasia or prosopagnosia, but that's okay as I haven't heard of lots of things. Adrian got German and French mixed up; chapeau is French and hut is German.

    I just noticed that your sidebar says "I am he who I am" and you certainly are. Out here in Blogland we are thankful for that.

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    1. RWP, Adrian purposefully mixes things up but is not a bad linguist so I assumed that he was being 'playful' as with 'Baldinni'. Your last sentence was most kind. Thank you.

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  3. I'm guessing you have a lot of company.
    My memory stores things mainly in mirror images. Careful, unless I have a map to show the route, I could send you in the wrong direction.

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    1. Gosh, Maywyn, that's one I haven't come across.

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    2. I asked eye doctor. He says it isn't the dyslexia. Could be snafu staring into mirror too often as a kid making faces. :)

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  4. I am on the other end of the spectrum... I can recognize similar fingerprint patterns, suss out relatives of famous people by their eyebrow/eye/nose/mouth similarity, and often find pieces of jigsaw puzzles instantaneously just by the shape, not by the picture printed on them.

    However, memory is a different matter. I don't remember historical dates, or when the last time I had an argument with Aunt Tillie. I may not remember what I ate for breakfast. Factually speaking, the human brain actually changes and morphs memories with time, so that what we think we remember is more based on how we feel about the memory than about what actually happened. But if I see the face of someone I've met before, I recognize them immediately. If you show me a lineup of faces, I will be able to tell you which ones I've seen before and the ones I've never seen. I may not remember where or when I've seen them, but I'll know I have.

    As for recognition or comparative detail, though, I'm your gal.

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    1. Mrs S, I'm not usually given to envy but I'm afraid that the fifth of the Seven Deadly Sins is definitely rearing its ugly head in relation to your abilities. When I was a youngster of my three wishes one would have been a natural ability to speak different languages. As I got older I wished for a better memory (which would have made my period of studying law infinitely more successful). Now I would definitely include a visual memory in the three. It's really only in the last decade or so that I've realised what a great deal I have lost because of this affliction.

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  5. It's quite amazing how varied human minds can be. I have a strong visual memory but ask me about numbers or dates and they have mostly evaporated. However, I am proud to say that I know my home phone number and that this year is 2019. I also know that The Great Fire of London was in 1666 because when I was in primary school the teacher asked us to draw a chimney with a column of smoke forming the date. In my mind's eye, I can still see that drawing now. In answer to your question, there is only one Graham Barry Edwards on this planet. That's quite enough of them thank you very much.

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    1. Very droll, YP, touché. That will teach me to frame my questions more accurately.

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  6. Fascinating. My son and I have a very strong kind of face recognition. (Richard doesn't have it.) If we are watching a movie with an actor who is wearing a disguise, we instantly can see through it!
    Now, I don't know what I have with my brain...but I have a fascination with COLORS. This Christmas, it was pale blue beside a bright red...it made me very happy to see those two together. Crazy? Maybe so, but very often, the color of something will just stop me in my tracks! And don't take me to an art museum, it is hard for me to leave
    Names? Please don't make me remember names! I simply cannot do it!
    Also, I have the kind of brain that erases bad memories. Maybe that is a good thing.

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    1. Kay, my memory for names is atrocious (to the extent that I even forgot my wife's name on one occasion) and has been since a particular incident in 1965. I'm sure if the same incident occurred now I'd just go to a psychiatrist and get it sorted. I'm pretty good with faces but nowhere near to the extent that you are. You also recognise tunes and music. I have difficulties identifying pieces I know really, really well until I've managed to 'get into' it.

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  7. I think my memory is probably more visual, I can remember if we have seen a film within the first few seconds, but if I was asked the title, usually no idea! I remember my phone numbers from when I was six years old. I also remember songs, but not the names. Hmm...

    Being musical, I obviously remember how to play, but I am not so good at actually memorising music - this is something I have tried to work on and never really succeeded...I like dots, so better playing by sight than improvising/playing by ear. Certainly playing doesn't require conscious thought as such, although obviously requires concentration.

    Very interesting and food for thought.

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    1. Yes, Serenata, an ability to play music is another talent I lack. Considering my love of music (today, in those moments when I've been alone at home, has been a day of violin and cello concertos for some reason) it's another of life's disappointments.

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  8. Although I studied art I don't have a very good visual memory. If I close my eyes and imagine walking along a sandy beach etc. I find I am remembering partly visually (rather dimly) but also in terms of how it felt and what the general atmosphere was like. I was watching a film with the great pianist Daniel Barenboim who said that when he saw amazing scenery he thought of them in terms of music! So we are all quite different, it seems....

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    1. Jenny, I can relate to what you've said. I think of most experiences in terms of the emotions they evince in me.

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  9. I wonder if one can have partial prosopagnosia. I once didn't recognise my own PhD supervisor and began talking to him as if he were a stranger. I also have trouble when bumping into people in the street, but perhaps I am just in my own little world too much?

    As for the pictures on our walls, one of our friends once asked about one, the room being quite dark at the time. I couldn't describe it at all, so you are definitely not alone.

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    1. That's interesting, Helen. I do know someone who recognises people but if they make the slightest alteration to their face he can't match it with what is in his memory-banks. Your second paragraph absolutely echoes my experience.

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  10. This is indeed a very interesting subject, and one I have read about quite a lot.
    About myself, I can only say that I have a good memory for faces, names, places and events, but although I easily remember old phone numbers etc., I remember them as words, not as numbers. For instance, my parents' phone number has remained the same since I was 6 - that means, I have been repeating, using, writing it for 44 years. But in my mind, it is one unit, like a term/word, not a succession of digits that could be combined any other way.
    Also, I have a slight form of synthaesis, meaning certain sounds make me see certain colours or have another sensorial impression. Examples are: 4 is green, and the German word for sixteen, sechzehn, makes me physically thirsty.

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    1. Meike - pronouncing the word "sechzehn" can make anyone thirsty! :)

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    2. Meike, I would have expected you, like Monica, to have a good memory for most things. I have a young friend who sees all figures as colours but is also dyslexic. However she has good visual memory. Aren't our brains many and varied and eternally curious?

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  11. I can't say I have photographic memory for details, but I do seem to remember things better if I've seen/read it as well as just heard it. This applies both to my own language and foreign languages. (I never had much trouble with spelling.) With names and faces I think I'm neither super good nor totally hopeless. (I do think I'm usually better with "friends" than with "celebrities".) I don't think I would make a very good witness, describing someone in detail, as I do find it hard to put someone's appearance into words. And from just a glimpse of someone, I'd probably find it difficult to identify them later. (Not to mention what kind of car someone is driving!) With music, I'm no good at identifying a tune just played, without lyrics. (I may know very well that I've heard it before, just don't ask me what it's called.) Numbers - if someone reads my own phone number back to me but groups the digits differently than I do, I don't recognize it...

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    1. I can't recall the details, Monica, but I think there are people who can remember words better when they read them or when they hear them and in many cases that is improved if they say them. I recall reading about it years ago when I was trying to improve my memory. I recall that my mother gave me her Pelmanism course too. I used to be able to learn things like poetry by rote. Aphantasia, though, is not seeing images in one's mind's eye: images of things one has seen in the past. Your phone number comment eachos mine though. Oddly I recall my house phone thus 00000 000 000. I can only compare and recall my cellphone number 00000 00 00 00. As you say if anyone repeats it in a different format they might as well be speaking gobbledegook.

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    2. Graham, it was the mentioning of photographic memory that lead my thoughts a bit astray. Sometimes I may recall that a certain important text or image was at the top of a right hand page, for example. But not going so far as being able to recall it word-by-word or in detail. I do have a lot of visual memories of things and places from the past. But I find it really hard to describe to what 'degree' I see things in my mind, while at the same time I'm having trouble imagining not having any visual memories at all!

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    3. Monica the degree to which we see or memorise things is interesting. I usually know a place when I arrive there so I obviously have some memory locked away deep down. What I can't do is pull that memory out of the deep recesses to order. It's as if it's in the filing cabinet but only seeing it again will unlock the drawer. I can sometimes help by describing something out loud in words when I see it and then remembering the words.

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  12. Is that something that happens as you get older? I can remember things right back to when I was a baby, not really important events but things that have gone on over the years, but remembering someone's name or something simply isn't as easy.

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    1. Amy, I think a photographic memory or aphantasia or prosopagnosia are conditions with which you are born. However I think many people's ability to remember everyday things decreases as they get older. I've often wondered if it's just because we have so much more to cram into our memory banks and they have to erase things to make way for new things. Some core memories will always remain though. I've known people with dementia who could still (sometimes) recall the most unlikely things from the past.

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  13. I had a strange experience as a schoolboy. during the holidays I dreamt of the path leading to my house which was lined with trees. In my dream I counted the trees, and wrote down the number just as a matter of interest. When I returned to school I counted them, and found that I'd been right. I can remember thinking what an extraordinary experience it was.

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    1. Cro, that is quite an amazing experience and I believe that we have far more going on in our subconscious than we realise. Artists, for example, like yourself, can see something and process it in your mind so that it come out on canvas in a completely different form. Perhaps, for example, making a physical representation of emotion. People with aphantasia are often still able to have very vivid dreams and retain images from those dreams but not see them in the detail that most people can but more as an idea.

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  14. I have a photographic memory and, of course, always thought that everybody did. I wrote a post on my blog last night that I didn't actually publish, about memories of my days in a kindergarten where I was taught to read and write. I can still see the book I learned from, my letters on a slate, and the face of the boy who was always caned for what reason I know not, and many many more things. I was 4 at the time. I often wish that I did not have such a good memory and am envious of those I meet who seem to remember nothing. Often that is a good way to be.

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    1. It's one of the curious things about life, Rachel, that people so often wish for the things that they do not have when those very attributes are the envy of so many others. I would dearly have loved a photographic memory but only so long as it was not at the expense of my analytical ability. When I read law I was good at the analysis but couldn't remember date cases and names (which was a pre-requisite in those days) and I abandoned it. So I very much desire your memory. I'll swap with you if you like!

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    2. I also read law. You can imagine the bits I was good at then! I completed my degree but did not go into law for reasons like I would have loved to have been a barrister but could not have thought quickly enough on my feet in court.

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    3. Rachel, I originally read Public Administration but decided I'd need a law degree to get on in my (non-legal) career. After I'd abandoned my law degree I read for the English Bar but got caught up in the requirement to go into pupillage (to stop people like me just getting the qualification and not practising as lots of people like doctors did so they could become coroners). I then moved up to Scotland where my English law was of no use anyway. I've been here ever since (over 4 decades) and whilst my legal knowledge was very useful I never became a practising lawyer. I did do planning inquiries though and I discovered that I did enjoy case work and cross-examining because I can think reasonably quickly on my feet. It's a shame that I can't think as quickly when I'm sitting down.

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    4. My combined interests of business, gambling and people led me to the Stock Exchange and I eventually became a private client stockbroker.

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    5. Rachel, you are way out of my league!

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  15. Hmmmmm.....very interesting!

    A couple of afflictions I don't have...strangely enough. I've many others, no doubt...insanity being one of them...the major one! :)

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    1. You're fortunate, Lee, to have a good visual memory.

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  16. You have talked often recently about this Geeb. I find it hard to imagine.
    I find my memory for visual things is strongly influenced by my own movement and sense of position and place. By that I mean, if I am driving (and given directions) I could get you back to a place. But if driven there, ppfft! I could be 180º out. Likewise I can tell you where on a page the quote was, but might get the words wrong. I have good spacial skills. Apparently the first recognisable drawing I did at 2(or whenever) was a map of my village - the roundabout and the five roads coming off it. At ten they gave me the London A-Z and I navigated my father through London.
    Regarding visual memory, if I have painted something, it's IN. Otherwise, it's as if my brane is lazy and doesn't bother much.

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    1. Kate, the fact that I've talked about it recently is largely because I only became aware of the condition as being relatively unusual a few years ago. I've always known some people had photographic memories but I assumed everyone else was like me. You've raised some very interesting points.

      I suspect that you're not so much lazy (last sentence) as selective. If it's not of interest why clog up the memory banks?

      Maps: both my brother and a friend can look at a map and work out a route and then put the map away and not need it again. The friend and I travelled to France. He plotted the route before we left the Island and then didn't bother with the map until we'd reached our destination several days later. I, on the other hand, have travelled up and down the A9 for 44 years but still could not describe the route in detail. I don't need a map, of course, because I know a place when I get there and then I know which road to take: recognition versus visual memory.

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  17. We have a well known scientist/educator here (Dr Karl) who has no facial recognition. He tells a funny story about running into his next door neighbour at the airport and having no idea why the guy was talking to him!

    My visual memory is not great but I seem to be able to remember colour. My mum would go to the shops looking for say, a scarf to put with a dress and she would have to take the dress with her but I remember colours well enough to just pick a complementary item instinctively. Not a particularly useful talent......

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    1. Kylie, Dr Karl obviously has quite a serious problem. My prosopagnosic friend recognises people by their voices when he can't make out who they are visually. I would have thought your colour remembering ability could actually be quite useful for all sorts of things.

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  18. I know what you're talking about but I don't know quite how to describe my point of view except to say that I recognize peoples faces not their voices or names, that's about it.

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    1. Amy, if you can do that your doing just fine. So far as I can tell the number of people who remember names as a matter of course is pretty small.

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