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I cannot mentally visualize.
January 23, 2010 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I do not have the ability to visualize. Is there anything that is possible to do to correct that?

I first realized that I could not visualize at the age of 15. I was having a conversation with a friend and said "wouldn't it be cool if you could clearly see something in your head?" He replied, "what are you talking about, everybody can do that." To which I said "No, I know what things look like mentally, but I cannot see them. I can't see my mothers face, a lemon, or a house; but I could roughly describe what they look like." Before this event I never had any idea that other people could clearly see things in their minds. I even out of curiosity tried mescalin once hoping that I would have some type of visual hallucinations, or clear mental pictures. I didn't see a dang thing. I felt crazy weird and my perceptions of my body went all crazy, but I didn't see colors, shapes, nothing. So this boils down to my question: Is there anything I can do to "work on" my mental visualization? If not, does anyone else share this same "defect" I put that in quotes, because I never have any particular problems because of it (other than being horrible at directions). Thanks for your time and responses. Have a great day!
posted by gibbsjd77 to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a graphic designer, I realize a lot of our clients have trouble visualizing things. My suggestion would be to start sketching or painting still lifes - creating things because you see them. Transposing reality to paper through the filter of your mind. Then paint something, anything, from "memory".
posted by carlh at 10:33 AM on January 23, 2010


I have one other quick addition to my post: I can see clearly when I dream. The only time I can visualize is on rare occasion where I fall 3/4 asleep and then snap out of it. I can see very vividly then, so I figure there is some way to do that when I am conscious.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 10:34 AM on January 23, 2010


I have an injury on my right hand that unfortunately greatly inhibits my ability to draw for more than a few seconds at a time and even then it is very poor quality.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 10:34 AM on January 23, 2010


"Can you imagine the faces of people you know?"

No, not really. I mean, I know what they look like; obviously, if I run into Joe on the street, I have no problem recognizing him. I can't see his face in my head, though.

If I concentrate hard, I can get a flash of "Joe-ness", but it's very fleeting, and I can't fix that face in my imagination and look at parts of it. It's more that sub-visual feeling you get when you recognize someone. Of course I know the features of Joe's face intellectually, but I think of his face more as a list of attributes than a picture.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 10:35 AM on January 23, 2010


Try this: start with one of the other senses. So if you want to visualise a lemon start with its fresh acrid smell, the waxy touch of its skin, etc. When you progress to visualising add a little bit of interaction to it; f.i. ask yourself: "what happens if I stick a fork into the half I just cut".
That way you trigger the visualisation by a little story telling.
posted by joost de vries at 10:45 AM on January 23, 2010


I've tried that and my other senses are very sharp. I can "smell" the lemon and "feel" it in my hand. Possibly my sharpest sense is my hearing. I can recreate pretty much any song I've ever heard almost to the same quality and hear it in my head.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 10:52 AM on January 23, 2010


Gibbs-you pose a fascinating question that most people here probably have no experience with. If you want them to continue brainstorming for you, don't keep shutting them down. Lighten up on the thread-sitting, and let people do some improv on this.

For my money, a conversation with a neurologist (of some kind) might shed some light on it for you. There are a lot of studies out there about how people experience the world-sensing smells as colors and that kind of thing- but its a pretty narrow field. The fact that you do have visual dreams suggests that there is not a physical inability to visualize, but that something is shutting it down while you are awake.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:04 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can't speak to your condition directly, but I would say this: there has been a blossoming in mainstream literature in the past couple of years on brain science. It turns out that one of the most direct ways of learning the intricacies of the brain is to focus on those situations when it operates oddly. Researchers seek out subjects whose brains "misbehave" predictably, and by investigating the nuances of the misbehavior, they are able to learn more about the mechanisms that cause the brain to work correctly. I find this stuff endlessly fascinating, and suspect you might too.

An excellent introduction to this field is V.S. Ramachandrans' A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers.. Difficulties of perception and rehabilitating mental imagery are a couple of the topics he touches on and sound like they might be interesting to you, even if not directly related to your "problem." Ramachandran is a pioneer of sorts in the field, and is kind of the go-to guy for connecting "the people" with "the science" (kind of like Oliver Sachs), but his credentials are solid and this book makes an interesting first step into a field that may hold some interest for you.
posted by nickjadlowe at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Thank you for all the answers. I'm sorry if I've been negative, I don't mean to "shoot down" suggestions.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 11:18 AM on January 23, 2010


Hey, me too! I wrote this about it around ten years ago. I get mail all the time from people who discovered that page and ask me whether I've found any way to "get better". The answer is no, but it is nice to know that there are a lot of other people out there like this too. One fellow pointed me at the work of Stephen Kosslyn but I haven't checked it out yet. His book The Case for Mental Imagery looks like the place to start.
posted by dfan at 11:20 AM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


And let me back up gibbsjd77 here - for all the people trying to help us build up our skill with visualization exercises or something, it doesn't help; our brains just don't work that way. It's like suggesting to someone with no arms that he should lift weights.
posted by dfan at 11:23 AM on January 23, 2010


I'm sort of like this, though maybe not to the extreme you're describing. I haven't "cured" it, but the best I've been able to do is try to associate specific details -- often quite boring and mundane -- to people or things.

For instance, you might have a hard time conjuring up a visual image of Barack Obama's face. But it might be easier if you add some concrete details -- things you would expect, e.g. wearing a dark grey suit with a white shirt and blue tie, standing at a lectern giving a speech outdoors. Also, make a mental (preferably verbal) note to yourself of mundane but accessible details to remember. In the case of people, everyone has certain habits and quirks. Say you're watching Obama give a speech on TV. You might, by default, focus on his words and not his mannerisms. But you can make a conscious effort to note things like, "During a pause in a speech he'll often look around, sort of squinty-eyed. And sometimes he'll act like he's reacting to a certain person in the audience and chuckle with a big grin."

As another example, Rudolph Giuliani has a fairly dull, average face that you might have trouble visualizing ... but if you remember that he has a tic in which he periodically arches his eyebrows and opens his eyes wide, you might have an easier time visualizing his face. One more example: the typical impersonator of George W. Bush will mimic his somewhat awkward habit of moving his shoulders up and down when he laughs. This specific idiosyncratic motion might be easier to visualize than trying to think of "George W. Bush" out of the blue, devoid of any context or detail. If you can visualize that shoulder movement, you might naturally imagine his face chuckling and making eye contact with someone across the room. And so on.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:25 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


OK, this is funny, I just looked at some of your followup comments and realized that you are quoting my page directly (the stuff about Joe-ness).

Then I saw that you emailed me about this 45 minutes ago.

Anyway, the above is the response I would have mailed back to you. Not so cool copying things from my site without attribution, though!
posted by dfan at 11:28 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not sure if this will help at all, but could you imagine "drawing" in your head. Like try and just visualize one line, then add another, and another. Maybe this exercise will help you be able to see things more easily.
posted by kylej at 11:35 AM on January 23, 2010


I apologize Dan, I should've used quotes or reworded, but you explained it perfectly online, so I just copied. I should have had more "academic honesty", but I figured for a question forum that i'd be okay.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 11:45 AM on January 23, 2010


For all others who have read: one of my follow up explanations was first written by Dan (not sure of last name) whom has posted it on a blog that I google searched. All of the other parts of my question are completely original from myself. I apologize if I offended Dan.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 11:47 AM on January 23, 2010


You're in about 3% of people in having no ability to do this (the other extreme is called eiditic memory, and about 5% of people have that. It's surreal if you meet someone with it: you can absolutely ask them to imagine a tiger and then have them count its stripes).

Your exact situation -- a friend telling you "everybody can do this!" in return to a problem of mental imagery -- is written about here.
posted by bonaldi at 11:49 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I can't remember at all where I heard or read this, but I learned somewhere in the last week or so that 15-20% of people can't visualize. I believe it came from a report on effective presentations and speeches... let me see if I can find it again.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:52 AM on January 23, 2010


The % information is fascinating. Thanks for the info.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 11:54 AM on January 23, 2010


I don't have any answers, but I have the same condition, pretty much the same as you and dfan describe it:

- Can't really visualize faces, objects, etc.
- Dreams are visual, and sometimes I can deliberately visualize when I'm almost asleep
- If I stare at an object for hours - i.e. if I'm trying to draw it, or if it's a photo on my computer desktop, I sometimes temporarily gain the ability to visualize that.
- I'm also pretty bad at recognizing faces, but not full-on prosopagnosia. On the other hand I'm disturbingly good at recognizing objects based on tiny details - for example figuring out which model of guitar is being used at a live show.
- I can play music in my head, the problem doesn't apply to sound.
- I can draw pretty well (but slowly) from a photo, but not at all from memory.


I think, as dfan says in his page, there's a continuum of ability in this regard. I'm probably around 10%, most people are probably 50-60%, and at 90% you have people who can draw perfectly from memory and people who use visualization even for abstract things - for example, imagining the passage of time by visualizing a calendar.

This has come up on AskMe a couple of times before. There are definitely lots of people who aren't good at visualizing.
posted by mmoncur at 11:57 AM on January 23, 2010


The only thing I've ever read academically that covered this condition somewhat in the same way was "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" I forget the author, but he's a well known neurologist and for that guy he thought the visual part of his brain was degenerating, but it happened over time (guy was in 60's) and he was unaware that it was happening, so I figured it wasn't quite the same, but probably somewhere in the same vicinity.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 12:02 PM on January 23, 2010


That would be Oliver Sacks. I figure he'll eventually write a book that explains all of this for me.
posted by mmoncur at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2010


I don't have an answer, but I'm in the same boat, so I'd be interested if anyone did have a solution.

Actually, I'm apparently a bit worse than those who have posted above, because I don't normally even have real visual imagery when I dream. (Once in a blue moon I'll have a few moments of somewhat clear visual imagery in a dream but it doesn't last.)
posted by tdismukes at 12:21 PM on January 23, 2010


I have this same problem, though perhaps not as strongly as you. I can picture something as long as I focus on it, but the second my attention turns elsewhere the original detail is lost. This is particularly the case when I'm reading a book and try to picture the scene. It just doesn't happen. I'm also near-useless driving around town at night because I can't visualize the landmarks in the dark (and I've lived in the same town for 23 years!).

I compensate for it in roughly the same way Jaltcoh suggests, by using some non-visual detail as an anchor. Movement is helpful for me; I can remember (but can't imitate) the way people walk, gesture, etc. much better than I can remember what they look like. Voice is an even better way for me to remember someone. I identify most people by the sound of their voice, to the point where I close my eyes and let the sound reverberate in my head until I get a match. Emotion/context is less effective but still sometimes helpful. Last week I saw an ad for a new TV show that had a very familiar actress in it but I couldn't place her. My thought process went something like "It was in a TV show... she was a sidekick... very sarcastic... computer nerdy... some sort of weird relationship... VERONICA MARS! She was on Veronica Mars!" I couldn't visualize the show for the life of me but could recall abstract facts much easier. Once I have some non-visual anchoring detail I can focus better on creating a (still fleeting) mental image.
posted by lilac girl at 12:29 PM on January 23, 2010


Wow -- this is a fascinating thread. I never realized that I even had this "problem" as well, but it looks as though I do. For example, up thread someone asked to visualize Obama's face. I couldn't do it -- I could name attributes of what it should look like (he's black, has a triangular face, big ears, etc), but I couldn't "see" it. Can most people (americans, at least) see a picture of Obama in their heads?

I then realize that I could "see" things if i concentrated on them. I looked at the TV across the room, closed my eyes, and I could sort of visualize it, but it more involved drawing the individual characteristics onto a faint memory, if that makes sense. Once the memory fades, I'll be able to describe the TV, but I can't "see" it.

Maybe this explains why I suck at recognizing people, and am horrible at making things look good on a page (for example, web design). And I have the absolute *worst* sense of direction. It's legendary how bad it is!

Huh.
posted by cgg at 1:18 PM on January 23, 2010


I am exactly the same as the OP and a few of the posters above. I have no ability of visualization. It doesn't impair me in any way -- I can recognize people fine, but I cannot visualize anything. Not my mom, husband, brother, pets, home, car, anything. I "KNOW" what they look like, but can't visualize them.

All of the comments suggesting visualization exercises are kind of bizarre and out of the bounds of imagination for me. I can't begin slowly visualizing details when it's like my brain doesn't have that skill/capacity to begin with.

Also, to piggyback off cgg, my sense of direction is pretty horrible too. I can't remember directions, but I MIGHT remember which way to go once I actually get to the intersection and see it. This drives people batty when I'm navigating.
posted by srrh at 1:34 PM on January 23, 2010


Me too :)
posted by Not Supplied at 1:41 PM on January 23, 2010


I'm not sure eidetic memory is comparable (I have it, apparently in a limited fashion. It's not like Rain Man for me, but it can be useful). It's photographic memory, and though the OP mentions conjuring an image of people he knows, he also talks about seeing whatever you want. I can do this too with some effort. I have no idea what it's called or how common it is.

Have you tried pot? Hallucinogens? Maybe start trying to visualize a cube, or a grid and work up.

And sicne we're comparing brain propensities, I have an excellent sense of direction. I can also sometimes play music in my head. I'm a very good drawer, but that's from lots of drawing. I'm not very good at recognizing faces.
posted by cmoj at 2:31 PM on January 23, 2010


There's more to visualization than just seeing imaginary things. The power of visualization is a strong influence on how and what a person imagines.

There is a wonderful book about this, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field by Jacques Hadamard (or find it in the original French: Essai Sur La Psychologie De L'invention Dans Le Domaine Mathématique)

In the 1940s, this great mathematician asked many people how they thought, and then wrote about it.
posted by hexatron at 2:32 PM on January 23, 2010


I'm in this boat too and I've found that in general, you can overcome it for specific objects with practice and study. I've done this a few different ways - most notably, I can draw a fairly to-scale map of Disneyland from memory, and visualize a portion of it in my head. I practiced this for months in high school, and had a map of Disneyland on my wall for years. It's not like I'm bringing up a PDF in my mind or anything, which is what I picture other people being able to do - it's more like there is that map in my head, but it's in on a big piece of paper in a dark room, and I have a very small flashlight. I can see little chunks of it at a time, and I know there IS the whole picture in there somewhere, but I just have to bring in little tiles of it (like Google Maps!). This is probably the image I know the best, of any image that exists. Doing this kind of map practice might help with directions, but then again, it might have no effect at all.

It sounds like this has a lot of comorbidity with facial recognition problems, which I also spent a lot of effort dealing with. I used to be a lot worse at recognizing faces, but once I realized that recognizing faces was something that came naturally to most people but *I* was really going to have to put work into it, I started putting in the work and got a lot better. I look at my friends and colleagues on facebook ALL the time to review what they look like. I can't visualize them in my head, still, but I can recognize them when I see them, and sometimes I can picture a particular photo of them, or at least a chunk of it - a smile or a particular shirt.

However, this has a weird side effect, which is that my memory fills in the details I've forgotten about people I've met once with much more attractive generic details. So, sometimes, I actually have an easy time "visualizing" someone I've met once, but if I meet them again I generally find that my "memory" of them was *hilariously* inaccurate. Like, I had a job interview in November, and one of the people I met was a woman with well-groomed eyebrows who wore a lot of makeup. My brain filled in all these other wrong details and I pretty much remembered her as looking like a movie star. I met her again a couple of weeks ago and she looked NOTHING like how I remembered her.

I think that's what it comes down to for me - I can visualize small, remarkable chunks, but not whole objects, and even the small chunks don't enter my memory without me making a conscious effort to put them there.

One interesting fact is that my dad has visual eidetic memory as far as I can tell. It seems that for him the experience of reading a book is basically that his brain takes a photograph of every page and stores it, and he can recall it at will. My mom comes from a visually artistic family, too. So clearly some wires got crossed with me :\
posted by crinklebat at 2:49 PM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


I am srrh's lack of visualization.
posted by saveyoursanity at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


"That would be Oliver Sacks. I figure he'll eventually write a book that explains all of this for me."

He also has a great book on migraines. Here is another question: Does anyone without the ability to visualize have migraines/dyslexia? I have migraines and my brother is very dyslexic and I think I'm very mildly dyslexic too. There might be absolutely no correlation, but it'd be interesting if there was.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 3:05 PM on January 23, 2010


"Does anyone without the ability to visualize have migraines/dyslexia?"

Neither one for me.
posted by tdismukes at 3:16 PM on January 23, 2010


Me either, never had a migraine and am very, very good at spelling.
posted by crinklebat at 3:58 PM on January 23, 2010


Huh, that's interesting. I didn't know there was anyone who couldn't do that. I seem to be able to visualize everything I've ever seen, even if only seen once, rotate it any way I want, make it any color, and set up scenes. "OK, you want me to visualize Obama in the Oval Office desk, signing a bill? Great. Morning or evening? Is the first lady to his left or right?" That would be easy. I also visualize abstract things like mathematical concepts or computer programs -- these somehow get translated from language and symbols into visualizations. One problem with this is that subjects that are hard to learn visually, like foreign languages, are much harder.

On the other hand, I can't remember specific words I hear, only the gist or underlying meaning of what's been said. I can remember language more easily if I have to learn and repeat it, so I'd think by analogy you might be able to visually remember things that you've focused on intently by drawing them.
posted by lsemel at 4:02 PM on January 23, 2010


So, this is my field: I'm a computational neuroscientist, and I make computer models of how the visual system in the brain works. Unfortunately, I don't have any answers for you! I can tell you something about the current state of the science, though:

We don't know much at all.

We have some theories about the normal direction of processing in the visual system: image comes into eye, brain does stuff, you recognize what you're seeing. It's the process of transforming the "pixels" that you see into something meaningful, and your brain is great at it. But how does it do what it does?

We have some hand-wavey ideas about how the brain might be accomplishing this task. It appears to happen in a number of steps, with the representation of the image becoming more abstract at each stage. We can make computer programs that do steps like what we think the brain might be doing, and see if those computer programs can be taught to recognize images. Currently, those computer programs can successfully do simple visual recognition tasks, recognizing objects pulled from a few different classes when the objects are shown in an uncluttered environment. These computer programs do about as well as humans do when they are shown an image very briefly (100ms or so.)

But humans can do much, much better than the computer programs when they have adequate time. We think that some of this performance may be due to feedback, where parts of the brain that deal in abstract concepts or visual memory actually talk back to the early visual processing centers. They might, for instance, give a signal about what you might be seeing, and ask for the early visual processing to change in some way so as to clear up any ambiguities. But this process is completely not understood. We know that these feedback connections exist, but we don't know what they're doing.

Finally, I'll get to your question: it's very possible that visualization involves the same type of feedback pathways I've just been talking about. In order to visualize, you've got to take an abstract concept -- the idea of a lemon -- and make a very specific "pixel-by-pixel" image. This abstract-to-specific is the opposite direction of normal sensory processing. For this reason, I believe that it's likely to involve feedback. However -- unfortunately! -- we don't yet understand how feedback works. So we don't understand visualization.

Yet. We're working on it!

Sincere apologize if I've misrepresented the field in some way. I haven't actually looked into the literature on visualization specifically; I'm coming at everything from the visual recognition viewpoint, but with a great interest in feedback.
posted by wyzewoman at 4:29 PM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Just a quick addition in support of the idea of this ability existing on a spectrum: I remember specific portions of IQ tests that focus on abstract visualization. For instance, there would be a picture of a cube with different designs on its faces, flattened out or unrolled / unfolded into a two-dimensional figure; then there would be images of "assembled" cubes and your task would be to imagine which of those could be derived from the flat shape (somewhat like this).

I usually score pretty high in this area, and I also love the kind of mental experiments that take you through more and more complex visualizations, like going from a one-dimensional dot to a line, moving that along another dimension to a square, then the square to a cube, then the cube to a hypercube (where you can at least try to imagine a three-dimensional "shadow")...

On the other hand I distinctly remember reading in a book on meditation that truly visualizing even a simple object is incredibly hard - one of the ways to work towards absolute concentration is to imagine one single object in all details. Even something as mundane as an apple or a familiar face is incredibly hard to imagine in a detailed, unchanging way; keeping it focused for more than a second is a harder task than many would imagine.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:40 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to admit that I wonder if people might just have very different expectations for what "visualization" means. For example, I can picture President Obama sitting at a desk in some sort of abstract sense, but it's very mentally hazy and I can't look around the scene as if it were a photograph. I thought that this was what visualization is, but I'm getting the sense that some people with the same level of ability characterize this as the lack thereof?

A number of people have mentioned that they know what their mother's face is but can't conjure it up; I would pose that in the absence of an unusually powerful photographic memory, these are basically equivalent anyhow.
posted by threeants at 4:45 PM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Data point: I'm exactly the same way, and I didn't even realize until I read this thread. I've been sitting here trying to pull up mental images. One thing that I've noticed is that whenever I visualize people, I can never visualize them making eye contact with me. My mental representation of everyone features them looking to the side or down.

I do wonder, though, is this really something that can be fixed or improved upon? Or is the scope of your ability to visualize simply what you're born with, like the theories of what kind of learner you are? It sounds like the previous posters offering exercises have only succeeded in remembering details, not in being able to lift the haze away from mental images.
posted by estlin at 7:25 PM on January 23, 2010


All of the comments suggesting visualization exercises are kind of bizarre and out of the bounds of imagination for me. I can't begin slowly visualizing details when it's like my brain doesn't have that skill/capacity to begin with.

Same here. You can tell me "start by visualizing a circle, then add eyes and a mouth to it, then cat ears" and I can't do any of those things. It's like the "canvas" isn't there in the first place. Or at best the canvas is in a dark room and I'm pointing a very weak flashlight at it.

"Does anyone without the ability to visualize have migraines/dyslexia?"

Neither here. I won a spelling bee in High School.

I have to admit that I wonder if people might just have very different expectations for what "visualization" means. For example, I can picture President Obama sitting at a desk in some sort of abstract sense, but it's very mentally hazy and I can't look around the scene as if it were a photograph. I thought that this was what visualization is, but I'm getting the sense that some people with the same level of ability characterize this as the lack thereof?

As we addressed above, it's different for different people. One person above could look around the scene as if it were a photo. On the other hand, I can't even do what you're describing.

Responding to some other points that have come up:

- I can find my way with directions or a map OK, but I had a moment when I was in my 20s when I realized that other people could imagine where they were on a map as they traveled. I tried to train myself to do that. Now I can do it as long as I have a map in front of me - don't ask me to picture one in my head.

- I have almost no sense of direction unless I'm in California, in which case I can pretty reliably tell you what direction the ocean is at any time. I have no idea what this means.

- Like someone else above, I've learned to recognize voices extremely well to compensate for being bad at recognizing faces. This has ruined many TV and movie mysteries when they try to fool the audience by having someone talk without showing their face.
posted by mmoncur at 4:55 AM on January 24, 2010


A previous AskMe thread: How detailed is your mental imagery? [note the incredible range of different answers!]

I liked the example from that thread: I sometimes ask people what they think of when I say "purple tiger".

I don't get a picture of a tiger in my head. Just a concept.

Another interesting thread: Do you picture a calendar in your head?

I was amazed at all of the visual imagery people have for a completely abstract concept like dates and times. I have no trouble dealing with concepts like "2:30 tomorrow" or "three weeks from Thursday" but there's absolutely no picture in my head. Just numbers and math.
posted by mmoncur at 5:11 AM on January 24, 2010


Try visualizing the two simplest things:

1. Visualize a line in space. Doesn't much matter what the space is, but there's certainly a line in it.

2. Try visualizing a color.

Orange. Hell, see if you can visualize an orange (the fruit).


I'm *bad* at visualizing things unless I see them drawn out or something. At least one of the above is really hard for me.
posted by talldean at 7:55 PM on February 8, 2010


I adamantly disagree that visualization is a 'got it or not' skill. Two years ago, I was in your place exactly... I couldn't summon colors, lines, even my own face at will. Growing up I never had mental or sensory imagery. Every bit of my thinking was done in words and numbers. At best, I felt a sort of "thing-ness" about a person or idea.. like a hint of av veil of an abstraction.

Now I see images and feel body-flashes all the time. No lie, it has been exceedingly difficult to get this far. When you seem to lack every possible starting component, it's like asking a seahorse to skateboard. The rewards are astounding though. The closest thing I can think of is learning a second language... but it's so much better than that! It's a whole new way to THINK. I've put myself through the wringer to learn and I am a different, happier, more complex person because of it. It was months before I saw any results, but god what a taste of fire. You will change irrevocably once you begin.

Things that may or may not help you:

Keep a dream journal. Learn to lucid dream. Meditate to build focal endurance. Work with your hands: build thing, assemble complex equipment. Take an art class. Draw with your left hand or your feet. Pay close attention to space and time, see how objects and places change in and through them. Think about patterns, systems, the relationships between things. "Where is this orange in relation to that one over there? Where do they both lie in my visual field? How is this shade of red different from that one? If I rotated this orange 90 degrees to the left, how would it look?" Ask where, when, what, is, how much, how big, how long, what if? Consider: line, value, surface, light. Collect textures. Explore your neighborhood. Observe, observe, observe.

You said if you concentrate really hard, you get a kind of buzz... cultivate that. It's the first step. Most important is to constantly question, manipulate and respond to your environment. Arm yourself with questions in the thought-systems you know (language, music, touch, taste), but don't let yourself answer in anything but sight! If you start thinking in words push them away. Build your memory: look at a orange, look away, try to recall. Repeat. Repeat. Do the same with every visual scene in front of you until you can see afterimages. Try imagining objects in new positions, add features that don't exist. Set up Rube Goldbergs. Compare and contrast. Work your way from hazy generalities to clear microdetail.

Visual thinking goes by analogy, rarely by procession. If you think as linearly as I did you've got some hard habits to break.
posted by fritillary at 12:49 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


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