How detailed is your mental imagery / mental visualization?
September 10, 2008 10:55 PM   Subscribe

I am curious about how detailed, or photographic/realistic the imagery in one's mind's eye is, and what in general would be considered "standard" for most people. Note I am not talking about "creative visualization" but I suppose it could be related. Specifically I am referring to simply the process of visualizing an object, face or scene in your mind's eye.

When I visualize something in my 'mind's eye', it's very vague and impressionistic. As a visual artist (I am an illustrator) I find it disconcerting that I cannot regularly bring up vivid mental imagery.

I have had moments — usually before falling asleep — where vivid, detailed and realistic mental imagery comes into my mind's eye. But this is not something I can control or do so in waking hours. I have also had lucid dreams (where one realizes one is dreaming while dreaming) so I know my mind is capable of it.

A few years back I asked this question of friends, and most seemed to claim they had extremely vivid mental imagery. My problem here is that the answers were subjective — what I think of as vivid might not be the same as their definition. I explained it as follows: is the imagery photographic? If you could draw, could you use the mental imagery as a reference to draw from?

I am curious as to the general consensus of experience in this area — do most people have vague mental visualization, or is it common? Is there a way to cultivate this talent/ability if by nature you do not possess it?

Oddly, I had a difficult time finding out any sort of information on this topic via Google searching. It seems odd to me that this topic hasn't been explored more fully. Or perhaps I wasn't searching with the right terms.
posted by horhey to Science & Nature (38 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I see nothing in my mind's eye. Just blackness, no sound, no visuals. I am jealous of people who can think of a circle and visualize a circle, or hear the music they're thinking of.
posted by knowles at 11:08 PM on September 10, 2008

I sometimes ask people what they think of when I say "purple tiger".

Some see a purple tiger. Others see text in some form written across space. I think I see relationships (i.e. I would immediately think paper tiger, then the band Spoon).

I'll bet something dear to me there is a concept for this -- what people see and its resolution. I have no idea what it is...yet.

Wikipedia awaits.
posted by pedantic at 11:12 PM on September 10, 2008

This topic came up in one of my classes once and I was surprised at how many people claimed to have photographic memories (which seems like it might be related). I think people talk big, personally; none of their claims held up to any sort of serious testing.

Normally, I don't see anything, per se. I simply grasp the concept (say, "a red sphere") gently and try not to pressure it into being anything more than the instructions I have been given. When I draw, it is like writing; I may have the basic idea of where something is going, but I am continually surprised as to how it gets there. (However, when I'm tired enough, I can hallucinate almost on-demand. I do not recommend practicing this.)

On preview: My mind tries to justify "purple tiger" as a possible reality. I cobble together a universe in which such a thing could exist and then, 1984-style, tigers have never been anything besides purple. I never really see any color tiger, though I remember having seen them.
posted by teremala at 11:24 PM on September 10, 2008

When I read novels and short stories, I see and hear movies... in widescreen, with shots and camera angles. "Vividness" and subjective mental experiences manifest themselves as detail, either as abstracted close-ups or complicated tracking shots. I very vividly recall that my daydreams in elementary school were like this as well.

In college, I was the head engineer for the student television station. About two months into the job, I was cleaning up a room that we used for props and junk when I saw a live television production system materialize in front of me. The vision was very detailed, down to the brand names and model numbers. It was all stuff the station already had or could get cheap as free, and all stuff I was familiar with due to equipment accounting requirements. Within a month, the production setup was complete, running and in place in the spare room almost exactly the way it had been in my vision. It was an intense, wondrous sensation that I miss greatly and have not experienced since.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:35 PM on September 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

This seems related to the homunculus problem. I'm not awake enough at this juncture to discern how it realtes, but it does posit a philosophical quandary.
posted by pedantic at 11:50 PM on September 10, 2008

Much like Jamaro when I picture a "purple tiger" I picture a tiger with black stripes on a black background then pick any background and I can visualize that. When I read a book I see an overview of the scene as if it was in a movie in great detail.

However if you asked me to visualize a tiger walking then I would visualize a tiger walking I immediately think about a tiger that I saw on TV or in the Zoo, I can't make the "purple" tiger walk. I can only visualize moving things that I have seen move in real life or in movies.
posted by lilkeith07 at 12:20 AM on September 11, 2008

I can visualise pretty well. When remembering a speech or facts for an exam, I can picture the layout of the page containing the relevant information, although I wouldn't say I have a photographic memory because I can't see details that I didn't consciously notice originally, and to do it well I have to make a conscious effort at memorising the page when I am looking at it.

Imagining stuff: movie adaptations of books I have read are often jarring because they don't match the visuals I created when I read the book originally, and I recently got confused between the movie and book version of something (Bridge To Terebithia?) because I remembered 'seeing' both versions. I can't draw, but if I could, I could definitely use my mental images as a source.
posted by jacalata at 12:45 AM on September 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Some great answers here. I'm fascinated by jamaro's "Photoshop memory", and the ability to additionally manipulate the imagery — this is something that would be extremely valuable to me. In contrast, I get glimpses of vague imagery but require my sketchbook to work through concepts. Like teremala, my drawing process is just that — a process, and I too am surprised by how things evolve as I draw. I usually know where I want it to go in general, but have learned to let the process lead me.

When doing the "purple tiger" exercise, I get a strange jumble of imagery and bizarrely enough none of it is visual in the literal sense; I don't mentally "see" anything, yet get abstract (yet indescribably/contradictorily "visual") impressions. A rough analogy would be the scene in "The Matrix" where the guy watches the code but sees 'blonde, brunette, redhead'. The "imagery" I get is more of a faded memory — hints, pieces — and definitely not something I can use as reference to sketch from.

As I mentioned in the original post, I have had moments right before sleep where extremely vivid imagery — albeit not consciously directed — filled my mind's eye and I was able to manipulate it to some degree, such as moving around it (or perhaps rotating it?) and zooming in and out. These were fantastical images, though based in reality — a bizarre face usually.

In the past I have made half-assed attempts to strengthen my mental visualization, but the slow progress usually ended up frustrating me before I had any success.
posted by horhey at 1:52 AM on September 11, 2008

Response by poster: Some related discussion on this topic of mental imagery.
posted by horhey at 2:10 AM on September 11, 2008

I think the nature of mental visualization is that it's different for everyone because they see and focus on details that are interesting to them. Whereas a photographer might visualize in terms of light & dark and depth of field, a painter might visualize in terms of colors and shapes, and a cinematographer/director might visualize in terms of motion and 3-D spatial orientation of people and objects. You can see it in the way different people compose their work. I'd like to think it works similarly to people who can compose music in their mind, ie. they mentally hear the music and simply play/write the mental playback.

For an extreme example of detail in the mind's eye, read and watch videos of Stephen Wiltshire. He's an autistic architectural artist who has been dubbed "The Human Camera" because of his ability to see huge city landscapes once and draw them from memory. If there's anything resembling "photographic memory", his talent would be it. Yet, even his "mind's eye" isn't truly photographic because in a few tests, neurologist Oliver Sacks (who studied Stephen in "An Anthropologist on Mars") noticed that despite the level of detail, certain aspects weren't correct and/or would change over time.
posted by junesix at 2:12 AM on September 11, 2008

My mental images are always vague and blurry. Like pedantic mentioned, if you tell me to visualize a "purple tiger," my instant mental "image" is just the lowercase white words "purple tiger" on a black background. I also hear the words when I "see" them in my head.

Then I have to think, "wait, no, a picture." And then I see a purple tiger's head, except vaguely defined. I certainly couldn't draw a picture from it, but I have trouble drawing a picture with something sitting right in front of me too.

For me, faces are always the least defined in a mental image, whether they belong to an animal or a human. They're just a blur, and I can make out hair color but that's about it. I have trouble conjuring up more than a vague image of anyone, no matter how close to me they are. I can visualize conversations taking place, but rather than see the emotions on people's faces, I just feel the emotions directly.

Anyway. You want links that might be helpful, yes?

Most people have one or two dominant types of thinking. Some people think in pictures, others think in abstractions, some think in words, some think in sounds. For example, I think primarily in words and abstractions with some sound and very rare pictures, while my fiance thinks almost entirely in abstractions and nothing else. Then some people think in movement and probably other ways I don't know about.

Someone who thinks in pictures would be better at drawing than me, or so I would think, and this has been my (limited) experience.
posted by Nattie at 2:14 AM on September 11, 2008

I think the biggest issue here is that the experience of mental visualization is so subjective, we have no accurate/independent way to verify what someone says is actually what they are "seeing" in their brain.

I also dont think you'll ever find any kind of "standard" because the process of visualization is influenced by so many factors (upbringing, education, daily experiences, sensory input). Its constantly in so much flux, how would you ever baseline it ?

For me personally.. mental visualization runs the gamut between:

75% - very vague impressions and ambient nothingness to choppy black/white flickers of images...

20% - isolated/focused attention (1 object is crystal-sharp, but surroundings are blurry),

5% - moments of absolute hidef super sharp clarity (so intense that they are overwhelming to the point of making me avoid them due to inability to absorb them without brain meltdown.)

and then there are days like today when I'd love to shut off my brain for about a week and enjoy some pure blissful nothingness.
posted by jmnugent at 2:34 AM on September 11, 2008

I'm horrible at visualizing in my head. When I try to have conscious control over the image, I just get frustrated. When I hear "purple tiger" I can call up a tiger (my brain thinks of the tiger from the Disney movie Aladdin for some reason) and the color purple in a jumble but not a purple tiger.

In one of my psychology classes the instructor had us do visualization exercises. I always ended up incredibly frustrated with the simple one he tried having us do, but maybe it would help you out. He had us visualize a blue ball. Then on top of that a red ball. Then a yellow ball. Then we were to rotate these balls around in our head, keeping track of them. Almost like juggling. We did this with our eyes closed after doing about five to ten minutes of relaxation prior to this. Most people in the class ended up falling asleep. I just would get frustrated and give up.
posted by rainygrl716 at 2:44 AM on September 11, 2008

I can visualise mostly everything about any house I've ever lived in from the time I was seven or eight. I can move in my mind from room to room and floor to floor, look around and "see" the furniture (the couch with the large red brown and green floral print that was replaced with the long gold velvety fabric couch that had four seat cushions, for example), go up the stairs and open the door to the cedar blanket closet, see and reach out and feel that scratchy wool blanket and smell the cedar, see the backyard in summer or winter, put my jacket on and rake the leaves in autumn with my brother and Dad, see the split bamboo rake in my hand, acorns rolling under my blue canvas sneakers, put a clear bright blue sky up there or a gray overcast.

I can conjure up the pulple tiger with some effort but I can't really hold him in my mind's eye very well at all, but a regular tiger I can easily visualize, make him pace back and forth in a sunny jungle clearing or in a cage in a zoo.

I can visit my sixth grade classroom, write or draw shapes with chalk on the blackboard, go back to my desk in the second row, see (and smell) the kid on my left who always wore new-looking shirts but didn't seem to ever bathe, see his face and hair, see the face and blond curly hair of the teacher, hear her voice.

The images I suppose could be called photographic, but they're three dimensional. I could only make you very crude and awkward drawings of any of these mental images, especially people.

As for purely imagined visualization: Hmmm... I can "see" a green pyramid shape, put a red sphere next to it, both of them solid and real enough to touch. I can conjure up the Mona Lisa, Put her in a deeply carved gold painted frame, put myself high on a snowy mountain with the wintry hilly land stretching out before me under an overcast sky, see a white steepled church down in the valley, fill the parking lot down there with cars, and sail the painting like a frisbee away through the air, smaller and smaller, until it hits a little stand of pine trees, watch the dislodged snow drop to the ground. It all seems very realistic in my mind, as if it were a scene than anybody could experience.
posted by longsleeves at 3:00 AM on September 11, 2008

My problem here is that the answers were subjective — what I think of as vivid might not be the same as their definition. I explained it as follows: is the imagery photographic? If you could draw, could you use the mental imagery as a reference to draw from?

I think you will not get very useful results discussing this, because we don't have the words to accurately express the inner workings of our minds.

That is, we can talk about visualisation and say "is it a sketch or more like a photograph? How detailed? How many megapixels? Is it like a 3D model? A video or animation?" but it's like none of those things.

The best I can do is: I can 'zoom in and out' of visualising things - between low-detail overviews (broad but shallow) and high-detail specifics (deep but narrow), but I cannot visualise broadly and in high detail at the same time; and sometimes I don't know the high detail specifics. So if I'm visualising something I know fairly well - let's say a robot I know the design of - I can visualise it in overview form; and I can visualise how the front wheel bearings are made and how the front flipper drive gearbox is assembled and other highly detailed aspects - but only one at a time.

And even that is an inaccurate description of how it seems to me, and how it seems to me is itself processed through the distorting filter of self-reporting.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:03 AM on September 11, 2008

I'm mildly dyslexic and think very visually. I see movies in my head as I read - mostly only with fiction. I can visualize just about anything I want to (and playback music etc) in my head. Though it's never as precise as 'real life' - music is a bit muffled, visual stuff a bit misty. It's on about the same level as dreams.

With 'purple tiger'... purple is easy, tiger is easy (in fact lots of examples). Purple tiger takes a bit of effort and is less precise and hard to hold in my mind's eye.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:06 AM on September 11, 2008

There is no such thing as "the mind's eye". It is a common misconception which has taken many centuries (milennia, even) to overcome - and still people believe it.

Basically, we see with our brain. Light comes into the eye, it hits the retina, and the retina (which is a part of the brain, actually) "chops down" the information, translating it into neurochemical signs that travel along the brain until they reach the visual cortex. There, the input sign is divided, analyzed and processed in different specialized areas (for facial recognition, motion, colour, shape, among others). So, nothing about this process is "visual". What happens when you see something is best described (for the time being, anyway) as a specific pattern of electrical impulses surging through the visual cortex - and, we think, other areas as well, such as the frontal lobe. It's a very dramatic, very unique and extremelly complex orchestration of the brain, where lots of things happen at the same time, getting separated and then bound together.

More to the point of your question, an image in "the mind's eye" is a mnemonic replication of the pattern one experienced before (as an example, since you can certainly imagine things you've never seen). Why some people are better at this then others, we don't know. But somehow it seems some individuals are better are keeping their patterns clearer and stronger than others (as with so many things in life, of course). Also, I can tell you from art school experience, this is not a "gift". When you work at it, you get better at it.

If you're really interested in this, I definitely reccomend António Damásio's books, particularly Descarte's Error.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:06 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a quirk where I usually have to exert some effort to maintain a clear visual image of an object but all of the spatial information is perfectly realized in a three dimensional form. Say, right now I'm looking at the headstock of a guitar. I look away, and I can somewhat picture it, but if I wrap my other senses around the image I perceive the coolness of the tuners, the sharpness of the cut strings, the tension in the strings, every angle of the carved wood, all at once and as solid as my own hand. If I try to just picture the headstock as an image, it wavers and dissipates and my mind starts to reconstruct it within seconds.
posted by bunnytricks at 3:10 AM on September 11, 2008

And more to the point of drawing: it is not about image per se at all - it is rather about relations and distances between points, textures and references, and being able to juggle them well. A lot of it is about forcing your brain to let go of a lot of what it's learned and even against how it works. Say in portraiture, beginners will usually draw a really small head on a really big face, because the brain has a huge facial regocnition section and that "tricks" us into drawing it bigger because it is more important to the brain. Again, this is about practice. It does make perfect.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:17 AM on September 11, 2008

Fascinating question.

"...the eye is only capable of seeing if the subject who is looking has mastered an understanding of inner vision as well." - Burnett on Barthes' Camera lucida and Sartre's The Psychology of Imagination

I reckon that what we see, when we close our eyes and imagine we are seeing, is both the 'concept' (the tiger that is purple or the purple that is tiger) and our way of seeing. We are given an insight into the nature of our visualisation practice. Abstract, detail, layers, light, sound, colour, emotion, realism, aspect... some expressions may be more dominant than others, and that tells us something about ourselves.
posted by Kerasia at 3:42 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've taught myself to do what jamaro and longsleeves describe - previously, I tend to dream in something like Wordle.

I practised thinking of something, like an apple - getting the image first, then changing details, then rotating it, then carving it apart, etc. Thinking of the crunch of it coming apart/being eaten or of the smell of the juice helps me with the visuals. At the moment, I'm working on getting better with faces, with less of the carving and more of changing the expressions. Casually doing this for a few months seems to be enough.

I started doing it as much of a way of unclenching at night as of trying to train my mind, but it worked great for both. I realise you didn't ask how, just what, though.

So, yeah, now I see pretty damn realistically, and I can tweak my mental images if I'm visualising something that needs adjustment (I'm working in architecture and also doing some design and visual art on my own time). The representation of my mental image still totally trips me up, though.
posted by carbide at 3:56 AM on September 11, 2008

When I was a kid my dad told me a story of a POW who kept sane by building a stone castle in his mind, stone by stone. So when bored (1st kid on the school bus) I used to do that. I think it taught me to have very detailed mental imagery, but only as detailed as need be. i.e. your purple tiger - I see a tiger with the yellow replaced by purple. Not details of the face but just the tiger as a whole. If I then wonder about specifics I'll see the tail is curved, the face and whiskers relaxed and the ears normal. We could even go into detail within the mouth about the yellow crust on the back teeth because they don't get a chance to clean them as well as humans do.

BUT - I grew up with cats. It's hard to imagine details out of thin air, hence how little detail is present on images of supposed aliens, bigfoot, and such. No one ever remembers the bursts of color, odd hair, color of eyes, traces of scars, etc. To build that level of detail you need to 'zoom in', which I do by asking questions. So with the purple tiger it's "Is it scared or angry with me? What are the whiskers, ears, and tail doing then?" and the observations follow. Note the incongruity though. I'm seeing yellow crust on teeth in a mouth that isn't open because it's not growling or anything! Just goes to show how it works.

Anyway, so if picturing a street scene with happy people, ask what makes a person happy (ice cream shop & people eating cones, kids playing, a couple in love, adults meeting their parents) and incorporate those details into the overall image. For each of those ideas ask what the defining features for each one and incorporate that into it (waffle cones, kids playing soccer with a yellow ball, the couple holding hands and smooching by a white picket fence, how the parents look like Mr. and Mrs. Claus, etc.).

Building a stone castle is pretty boring till you start to care about the details. :-)
posted by jwells at 5:43 AM on September 11, 2008

I am a visual learner.
Like a few other folks here, books become movies in my mind (so much so that I often forget if what's in my head was a movie or book), and I'm almost always playing some music in my head if I'm not listening to it or watching TV.
I'd attribute those things to having read a LOT when I was a while (and into adult hood) and being musically inclined and always listening to music. I've got plenty of notes to draw on to keep myself occupied.

When I try to conjure up an image out of the blue, I'd guess that I see it in about 50-80% detail. The purple tiger is purple and black - he's not immediately in any place, but I can easily put him in the African savannah if I wish. But I can't see his face unless I stop focusing on the greater picture and look closer. For things that I have seen (friends or objects), it's difficult to get a completely detailed image. The amount of detail is about the same as something I make up in my head. I can't "see" a friend's face as if they were in front of me, but I can put together enough pieces of it that I recognize the image.
posted by at 6:10 AM on September 11, 2008

When I visualize something, only the exact part I focus on is clear, and the rest is there as a vague awareness of shape. I have to constantly reconstruct everything by focusing on different parts. I've had many lucid dreams, but I wouldn't call them detailed and realistic either. I certainly couldn't draw from them any better than from my visualizations. On the other hand, as an illustrator, I find it easy to rotate shapes in my head and see objects from different angles. Rotating a moving purple tiger is no problem, although it's just a 3D shape unless I specifically focus on the color.
posted by martinrebas at 6:27 AM on September 11, 2008

I have a decent amount of mental visualization skills. I can see the purple tiger with no problems, but it's just a generic tiger unless I take time to continue the visualization - I'll put him in the zoo, with a family, now I can see the kids watching from the other side of the fence, the tiger is bounding around his exhibit and climbing a rock, etc. Overall I have a pretty active imagination, I have very vivid dreams (twisted and mangled of course, but not abstract, actual people and places). Books are always books, not movies, but I hear the voices of the people talking. I have a jukebox in my skull - I can recall entire songs and lyrics with no problems, in fact it's annoying at times when the songs won't go away. However, I can't make a mental map of my surroundings enough to navigate with my eyes closed, as my partner can. I can't recall a mental picture of my pantry and see the items inside.

Oh brains, always the mystery of the world.
posted by Meagan at 6:36 AM on September 11, 2008

When I was young I could visualize things very well, but that changed and I'm not sure when. If I try to picture a dog, or "My dog Sparky", I get a brief flash of the picture and it's gone. When I was young it'd just hang around until I dismissed it. There are a few circumstances when the old behaviour is there however:
  1. When I wake up, especially when I've got a cold or allergies that make it difficult to breathe. Then the bizarre stuff that goes on inside my head under those circumstances is very visual, last night was one of those nights. The stuff I was visualizing was strange but it was very vivid.
  2. When I'm woodworking I can see how things will fit together based on the blue prints. I can see the mortis and tenons that form the joints on the Morris chair I'm building, I can see the 171.5 degree angle between the upper arm surface where the leg tenon fits into and the long portion of the arm.
  3. I'm an electrical engineer and I often think of things in mental pictures related to the numbers or circuits I'm working with. I often build specialized simulations based on these mental pictures to verify problems I've thought about this way.

posted by substrate at 6:52 AM on September 11, 2008

Did you know that your eyes auto white balance. So the things you may regard as white in your imagination may actually be really tinted orange or grey and you never even knew.
posted by wavering at 7:14 AM on September 11, 2008

When I was a young lad in an engineering design class, one of the things they had us do was to do a sketch of the bell tower from memory, and then do a sketch of the bell tower while looking at the bell tower. Despite the fact that everybody know what the bell tower (being a very famous landmark on campus) looked like, everybody's pictures of the bell tower were much simpler than the actual tower -- most people forgot the little mini towers near the top and all the ornamentation, and that sort of thing, and made it just a bunch of big simple shapes. (IE: Tower, dome, windows).

So ... this has led me to believe that people generally carry around enough detail to recognize things (broad strokes), but not really the fine detail unless they've been really studying it. (Now I can remember that the bell tower has little mini towers at the corners and that sort of thing.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:12 AM on September 11, 2008

It's been fascinating to read the varied reactions. I immediately saw a purple tiger, sort a fluffy tiger, from the waist up, raised up on its hind legs and snarling at me, but it was a non-threatening snarl because the critter was fluffy purple. Left paw slightly higher than the right, fat cheeks with whiskers, some teeth showing, other details a little vague, all against a black background.

That fierceness is all show. Let's sprawl the tiger on its back in a sunny savannah and rub its belly. Oo, the fur is shorter and softer there, and sort of cream-colored. And so on--I see a picture, and then I can manipulate it in 3D, with texture and smell and sound also there in varying degrees.

My dreams are vivid movies; I used to draw them when I got bored in school. When I have trouble sleeping I decide to "look at pictures," which means to just quietly wait for interesting images to appear.

BUT: I suck at remembering faces, noticing details that have changed in my everyday surroundings, describing a car that's leaving the scene of an accident, etc. My physical vision is weak, and my severe myopia was undiagnosed for awhile as a kid, so I spent my early years in a fuzzy, vague world. What all this means I have no idea. I should be working.
posted by PatoPata at 8:24 AM on September 11, 2008

Fascinating topic, as I've often wondered about this myself. My experience is very similar to the OP's. Suffice to say, I can picture just about anything but with very little detail. If I try to imagine the detail, say the tigers whiskers, I lose almost everything else. The one thing that REALLY mystifies me is that I when I cannot picture people's faces in any detail. For instance, if I try to think of my wife's face right now I can't do it. I know what it looks like and I can picture her as a whole person, but there is no detail in the face. I can picture photographs that I've seen of her face, but if I just try to imagine her face right now I can't do it. To make it even weirder, I can somewhat picture her eyes and I can picture her nose accurately, but I cannot picture her mouth at all. This goes for everyone, not just my wife, by the way. I'm guessing that's do to the mouth forming so many different forms (open, closed, smiliing, frowning, etc.). Kinda freaks me out, honestly.
posted by jluce50 at 8:34 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

do = due... sheesh!
posted by jluce50 at 8:35 AM on September 11, 2008

I don't have a photographic memory but I am very good at visualising. I tend to imagine things as films - imagining myself riding a bicycle, not just riding one, but riding one down a road I might have seen before but in clothes I don't own. I can picture things in my head that I couldn't possibly draw - I was doing a painting recentlyand knew exactly how I wanted to paint it, but had to trawl through Google for hours to find an image that looked close enough so I had a template to copy off and adapt - my mind#s eye doesn't translate to my spatial awareness. I can remember silly details about things (the pattern of faint freckles on someone's face, the quality of fading on a crisp-bag fifteen years ago) and I can feel, smell and touch things in my dreams, but I don't remember to take the bins out.

I think it's really about the kinds of thigns you notice and this is difficult to quantify. I was looking at trainers with my boyfriend and said 'I like those, but nothing I have goes with plum.' He was really surprised I referred to them as 'plum', saying 'Most people would say purple.' It seemed surprising to me that someone would refer to them as anything but plum - that was the colour they were!
posted by mippy at 8:50 AM on September 11, 2008

When doing the "purple tiger" exercise, I get a strange jumble of imagery and bizarrely enough none of it is visual in the literal sense; I don't mentally "see" anything, yet get abstract (yet indescribably/contradictorily "visual") impressions. A rough analogy would be the scene in "The Matrix" where the guy watches the code but sees 'blonde, brunette, redhead'. The "imagery" I get is more of a faded memory — hints, pieces — and definitely not something I can use as reference to sketch from.

This describes what happens to me, too. The best way I can think of to describe it further is to say that my brain tells me I am seeing an image of a purple tiger - but when I think about it, I realize I'm not seeing any image but simply a jumble of impressions. It's like when you're in a dark room and someone flashes a light - you have this brief, vague impression of light in your eyes afterwards. For me, picturing things in my head is the mental equivalent of that.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:51 AM on September 11, 2008

I'm glad you brought this up because I'm really curious about it too. Like you (horhey) I have almost no visualization at all (even though I'm a visual artist!), except when almost asleep or in dreams. It's certainly hard to describe, yet I'd say people in this thread have described it pretty well, and I no longer think my position (which is perhaps also yours) is uncommon.

I'm particularly curious about the disparity between visualization (and the equivalent in sound, etc.) while awake vs dreaming. I can summon up images more vividly from a dream I had years ago than I could picture the desk that's right in front of me if I closed my eyes right now. I compose music in my dreams that stands up pretty well even when I remember it awake, but I can't do it when I'm not asleep! It makes me wonder if there's some sort of active suppression going on in the conscious mind which is relieved when half- or unconscious, rather than a missing or weak mental facility.
posted by moonmilk at 12:46 PM on September 11, 2008

I can pretty much visualize anything I want, whether it's something I've seen or something completely imaginary. For instance, I can remember any room or house I've ever been in since I was a kid, look at them from any position and rearrange the furniture. Do you want to know how your house would look in a different color, with an extra floor, from the back, sliced in two, or inside out? That's all easy. When I read a book, I can play director and storyboard it in my head, trying out difference camera angles, settings and scenes. If I am designing something I can often completely plan it out in my head. I also can visualize abstract things, like the structure of the computer code I'm working on, or how its data structures lay out in memory.

I would not say these visualizations are photographic, because they're influenced by the degree of knowledge I have about the subject. While I can imagine pretty much anything, the more I learn about an object, the easier it is to visualize in detail. After I spent time practicing the drawing of hands, which can be hard to draw, I had an easier time visualizing hands from different positions in my head.

What I think is going on when visualizing is that the brain is using visual shortcuts and heuristics to give you the illusion that you're actually looking at something in full detail, when in fact you only have a portion of the necessary visual information in your head. This is why it's possible to visualize something while not being able to draw it. Even though it feels like you're visualizing all the details, it's an illusion. You need more knowledge about of your subject in order to fill in the blanks.

This is similar to what I believe happens when you look at a scene in real life. Your brain picks up on certain salient parts of the scene, but doesn't fully apprehend all the details unless you consciously pay attention to them. When you are looking at something, what you're really seeing is your interpretation of it. But you are overriding and ignoring some of the visual cues that are actually present -- the angle of the line, the proportions of the body, the details of the face. If you actually saw what was in front of you, you'd be able to draw it perfectly without practice. When you visualize a scene, you're reliving the experience of viewing it, but since the object isn't actually there, you only have your interpretation at your disposal, and you can't zoom in or look at what's actually there. So, in response to the poster @jluce50 who said he can't picture his wife's face, it's probably because he's never really sees what's there, and instead relies on less detailed visual cues to recognize his wife, and these are all he remembers when trying to visualize her.

To answer your question about how many 'megapixels' an image in your mind's eye is, I'd say that that's the wrong analogy. Your mind's eye doesn't store images in pixels like Photoshop. An image in your mind's eye is more like a diverse collection of rules, heuristics, 3D models, and scraps of images, memories, and impressions that you assemble to create the illusion of seeing.
posted by lsemel at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2008

I don't quite have lsemel's memory, but mine is similar. I could draw you a 3d map including room sizes, wall placements and various details of every house I've ever lived in. I could draw a decent map of every school I've ever attended and every place I've ever worked. I could tell you what the outside looked like, what the plants and bushes looked like and where they were placed at each of these places. I can call up a detailed mental image that I can "walk" through of any of these places, and many of the homes of relatives and friends.

I can draw a fairly detailed major streets map of the various cities I've lived in. I've only been to Rome, London and Paris once, but I can draw you a roughly accurate map of major streets and the relative location of the sights in each city. (By no means could I draw you a detailed, street-by-street map of any of those cities.) I don't work with buildings or maps, but maybe I should.

I do not have a photographic memory in the sense that I could look at a page of text and call it up again later. I think of it more as having a strong visual and spatial memory.
posted by cnc at 11:50 PM on September 11, 2008 - it's almost creepy reading your description, because my brain works exactly the same way. And I wonder, are you strongly spatial as well?

I'm really curious to hear from people who have very weak mental visualizations what their dreams are like. If you mostly deal in impressions, or in sounds, do you dream the same way? For me dreams are really like being somewhere else, and the images stay with me for as long as I remember the dream.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:47 PM on September 14, 2008

Since ask.metafilter probably isn't the right place for continuing discussion about this stuff, I've created a thread on metachat to talk about visualization, dreams, and creativity. Please join me over there!
posted by moonmilk at 8:08 PM on October 8, 2008

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