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December 30, 2009 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a natural inability to fantasize?

On occasion, friends or lovers ask me what I typically fantasize about while having happy non-public time. Invariably, I tell them that I just don't; I lack the capacity to focus on something so ephemeral for any length of time. When I try, I am easily distracted. I can count on one hand the number of times mental fantasy has yielded any discrete results.

I don't think there is anything wrong with me, but I am curious about the potential cause of my being virtually incapable of sustaining fantasy. I wondered if it was another symptom of ADHD, but all searches on the subject came back with information about the disorder in tandem with sexual addiction.

Am I just unaware of the substantial portion of the population who cannot fantasize? Is the inability to fantasize fairly common or just a sexual peculiarity? Could it be exacerbated by ADHD? Is it an effect of sex (male vs. female)?
posted by opossumnus to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Very, very VERY similar issue here. Also ADHD, as well as a touch Asperger-y. I've always felt it was a sexual version of the characteristic which makes engineers sigh, "I find this HIGHLY IMPLAUSIBLE!" during sci-fi movies - an inability to suspend disbelief, as well as an inability to "lose yourself" in something which is clearly fictional. So... at least you're not alone?
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:16 PM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might not want to limit yourself to sex here. I know people who simply aren't interested in fiction. Some people just don't seem to have any imagination? I don't know.

I have one friend who swears up and down that he can't vizualize anything mentally. I don't really have any idea what that's like (but knowing him it would tend to explain a few things...), but I am pretty sure that our knowledge of how the mind and/or brain does its thing is pretty limited.

In any case, I'd be more comfortable characterizing this as a lack of interest rather than a lack of capacity. This sort of thing just doesn't do it for some people. That may really be all there is to it.
posted by valkyryn at 12:17 PM on December 30, 2009

I have this issue too -- also ADHD.

It's funny; I find stuff like fanfiction (of the nonsexual variety, even) to be almost offensively weird and unappealing, but if someone were to present such a scenario to me in a very formal way that says, "This is some sort of assignment or challenge," I would find it pretty fun to write. There's something about the logic and analysis aspects -- learning enough about the characters to emulate them -- that appeal to me when the fantasy part really doesn't.

I wish I could fantasize better, though. Getting in the right mindset to be turned on is pretty hard sometimes, because right when I'm getting comfortable my ADHD brain says, "Your boss wants you to finish that thing" and I think, "WHOA, I do NOT want my boss in that fantasy!" Maybe turning off my fantasies is just a way of trying to prevent that.
posted by Madamina at 12:41 PM on December 30, 2009

One of my Psyc 101 prof's major interests was alexithymia. One of the main characteristics of alexithymia listed in the wikipedia entry is "...constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a paucity of fantasies". I can remember him (Parker - an author of some of the cited lit) going on and on about this in lectures, that a person with alexithymia might have (I paraphrase) "a really exciting dream about going to order a pizza, eating the tasty pizza...and then washing their car!"

IANAPsychologist, nor am I an armchair diagnostician, but that's what you're query made me think of.

Also, as a data point, I have ADHD-Combined and a rather vivid imagination. :)
posted by purlgurly at 12:46 PM on December 30, 2009

Do you mean this question to be only about sexual fantasies, or do you literally mean an inability to "fantasize" about anything?

For instance, Daniel Gilbert's pop-psychology book Stumbling on Happiness has a passage where he first asks you to imagine being served a bowl of spaghetti. Then he informs you that you surely responded by imagining a detailed sensual world, such as a particular ceramic bowl and maybe a checkered tablecloth and certain smells, etc. When I read this I thought: "whoa, wait a minute, if he's right about how most people think, then I'm not like most people." I didn't conjure up any of those details; I just thought of the idea of spaghetti in the abstract. I can imagine saying something to someone and then imagine what their response might be in their particular voice, but I generally don't see concrete pictures in my mind unless I'm physically looking at something. This probably explains why I can't honestly say I derive any joy from novels, even though I consider myself a bibliophile and an intellectual. If I want fiction, it pretty much has to be in TV/movie form; otherwise, I can't vividly activate my imagination on my own in any kind of richly rewarding way.

But I don't know if any of that is helpful since you seem to be dancing around the details of your question. Is "happy non-public time" supposed to be a sly sexual euphemism or do you just mean plain ol' daydreaming?
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:49 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a counter-data point: I have ADHD, and I am lost in fantasy the majority of the time. I'm pretty much the opposite of what's being described here... the reality in front of me seems trivial compared to whatever is going on in my mind. So I would be surprised if ADHD is related, although of course, it still could be, just not in the way that my ADHD is related to my thought processes.
posted by bingo at 12:54 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am mildly curious how the title you used connects to what you posted. :) i.e. how did you decide to use that in connection to this topic. (The topic is fascinating to me as well since I have known a few people like this.)

(Girls will call a stud with big sensual appetite!)
posted by smallerdemon at 12:55 PM on December 30, 2009

Yeah, in my experience this phenomenon doesn't seem to go along with ADHD.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:56 PM on December 30, 2009

I had to learn to fantasize. It didn't even occur to me to fantasize until I was well in my thirties and in a dull sexual relationship my first marriage. Even now my fantasies are fairly simple, non-structured, image-flashing type ones. Any of the image flashes that ting me I follow for a while, but on the whole there is nothing complex, scripted or linear about them.

However, I can whip up a very good, complex dirty story/fantasy for a lover on the spot, especially if I understand their kink. I also read a lot of fiction and write some too. I found writing erotic fiction to be a good starting point for improving my imagination for the other times when my hands are preoccupied.

I think fantasising takes practice. Learning to 1) give yourself permission to mentally roam, and 2) clearing the mind so only the wanted images take over, is part of that practice.
posted by Kerasia at 1:00 PM on December 30, 2009

Response by poster: The topic is from a spam email for sexual enhancement I got this morning, ha.

I don't have any distaste for fantasy, & I don't swaddle myself in the cloth of pure rationality. I have the ability to imagine things, but like Kerasia said, they come in flashes. I am easily distracted by tangential thoughts, & my mind is not often on the topic at hand, but the experience more like a slide image than a film running in my mind. Sexual fantasies are more difficult for me because they require much more energy to sustain, I think. If I were to write one out, there would be no problem, but it's the dedication & focus required to keeping it alive in my head, I suppose.

Jaltcoh's novel point is a good one; I also enjoy books and reading, but I can't say that I "live" any of it as I read. There are no imaginative processes going on, just logical ones, as my brain maps out the words on the page.

How thought-provoking!
posted by opossumnus at 1:07 PM on December 30, 2009

Data points: I can fantasize, but only if it's a scenario that could plausibly happen. I can "imagine" something happening sexually, like with a real boyfriend or something, but not if it involves monsters or impossible positions or even something that I'm just not into. As valkyryn mentioned, I don't care for fiction very much, and am disappointed when biographical movies alter the facts for the sake of drama or comedy. (One of my favorite pastimes is reading the "goofs" sections in the IMDB.) I get mad when I read really out-there fiction like a romance novel, and yell, "that would never happen in real life!" If it could happen in real life, great. If not, I can't do it. I have a few symptoms of ADD but have never identified as such.
posted by Melismata at 1:23 PM on December 30, 2009

Me too! With ADD diagnosis, fwiw. I have very few fantasies, and it's also quite difficult for me to imagine the future as well as the past. I'm very present-oriented, generally.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:15 PM on December 30, 2009

I'm not sure if this is useful or even related information, but sometimes I find it harder than usual or even impossible to fantasize or daydream about anything. I just can't bring myself to focus on it, and actually picturing any of the things I'm thinking of is difficult. But then there are times when I'll be at work and find that I've actually stopped working on whatever it is I was doing because I was devoting 100% of my attention to whatever it was I was thinking about.
posted by Venadium at 7:19 PM on December 30, 2009

I do not consider myself in anyway ADHD. I can be easily distracted, but I am also good at holding my concentration on books and works and television and any other manner of things.

I suck at fantasy. AD&D was awful for me because I could just not get into it and follow along with the imaginary aspect of it. I can only really invent stories when I am three-quarters asleep and waking up from a strange dream already in progress. Just today I got woken up by the phone ringing at a particularly interesting point, but once that awake I couldn't continue it. Fantasies in my head get interrupted all the time by random crap mundanities like recalling a conversation I had earlier in the day, or wondering what I should buy at the grocery store, or thinking of some unliked person that I haven't interacted with for 5 years.

You are probably just bad at fantasy. It happens. Same reasons you end up with a mole on your right shoulder and not your left or why you prefer purple to green. Possibly something genetic, or something in your particular raising. You can possibly practice and get better, or you might just be bad at it forever, just as you may never be a pro bowler no matter how hard you try.
posted by that girl at 7:48 PM on December 30, 2009

I don't know the answer to the question, but wanted to add a contrasting bit of context. I was interested that you talked about trying to fantasize. Fantasizing is not something I try to do - it's something that I only realize I'm doing after I'm well into it. It starts on its own, and I don't recognize the point at which I take leave of my conscious senses and go off to somewhere else in my head. If I ask someone a question, for example, and they start to give me an answer that I already know is not what I'm not looking for, I slide into fantasy while they do their talking. Outwardly I'm nodding and going, "yeah, uh huh" but I'm totally not there with them. Instead, I'm Cyclops from the X-men blasting something with my eye laser. And I'm the one that asked the question! I only realize it after a bit and kind of snap back and try to see if I can mine whatever they were saying from the lingering echoes in my previously unmanned ears. When I work, when I drive, when I watch tv, when I read, when I jog, when I shower, when I eat, when I'm on hold, when I shop - all the time - I am the president or a rock star or I cure cancer or rescue stranded astronauts or am a really cool dad or get my ex back or beat up that jackass from the bar or tell off my boss or make first contact or win an argument or star in a movie or start a neat business or win the lottery or write a good book or punch out Sean Hannity or make excellent dinners or go invisible or be able to snap my fingers and make the trash take itself out or have a magic fridge where nothing ever spoils or sink into one of the worlds in the books I've read and on and on and on. Always.

As for sexual fantasies, it's the same way. I'm working away or driving or whatever, and it's only five minutes later that I realize I've been dreaming about Ashley and me going all carpe diem after we improbably bump into one another in the supply closet. Or if it's happy non public time, if that means what I think it does, that only starts because I snap back to the here an now after having drifted into a particularly hot fantasy and I've got time and you know. I'm not sure I've ever sat down with a plan to start fantasizing. Aaaand... begin.

So the fact that fantasy is a voluntary (attempted) action for you and an involuntary one for me is something interesting to think about.
posted by Askr at 9:16 PM on December 30, 2009

It also bears noting that people who have rich sexual fantasies are generally able to fuel them with some sort of fetish. A caller asked Dan Savage if she was broken because she had no secret fantasies, no deep lurking desires. He said, "We once had a term or that, but it isn't politically correct anymore. We used to call that 'normal.'"
posted by greekphilosophy at 11:55 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have one friend who swears up and down that he can't vizualize anything mentally.

He isn't the only one. I have almost no ability to visualize. If you tell me to imagine a plate of beans, I have a vague notion, but certainly not a picture in my head. I can't really picture anyone's face in my head, even if I know them quite well.

I say almost because there are occasional exceptions. My dreams are visual, and sometimes I can conjure up a mental picture or two right before I fall asleep. I've taken up pen-and-ink drawing, and after staring at and drawing the same image for 10 hours, I can picture it clearly. Same goes for pictures I've seen a million times, like my desktop backgrounds.

I can imagine a scenario, sexual or otherwise, but it doesn't really include pictures. And like that girl said above, role-playing games were never any fun for me because the imaginary parts were not the slightest bit real to me. I was always in a room with a bunch of nerds wondering why everyone but me was so excited about imaginary stuff.

On the other hand, I love fiction and devour a couple of books a month. No pictures (or voices, for that matter) in my head, but I can follow the action just fine.

No ADHD here, although like most people I have some of the symptoms.

Everybody's different.
posted by mmoncur at 2:04 AM on December 31, 2009

I can't visualize in general either. To sorta-quote from the movie Clueless, it's like a Monet in here. I can see stuff better if I've seen it in real life, but from scratch? Hah, no, not very well. I've tried collage to get over it, but I just don't make clear and vivid pictuers in my head. My dreams aren't terribly strong visually (they're kind of barely there on details.).
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:39 AM on January 2, 2010

I recently read Driven to Distraction, and one of the things it said was that people with ADHD have a tendency to be either really into sex, or like you about it. I forget the details - I only skimmed the book because I didn't like its premise (that meds are the best answer).
posted by lover at 2:45 PM on November 20, 2010

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