What do you call mental imagery of places while thinking?
March 6, 2017 5:17 AM   Subscribe

When I read/study/write I notice that I've been "visualizing" a place the whole time. Sometimes hours pass before I realize I've been "seeing" a location (street, parking lot, school, often from childhood town) in the background the whole time. Anybody know what the name for this phenomenon is?

After the session, when I recall the ideas I read/wrote, or when I return to it, the visualized location sometimes pops up again. It's as if the place has become associated with that particular reading or set of ideas.

Between reading sessions the location often migrates systematically, for instance on day 1 I might be on Street A, and on day 2 I'll be a few blocks further down the street. The migration might go on for weeks or months, taking me great distances through a city.

In fact, as I write this right now, I just realized I'm (in my head) at a particular intersection in a particular city!

I've had this as long as I can remember, but never met someone else who has it. If you had this you would know for sure what I mean! And please reach out if you do have this as I'd be curious what type of thinker you are.
posted by TheOptimizer to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you've got yourself a memory palace!
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:36 AM on March 6

There's two important differences between the memory palace and what I'm describing. For one, what I'm describing is involuntary; for two, I actually have quite a poor memory.
posted by TheOptimizer at 5:53 AM on March 6

I don't know what it's called either, but this has always happened to me too. A location will be pretty much permanently associated with a given topic, so even years later when I think of the topic I see that same location in the background.

Wish I could help with a name, but I want to say I'm really happy to hear that other people do this too.
posted by duoshao at 6:11 AM on March 6

I actually have quite a poor memory
Can you be sure about this? You can't make sure without comparing your recollections with an objective record, e.g. a map of the town at that time, or contemporary photos of the buildings. There are different kinds of memories, and one may be poor at remembering telephone numbers but excellent in spatial memory.

As for the involuntary part.. I agree you weren't actively seeking to remember by using mnemonics, so you weren't building a memory palace. Nevertheless, associating places with ideas or text is quite normal (and fascinating!). It can happen without you realizing it; the memorization feels effortless and the recollection sometimes involuntary.

It seems you have excellent spatial memory and vivid images, which is a gift for writers! :) See: James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Elena Ferrante, ... still I don't know the word for your experience, but maybe it's just "memory"? ;)
posted by runcifex at 6:24 AM on March 6

I've been doing some interior painting and listening to CBC radio. When I return to particular spots for the second coat of a touch-up, the story/news item I had been listening to the first time often pops up in my head. So, not exactly the same thing but it seems like the brain might be doing something similar regarding associating place with memory- your place is imagined and mine is the corner of the kitchen ceiling.
posted by beau jackson at 6:57 AM on March 6

Memory palace is the name for consciously trying to do what you're unconsciously doing. People realized that this happened, and tried to recreate it, and that's how we got memory palaces. But there has been an unconscious process long before they tried to consciously do it. That's where the term "memory palace" comes from - the ancient poet Simonides of Ceos was able to list the guests at a banquet he had attended where the banquet hall had collapsed after he left, killing everyone who had been there. He wasn't trying to create what we now call a memory palace; it was just what he did.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:22 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]

This happens to me. There are two Ask questions I answered, and when I think about them, I picture an overpass not far from my house. Admittedly the first question was tangentially related to a car, but the second had nothing to do with one.

I don't know why this is. Maybe I was thinking really hard about the question when I went under the overpass, and now I have that background image every time I think about it? Unsure. Very interesting, though.

I have also pictured a building on my college campus during activities that could only be described as very tangentially related to that building. It's not a very special building and other ones would make more sense to envision, given the context. Brains are interesting.
posted by delight at 9:29 AM on March 6

It could be a form of synaesthesia.
posted by MysteriousSympathy at 5:45 AM on March 7

delight - just PM'd you
posted by TheOptimizer at 5:46 PM on April 29

duoshao - just PM'd you
posted by TheOptimizer at 5:51 PM on April 29

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