Scientific name for ability to see random stream of images?
June 21, 2007 9:39 PM   Subscribe

I and some others I've spoken to have the ability to see a plethora of random images or movies (and sometimes sounds or other sense-imagery) in our imaginations at will. These manifest when we relax our minds a little and will the images to come -- they might be connected or not, bizarre or not -- a lot like dreams, really. What is the scientific name for this phenomenon and how common is it?
posted by Malad to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a psychologist. Daydreaming, perhaps?

Daydreaming may take the form of a train of thought, leading the daydreamer away from being aware of his immediate surroundings, and concentrating more and more on these new directions of thought. - Wikipedia
posted by mdonley at 9:48 PM on June 21, 2007

Vaguely like hypnagogic hallucinations?
posted by emyd at 9:55 PM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: Well I was thinking that initially but these images are often startlingly random (though often with some connection to what I've read or seen or heard in the recent past). Example: I just pulled up an image of stream of smoke rising from a house with the image of a cartoon princess masked in it. Where that came from, I have no idea.

I guess I've always associated daydreams with more obvious fantasies (gaining wealth, love, fame, power, etc.).
posted by Malad at 9:56 PM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: emyd, hrmm, probably some relation, except though it happens when I'm completely awake, too, not just at the point of falling asleep or just waking up. Also, the wikipedia reference talks about visual hallucinations but seems to give no examples. I've never had the sensations of being strangled, or random joy, etc. that the wikipedia entry references, and any sound I hear is distinct rather than "incomprehensible noise."
posted by Malad at 10:00 PM on June 21, 2007

This is what I do when I daydream, for the most part, and the informal poll of the one other person here confirms that 100% of the people in my apartment also daydream like that.
posted by Falconetti at 10:01 PM on June 21, 2007

I believe that phenomenon is known as "thinking."

Just kidding, but really, I doubt that there is a name for it. I know that not everyone has it happen to them, but I would suspect it probably is tied to certain personalities and ways of thought.
posted by joshers13 at 10:02 PM on June 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I remember being a kid, sitting at Mass, and I had a distinct image of a pool table with red felt instead of green - but I don't think I'd ever seen one before. I think it was that day that I became really, really curious about mental phenomena and how we can hold in our head images of things not present to our senses. Imagination, consciousness, will are all really interesting phenomena and not yet fully explained by science. Sorry I can't actually ANSWER your question, but I have had similar experiences and geek out when I think about them :-)
posted by sherlockt at 10:08 PM on June 21, 2007

Sounds like your sub-conscious has a delightfully cozy relationship with your conscious mind. I envy you, would be nice to have day-dreams that are really "dreamy."
posted by wires at 10:37 PM on June 21, 2007

using your imagination?
posted by scheptech at 10:47 PM on June 21, 2007

FWIW, I asked a similar question not too long ago.

After considering the responses, I was left with the impression that nearly everyone does this to some degree, but for some people it's way more vivid/intense than it is for most. A few people mentioned that I should be more grateful than alarmed, and I think they had a good point.

My own theory is that it's hypnagogic phenomena that occur while one is awake but relaxed. I.e., some people are more "hypnagogic-sensitive" than others, such that, for some people, merely relaxing may be enough to allow an influx of hypnagogic phenomena, whereas for others, it only happens (if at all) on the very edge of sleep.

I do find that anxiety plays a significant role in this. Higher levels of anxiety generally mean greater susceptibility to this sort of phenomenon.
posted by treepour at 11:51 PM on June 21, 2007

I find that opiates induce this rather well, whatever it's called. It's rather easy to fall into it without chemical assistance, also. Just start following random trains of thought. You know, use your imagination.
posted by IronLizard at 12:36 AM on June 22, 2007

I think this phenomenon, whatever it is, is something different from daydreaming. I can do it at will when I am relaxed, with my eyes closed. I start by looking at the insides of my eyelids and observing whatever patches of light or darkness there are there. Then a series of discrete images will begin to appear on the insides of my eyelids, each lasting for a second or so. Most often all the images are of the same kind of thing: flowers, faces, furniture, etc. I don't choose the "theme" and I don't choose or even recognize the individual images.

It happened first when I was listening to classical music in a concert hall (bunches and bunches of flowers). Since then I've tried to recreate it and have gotten better at bringing up the flow of images at will.

I think I agree that it has something to do with your unconscious mind rubbing up against your conscious mind. I also read once about a branch of meditation practice that sounded similar to this, having to do with observing images in your brain. I don't remember what it's called.

The handful of people I've described this to say they haven't experienced anything similar.
posted by bluebird at 6:35 AM on June 22, 2007

I tend to hear music when I'm about to fall asleep.
posted by electroboy at 6:50 AM on June 22, 2007

Wasn't aware that this would be considered unusual by anyone. I can pretty much do this at will, and sometimes it happens even when I don't want it to, usually when I'm extremely tired. I don't know what would happen if I ever tried to "enhance" the effect with hallucinogenic or mood-altering drugs. Yikes.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:55 AM on June 22, 2007

I'm not sure I'm understanding this correctly, but it doesn't sound like anything at all unusual to me. Either that means that it's a much more common phenomenon than you think, or everyone can do it (which would imply that people who can't are the phenomenon).

Still it sounds utterly unremarkable as an "ability" to me.
posted by Pecinpah at 7:40 AM on June 22, 2007

I've always assumed that everyone does this, and considered it to be "daydreaming" too. Though you're right, I also use "daydreaming" to refer to vague non-visual thoughts about how I'd like the future to go ("Someday if I'm rich I'll buy..." type of things).

Actually, if I'm having trouble falling asleep, I try to induce these daydreams in myself. I might imagine something to start it out, but then my mind relaxes and the images take their own course. It's like I'm dreaming while awake, and before too long it turns into an asleep dream. It's my best solution for insomnia.

Occasionally I will get this experience where it's very hard to control the content of what I'm seeing, typically when something rhythmic is happening and I can't make it stop. Once I had an image of a hammer hitting a nail over and over and over for hours. It really bugged me, but I couldn't get rid of it. Kind of like having a song stuck in your head, but visual.
posted by Inconceivable! at 9:15 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wonder if we don't have a problem with the description in the question.

Are we supposed, perhaps, to be talking about "thinking in pictures"? 'Cos that's far from universal, although (anecdotally) seems to be getting dramatically more prevalent as time goes on.

If so, it's known as something that people in the big wide autistic spectrum (and lots of dyslexics) often/usually have. Me, I think entirely in 35mm moving images. I hear a voice reading out loud in my head when I read. I had no idea that the majority of people know about either of these things until I was about 27, though it does go some way to explaining why I always found books far too long and boring.

Or, maybe it really is as mundane as everyone else has been suggesting.
posted by genghis at 11:27 AM on June 22, 2007

yeah, I think the problem is mostly that the difference between the ways that different individuals think or experience consciousness hasn't been carefully examined and compared, so what is fairly normal thought to one person is unusual or special daydreaming to another and is unheard of or really exciting sounding hallucination to yet another.

Philosophers commonly get into what I think is a pretty silly argument over whether thoughts are "really" based on words or images or perhaps some third indefinite (maybe ideas), and I think it's because of this disparity between different consciousnesses. Some people have a stronger visual component to their mental experience. AR Luria's description of the mnemonist in the Mind of the Mnemonist (that Oliver Sacks references) is an interesting example of an extreme - how overwhelmingly sensory thought can be for some individuals. The interesting thing is the abstract level of thought is far less available because thought always occurs as a flood of direct and intense experience, so the mnemonist has an incredible memory, but his level of understanding is actually really weak.

"Imagination" obviously comes from image-ination, so that's what you're using. Some people literally have an image-ination. I sometimes wish I had more of one; for me dreams are the only place I can really get a stream of images (well, not counting mind-altering substances). My imagination is more of a place for creating thoughts than images, but I don't think it's that unusual - I know visual artists who see their paintings before they create them, for instance... when I used to paint, I would have the idea of the painting, but the painting would also be the process of discovering it, so I wouldn't see the whole thing. I think there's a famous discussion between two film directors about that, too, whether you see the whole film perfectly before you, or are stumbling toward ideas.

I guess if you're really interested, you could look into various psychology of consciousness texts, but at this stage there are probably just various separate researchers who've separated "types", and it's likely to be somewhat arbitrary and very subjective. It just sounds like you have a particularly visual consciousness. If it's connected to other sensory experiences you could look into synesthesia, but if it's just your own thoughts, I'd call it daydreaming or thinking with a visual consciousness.
posted by mdn at 12:21 PM on June 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

Eidetic memory.

I have such a memory and it's the main reason why I don't watch TV or films very often; I can pretty much play back in my head films that I've liked and it seems pointless to view them again.

The images don't come at random, though sometimes fragments of text from favorite novels or stories swim up out of nowhere into my mind. Remembering a book also means that I have to wait a few years to forget it enough to re-read it with enjoyment.
posted by bad grammar at 4:09 PM on June 22, 2007

I wouldn't call this daydreaming. Daydreaming, you're imagining some scenario and following it where it leads. The narrativizing part of your mind is going, just as it is when you dream. If I've understood the OP properly, this isn't narratable at all: It's just a continuous cascade of images or other impressions, no connection present nor any attempted. Just whatever the convection cells of the subconscious bring to the liminal surface.

I've had it happen, very rarely, while falling asleep. Usually 'make things connect' stays engaged until 'know where you are' has completely gone cold. Sometimes the reverse. I wish I could do it waking, and at will. It's quite interesting.
posted by eritain at 2:17 AM on June 23, 2007

I actually signed up here to ask this exact same question. Strange, eh?

So yeah, I also experience this whenever I am relaxed and have my eyes closed. I've described it to a few other people and most just assume I'm talking about daydreaming, which isn't really the same thing.

What really fascinates me about it is the incredible creativity and beauty of the images that my subconscious throws out to me. These really vivid images come to me that are completely random. I may see a richly detailed and multicolored dragon dancing in a dress transform into a robot dancing on saturns rings.

I'm curious as to where the heck my mind is coming up with this stuff. Why a dragon wearing a dress? I've never thought of that before. But somewhere deep down in my mind that image is being created and shown to be me in great detail.

Whenever I do any drugs these images become intensified and even more elaborate. It's really my favorite part of doing psychedelics.
posted by wigglin at 2:27 AM on July 17, 2007

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