Missing the mind’s eye view

Discover magazine has a fantastic Carl Zimmer piece about a man who lost the ability to see things in his mind’s eye after a minor neurological procedure.

Zimmer covers a recently published study on patient MX who lost his conscious visual imagery but could still do tests, like mental rotation, that were assumed to need the ability to mentally picture the procedure to work it out.

All the exams the scientists gave MX confirmed his claim that he was missing his mind’s eye. And yet he could do lots of things that would seem impossible without one. Without any effort he could give the scientists detailed descriptions of landmarks around Edinburgh, for example. He could remember visual details, but he couldn’t “see” them. Della Sala and Zeman asked MX to say whether each letter of the alphabet had a low-hanging tail (like g and j). He got every one right. They asked him about specific details of the faces of famous people (“Does Tony Blair have light-colored eyes?”). He did just as well as the architects.

The key insight came with a test derived from a classic psychological experiment invented in the 1970s by Stanford University psychologist Roger Shepherd. Della Sala and Zeman showed MX pairs of pictures, each one consisting of an object made up of 10 cubes. MX had to say whether the pairs of objects were different things or actually the same thing shown from two different perspectives. Normal people solve this puzzle in a strikingly consistent way, with their response time depending on how much the angle of perspective differs between the two objects: The bigger the difference, the longer it takes people to decide whether the objects are the same…

MX’s results flew in the face of that explanation. When he solved the puzzles, he always took about the same amount of time to answer—and he got every one right.

We still understand relatively little about the role and importance of visual mental imagery or what role it takes in problems or impairments.

A study I was part of found that people with congenital prosopagnosia, a genetic inability to recognise faces, had virtually absent visual imagery despite having no signs of brain damage or neurological abnormalities.

Patients who acquire prosopagnosia after brain damage often report that they can no longer imagine what faces look like, but in MX’s case, he seems to have lost his ability to mentally ‘see’ faces but has no problem recognising people.

The Discover article is a concise yet comprehensive take on this new study that helps us understand the link between how we experience the world and how we construct it inside our heads.

Link to Discover article ‘Look Deep Into the Mind’s Eye’.

24 thoughts on “Missing the mind’s eye view”

  1. Fascinating – I have a mild-to-moderate case of prosopagnosia. (If I meet you today and again next week, I won’t know you’re the same person unless you have a distinctive haircut or hat or voice or walk or clothing style, but I don’t have trouble with people I see regularly.)
    And I have almost no visual imagery. Various threads on Ask Metafilter and elsewhere have convinced me that this isn’t that unusual – people vary in their capacity for mental imagery, with a small percentage being like me.
    I never made the connection with the facial recognition issues. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t mentally “see” a face that makes it hard to recognize.

  2. This is a very intriguing article. I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that the mind’s eye is something I use to confirm what I already know – and that it actually slows me down. I start out mysteriously knowing the answer, and then I have to confirm it to myself so I picture it, often enough second-guessing myself into giving a different answer that turns out to be wrong. It’s really quite frustrating sometimes.

  3. Until about 2 years ago, I thought that when people said “mind’s eye” or “mental image” that they were just using a figure of speech. I was a little shocked to discover that they meant it *literally* — it seemed, to me, hallucinatory and bizarre. As peculiar to me was the realisation that most people have no idea what shape (in a tactile rather than visual sense) ideas are (although it does explain why their thinking is so muddled).
    I’m 33 and a visual artist. I recognise faces just fine (I just don’t really remember them), but I’m terrible at pre-visualisation (I have to actually see something in order to know what I think about how it looks). I’m unusually good, though, at seeing deep structural connections between superficially unrelated pieces of information.
    I only figured out that other people actual do have “mental images”, and that my sense of ideas having shapes is unusual, because my Art School training required us all to think and talk a lot about our “process”. If I hadn’t been required to do that kind of self-conscious thinking-about-thinking, I probably never would have noticed. I suspect that that’s not all that uncommon: our language contains a lot of sense-based metaphors that aren’t literal, so absent some specific reason for asking other people a lot of questions about how they think they think, if one doesn’t literally see things in one’s head, one has no reason for assuming that others might do something so alien.
    Both of these things (my shapes and the “mind’s eye”) are just forms of synaesthesia, after all. To be visually dominant isn’t necessarily “normal”, it’s just hegemonic. Those of us who don’t process information in that way — and who assume it’s just a figure of speech — may be a lot more common that is assumed.

    1. Wow. I am an artist too and I can draw from memory and visualise as I go in painting – I had no idea some of us don’t think this way. I get frustrated, in fact, when my ‘mind’s eye’ isn’t working at optimum. It fluctuates. So I also get how the surveyor felt.

  4. This is very much the same as me. I have never been able to see with my ‘mind’s eye’ but I didn’t even really realise that I was different in that way until university. A lecturer decided to show the group she was teaching ‘the power of the mind’.
    She told us to picture a kitchen, and walk over to the refridgerator, take out a lemon and slice it. We then had to eat a slice.
    I could not picture a kitchen but I could imagine how it smelled, and my saliva glands reacted almost painfully at thinking of tasting it.
    When I told the lecturer, she just told me that I obviously have no imagination. I was rather offended considering I am a budding writer.
    I can remember and describe what I see, but I cannot ‘see’ it in my mind. I remember peoples faces when I see them, but I often have problems putting names to the faces.
    It’s nice to know I am not a weirdo to be honest.

  5. This is also very much the same as me. I have never been able to see with my ‘mind’s eye’. I have not been able to find out how common it is to not have a “mind’s eye”. There does not seem to be any articles about the absence of a “mind’s eye”. All articles appear to assume that everyone has this ability. If anyone knows of any info about this inability, please communicate.

    1. Jim – Regarding the mind’s eye (neurology), look up the term – constructional apraxia. – Charles

  6. Yeah tell me about it, I am a 38 year old – and totally lacking in this department – zero ability to create or call up any sort of image internally.

  7. I have very limited visual imagery. For example, I cannot imagine my wife’s face, although I can get a fleeting impression of a photo I took of her.

    A lot of my thinking occurs in shapes that I use metaphorically, especially architectural features such as windows and partitions. I don’t see these exactly. It’s as if I have another sense, halfway between touch and sight, colorless and more abstract than normal perception.

    On the other hand, I have a great aural imagination, and can hear music quite well in my head. And I can recognize faces normally, although I have always had some trouble with names

  8. I have absolutely no mind’s eye. I have never been able to visualize a single image in my mind. When I was in school, teachers would say that it was more fun to read novels than to read books with pictures, or to watch movies, because the pictures we saw in our heads were better. I was simply confused and didn’t know what they were talking about. I love reading, but picture nothing while reading, and only read novels at about 10 pages an hour, because anything described visually takes me a long time to process. And when I was in groups where we were told to relax, close our eyes, and imagine being at a beach or something, I was again confused, because I can’t do that at all.

    I also can’t imagine taste, or smell, or touch. I have a limited ability to imagine sounds. I don’t actually hear them in my head, but am able to remember a little of what they sound like.

    I majored in math and art in college. In art, I did mostly computer animation, where you can see the final image, and manipulate it while you are looking at it. In other classes, my art teachers were always warning us to draw/paint, etc. what we were seeing, and not what we thought we were seing, and were astonished that I was always able to draw anything I was actually looking at photographically and exactly, with color and shadow perfect.

    Math was very interesting. I graduated from a college that generally produces over 100 math majors a year. Almost all the rest of them thought visually. I think completely in terms of relationship, pattern, abstract structure, etc. and rely very strongly on intuition. I could solve problems that no one else could, including my professors, because I thought so differently. I solved several problems that my professors had been unable to do in years of trying. They would always ask me what I was visualizing, and I told them I wasn’t. I was especially good at probability and abstract algebra, because there is nothing to visualize. But then there were problems that I couldn’t solve even with great effort, that every else could solve in an instant through visualizing. I learned my way of thinking wasn’t better or worse, just different. My skills were a fabulous complement to visual thinkers, and I became very popular in group projects, because I added so much to the rest of the group. When paired with a visual thinker, we could do a week of work in under an hour, that would take either of us alone the whole week. I was awarded one of two departmental distinctions in math because my alternative problem solving skills awed the math faculty.

    I really wish I did have a mind’s eye, but I wonder if I would lose more than I would gain. I am sure my standard way of looking at the world and thinking is extremely different from most people. People always tell me I am so weird for thinking things through, and solving things the way I do.

  9. Seriously,
    I think anyone who says they “don”t have a minds eye” is full of it and simply doesn’t understand what it means. If I say think of a purple ball….and you choose to listen and think of a purple ball. Then it is a purple ball that you are “seeing” in your minds eye. Of course you are not really “seeing” it in the same manner that you would if I whipped out a purple ball and you looked at it but seriously people, your not rocks. Without a minds eye, you would have no recollection, no memory, and no understanding of the world around you, accept in the moment you were seeing it – then if you closed your eyes, you would be completely lost! Perhaps some of your “minds eyes” need a little practice a clearly visualizing things bit to say you have no minds eye is like saying you don’t have a brain.


    1. Ken,
      It’s not exactly difficult to comprehend that some people can picture something in their mind, and others can’t. That doesn’t make me a rock.

      When I was at Uni we took part in some meditative exersizes to show ‘the power of the mind’.
      We were told to imagine a kitchen, walking over to the fridge and taking out a lemon, cutting the lemon and then eating a slice.
      I could feel my saliva glands kick in with the thought of the tanginess, but I could not see a kitchen or anything in my mind.
      We were asked to tally up the number of windows in our homes, and I could tell you how many there are, where they are placed and everything, but I can see nothing in my mind. Even if I close my eyes all I see is the inside of my lids. No imagery. Instead my internal monologue is very active. My auditory recall is incredible.
      In all honesty I am reminded of IT at school where talking about computer processes: Starting Point A => Process B => Result C. But in my mind, process B is either completely unconscious, or I am just unable to “view” the process.
      I do dream, in colour and in sound, but some odd quirk in my mind means that I can’t picture it when awake. That doesn’t mean that I don’t remember it, but that that part of my memory is unavailable to me upon waking.

      I imagine it is similar to those who have been blind from birth, their mind would have compensated in different ways in the imagery department.

      Please don’t disparage people when you clearly do not understand. I have lived my entire life without a ‘minds eye’. I obviously don’t need one.

    2. Ken,

      You seem to lack empathy and therefore can’t recognize that others don’t think the way you do. If I used your logic I could swear that people who think they’re colorblind are full of it — after all, they know what colors are called, and they can recognize different values of gray….

  10. My mental imagery is sometimes greater than others. I have slight spastic diplegic cerebral palsy and sometimes I wonder if that destroyed my ability to use my minds eye. I have heard from other people with cerebral palsy though that they can use their mind’s eye just fine. Does anyone with cerebral palsy or familiar with cerebral palsy have any input on this? Also, is there any way to possibly strengthen the mind’s eye?

  11. I’ve had issues with this and I’m starting to realize as I get older that it makes certain aspects of my life challanging. I can’t remember faces at all. I only recognize people I’ve seen multiple times. I get lost EVERYWHERE because I can’t remember where anything is. I have a very difficult time spelling, imaging things as a read, remembering information, or drawing things I’m not actually looking at. I get frustrated very quickly and have no idea how to explain it to other people. I remember once I was seeing a therapist who wanted me to “picture a happy place.” I was doing okay until she started to tell me what the place looked like. It was like I struggled to imagine what she wanted me to, but if I just let my imagination run it was a little easier. I just ended up with a huge migraine.

    I know that something is going on. Mostly because sometimes it will work and other times it won’t. Usually I can’t imagine things much at all. If I’m lucky I’ll get some quick glimps that’s half together. Sometimes I’ll get very sharp images in my mind, but they’re involuntary.

    If anyone knows more about this I would love to know.

    1. I know it has been a long time since you wrote your comment on the “mind’s eye” article, but I wanted you to know that I have all the same problems you do! The sad thing for me is that I used to have a vivid mind’s eye, and then I lost it. I’m wondering if it was some kind of brain damage from anesthesia??

  12. Kriste, sorry to hear about the troubles that you have been having. As I mentioned earlier, I have absolutely no mind’s eye. But I am an excellent speller, can recognize faces, and don’t get lost easily. As the article states, I also can do rotational problems without visualizing. The best explanation would be that I keep track of where the object would be touching my hands if I rotated it in my hands, though I can’t imagine actually feeling the object in my hands. Kriste, I am mentioning this because the problems you are experiencing aren’t a given, just because there is no mind’s eye. It might be more of a symptom than the cause. I wish you the best and hope you can get to the bottom of your problem, or at least learn to manage it.

  13. For anyone seeking more information as to why they may not be able to visualise, please look into the following:

    -Freud “Project for a Scientific Psychology”
    -Genetically passed down traits from parents

    After about 20 years of personal research has lead me to these as the possible reasons why.

    The key is understanding the process of desomatisation, which occurs around the ages of 1-2 years. Depending on the quality of the relationship of you and your caregiver(mother or father), then there is a biological/integrative process that occurs in that part of the brain. We are talking about the limbic centres. If this process happens in the right way, then your visual capacity would develop/function as normal without impairment. It is said that the first image you have imprinted in your mind is your mothers(imago) . But this only occurs under certain conditions and is definitely not a given with every child. If these conditions are not met, then the process either fails or is severely impaired with varying degrees of impact on the child.

    Conditions that may lead to impairment is:
    -High stress on the child
    -Lack of emotional bonding with the parent
    -Lack of empathy by the parent

    And please ignore stupid people who say “everyone can visualise”. You cannot expect people who make comments like this to understand the utter complexity involved in the psycho-somatic processes surrounding the brain or realise that there has been decades of study done into this area.

    My estimation from personal experience and research is that around 10-15% of the population have issues with seeing mental images.

    People also need to understand that functioning can occur without the ability to see mental images in the mind. Like many people who have posted here, what is common is that people born with this condition develop excellent coping mechanisms to adapt to their environment and prosper in their own way. I am an accountant and work with numbers. What i have found after 20 years is that numbers “come” to me without the need of going through a visual mechanism. You could call this intuition.

    It is unfortunate however, that even with the understanding of why this has happened, I believe that there are no cases of people who were born with this condition and then developing it later in life.

    If there are, I would very much like to hear your story.

    You will find many cases of people with PTSD losing the ability to visualise due to the brain shutting down these centres, however after therapy and rest, it has been found to recover in many cases.

    As a side note, and for each reader’s consideration, a more deeper question is the emotional one. Over all the information I’ve read, i have gathered that the brain impairs the function to visualise because it is in some way protecting the child from stress. So you may want to look into your emotions as well.

    It may not apply to you, but it’s worth mentioning in the interests of fullness.

    1. George – General concepts (my view) which apply to the idea of discussing the mind’s eye include: constructional apraxia, inattentive ADHD, prosopagnosia, spatial visualization ability, organic brain syndrome, neurology, side-effects of acquired sports brain concussions/car accidents, motorcycle accidents, etc. Stimulant medicines (including caffeine) are known to temporarily activate small aspects of the mind’s eye in a few fortunate persons. That’s my understanding/my story. – Charles

  14. I used to have a minds eye, but I seem to be losing it. I realized this last night when I could not picture things in my mind. Today I seem to get flashes then other images appear. At night when I close my eyes, random images appear and morph into other things, I seem to have no control over it though some seem to be subject related to recent events. I have trouble recognizing people if I don’t know them well or see them “out of their element”. I seem to have more trouble concentrating these days too. I have always had a “snowy TV” effect in my entire field of vision even with eyes closed. As a kid, I would tell doctors who would dismiss it as floaters which it is obviously not. That has gotten worse lately and effects my night vision.

  15. I have just realized that I was different from other people after my son has been saying “I see it in my mind” he says it often… I was talking to my wife about it and she was like yeah, I see pictures and colors in my mind too! I was surprised for sure. I grew up color blind, no big deal it’s just the way I am but now I know why I always had a hard time imagining things. I’m OCD too, when I went off my meds Dr ordered last year I had a very bad episode, my intrusive thoughts and anxiety were wreaking havoc on me. I remember from that time having intrusive troubling images, not vivd but dreamlike when awake… Also my dreams aren’t vivd and I can’t remember them very well either. My question to the ones that have the dark minds eye, are you very sensitive to bad feelings?? Do you think in dialogue?

  16. Didn’t know that I couldn’t visualize things like others until encountered the issue in a Philosophy course. Commented on it in class and was asked by the prof how I knew what my husband looked like. Told him I knew the same way I knew what a lemon smells like. He grilled me at length. This was in the 60’s and don’t think it was much questioned then that everyone had a mind’s eye. Good to know that it is a topic under discussion now.

  17. I am 69 years old, and I am retired. Years ago, I was employed as a technical school and college adjunct instructor, and since then, I have had a long career in Information Technology: Telecommunications, Programming, Web Development, Testing, Project Management, and Technical Writing. In spite of my somewhat declining health, I still have all my faculties, I am still good at math, I am computer savy, I compose music and I still play the guitar. I have several US copyrights.

    I can not visualize anything with my eyes closed. In fact, I never knew that others had this ability until now. When I am thinking or working on a creative task or a project, I just know how to do it. I don’t see any pictures, images, or colors in my mind.

    I learned about Visualizing recently, while I was speaking with my daughter on the phone, I told her that I was trying to visualize her face with my eyes closed, but I could not see her face. She told me, that she was surprised that I couldn’t visualize her. After some discussion, and to my surprise, she told me that she could Visualize an image of me in her mind, in detail. she told me that she is able to visualize objects, triangles, circles, squares, rectangles, and even fill them in with different colors, or change their size. At first I thought she was kidding. I still find it hard to believe that there are many people who can actually see these images and details with their eyes closed. It is weird after all these years to realize that you may be missing a common ability.

  18. Fascinating discussion. I’ve been aware for some years that others “see” mentally much more vividly than I do. Already as a child I was called “Miss Catastrophe” at home, losing things, breaking things, hating fine needlework etc. I’ve always been amazed by people who could tell me exactly where I’d left an object I couldn’t find and came to think that they”d “seen” it in a way I couldn’t. I did very well academically, always at the head of my class through school and was of course rewarded for my ability to think in words and concepts. So from early childhood I lacked development in sensory perception of all kinds. Has made me very tense and feeling different from others all my life. I believe my problem is one of nurture, not nature. And I’m looking for techniques to develop the mind’s eye and ear and touch and taste, even at my advanced age of over 90. I’m so glad to hear from others on this subject.

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