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Mind’s Eye   

    “You don’t see things in your mind? But how do you imagine stuff?”

You know how some things are so obvious or universal you didn’t know they needed a formal name? Like how your nose runs when you eat hot or spicy food. It’s just — the way the world is, no? But as soon as you call it “gustatory rhinitis” it becomes a Thing. Or how someone will draw attention to an issue by deliberately stating that they’re not going to raise that issue? That’s called “apophasis.” Now it’s not just a Thing, but a sophisticated Thing.

So, too, when I discovered the word “hypophantasia.” “Hypophantasia describes a state where visual imagery is low. Hypophantasics may only experience flashes or struggle to create mental images,” I read. “Their mental currency is conceptual and word-based.”

Like, huh? Isn’t that — just the way minds work? Eyes work with images, ears work with sounds, and brains work with words and concepts. No?

Apparently not. Because when I shared this new name-for-something-that-never-needed-a-name-before with a few other people, they were shocked. “You don’t see things in your mind? But how do you imagine stuff?” they asked.

In words… of course?

They couldn’t wrap their minds around that. Maybe because they were trying to picture it. And you can’t really picture not picturing.

If you’re also either just discovering that apparently not everyone thinks this way (actually, hypophantasics are in the minority), or struggling to understand how anyone could think this way, here’s an exercise.

Imagine a tower of blocks (yeah, right now). Someone comes along and gives it a push.

Can you answer these questions? About how tall was the tower? What color or colors were the blocks? What were the blocks made of? What surface were they sitting on? What was the approximate age of the person who pushed them? What did they look like?

And most importantly: Did you already know the answers to these questions or did you have to think of an answer to each one (or most) as I asked?

To hypophantasics, the tower of blocks is first and foremost an idea. When you tell us that someone pushes the tower, we have no problem telling you what happens: It topples over. But it’s theoretical; we’re not seeing a tower falling in our minds as we tell you this. When you tell us to imagine something, we turn our minds to the abstract idea of that thing. We’re focused on the concept.

Most people, I recently discovered, think it is very weird to “image-ine” without images. And in fact, many thought it must mean I’m less imaginative than the average Joe. But the people who know me and my weird, wacky, and all too overactive fancy were more shocked than anyone else. How can you visualize without visuals?

I’m sorry I can’t tell you. I thought you were that way, too. I thought we all were.

Isn’t it funny how we assume that the way we experience the world is fundamentally the same way as others do? Sure, the things we experience and the way we react to those experiences are vastly different, but at least the actual experiencing is the same. When we both look at a green ball, we’re both seeing the same thing. When we bang our shins, it hurts.

But could my experience of seeing a green ball be fundamentally different from my sister’s, just as my experience of thinking of a green ball is so completely different from hers as to be almost in a foreign language? Could the experience of banging my shin hurt me, and my neighbor’s experience of banging her shin hurt her, but without knowing it we’re feeling completely different things? We’ve just been conditioned, each of us, to call whatever we’re experiencing at that moment, “pain in the shin.”

Does C major sound to me like C major sounds to you? When I say, “I like bananas,” and you say, “Not me,” is there one objective “banananess” that I interpret as positive and you as negative, or are we each taking a bite of the same food but experiencing completely different sensations on our taste buds?

It’s not that I’ve never wondered about this before, but I always assumed it was impossible to know. Even if, say, I see the color we call blue the same way that you see the color we call purple, we’ve both been taught to label that visual stimulus as blue, and there’s no way we’ll ever know that our blues aren’t the same.

But now I’ve stumbled across a nexus of my experience of the world that is completely different from most people’s, in a definable way. Are we more alike than different? Or more different than we are alike? Does it matter if blue looks to me like purple looks to you, or does it matter more that we can both point to the sky and agree, “That’s blue,” even if our optic nerves are pinging very differently? When we talk about the universal human experience, how much of it is universal? And when we talk about individuality, how much of it is individual, and how much is really things we all do but thought we were the only ones until we spoke about it and everyone else said, “Oh yeah, me, too”?

What about childhood rituals regarding the correct order for eating a gingerbread man? Seeing faces in inanimate objects — clouds, toast, the fronts of cars? (And no, you’re not the only person who can’t see the Man in the Moon. And even those who can are often seeing completely different things, as has been evidenced when people were shown pictures of the moon and asked to outline the Man.) Repeat a word many times or look at it for a while (thumb, thumb, thumb) and suddenly it seems really odd, almost like a nonsense word. (It’s called semantic satiation, by the way. See? It’s a Thing.)

And in contrast, there are the things we do one way and assume everyone else does the same, only to discover that — no. When someone tells you to look at your nails (quick, do it now), do you hold your hand palm up and bend your fingers, or hold it palm down and extend your fingers?

And which parts of all this matter more, the sameness or the differences? Should we focus on the sameness in the differences (we all have letters we like the look of more than others) or the differences in the sameness (I like K, but most people prefer E)? Granted, those are trivial examples, but the same idea can be expanded to the biggest, most critical areas of life.

Are we, and are our journeys through life, fundamentally more alike or more different? When should we focus on the, “Oh yeah, me, too” and when on the, “Oh wow, that’s so interesting”?

In short, are we all essentially treading the same paths, or are we solivagants?

Look it up. It’s a Thing.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 887)

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