I can't see
when I close
my eyes

I can't see anything when I close my eyes. Apparently, other people can. I didn't realize that I was weird in this respect until I was 29.

Imagine a red square. Can you see it? I can't. I know intellectually what a red square is made of, but I can't see it unless one is in front of me.

I'm really interested to hear what other people's visualization skills are like; apparently there's a whole range (for instance, more people fail the red square test than I thought would). It seems like it's something people don't often think about. Some people are really freaked out by my condition; others find it more understandable. If you have anything interesting to tell me or ask me on the topic, please let me know or, better yet, leave a comment on this blog entry.

Do you see things in dreams?

Yep, I dream fine, in pictures and everything.

Interestingly, I do start to see things as I am transitioning into a dream state. I can sometimes pull myself out as I'm falling asleep, and the vision fades instantly, but I can tell it was there.

Can you draw?

I'm quite good at drawing objects that are in front of me. If I'm drawing from my head, I can't see the object in my head and reproduce it; but if I have a good intellectual idea of the object, I can draw what I figure it'll look like, and then see if it fits.

Can you imagine the faces of people you know?

No, not really. I mean, I know what they look like; obviously, if I run into Joe on the street, I have no problem recognizing him. I can't see his face in my head, though.

If I concentrate hard, I can get a flash of "Joe-ness", but it's very fleeting, and I can't fix that face in my imagination and look at parts of it. It's more that sub-visual feeling you get when you recognize someone. Of course I know the features of Joe's face intellectually, but I think of his face more as a list of attributes than a picture.

How do you read books if you can't picture anything?

When I read a novel, I don't picture the characters or the places. I have an intellectual idea of the characteristics of the various people, but I don't have a picture in my mind of them. That must be cool.

How can you remember what things look like if you can't see them?

Well, I can recognize things fine. So the ability to generate its image in my head must be separate from the ability to recognize it.

You must have awful spatial relations skills!

Actually, my spatial relations skills are good, which is interesting.

I also have a good sense of direction. I have a good ability to know where I am on a map, for example. Although I can't picture the map in my head, I could reproduce it pretty easily.

Do your memories have any visual component?

It's sort of the same "recognizing vs. visualizing" issue I mentioned earlier. If I see a photograph of something, I'll obviously recognize it. And I could do an okay drawing of something, but I wouldn't be drawing what I saw in my head; I'd be drawing what I thought it might look like, and then seeing if it was right.

Can you hear things in your head?

Oh, yeah, probably better than the average person. I write songs in my head all the time. That's one of the things that lets me imagine what it must be like to be able to see things.

From email: There was a series of psychology experiments where they'd show the subject two side-by-side pictures, usually line drawings of a bunch of blocks together, and ask whether the two objects so depicted were the same. Sometimes they were; sometimes they were mirror images.

People reported that they way they solved these problems was to 'rotate the first object in my head until it was in the same orientation as the other one, and then see if they were the same'.

Can you solve those problems? How would you describe the process? I don't suppose you do it from the local connectivity properties or anything like that.

The best I can describe it is that I have a more abstract (than purely visual) knowledge of how the object is constructed. For example, you know abstractly what a cube is like without having to actually see it in your head (I hope).

Take a object made of four cubes; three of them in an L lying on its side and one of them stacked on top of one of the leg cubes (sorta the canonical one-is-a-mirror-image-of-the-other object). I don't see it in my head. I do know that if I saw an isometric picture of it, there would be one cube in the lower left cormer, another cube to the NE of that, another cube to the SE of that, and another cube on top of the last one. I could draw that picture trivially. But I don't actually see that picture in my head.

If I'm given a picture of that object and a picture of object B, and am trying to figure out if they're the same or mirror images, I'll kind of 'feel' the first object with my hands (in a virtual way, the same way you might 'see' things with your eyes closed) and feel the second object with my hands and see if they feel the same way. Or I'll use some more theoretical trick like saying, "If I were walking along object A so that I had to take a right turn at the L, I would walk into a sticking-up cube after I took that turn. Would that be true if I were walking on object B?" Maybe that's what you mean by local connectivity properties.

I'm sure a blind-from-birth person, feeling object A and object B in a fixed orientation, would be able to tell if one could be rotated to be the second, without using any visual skills. Or heck, they can find their way around their houses without having a visual representation. I don't know if they do it the same way I do, but at least it proves it can be done.

I bet your visualization ability isn't any worse than anyone else's. It's just a terminology issue. Of course one doesn't actually 'see' things when one's eyes are closed; that's not so weird.

Some people have the above reaction. Let me step back for a second and list the kind of reactions I usually get from people:

Say I'm around 10th percentile in my visualization ability (I have no idea what percentile I'm really at, but that's plausible). People who are at the 10th percentile read this page and say, "Wow! You're just like me! I've been wondering if there were other people who had no visualization ability, just like me."

People who are at the 80th percentile read this page and say, "Wow! That's so strange! You can't visualize anything? Man, I can't imagine that at all. Wow."

People who are at the 40th percentile read this page and say, "It's not the big deal you're making it out to be. It's just a terminology issue."

So my guess is that there actually is a wide spectrum of visualization ability, and the people in the middle of the spectrum can "see both ends" of the spectrum, and tend to think that everyone else is similar and just uses slightly different words. The fact that it's impossible (as far as I know) to describe this stuff quantitatively makes it that much harder to explain the differences between people (and, conversely, makes it easier to suppose that those differences don't really exist).

How rare is this condition?

I dunno. I haven't talked to anyone who deals with this kind of stuff professionally. I have gotten mail from a few people who say, "Oh yes, that describes me exactly." Based on that, I bet that the number of people who experience things similarly is somewhere from 1 to 10 percent of the population.

Last updated 15 January 1999
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