Previously: Generalizing From One Example

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.

Summary: I do not have visual mental imagery. I want it. How do I get it? What exercises, if any, will help?


In further detail... Here's Francis Galton's Statistics of Mental Imagery paper. I'm not quite at the 3% level of completely unable to form mental images, but I'm close. In particular there are three times I have vivid, sharp mental imagery, and the existence of such times tells me I have the brain hardware to visualize. It's enough to let me know that I want it all the time. Unfortunately I don't know how to get it. And searching online has proven difficult and frustrating... for example this article is first of all about a different meaning of "visualize", it's talking about some kind of self-help motivational thingy, and second of all it starts by saying "How to Visualize: I want you to relax and close your eyes. Picture a hot, sunny day at the beach."

Full Stop. Halt, Catch Fire and Burn.

That's already too far. For those of us who don't visualize, practice definitely does not consist of pulling up mental images, playing with them in new ways, and expanding our imagination. I'm very good at imagination in some ways, but I lack that first ability to pull up a mental image. That's what I want to learn how to have!


Here is a description of what I can do, what I have tried, what I have learned, etc.

I see vivid visual mental imagery in 3 situations:

  1. While dreaming. My recollection of dreams has that I see fairly vivid, sharp, whole-scene imagery.
  2. Just before sleep. When I am in a certain almost-sleeping state, I can tell my mind to picture something - like an apple, or a horse - and I will often be able to see that thing vividly, briefly, and then it morphs into a scene. A beach with an ocean, or a pleasant clearing in a forest. If I try to alter the scene, like putting a beach towel and umbrella on the beach, the scene changes and morphs in some way but seemingly without regard to the changes I requested. Maybe my POV starts moving forward down a newly created path in the forest, for example.
  3. During meditation. Sometimes I feel like I'm in exactly the same mental state during meditation as I am just before sleep, except without the tiredness. The imagery has the same characteristics in both situations.
I have tried 3 classes of practice:
  1. Staying in visualization situations. When I find myself in the just before sleep or meditation state, I stay there for a while and play with imagery. This is fun but I have seen no increase in control over what I visualize and no increase in the range of states in which I can visualize.
  2. Explicit imagery practice. I have found or drawn simple shapes, like a square or a ball, then stared at the shape, closed my eyes, seen the shape for as long as it stayed visualizable, opened my eyes to refresh, repeat. This straight up hasn't worked at all. I don't visualize it, only have the afterimage, and need to refresh within about a second.
  3. Object drawing. I have had 3D constructions of blocks and tried drawing them from different angles on paper. This is an exercise I did while growing up during summers. Unfortunately there was no actual imagery or mental rotation involved, I just logic'd out where lines must surely go and drew like that.
Here is what my mental imagery looks like, per Francis Galton's questions.
  1. Picturing breakfast. The image is extraordinarily dim, extraordinarily ill-defined (at most an edge or two changing the black-purple-brown background static texture), and not at all natural colors.
  2. Vividness of Mental Imagery scale. This is a sequence of 100 descriptions of imagery, organized approximately in order from most vivid to least vivid. Of the given responses I identify most strongly with 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99.
Here are my results on Marks' Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire: 4s on everything except 5s on 4, 6, 9, 11, 14. Results suspect since I had exactly one 5 on every section. Marks suspects, unofficially, that those without visual mental imagery may actually have it but be unable to consciously notice/report that they have it.

I read through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Mental Imagery, following links to places or ideas that looked promising. I have many forms of mental imagery: good aural, very good verbal, very good analytic, good motor, poor yet extant haptic. But not visual.

Eric Schwitzgebel questions our introspection about mental imagery in general based on the lack of correlation between scores on Marks' VVIQ and subjects' ability to perform certain tasks that "psychologists have often supposed to require visual imagery". Such tasks include mental rotation and visual memory, both of which I can perform easily. I find it blindingly obvious that actual visual mental imagery is not required for these tasks. Here is my own introspection about mental imagery: what I call Imagination is sufficient for all the tasks that supposedly require visual imagery.

Does anyone know of (tested?) exercises for developing visual mental imagery from scratch?

Does anyone know that developing visual mental imagery from scratch is likely impossible?



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Oxiracetam might improve it.

I've tried a several nootropics (piracetam, modafinil, pramiracetam, aniracetam, choline, sulbutiamine, others) and had varying results.

I took 800mg oxiracetam 3 days in a row, and found that I could visualise maths equations that I had seen on paper but did not yet understand. It was similar to having photographic memory. My head felt like an empty cave with caverns I could explore.

I stopped taking it after the 3rd night, when I heard an imaginary voice say "Good night!" as I was in that fuzzy area between asleep and awake. It spooked me out ("what if i permanently hear voices now?!") and kept me awake a couple hours from fear. In those couple hours I had mild HPPD (tried revising more and the words were wobbling on the paper).

The next day there were no side effects, and have been none since (never taken it again). I have read extensively on all major nootropics communities and posted on several - nobody else seems to have had the negative side effects that I mentioned. I also get the impression that the near-photographic-memory I received was rare too, although I have read one of two posts where people have mentioned it over the last 3 years.

I think both oxiracetam and aniracetam lowered the quality of my sleep too, but have not quantified this.

I no longer take nootropics, except piracetam, which I use as a replacement to alcohol for parties - it makes me extremely social, creative at talking (as if on a lesser form of mdma), able to process three people speaking at once (I cant do two normally (very few people can)), confidence boost. And there is no hangover.

Oxiracetam has not been around long enough for there to be long-term results from human use. Piracetam has, and there are no long term side effects that have been observed.

  1. Pick a video game. Preferably something with a lot of consistent imagery/gameplay. A racing game running the same map would be a great example.

  2. Play this video game from when you wake up to when you go to bed, with minimal time for breaks or distractions.

  3. After hours of having these images burned into your retinas, randomly try closing your eyes for just a moment or two and rest your brain every once in a while.. When I'm playing video games intensely and then I shut my eyes, sometimes it's like I never even shut them in the first place - all the images are still mostly there and still mostly behaving as I've been watching them behave (e.g. I'm involuntarily visualizing the walls rushing by as I make turns in the race, etc. My eyes feel funny and then I realize they are actually closed! holy crap! etc...).

I've found first-person games like FPS or racing games to be the most intense and reliable in producing this effect. You might also get better results at different times of the day (e.g. alone in a quiet room in the middle of the night). But it works with any game, or really just in general I can close my eyes and have the scene flashing in my mind.

Here's another thing to try:

Walk casually around your house or another familiar area. With your eyes closed. Only once every few seconds (or when you think you really need to) - as quickly as you can, blink your eyes open and instantly shut again. Try to retain as much information as possible for the next few seconds of your blind walk so you don't run into things or step on things. You will be amazed at how normally you can perform with scant visual information.

er, also note that trying to visualize something from nothing can be extremely hard. For example I cannot look at someone's face and then imagine them in all kinds of new facial expressions that I've never actually seen on them before. If you try to change something you're not really equipped to visualize, it will just seem like an amorphous blob or an abstract symbolic designation rather than striking visual imagery. If this happens with something like geometry, that probably means you just need to spend more time trying until you get it, but don't be too surprised if you're trying to visualize this massively detailed scene of real-life visualizations, and things just aren't as vivid as you like. Visualizing geometry and relatively abstract scenes is way, way less demanding than trying to manipulate the full visual resolution of real-life images in your mind.

I may or may not try the video game thing. Spending time is easy, spending lots of consecutive time is more costly. :) I have taken walks as you describe, except in unfamiliar areas but where I don't expect to run into things all the time. I don't see my surroundings, I just know where they are approximately (and they update when I move). My guess is that visualizing something from nothing is also part of the spectrum...? I definitely had more success with visualizing fully-featured scenes (they end up mostly as not-quite amorphous blobs but totally in the right place and kinda painted over with Imagination) than geometry.

I would guess walks in familiar areas (e.g. common routes within your house/apartment) would be more helpful. Since you see a lot of the same imagery it may help your imagination fill in the details. again be careful walking around with eyes closed.

another thing that could help is visualization by parts. work on getting just one piece clear in your mind before gradually expanding on that, and maybe with practice you can put the pieces together more quickly.

I guess I should point out that if you really don't have mental imagery to be careful walking around with your eyes closed, obviously.

Lo these many years later: the term "aphantasia" has been coined (2015) for the absence of visual imagination, and there's starting to be more research on the topic. The University of Exeter seems to be the main home for such research: .

Can you solve problems in geometry in your head? For example: How many edges does a dodecahedron have? Prove that the medians of a triangle are concurrent. How long is the altitude of a regular tetrahedron? How many Platonic solids are there in 4 dimensions?

I was given an excellent geometry problem by Dr. Nigel Thomas.

It might be worth attempting to see how you perform on certain types of spatial thinking problems that most people claim to use imagery to solve (although no correlation seems to exist between spatial thinking ability and the vividness that people report their imagery to have). Try to solve the problem below, in your head, without drawing diagrams or making calculations on paper or anything like that. The four narrow sides of a 1 cm by 4 cm by 4 cm block are painted red. The top and bottom are painted blue. The block is then cut into sixteen 1 cm cubes.

  1. How many cubes have both red and blue faces?
  2. How many cubes have one red and two blue faces?
  3. How many cubes have no painted faces? Most people say they use imagery to do this, and count the relevant cubes in their image. Were you able to solve all or any part of the problem at all? Did it seem very difficult? How, in fact, did you solve it (if you did)? Did you have to consciously employ any formal knowledge of geometry or other mathematics (beyond counting)?

When I solved this, I had the interesting experience of Imagining the 4x4 block of 16 blocks, noting that the outside ones (all but 4) had red paint on them, and all of them had blue paint... but I only "put" blue paint on the top. My diagram was flat, oriented like a pancake. None of this was Mental Imagery. Then when I was asked how many cubes had red and blue faces, I felt around the edges of the block. Motor/haptic mental imagery. Then when I was asked how many cubes had 1 red and 2 blue faces, I immediately thought the question was 1 red and 1 blue since I didn't have blue paint on the bottom in my model (I'm not sure if I had a bottom in my model). I thought "when would they have more than 1 red? ah the corners", and then had the distinct vivid motor mental imagery of moving my hand and touching two non-corner side blocks on the left of my model, then two at the far side, then two on the right, then two on the near side, counting "2, 4, 6, 8". This was a different experience than my usual Imagining... but I'm not sure if it was qualitatively different or just more "vivid" motor mental imagery.

Did anyone else have trouble recalling the red vs blue sides? (based on my experience with this (below), it seems as though my mental association was essentially "top and bottom are same" and "narrows are same" but neither really had a color. When I close my eyes, I don't see "red" or "blue")

At first I was imagining a 1cm by 1cm by 4cm block. I then realized that getting the 16 cubes of 1cm each out of this wasn't possible and then went to the accurate idea of a 4 by 4 by 1. I realize I am having a great deal of trouble going from a 1cm by 4cm rectangle and then adding depth, while the 4 x 4 square I can add the 1cm of depth much easier. I can rotate the image of the 4x4x1 around in my head and yet cannot do the same with the 4x1x4 (despite the fact that I recognize that they are the same image).

Adding colors: four narrow are red, two fat are blue. Got it. Break it up into cubes.

  1. Red and blue faces requires it touch the outside of the 4x4 square. 4 along top side, four along bottom side, and two each on the left and right (already counted the corners).=12 total red and blues.

  2. One red and two blue... which ones were red and which were blue again? I know that the four narrows are the same and that the top+bottom are different... and just logicked that if the question is one red and two blue, that means the narrows were blue (the reds don't touch->top and bottom). To be two red and one blue... WAIT--that logicking doesn't work because the edges have Top side bottom. So I'll look back at which sides were which color. In my mind I just have "top and bottom are same color" but that's not assigned to red or to blue. Okay--top and bottom are blue. This means along the edge of the 4x4. uh... the perimeter again. So 4+3+3+2=12. Unless you're asking for two red and exactly one blue, in which case it's the corners... wait--two red? red was the narrow side color. i think i switched them again. Final answer: to have two red and one blue you must have two red, meaning the narrow side meets a narrow side, which only happens in four places. Four.

Just re-read the question. You asked for one red and two blue. All of them except the middle 4 blocks, so 12.

  1. No painted faces? All of them are painted on at least one side: we painted three sides of the block, each of the 16 cubes we chopped the block into touched at least one side. 0 are completely uncolored.

This is very interesting. I am having trouble understanding the experience of imagining the 4x4 block of 16 blocks well enough to note that there are four interior blocks w/o red paint on them without picturing them.

I could imagine that this could be done with just logic (reasoning about how many blocks there must be in different categories, which is maybe how I would do it if the problem were more complex, or took place in four dimensions for example), but you said you had a diagram...

So it sounds like you did have mental imagery, it was just 2-d instead of 3-d.

But apparently that wasn't very vivid, because you still had to do the haptic imagery thing. How vivid is the experience of this motor mental imagery for you? I'm wondering if I'm missing out on that in the way that you're missing out on more vivid visual mental imagery.

How is classifying Platonic solids in 4 dimensions a reasonable test of mental imagery?

Summary: Thinking about geometry problems gives me access to visual mental imagery of lines, sometimes pretty stable and controllable lines. A few at a time.

Dodecahedron, stream of thought: 20 sides, right? What's the... oh you asked edges. 20, clearly. Wait a dodecahedron is 3D. Okay I get the question now. Um, it has 20 sides... they each join or rather each edge joins a pair... aren't they pentagons? So each side, face I guess, has 5 edges, that's 20x5 is a hundred edges counted twice for 50 edges. --- During this time I Imagined a vague ball-like thing and Imagined the face of it nearest me and knew that it was a pentagon. Now I'm going to look up the answer before commenting, but I promise I'll leave all of this even if I'm wrong. Oh it has 12 faces, oops. Then it's 12x5/2=30 edges instead.

Medians: I Imagine an isoceles triangle and Mental Image the two equal sides of that triangle. I Imagine the vertical median and Mental Image a dark vertical bar across my visual field (this is with eyes closed btw). The bar quickly morphs into a jagged dark lightning bolt thing and back again and things turn amorphous. Um, I don't know why the medians would be concurrent. Medians split the side, right? So... base times height, they split the area in two... base times height over two rather, whatevs. Okay. Do I know anything else about medians? No... let's have two medians, clearly they intersect somewhere. I Imagine a scalene triangle with its base horizontal, as on a whiteboard in front of me, Mental Imaging the base as a thick bright line and the two other sides as deformations in the static. I mean it looks like the medians come kinda close. I want to draw things though, I'm losing track and it would take a lot of effort to prove this in my head.

Altitude: Imagining a pyramid with a dotted line from the tip to the middle of a triangular base. Mental Image is the lines of a triangle base with three vertical lines coming up like it's a triangular prism, they won't go together to make a point but hey 6 lines is a lot at once, neat. Side length s says triangle altitude is sqrt(s^2-s^2/4)=(sqrt(3)/2) s. I... am not sure where the triangle comes from that I can get the tetrahedron's altitutde from, though. I want to draw. I Imagine the dotted line and try to make a triangle but I have to explicitly check "what is this line?" rather than seeing it. That's like part of a triangle altitutde... oh hey the base triangle, I got a symmetric three interior lines both Imagined and Mental Imaged and there are some isoceles triangles there. A needed unknown x, x again, and s. And clearly it's 30/30/120. So also it's 30/60/90 with x, (sqrt(3)/2) s-x, and s/2. So x is the hypotenuse and is 2/sqrt(3) times s/2. x is s/sqrt(3). I've got (and I'm Imagining, and my Mental Image is like the Imagining except hella distorted but hey it's there!) then a triangle with one edge the edge of a face s, one the altitude, and one s/sqrt(3). The altitude then is sqrt(s^2-s^2/3)=sqrt(2/3) * s. Checking... yep.

Platonic solids: Um. Four dimensions, huh? I Imagine a cube. Now it's stretched and I Mental Image the static elongating, which lasts for not long. A hypercube must work, right? What is a four dimensional Platonic solid. It's a 4D thing with regular 3D things as "faces"? Okay... how the hell does that work. If I can take a 3D thing, morph it over time until it's back to a 3D thing, and interpret those morphs as... the same 3D thing? That doesn't make sense, the morphs will be 1D. I am confused. I will look up four dimensional Platonic solids now. Okay, confusing.

This is great. More stream of consciousness while Guy solves math problems please.

I thought it was interesting that it was easier for me to picture the proper shapes than it was for you (I had no trouble getting the lines of my pyramid to join together, and I could easily imagine where the line for the altitude of the tetrahedron went), but you thought of the relations between line segment lengths and came up with the formulas for them much more quickly than I would have.

One thing I want to clarify though, when you said you were imagining the pyramid and dotted line, and then your mental imagine didn't match that correctly -- were you first successfully imagining the pyramid and dotted line, and then trying to also have a mental image, or when you said you were imagining did you just mean that you were starting to form the mental image? And if the former, what did this imagining consist of, other than just awareness of the abstract idea that an altitude should go from a face to its opposing point?

I stumbled across this thread randomly trying to look up this very information.

I have pretty much no visual imagination at all, with my eyes closed I see no shapes, no movement, not even colour. On Mark's Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire I am 5s all the way down. Close to sleep or in meditation at best I get faint movement, like very dim "white" light. I can however weigh in on some things.

  1. I draw quite well, to the extent that I can draw portraits that look very much like the person, despite the fact that I can't see their face at all in my mind's eye. For a long time I had an irrational fear that I wouldn't recognize someone I knew well when I was going to meet them cause I couldn't picture their face, of course I always did. And I don't confuse people at all, but I do have a terrible memory for faces and sometimes need to meet a person more than once to be able to recognize them readily.

  2. I can recall and even have lucid dreams. I'm not good at lucid dreaming. I've been trying off and on for years, and fairly intensely for the past year, but have only had a handful, 4 to be precise. My dream recall however is quite good, but I remember the narrative more than the visuals. Interestingly though, remembering dreams is the closest I get to seeing with my mind's eye, but it is fleeting and comes in flashes, and then nothing.

  3. I have an excellent sense of direction and never get lost. Going somewhere once is enough for me to remember how to get there, but I don't have a visual mental map, it's more like sensing movement in different directions. It's more kinesthetic than visual. I sense a direction, then sense which way to turn ect... I'm also quite good at those shape orientation tests, where you are given an usual shape and have to match it with it in a different position in a line up of similar looking shapes.

I often feel as though it's not that I'm incapable of holding a mental image, it's just that I think it is a subconscious process for me, so that even though I can't actively imagine a friend's face, a visual map, or a rotated shape, somewhere below my awareness I in fact do "see" it and the information bubbles up when needed. I really want to see if I can learn to consciously create and experience a mental image, and I discovered one trick that gets me closer than anything else I've tried.

I can't visualize an apple on command, but if i'm looking at the colour red, sometimes I can picture an apple, or if I look at the colour green, sometimes I can visualize grass. The act of looking at the colour seems to be like a scaffold on which I can build a mental image. I'm hoping with practice this could lead to seeing it without the colour stimulus.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton

I believe that this is historically false and the debate continued for many more decades. I bring this up because I think it is important to keep track of what kinds of evidence are historically convincing.

When reading a fiction novel, do you imagine a scene in which the characters are interacting, or do you just see words on a page?

I do not know what is happening when I read a fiction novel, I've never tried to watch my thoughts as I was reading fiction and memory is bad. I'm in the middle of one, I'll check tonight. I definitely don't Mental Image scenes or characters, that's something I'd have noticed.

Edit: I read a chapter. I know I didn't Mental Image and I didn't notice the thing I call Imagining. I paid attention to my reading speed, which is normally very high. Passages on description of physical scenery I skipped over faster than I thought I could possibly read them - going back and reading deliberately, I found that whatever heuristic or background process let me skip them correctly identified that there was nothing there for me. Passages on characters' inner thoughts or conversations aloud or on action occurring I never skip-skimmed.

It's not "just" words on a page... but there's no visual involved beyond the symbol.

I also struggle to create mental imagery. In this scenario, I do imagine a scene, but it's not generally composed of imagery. I'm aware that this probably won't make sense to someone who has a primarily visual imagination, but when I'm imagining a scene like this, it's more like a network of facts in my head - I piece together the underlying concepts behind what's being described, rather than a visual representation of them.

For example, if I'm imagining a room full of people, I'll have a mental model of everyone's positions in the room, which I'll then update if the story mentions that someone is stood at the left of the room and I'm imagining them at the right. However, I don't have a picture of the room in my head while I'm doing this, there's no image of where the people are stood - it's just something I 'know'.

If I'm given a description of a person's appearance, I incorporate facts about their appearance in my mental model of them, but I still don't form a mental image representing them. If I was asked to draw someone that was described to me, I could attempt it (despite my poor drawing skills), but I would be converting my mental model into a picture at this stage - I wouldn't be drawing from a picture in my head. When I try to recall a fictional character, my mental model of them is overwhelmingly based on things like personality traits, and my perception of how their mind might work. I can remember details of appearance, but they take the form of 'has ~5cm, dark straight hair', rather than a picture of how said hair might look.

This is exactly how my brain works also. It's very frustrating to not be able to call up an image.

For example, if I'm imagining a room full of people, I'll have a mental model of everyone's positions in the room, which I'll then update if the story mentions that someone is stood at the left of the room and I'm imagining them at the right. However, I don't have a picture of the room in my head while I'm doing this, there's no image of where the people are stood - it's just something I 'know'.

That's very strange. I don't see how you can keep track of their positions without visualizing the room and labeling their locations visually in at least some rudimentary way. I would honestly be very surprised if you actually kept track of every visual detail verbally. Barring this bizarre possibility, It seems to me like your visual cortex is processing the "picture" but for some reason you aren't experiencing it directly...

I would honestly be very surprised if you actually kept track of every visual detail verbally.

Sorry, I didn't really explain this very well - I'm not tracking them verbally. In fact, most of the time I don't tend to represent my thoughts verbally either (something else that seems to surprise people when we discuss how we think), they exist in the same state that my spacial representations of things do - at least until I need them in a verbal form (such as when I'm trying to decide on the wording of something I'm going to say or write). It's hard for me to describe the state my thoughts take to someone else, as there's no analogue outside of my own head. When I said:

I can remember details of appearance, but they take the form of 'has ~5cm, dark straight hair', rather than a picture of how said hair might look.

What I meant is that there are some sort of symbols in my mind that represent these concepts being activated, but in a more abstract way than by using the words that describe them, or by picturing the images that make me think of them. It feels a little like there's a more abstract layer that sits on top of my visual and verbal systems, and this is where I do my thinking and imagining. If I need to, I can 'bring my thought down' to these parts of my brain (like when I'm deciding what to write, or how to draw something), but it's not the default case.

It seems to me like your visual cortex is processing the "picture" but for some reason you aren't experiencing it directly...

I guess this could be a possibility, but I do experience the "picture" to a degree if I actually make an effort to visualise it, like when I'm trying to draw a scene from my imagination. It's not really anything like what I see when I'm actually looking at something, but I assume that's the case for everyone. For example, if I try to do a puzzle that involves picturing something from a different angle, I'm able to, but it takes a conscious effort. The process I use for this doesn't seem to get involved when I'm imagining a scene from a book (unless I'm doing something like trying to picture a scene from someone else's point of view, at which point I have to stop reading briefly while I build up a picture).

When I read fiction, it is very abstract. All the visual details are basically meaningless, unless I can link the words to some abstract concept. I can at best get a dim, faint, low definition, general sense of how some things should look like, but nothing even remotely close to a movie scene. When I dream, the visuals are a bit stronger but still not even remotely close to waking life vision, it is mostly a sense of narrative and flow of abstract concepts with low definition visuals to move it along. Note that I have myopia and I often don't wear glasses (I remember thinking that wearing glasses makes life hd), so my sense of what "waking life vision" is, isn't as high def as most people's.

Additionally, does this extend into the rest of your interactions with people? Do you confuse different people often? How well do you assign names to people? (would blonde, wavy hair, ~5'3", named "Alyssa" be distinct in your mind from the same traits, but named "Elizabeth"?)

Visualizing a family member, for instance: I personally have a similar experience to yours, Guy, and find that when tasked to form an image of a parent, for example, the person becomes a hodgepodge of significant traits at best and just hair at worst. My father, for example, is just a bushy mustache with short curly hair and my sister is a slightly open-mouthed smile. My mother is just an outline of hair... and it's the hair color she had ten years ago, but no longer.

Just wondering, what happens when you try to recall a movie you saw, or someone's face, or a drawing?

Movie: the last movie I saw was Top Gun. Let's check. I can Imagine Tom Cruise's baby face while Seeing static. When I attempt to Mental Imagery him with my eyes closed I get a small change in the texture of the Seeing static, just barely outlining a blob that I wish was in the shape of a head. I Imagine him walking up to Charlie's house, leaving his bike on the curb. I Imagine planes zipping through the sky, and in particular the scene at the end with a half dozen planes in a mass dogfight. When I Imagined the volleyball scene I Mental Imaged part of a stick figure in the static in the pose of someone about to spike, arm up and back, and I got about four stills. Like portions of these figures.

Someone's face: I'll use my wife's. I Imagine where her hair is placed, her left side just entering and hooked in her ear. I Imagine certain little features of her skin. I just Mental Imaged a vague sketch of a head with a clearly female hairstyle (nothing like Samantha's), and Imagined that the hair was yellow (Samantha's is brown), like this picture but without the body, with less vertically full hair, and with less detail. I Imagine comging home and giving her a hug and she has on her pink and black skull pants, a pink robe, and her shoulder is sore and she's holding it, but got no Mental Imagery.

A drawing: I had drawn a flowchart in the office I was squatting in last week. I can Mental Image a horizontally long, almost rectangular brighter blob that persists and has a darker area along the bottom when I think of the whiteboard. Sometimes the darker area is actually brighter. It's distinctly different, in any case. I Imagine and recall the general idea of where boxes are, in particular the start state and two sink states. It takes special effort to Imagine the colors that I specifically used to mean different things in the chart, but I recall them. None of that shows up as Mental Imagery.

I'm having trouble understanding what it means to remember and imagine these things without being able to mental-image them. It reminds me of blindsight, but specific to mental imagery.

I am having the same trouble. I appreciate that Guy is distinguishing between Imagine and Mental Image for us to make it clear that they are different for him, but I'm not sure exactly what the distinction is. Especially for something so visual like, "Tom Cruise's baby face."

When I imagine that I automatically picture something. I think of images I've seen of Tom Cruise in movies or on movie posters. If I try to focus on just his face in isolation of any surroundings, then my image starts to feel more blurry. I think there's a limit to the resolution of my mental imagery -- and it seems that imagining the context as well helps -- but I don't think I can imagine things without picturing them at least to some degree.

Interesting. I never complained about my visual memory, yet what you describe matches my experience in similar circumstances. I don't ever get anything close to the dream-like-quality images while awake. How do you know that you don't have visual mental imagery, as opposed to being overly negative about what your mental imagery looks like? Another question: do you find drawings and diagrams helpful, or do you wonder what other people see in them?

It's hard to know the difference between "I don't have visual mental imagery" and "I'm overly negative about what my mental imagery looks like", of course. The three things that most strongly lead me to believe I don't have visual mental imagery are

  • the huge difference between what I see when nearly asleep and what I see normally

  • descriptions of mental imagery differences and changes like cousin_it's aural imagination and fburnaby's note and e.g. this passage from Galton's paper:

    To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour. They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing. To illustrate their mental attitude it will be sufficient to quote a few lines from the letter of one of my correspondents, who writes:--

    "These questions presuppose assent to some sort of a proposition regarding the 'mind's eye' and the 'images' which it sees….. This points to some initial fallacy…… It is only by a figure of speech that I can describe my recollection of a scene as a 'mental image' which I can 'see' with my 'mind's eye'….. I do not see it… any more than a man sees the thousand lines of Sophocles which under due pressure he is ready to repeat. The memory possesses it, &c."

  • discussions with those who claim they do have visual mental imagery, and their incredulity about my descriptions of my experience - incredulity that does not feel like they would simply describe their own experience differently. My sister, for example, is a writer, and when I described my lack of visual mental imagery said that she finally understood why I didn't seem to understand the beauty of certain prose she'd shown me, because its beauty was mainly in the images it inspired.

Do we actually have an objective test for the quality of visual imagery? (as compared to subjective quality of it.) What I'm thinking of is something like the mental rotation experiments, proving that in fact there is a representation of images in our heads... but with somewhat more complicated images. Or scenes.

Otherwise... I think I have good imagination abilities (I was also once told so while solving math problems involving rotating cubes), but my subjective quality levels are similar: pictures are somewhat vague, especially compared the ones I can get on 20 hour long bus trips in the middle of the night, half asleep. But isn't it just about the fact that in half-asleep states, we accept anything as real, even it's not really representing anything Euclidean?

I remember an online pseudo-IQ test that had an image of an irregular 3D shape with pictographs on it, and then several 2d images of that shape "unfolded" in various different ways, with only one of those unfolded representations being correct and having the right pictographs in the right places at the right rotations.

Does this sound like the kind of test you were asking about?

Mentally visualizing where each side of the shape went when unfolding the shape was important for me in solving those problems, and I think they'd be pretty hard to solve mentally even with intense mastery of abstract algebra.

For me at least, mental imagery is different from dreaming in that the images feel like they are above and/or behind my eyes (outside of the normal visual field), whereas dream images appear in the normal visual field.

This is my experience as well.

Mainly, I think you practice like you would any skill, controlling motivation, repetition, difficulty, etc. I would be very surprised if sustained training yielded no improvement.

I know I've read books on it before. Never applied myself for any length of time, so can't give a fair assessment.

And for your own training, I don't think 2 was the right thing. That might help you to hold an image, but I don't see it helping you generate the image to hold. 3 doesn't look helpful either - I don't think logicking it out would help.

And even 1 is questionable, as you're trying to maintain pieces of a sleep state. That might allow you to visualize if you can pull it off generating enough of a sleep state.

Try to do colors. Then basic shapes. Try eyes open, eyes closed. I find it easier to in the basic Matrix white space. Try to get a 3d image, instead of 2d. Maybe simple isn't the right way. Maybe a natural scene with detail is easier. And also, see about adding other sensory modalities. I'm probably best at "visualizing" sound.

A lot of dance and movement theorists recommend "visualizing" body movement as well.

Basically, you're just learning how to control and train your nervous system, so I think a lot of movement theory would transfer. I wonder if Feldenkrais ever had anything to say on visual visualization. He's very good on movement and learning theories.

I will try colors and natural scenes and (like Elithrion suggested) familiar full-featured scenes.

Other senses don't transfer, that I know. I have good aural and motor "visualization".

Edit: I didn't get colors to work at all. Real scenes, especially familiar ones, and scenes that were emotionally strong, yielded some results. I got to something like 3.75 on the scale (close to vague and dim but on the way to moderately clear and vivid) for lots of locations that I visit/see regularly. When I noticed that I was better-than-4 on lots of things, I tried an apple, and after a couple minutes got to maybe 3.5ish for a second or two. I feel like I can do one assisted pull-up now, which is sufficient to start training. :D

From some light introspection, it seems like my mental imagery is comparable to yours, but probably somewhat better. (E.g. I would mostly answer 4s to Marks' Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, with a few 3s and maybe one or two 2s in there, however all images I see are very fleeting/morph rapidly.)

So, with that said, the "full" (as opposed to momentary, fleeting) visualisation I find easiest while (mostly) awake is that of locations I'm familiar with. I can imagine myself in a room in my house (or previous houses I've lived in), and "look" around, taking notice of objects that should be in various locations. By mentally examining each area in a room in detail, I can bring to mind what should be where and add it to the "image". Eventually, I'll have built up a decent moderately visual image of the room (if I'm fully awake, it's not completely vivid, but I can move as I please and be able to tell what sort of vague picture I should see when looking in any particular direction). You could perhaps try doing that sort of thing and see if it helps and maybe it'll help in more general cases too (possibly).

The other thing you could try is self-hypnosis. There are a lot of files floating around the internet that allege to help you visualise some scene, and some of them purport to be things like "imagination training" and whatnot. Mind you, from my brief attempts, they completely failed to work for me (in the sense that I failed to get hypnotised), but since you have experience with meditation, maybe you'll have an easier time with it. Admittedly, I suspect this won't help, but if you're running low on ideas, it might be something to try.

Thanks, I will try familiar, full-featured locations.

Edit: update

I was able to fantasize very vividly after doing the following the other night, though am not sure if these caused it:

(1) I did a tarot card spread.

(2) I focused on a tarot card, then drew randomly in ink over a blank canvas, while also focusing on and being inspired by sensations in my body.

(3) I improvised some dance movements while looking at what I drew.

(4) I looked through some (paper) photo collages I made.

Is it a wise idea to take any chemicals to acquire a skill?

You can not visualize if you've never actively exercised your mental muscle. As you all know, it's the same with everything else: there's no shortcut when learning anything - you have to invest serious time in learning.

We're just among the people who somehow "unlearned" using this wonderful ability (I'm convinced that all of us were able to visualize easily in our childhood).

I'm now 37 and I had to relearn it myself - by practicing everyday for at least 30 minutes staring at candles, geometric shapes, flickr-images, etc. - now after a couple of months I proved to myself: "This is something you CAN learn!"

And, it's worth every minute of time invested.

So, please guys, don't take any chemicals that in the end might just harm you. At least go through a month of disciplined mind-workout to prove to yourself that you have a weakened visualization-muscle that urgently needs your dedicated attention.

Practice at least for 10-15 minutes a day. You can find a selection of exercises on the Learn How To Visualize post.

I'd like the satisfaction of getting some of you to prove this to yourself, too. Just too many people believe that something is wrong with them.

Have you tried your hand at drawing?

It is not quite the same skill, but being able to notice/See things as they are (closer to raw visual input) rather than letting your brain auto-label stuff may help you retain images better, and I think it'd also be interesting if you were to take a written scene from a book and try do draw it.

By the way, there is supposedly a fast way (~20h) to go from kindergarten to recognizably realistic in drawing skills using some neat tricks, there was even a series of articles about it here on lw. (the other 10k hours go into those final touches of skill, but to the untrained eyes the difference isn't as jarring as the no-training - some-training gap, at least in simple scenes)

Drawing may improve visual memory (especially with things like drawing people's faces to help remember what they looked like), but I don't know if it will necessarily help someone develop a visual memory.

Hey Guys, I'm in a similar position. I'd love to know if anyone has made any tangible progress on this matter? is it a lost cause? thanks! I'll probably try anyway, but just to have reasonable expectations.

Has anyone else with a similar level of mental imagery to Guy's had any experience with Lucid Dreaming/dream recall? Based on what I've read, it seems as though mental imagery is significant in the ability to lucid dream/recall dreams, but I haven't found much written on lucidity with little mental imagery.

So how did this pan out? Were you able to improve your mental imagery? What methods did you use? :)

When I was a kid I tried the Relaxation Response for a month and it improved my very weak ability for a time. But then I stopped doing it! Perhaps the act of taking 10-15 minutes a day to focus on my 'mantra', which was just a picture of "one" written out, helped. It was great because after the month I was able to, for the first time ever, recall pages from my textbook, almost like I had the beginnings of a photographic memory. I'm thinking of trying this again.

I have had 3D constructions of blocks and tried drawing them from different angles on paper. This is an exercise I did while growing up during summers. Unfortunately there was no actual imagery or mental rotation involved, I just logic'd out where lines must surely go and drew like that.


Such tasks include mental rotation and visual memory, both of which I can perform easily.

I'm confused by these two statements. If you can perform mental rotation easily, why was it not useful in drawing blocks?

My visualization ability improves the closer I am to sleep, being near perfect during a lucid dream.

I'm in the same boat as you; would be interested in your results, such as they may be.

One hypothesis I entertained for a while was that training at the game of Go would improve my visualization, since one of the basic skills ("reading") appears to involve actually hallucinating stones that aren't really on the board.

In practice, I found that I was able to reason about what stones would appear where, while still dismally failing to see them in any meaningful sense of the word. If anything, the primary modality was kinesthetic - I was representing internally the feeling of "clicking here then there".

Does anyone know of (tested?) exercises for developing visual mental imagery from scratch?

Warning: Anecdote, personal experience!

I used to have occasional super-vivid "waking dreams", as well as regular dreams, but it was otherwise almost impossible for me to think in terms of images instead of words. Then I had a friend adopt me as his art student. I never learned to draw, but I learned to take his line drawings and add color, then shading.

The process of learning to shade required me to learn to do more visualization than I used to, since I simply couldn't model the correct lighting without having an internal model advanced enough to contain that nuance. It's still weak visualization, since I can't visualize line structures at all (I strongly suspect properly learning to draw would fix this, specifically focusing on taking a scene in front of me and capturing it), but I can visualize colors and shading just fine.

This suggests to me that practice works just fine, and that learning to draw / color / shade will specifically push you to do exactly this, depending on what sort of visualizations you want.

I also found that if I spent 4+ hours continuously practicing, I'd spend at least a few minutes looking at the world and automatically analyzing it in terms of shadow and light and color, which was very helpful for mapping this skill on to reality. So, the occasional obsessive day once you've got the basic knack might help :)

A meditation discipline called kasina is specifically about visualizing objects. I understand the idea is something like staring at a specific fixed object for a long time and trying to use that to develop a more vivid mental image of the object. I have no idea if it will help to build up visual mental imagery from scratch, but there should be detailed instructions to be found for the practice.

I tried kasina meditation for a while. It was frustrating because my lack of visual mental imagery didn't jive with descriptions of how to practice. :)