This week my friend Anna said to me; "I just discovered my typical mind fallacy around visualisation is wrong". Naturally I was perplexed and confused. She said; 

“When I was in second grade the teacher had the class do an exercise in visualization. The students sat in a circle and the teacher instructed us to picture an ice cream cone with our favorite 0ice cream. I thought about my favorite type of cone and my favorite flavor, but the teacher emphasized "picture this in your head, see the ice cream." I tried this, and nothing happened. I couldn't see anything in my head, let alone an ice cream. I concluded, in my childish vanity, that no one could see things in their head, "visualizing" must just be strong figurative language for "pretending," and the exercise was just boring.”


Typical mind fallacy being; "everyone thinks like me" (Or A-typical mind fallacy – "no one thinks like me"). My good friend had discovered (a long time ago) that she had no visualisation function. But only recently made sense of it (approximately 15-20 years later). Anna came to me upset, "I am missing out on a function of the brain; limited in my experiences". Yes; true. She was. And we talked about it and tried to measure and understand that loss in better terms. The next day Anna was back but resolved to feeling better about it. Of course realising the value of individual differences in humans, and accepting that whatever she was missing; she was compensating for it by being an ordinary functional human (give or take a few things here and there), and perhaps there were some advantages.


Together we set off down the road of evaluating the concept of the visualisation sense. So bearing in mind; that we started with "visualise an ice cream"... Here is what we covered.

Close your eyes for a moment, (after reading this paragraph), you can see the "blackness' but you can also see the white sparkles/splotches and some red stuff (maybe beige), as well as the echo-y shadows of what you last looked at, probably your white computer screen. They echo and bounce around your vision. That's pretty easy. Now close your eyes and picture an ice cream cone. So the visualisation-imagination space is not in my visual field, but what I do have is a canvas somewhere on which I draw that ice cream; and anything else I visualise.  It’s definitely in a different place. (We will come back to "where" it is later)

So either you have this "notepad"; “canvas” in your head for the visual perception space or you do not. Well; it’s more like a spectrum of strength of visualisation; where some people will visualise clear and vivid things; and others will have (for lack of better terms) "grey"; "echoes"; Shadows; or foggy visualisation, where drawing that is a really hard thing to do. Anna describes what she can get now in adulthood as a vague kind of bas relief of an image, like an after effect. So it should help you model other people by understanding that variously people can visualise better or worse. (probably not a big deal yet; just wait).


It occurs that there are other canvases; not just for the visual space but for smell and taste as well. So now try to canvas up some smells of lavender or rose, or some soap. You will probably find soap is possible to do; being of memorable and regular significance. The taste of chocolate; kind of appears from all those memories you have; as does cheese; lemon and salt; (but of course someone is screaming at the page about how they don't understand when I say that chocolate "kind of appears”, because it’s very very vivid to them, and someone else can smell soap but it’s quite far away and grey/cloudy).


It occurs to me now that as a teenage male I never cared about my odour; and that I regularly took feedback from some people about the fact that I should deal with that, (personal lack of noticing aside), and I would wonder why a few people would care a lot; and others would not ever care. I can make sense of these happenings by theorising that these people have a stronger smell canvas/faculty than other people. Which makes a whole lot of reasonable sense.

Interesting yet? There is more.

This is a big one.

Sound. But more specifically music. Having explored the insight of having a canvas for these senses with several people over the past week; And noting that the person from the story above confidently boasts an over-active music canvas with tunes always going on in their head. For a very long time I decided that I was just not a person who cared about music; and never really knew to ask or try to explain why. Just that it doesn't matter to me. Now I have a model. 


I can canvas music as it happens – in real time; and reproduce to a tune; but I have no canvas for visualising auditory sounds without stimulation. (what inspired the entire write-up here was someone saying how it finally made them understand why they didn't make sense of other people's interests in sounds and music) If you ask me to "hear" the C note on my auditory canvas; I literally have no canvas on which to "draw" that note. I can probably hum a C (although I am not sure how), But I can't play that thing in my head.

Interestingly I asked a very talented pianist. And the response was; "of course I have a musical canvas", (to my slight disappointment). Of course she mentioned it being a big space; and a trained thing as well. (As a professional concert pianist) She can play fully imagined practice on a not-real piano and hear a whole piece. Which makes for excellent practice when waiting for other things to happen, (waiting rooms, ques, public transport...)


Anna from the beginning is not a musician, and says her head-music is not always pleasant but simply satisfactory to her. Sometimes songs she has heard, but mostly noises her mind produces. And words, always words. She speaks quickly and fluently, because her thoughts occur to her in words fully formed. 

I don't care very much about music because I don't "see" (imagine) it. Songs do get stuck in my head but they are more like echoes of songs I have just heard, not ones I can canvas myself.


Now to my favourite sense. My sense of touch. My biggest canvas is my touch canvas. "feel the weight on your shoulders?", I can feel that. "Wind through your hair?", yes. The itch; yes, The scrape on your skin, The rough wall, the sand between your toes. All of that. 


It occurs to me that this explains a lot of details of my life that never really came together. When I was little I used to touch a lot of things, my parents were notorious for shouting my name just as I reached to grab things. I was known as a, "bull in a china shop", because I would touch everything and move everything and feel everything and get into all kinds of trouble with my touch. I once found myself walking along next to a building while swiping my hand along the building - I was with a friend who was trying out drugs (weed), She put her hands on the wall and remarked how this would be interesting to touch while high. At the time I probably said something like; "right okay". And now I understand just what everyone else is missing out on.


I spend most days wearing as few clothes as possible, (while being normal and modest), I still pick up odd objects around. There is a branch of Autism where the people are super-sensitive to touch and any touch upsets or distracts them; a solution is to wear tight-fitting clothing to dull the senses. I completely understand that and what it means to have a noisy-touch canvas.

All I can say to someone is that you have no idea what you are missing out on; and before this week – neither did I. But from today I can better understand myself and the people around me.


There is something to be said for various methods of thinking; some people “think the words”, and some people don’t think in words, they think in pictures or concepts.  I can’t cover that in this post; but keep that in mind as well for “the natural language of my brain”


One more exercise (try to play along – it pays off). Can you imagine 3 lines, connected; an equilateral triangle on a 2D plane. Rotate that around; good (some people will already be unable to do this). Now draw three more of these. Easy for some. Now I want you to line them up so that the three triangles are around the first one. Now fold the shape into a 3D shape.

How many corners?

How many edges?

How many faces?

Okay good. Now I want you to draw a 2D square. Simple; Now add another 4 triangles. Then; like before surround the square with the triangles and fold it into a pyramid. Again;

How many edges?

How many corners?

How many faces?


Now I want you to take the previous triangle shape; and attach it to one of the triangles of the square-pyramid shape. Got it?

Now how many corners?

How many edges?

How many faces?


That was easy right? Maybe not that last step. So it turns out I am not a super visualiser. I know this because those people who are a super visualisers will find that when they place the triangular pyramid on to the square pyramid; The side faces of the triangle pyramid merge into a rhombus with the square pyramid; effectively making 1 face out of 2 triangle faces; and removing an edge (and doing that twice over for two sides of the shape).  Those who understand will be going “duh” and those who don’t understand will be going “huh?”, what happened?


Pretty cool right?


Don’t believe me?  Don’t worry - there is a good explanation for those who don’t see it right away - at this link 


From a super-visualiser: 

“I would say, for me, visualization is less like having a mental playground, and more like having an entire other pair of eyes.  And there's this empty darkness into which I can insert almost anything.  If it gets too detailed, I might have to stop and close my outer eyes, or I might have to stop moving so I don't walk into anything. That makes it sound like a playground, but there's much more to it than that.


Imagine that you see someone buying something in a shop.  They pay cash, and the red of the twenty catches your eye.  It's pretty, and it's vivid, and it makes you happy.  And if you imagine a camera zooming out, you see red moving from customers to clerks at all the registers.  Not everyone is paying with twenties, but commerce is red, now.  It's like the air flashes and lights up like fireworks, every time somebody buys something.  

And if you keep zooming out, you can see red blurs all over the town, all over the map.  So if you read about international trade, it's almost like the paper comes to life, and some parts of it are highlighted red.  And if you do that for long enough, it becomes a habit, and something really weird starts to happen.  

When someone tells you about their car, there's a little red flash just out the corner of your eye, and you know they probably didn't pay full price, because there's a movie you can watch, and in the time they got the car, they didn't have a job and they were stressed, so there's not as much red in that part of the movie, so there has to be some way they got the car without losing even more red.  But it's not just colors, and it's definitely not just money.  


Happiness might be shimmering motion.  Connection with friends might be almost a blurring together at the center.  And all these amazing visual metaphors that you usually only see in an art gallery are almost literally there in the world, if you look with the other pair of eyes. So sometimes things really do sort of jump out at you, and nobody else noticed them. But it has to start with one thing.  One meaning, one visual metaphor."



Way up top I mentioned the "where" of the visualisation space. It's not really in the eye, a good name for it might be "the mind's eye". My personal visualisation canvas is located back up left tilted downwards and facing forwards.


Synaesthesia is a lot of possible effects. The most well known one is where people associate a colour with a letter, when they think of the letter they have a sense of a colour that goes with the letter. Some letter's don't have colours, sometimes numbers have colours.


There are other branches of synaesthesia. Locating things in the physical space. Days of the week can be laid out in a row in front of you; numbers can be located somewhere. Some can be heavier than others. Sounds can have weights; Smells can have colours; Musical notes can have a taste. Words can feel rough or smooth.


Synaesthesia is a class of cross-classification that is done by the brain in interpreting a stimulus, where (we think) it can be caused by crossed wiring in the brain; It's pretty fun. Turns out most people have some kind of Synaesthesia. Usually to do with weights of numbers, or days being in a row. Sometimes Tuesdays are lower than the other days. Who knows. If you pay attention to how sometimes things have an alternative sensory perception, chances are that's a bit of the natural Synaesthete coming out.

So what now?

Synaesthesia is supposed to make you smarter. Crossing brain faculty should help you remember things better; if you can think of numbers in terms of how heavy they are you could probably train your system 1 to do simple arithmetic by "knowing" how heavy the answer is. If it doesn't come naturally to you - these are no longer low-hanging fruit implementations of these ideas.


What is a low-hanging fruit; Consider all your "canvases" of thinking; Work out which ones you care more about; and which ones don't matter. (Insert link to superpowers and kryptonites: use your strong senses to your advantage; and make sure you avoid using your weaker senses) (or go on a bender to rebuild your map; influence your territory and train your sensory canvases. Or don't because that wouldn't be a low hanging fruit).

Keep this model around

It can be used for both good and evil. But get the model out there. Talk to people about it. Ask your friends and family if they are able to visualise. Ask about all the senses. Imagine if suddenly you discovered that someone you know; can't "smell" things in their imagination. Or doesn't know what you mean by, "feel this" (seriously you have no idea what you are missing out on the touch spectrum in my little bubble).

You are going to have good senses and bad ones. That's okay! The more you know; the more you can use it to your advantage!

Meta: Post write up time 1 hour; plus a week of my social life being dominated by the same conversation over and over with different people where I excitedly explain the most exciting thing of this week.  plus 1hr*4, plus 3 people editing and reviewing, plus a rationality dojo where I presented this topic.


Meta2: I waited 3 weeks for other people to review this.  There were no substantial changes and I should have not waited so long.  in future I won’t wait that long.

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24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:16 AM

Most definitely! (those posts were partially inspiration for some of the ways I have described things) Hopefully my post adds to the ways in which you can better understand what the typical-mind feels like from the inside.

Probably should have included these in the top post myself. but thank you for providing the links.

and I would wonder why a few people would care a lot; and others would not ever care.

Lots of people care, but people vary widely in whether or not they will inform you that you smell bad to them. Once you are an adult you can go years without critical feedback on an obvious issue.

an alternative and also reasonable explanation.

This calls for a poll:

Your primary mental canvas is (primary meaning how much you use it):


And now rate how rich each canvas is. Notes: The primary need not be the one with the highest rating. If you don't know choose the middle option (simple). You may read the score as

  • Absent
  • I know that it is there but very weak and it takes concentration to notice it
  • Present but weak or dull or hard to evoke
  • Simple. you can evoke/replay thing you perceived earlier easily but can't use it to form significantly new combinations
  • Very rich/vivid and can be flexibly combined and controlled
  • Supersensing (like in Elo's example) very rich and can be deeply controlled like a mental movie
  • Omnipresent, present in everything you do, possibly distracting

Vision [pollid:1038]

Hearing [pollid:1039]

Smell [pollid:1040]

Taste [pollid:1041]

Touch [pollid:1042]

Location (where in a space you are) [pollid:1043]

Ideas/concepts [pollid:1044]

And one last: Do you have synesthesia (asked to compare and potentially allow to test for correlations)


What does a canvas for ideas/concepts mean?

Also, if someone could give a thought experiment for a location canvas, that would help me confirm that I don't have one.

Location canvas for me means that you can imagine yourself moving in space or space moving around you. It is the ability to see where you are with eyes closed, objects moving past as you go and turn blind. The ability of the native navigators described in The Last Navigator which could do something like mental triangulation to an amazing degree (good enough fro Mau Pialug to navigate from Hawaii to Tahiti unaided).

For example when I close my eyes and turn my head I see schemes of my environment staying in their place. It is precise enough for me to walk more than ten steps, seeing trees and lamp posts pass and then turn and correctly pointing toward an object when I open my eyes.

Concept canvas means that concepts and ideas are tangible objects that you can arrange and combine consciously. Taking once concepts and projecting it along an analogy toward another concept and 'seeing' how the parts fit. Embedding one concept in another.

For me this is closely related to the visual canvas (which is more like a technical drawing: black and white and more contour lines and description-like features than textures and shades). When I say 'embedding in' that conjours an 'inside'-relation where one concept is in the node of another (often in the way of graphs with edges connecting elements and I can use topological transformations on these (projecting, distortion, neighborhood, containment).

I couldn't "attach" the triangular-pyramid to the square-pyramid because I had made them different sizes and then accidentally distorted the triangular pyramid when I enlarged it, so it didn't fit on the faces of the square-pyramid. I didn't realize that was what I had done until I looked at the linked image of the rhombus. This is definitely an unexpected way for my mind to malfunction.

I have always been flummoxed by the fact that I can imagine any image in high detail, yet drawing is difficult. When I was younger it seemed like I should be able to just "project" my mental image onto the paper and then "trace" it, but this doesn't work. I can draw fairly well, but that's due to practice, not any kind of image projection. In fact, drawing and imagining images feel like completely separate systems.

ETA: Pain! I find it very difficult to imagine pain in most circumstances. I think one's capacity for empathy may be partly linked to their ability to imagine pain.

I have a similar experience with music. In my mind I can hear hugely complex compositions but in practice I'm nearly tone deaf and am incapable of transposing these sounds to the outside world. When I do write music it is always spontaneous and improvised with an instrument in my hands. I agree these must be different systems and I'm sure we can come up with other such divisions -- the gap between understanding meaning and expressing it in words, for instance. I suppose child prodigies are those with a natural bridge between these systems?


This is actually one of the core ideas of NLP, known as a "Primary Representational System." There's all sorts of crazy synesthesia tricks that NLP has developed.

Example: If your primary representational system is visual, making things brighter, closer, clearer, and first person (for most people) makes them more salient, while making them smaller, farther, blurier, and third person makes them less salient. For sound, making it louder, clearer, and closer usually does the same thing. If you have a voice in your head that you want to stop taking seriously, try making it sound like Donald Duck.

Some other fun observations from NLP:

You'll tend to use language that has to do with your PRS. For instance, if you're primarily, visual, you'll say things like "I see". If you're auditory, you'll say "I hear you." They used to think that speaking in the language of someone else's PRS could create rapport, but AFAIK that's been disproven by research. The concept of language affecting it I think is still in the air, but I'm not sure.


if you're primarily, visual, you'll say things like "I see". If you're auditory, you'll say "I hear you."

How about people who don't use any of these? Who instead of "I see that 2+2=4" or "it feels to me like 2+2=4" simply say "2+2=4"? Me, for example.


I don't think that's represented in the NLP PRS model, but I'm severely out of date with NLP developments.

In the wikipedia article it suggests that everyone uses all the systems situationally but seems to have a dominant one. I don't believe you that you never use the visual/auditory/kinasthetic phrases, happy to accept if you say that you rarely use them. I guess your task for the next week is to try to notice if you ever use a sensory-phrase and then try to think about why you chose that phrase. Report back?

I guess your task for the next week is to try to notice if you ever use a sensory-phrase and then try to think about why you chose that phrase.

The fact that I will be observing myself would probably influence the results. It would probably be better to e.g. look at my older LW comments. So, here are the results from my 10 recent comments (excluding comments in this articles):

1: "touch", "seems"; 2: "look"; 3, 4, 5, 6: nothing; 7: "imagine"; 8: nothing; 9: "seems"; 10: "look", "see".

Well, okay, this seems to point toward a visual system.

(Now I wonder if I do the same thing when not writing in English. I mean, I mostly use English online, which is inherently a visual approach; I may be more likely to copy phrases of other people than invent my own spontaneously; and my vocabulary is more limited.)

If the canvas is innate the population-wide use of perception-related words should be stable. I checked that on the n-gram viewer and found some unexpected results:  

Typical mind fallacy, are you? I believe him because I can relate. I tried to determine my primary canvas and the answer is none of the ones you gave. It's the canvas of concepts and ideas.


People also say I hear you or I see[=understand] when it is exactly what they have to convey. Saying I see instead of I hear you can at times be counterproductive... And vice versa...


Can you give an example when "I hear you "as an idiom works but "I see what you're saying" doesn't?


Also, nobody says 'You hear,...' instead of 'You see,...'


(It might be a quirk of how I learned English.) For me, "I hear you" is an acknowledgement of listening, possibly negotiating, and "I see..." - of the other person already thinking they have heard all they need to, possibly a dismissal. Of course, intonation matters too, and maybe it so outweighs the actual words that the above doesn't matter, but I mostly intake English as written.

that link is not quite working, needs a \ in front of the ) at the end I think. Thanks for a good link to NLP info. NLP always seems like a reasonable-enough yet unproven theory. it falls into my box of those theories. If I had a better use for it's ideas I would be looking deeper into it.


Interesting. (I could not fold 3-D figures.) I don't really visualize things clearly, just kind of imagine shadows and lighter spaces. (Probably has to do with having to remember different habitats - mosaic leafy forests, high-albedo chalks, 'cupping' meadows, 'weightless' rivers, tunnels of forest roads, 'airy' conifer forests, entrances to the underground. If the contrast is high, like the interior of a bus in the evening but not in the afternoon, it is easier to imagine.)

One important canvas is missing: The canvas of ideas and concepts. I think it is a canvas in the sense that it is an image of reality just more abstract than the canvasses matching perceptions.

For me this concept canvas is the dominant one. Ideas and concepts matching experience (to avoid the word perception which implies a more immediate relation) suggest themselves quickly and I work with very abstract and interpedendents concepts easily.

Thinking about it I'd guess that (some) people also have a rich canvas for social relationships, i.e. strong intuitions - "imaginations" - about friends, family relations and such and can probably paint a picture of how a group of people works.