Think of an apple. What is it like for you to think of an apple?

Do you see an apple in your mind’s eye?
Do you hear the word “apple”?

For me, the answer to all of those questions is “no”. I mentalize my teeth punching through apple skin and tearing off a chunk of crispy apple flesh.

My inner world is mostly soundless. My inner world is almost entirely devoid of imagery — a state known as aphantasia.

Think of an oak.

What is it like for you to think of an oak?
Is there anything there that’s not about audio and video?

When I think about an oak, I feel like I am the oak. I have an embodied sense of starting small, stretching upwards, spreading limbs outwards, and yearning for the distant sun. The quality of this sensation is solid and massive — feeling huge, with massive limbs for animals to sit on.

Let’s try other kinds of mentalisation. Imagine putting spaghetti on a piece of dark chocolate, and putting that on your tongue, pasta-side down.

Can you imagine what that feels like?

For me, it’s a creamy/stringy sense of pasta, together with my body’s “Oh! Carbohydrates!”-reaction. There are occasional flashes of bitter dark chocolate as non-pasta-protected pieces of chocolate touch my tongue. There’s also a sense of hardness, the mouthfeel of a chocolate square resting on a nest of pasta.


Sensing Abstraction

How do abstract concepts appear to you? Let’s go back to examples!

Note: if you don’t know the concepts, read the footnote before you continue

Think of the attention economy. (explained in this footnote[1])

What comes to mind? The image of a newsfeed? A memory of the last time you got stuck browsing? The word itself?

For me:

Me & others being dragged along by leechy entities anchored in our guts, slowly pulling us inside-out. Above the crowd is a calculating entity, dispassionately witnessing the unravelling of man.

There are no mental images involved, nor is there text or audio. Just embodied senses, emotional reactions and similar. There’s a physical pull sensation in my gut, a sense of innards being dragged out. The pull is heavy, dragging me along, unwilling. There’s a sense of revulsion/sliminess at the thing hooking me — eew parasite. I sense that I’m not alone — it’s a shared struggle. Overhead is a heavy presence, a sense of being watched by something indifferent.

Fun times. Let’s do another one and see what happens.

Think of reification. (explained in this footnote[2])

What pops up in your head?
The word? An example case?

For me, it’s simple:

I think of cloudiness shrinking inwards, condensing into a shape with a final “plop”-movement.

Again, no mental images. A sense of spaciousness, then a sense of shrinking, followed by a sudden condensation into an un-specified shape. A silent plop!



Did you expect our mental movements to be the same? Most people do, never imagining the hidden diversity of things going on in the heads of others. Language is full of metaphors — it’s hard to know whether someone uses language in a flowery, symbolic way, or if they are describing their literal experience. It’s a bit like culture — many expect foreigners to be like them, interpreting actions through their own cultural lens.

I remember visiting my partner’s relatives in Athens. My partner and I had been to a pizza place, where we’d ordered more than we could chew. We brought back leftover pizza in doggy bags — a big no-no! This turned out to be a huge display of disrespect, with my partner’s relatives silently seething with anger. We noticed a shift in the mood, but couldn’t pinpoint what had happened — until we were about to head for the airport. Just before we left, my partner got pulled aside for a 10-minute thorough Greek scolding for — amongst other things — showing great disrespect by bringing home food for just the two of us. We should have brought enough to share, obviously.

Culture shocks like this occur when you assume others function like you, ignoring subtle hints until reality smacks you in the face. When I realized how different people’s head spaces are, I had several wtf moments — neurological culture shocks, or “neuroshocks”.

People talk about picturing their audience naked to combat stage fright — imagine my surprise when I realized this was literal. Gaah! To me, this is weird as fuck — on the same level as generating deepfake soft-porn of people.

Another neuroshock hit me when I realized people have inner voices, incessantly criticizing their actions. No angel on their shoulder — just a gaggle of devils mocking their every step. How do these people sleep? Maybe they don’t?

These differences run deep, popping up everywhere once I started looking. Most people remain unaware, assuming other people’s inner worlds match theirs. Learning that some people do(n‘t) generate mental imagery comes as a shock to many. Research on aphantasia started astonishingly late, in 2015.

We know very little at this point — the research is far from conclusive. Some consequences are obvious: guided visualization exercises do nothing for me. At the same time, few people talk about the broader effects. Maybe there aren’t any, and maybe there are. In the absence of proper peer-reviewed studies, let’s turn towards the wild west of internet opinions. Let’s check what the aphantasiacs are up to.


Developing Your Third Eye

As you might know, there is a subreddit for everything — including r/CureAphantasia. It’s full of people without mental imagery, trying to kickstart their “third eye”, or inner vision. No measures are spared — their hacking toolkits include meditation, drugs, prayer, and specialized software.

Some people on this subreddit are desperate. They feel dull and numb, unable to mentalize anything. They blame aphantasia for their lifelessness and want to “come alive” by awakening their inner vision. Other posters are more functional, experimenting out of curiosity.

People are posting inspiring stories about unlocking their inner vision. Some claim a stronger emotional connection to memories. Others bask in their ability to visualize the location of lost items. These stories keep hope up, inspiring the hacking efforts.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, scepticism is building.

Over at r/aphantasia, people are preparing for the culture war. They have a lovely community united around their neurodivergence, celebrating each other for being different. When the cognition hackers unite around “curing” aphantasia, they treat it as a disease, something to get rid of — an offence of unimaginable proportions.


Call of the Culture War

Over at the /r/aphantasia subreddit, hundreds gather to talk about how little they care for this “cure” business. People generally agree that aphantasia is good — and that you shouldn’t attempt to cure it. They also agree that you can’t cure it — since there’s no scientifically validated cure.

There’s a culture war brewing — I can feel its call.

Learning that there’s a group of people like me — with fancy labels and juicy memes — appeals to my sense of feeling special. Taking a stand against being framed as sick feels like a noble thing to do — shielding newly aware aphants from sinister poaching. Besides, surely there are benefits to aphantasia? I’ve had coworkers amazed at my out-of-the-box perspectives on things — surely, these perspectives must be connected to how I mentalize!

On the other hand, I feel called to the curer side — pushing towards self-improvement in the midst of confusion, improving in areas thought to be static. There is a joy to this pursuit, a glory enhanced by the ill-adviseableness of DIY mind hacking. The “cure”-framing is off-putting, but nothing is perfect on the internet.

I feel torn, strung up between two polar opposites. Both sides beacon to me, pulling me to turn this post into an endorsement — to take a stand. Fortunately for you, dear reader, I detest tribalism. Let’s go beyond fun facts, posturing, and culture wars. There is a rabbit hole calling, a pull towards the depths of thinking itself.

Let’s jump in!


Into The Rabbit Hole

What does it mean to think about something? What happens when we bring to mind apples and attention economies? What mistakes can we make, and how do we overcome them? Why are our mentalizations useful, and how do they connect to “the real world”?

Let’s begin with the fundamentals.

We live in a world full of patterns — cause and effect, squishyness, danger & potential. Having an intuition for how things behave is important. Children usually only see surface patterns — candy is sweet and tasty.

As we grow up, we see deeper and deeper patterns. At first, we realize that too much candy makes us feel bad. Then we notice a disturbing trend — eating candy makes us want more candy. Now, we look for someone to blame — evil people are earning money from sugar addiction, how dare they? After learning more economics, we lift our heads and stare at the politicians — why aren’t they imposing a tax on sugar? Then we realize that we live in a liberal public choice system, with entrenched interests and a population that likes having cheap candy available.

We can go deeper, but I think you get my point. Candy is much more than its surface appearance. Everything is much more than its surface appearance. Beyond our sensory impressions, there are deep, underlying patterns to everything.

This is the bottom of the rabbit hole. Above us, the culture war rages on. It’s tempting to hide away, but we can do better. Let’s head back and see if we can bring some fresh air to the struggle.


It’s Not The Size That Matters

The aphantasia community and the hackers over at r/CureAphantasia have a lot in common. The aphantasia community is all about accepting zero/low levels of mental imagery, while the r/CureAphantasia people are dead set on increasing their mentalization capabilities.

Both communities are focused on mentalization capacity — and the effects of having varying degrees of it. They focus on clear effects with limited impact — things like mentally rotating cubes or remembering the location of lost items. These are interesting enough to deserve post-2015 scientific attention, but they aren’t world-shattering.

What if your level of mentalization isn’t that important? Maybe the impact of mentalization depends on how you (mis)use it?

Imagine a blind person walking around the city, aided by a White Cane. They use the cane to probe for objects and impediments, sensing the structure of reality through the cane. Focusing on the weight and texture of the cane itself doesn’t make sense — it’s better to focus on the objects the cane is prodding.

Mentalized inner experience is your cane. You can use your mentalization-cane to “prod” an object or concept — making sense of underlying patterns through your mentalization.

Your cane might take the form of mental imagery, words passing by, embodied sensations or something very different. Let’s disregard the cane’s “material” for now, and zoom into the act of “prodding” — how do you go about sensing concepts?


Stopping Short

There are deep underlying patterns everywhere. Most people don’t dig that deeply, preferring surface-level understanding in many situations. This includes me. Often, it doesn’t make sense to dig deep — it’s better to stay at a shallow-yet-useful level.

Knowing that you’ve stopped at a shallow level allows you to ask for help or look things up when needed. Unfortunately, people tend to overestimate the depth of their knowledge — stopping short without noticing.

It’s common to mistake mentalization for a deeper understanding, focusing on the cane rather than the pattern you are prodding. Usually, this happens when you try to understand a concept by memorizing someone’s description. The other person likely has a fuller knowledge of the concept than they can communicate — their description contains less information than their full understanding. Memorizing words won’t give you access to the other person’s full understanding.

Again, I’m reminded of the trip to Greece with my partner. We were cooking, using a traditional cookbook from Crete. We had a specific dish in mind and managed to locate the recipe. Translated, the first instruction was: “Prepare the vegetables the traditional way”. Very helpful.

The author didn’t capture the essence of their vegetable-prepping knowledge in the recipe. For people with a shared culinary background, the instruction is enough to bring shared knowledge to mind. For us, the words were useless — memorizing them wouldn’t help us prep veggies.


Reinventing the Wheel

Memorization is the hallmark of bad education — useless words substituting for true knowledge. Good teachers ask students to re-explain ideas using their own words, in an attempt to verify that they understand the material.

This practice is fascinating to me. If we go back to the white cane metaphor, the teacher shares what it’s like for them to prod an idea. Metaphorically, when the student re-expresses the idea, they share their prodding-experience with the teacher. Usually, this is enough for the teacher to verify understanding, as long as they understand the student’s view.

I do something similar when I try to learn something. I start by refusing to listen to other people’s explanations. Then, I ask them if I can attempt to guess what they are about to explain — inferring from context. Once I get some hints, I can usually figure out the idea they are trying to explain. After I seem to get it, I invite the other person to ask questions to make sure my understanding is correct.

This approach is similar to inquiry-based learning, a famous method where students are empowered to solve problems before being told how. Refusing to listen to explanations is a bit socially weird — but it’s a ridiculously powerful learning tool.

Restating other people’s explanations carries some risk — it’s easy to confuse slightly modified parroting for deep understanding. Starting with my own explanation forces me to come to a true understanding.

My self-created understandings fit me better than conventional ones — they’re custom-tailored to me. They hook into my current state of knowledge, extending a system rather than adding disconnected facts. My self-created understandings fit my mentalization capacities, anchoring abstract concepts into something tangible and visceral.


Ending Notes

Disregard culture wars — identity is stickier than pasta-covered chocolate.

Refuse to listen to other people’s explanations — reinvent the wheel to avoid eating mirages.

Mentalization is useful to anchor concepts in something relatable — as long as it’s your mentalizations.


  1. ^

    The attention economy is a concept where human attention is treated as a scarce commodity that businesses compete for, primarily through digital platforms and media. In this economy, companies aim to capture and monetize people's attention using various strategies, particularly advertising.

    Examples of the attention economy in action include:

    Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which keep users engaged with endless feeds of content while showing them targeted ads.

    YouTube, which recommends videos to keep viewers on the platform longer, increasing ad revenue.

    News websites that use clickbait headlines and sensationalized content to attract readers and generate ad impressions.

    Mobile apps that offer free services in exchange for user data and attention, which is then used for targeted advertising.

  2. ^

    Reification is when we talk about something that depends on the situation as if it were a real object or a part of something. It's like making an idea or concept seem more solid than it really is. Here are some examples:

    "There's no money back guarantee": When a seller says this, they're really just saying they won't give you your money back if you return what you bought. By calling it a "money back guarantee," they make it sound like it's a real thing that exists on its own.

    "The government is out to get me": In this case, the person is talking about the government like it has feelings or plans, as if it were a person. While this might make sense in a metaphorical way, it's not literally true. "The government" is made up of many people and parts, not a single thing with its own thoughts and wishes.

    "You are such a messy person": Here, someone is stating their opinion about another person's cleanliness as if it were a fact about who they are. Instead of just saying they don't like how the person handles their cleaning, they're making it sound like being messy is a permanent part of that person's character.

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