What Does it Mean to 'See With the Mind's Eye?'

Adventures in the human imagination

Imagine the table where you've eaten the most meals. Form a mental picture of its size, texture, and color. Easy, right? But when you summoned the table in your mind's eye, did you really see it? Or did you assume we've been speaking metaphorically?

As it turns out, how people form mental images seems to vary significantly, a fact that's surprised those who've encountered it for more than a century. In 1880, Francis Galton published his classic paper "Statistics of Mental Imagery" after asking a series of subjects about images summoned by their minds. Some protested that they couldn't really see anything. "These questions presuppose assent to a proposition regarding the 'mind's eye' and the 'images' it sees," one subject wrote. "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."

Yet others described a strikingly different capacity:

Many men and a yet larger number of women ... declared that they habitually saw mental imagery, and that it was perfectly distinct to them and full of color. The more I pressed and cross-questioned them, professing myself to be incredulous, the more obvious was the truth of their first assertions. They described their imagery in minute detail, and they spoke in a tone of surprise at my apparent hesitation in accepting what they said. I felt that I myself should have spoken exactly as they did if I had been describing a scene that lay before my eyes, in broad daylight, to a blind man who persisted in doubting the reality of vision.

He then described how people with a talent for mental imagery see things in their mind's eye:

1. Brilliant, distinct, never blotchy.

2. Quite comparable to the real object. I feel as though I was dazzled, e.g., when recalling the sun to my mental vision.

3. In some instances quite as bright as an actual scene.

4. Brightness as in the actual scene.

5. Thinking of the breakfast table this morning, all the objects in my mental picture are as bright as the actual scene.

6. The image once seen is perfectly clear and bright.

7. Brightness at first quite comparable to actual scene.

8. The mental image appears to correspond in all respects with reality. I think it is as clear as the actual scene.

9. The brightness is perfectly comparable to that of the real scene.

10. I think the illumination of the imaginary image is nearly equal to that of the real one.

11. All clear and bright; all the objects seem to me well defined at the same time.

12. I can see my breakfast table or any equally familiar thing with my mind's eye, quite as well in all particulars as I can do if the reality is before me.

Until reading this paper, I'd never imagined that other people have a much higher capacity than I do to form a mental image. Now I suspect that they do. Indeed, I don't even understand what it is to imagine something with "brightness." My breakfast table is bright when the sun shines in through the windows and dim in the dead of night. Shouldn't its brightness depend on when I conjure it? Yet a man without this capacity said, "Dim and not comparable in brightness to the real scene." To what extent, I wonder, was he speaking metaphorically?

After pondering this same subject, blogger Scott Alexander asked his readers what characteristics they presumed to be universal only to discover that they're not.

The range of responses was fascinating. Some readers talked about ASMR, "a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body." Lots of people have it. Others talked of synesthesia, a condition that causes some to perceive numbers as if they have an inherent color, or to experience confusion as orange.

One reader expressed a work preference that a lot of others said that they also share:

As a programmer, I hate open spaces with passion. I hate the noise which makes it difficult to focus. And I hate the feeling of someone looking at my back; it makes me tense. Now I am in a room with only two other people, with a wall behind my back, and it feels great. It makes a huge difference, emotionally. I suspect that putting “needs to sit with a wall behind back” in my CV or trying to negotiate that into job contract would be very bad signaling. But if it changes how I feel 8 hours every day, of course it has an impact on my work, even on my total life satisfaction. I’m not even sure how many people feel like this.

It took me a while to notice this explicitly.

Another worker said:

I have recently come to the conclusion that some people actually like their jobs. For almost all of my adult life I assumed that anyone who acts as if they didn’t hate their job must be either in denial or lying. But it’s been occurring to me that some of those people were really good at keeping the pretense. I’ve known people who could have retired but happily kept plowing. So I think I’ve been the victim of the typical mind fallacy and that the simplest explanation is the correct one and a lot of people actually don’t hate working.

(And I envy them with every cell of my body.)

There was a commenter who had trouble conceiving of "emotions as actual things of their own, rather than ways to describe complex biological states. I’m angry because my pulse is raised, my hackles are up, and I can’t think as completely as I’d like. I’m frustrated because I want to bite down on something. I’m sad because I’m crying, even if it is because of pain or even just having my head in the wrong position. I’m hungry because my stomach is empty, or my hands are shaking a little."

Another was the anti-Elmo:

It’s a bad idea to tickle me; I will reflexively and uncontrollably attempt to hurt anyone who does. Sometimes I can stop once I figure out what’s going on and if the tickler is someone I like, but I will always react first with violence.

I have no idea why; it’s not like tickling is painful or anything.

One reader was confused by crowds:

I don’t get political rallies.

You know the ones, where some major politician goes in front of a big crowd and pours on the charisma, and everybody is cheering and shouting all at once? I used to live in Iowa, so I’ve had the opportunity to be in a bunch of those crowds, and the whole thing always seemed… just completely baffling. Like, I’m standing next to a bunch of people who are cheering, and it’s 2008 and I really like Barack Obama and he’s standing less than ten meters away, and everything about this experience is carefully calculated to get people super intensely excited—and for some reason I’m not feeling a thing. It’s kind of disappointing! I get this way at any sort of rally, actually, and the parts of concerts where they’re not playing music, and parades—any sort of event where you’re supposed to get caught up in the enthusiasm of a big crowd. Is this common? I mean, I see a lot of people go to big crowds to yell about stuff, and they seem to enjoy it, but that’s hardly an unbiased sample.

Another was confused by body image:

I grew up female and always felt that something was not right somehow, that there was some kind of misalignment. Hormone therapy has given me a much more masculine appearance, but unfortunately tipped the scales in the other direction, and now I feel that my form is too masculine. I wish I knew of some method for making my body perfectly androgynous, because I think that would be the only way I could be completely content with it. As far as social interaction, I don’t seem to care very much whether I’m perceived as male or female; neither set of pronouns bothers me, though I’m more used to male pronouns because that’s what people default to. I have a lot of interests and hobbies that are considered feminine, and a lot that are considered masculine (I’ve not yet tried to figure out what the ratio is, though that could be a fun exercise).

Only slightly relevant, I think, is that I’m also bothered by my weight (I’m about forty pounds heavier than what would constitute health for my height, which is actually slimmer than I was a few years ago—an excruciatingly slow process), but not just because I find my shape unappealing or because it’s unhealthy. Those are factors, but it’s more that when I see my reflection, it just seems wrong, like I’m wearing someone else’s body. I have the same reaction to my facial structure; the only thing that really looks right to me are my eyes. All of these issues together are a great source of stress for me. I have a bad habit of torturing myself with imagined scenarios wherein I’m given a brand new body, and of course escaping into these little fantasies makes it that much harder to actually do anything about it, because I get that little bit of reward feedback from the scene I’ve played in my head.

I could read more examples with fascination for days. And with that in mind, I wonder if any readers are willing to share unexpected ways in which their experience of the world turns out to be different than what other people think and feel.

Emails to conor@theatlantic.com are encouraged.