How aphantasia changed the way I think about animal cognition
After learning that I have aphantasia a few years ago, I reevaluated everything I thought I understood about the field of animal cognition. Aphantasia is the inability to voluntary generate visual images in the mind’s eye. For people like me, with the more extreme version of the condition, it isn’t just that the images are indistinct or blurry but are completely absent. With my eyes closed, I see only blackness. With my eyes open, I see only the real world in front of me. And, like most aphants, it’s not just visual images that cannot be conjured: I can’t imagine any sensory information at all: sounds, smells, touch, etc.
I continue to be flummoxed by the idea that other people can actually hear imagined music in their heads or see images of their loved ones in their minds. I spent four decades assuming everyone was an aphant just like me. Until my mid 40s, I thought that when someone says “picture yourself sitting on a beach”, it’s a kind of artistic metaphor as opposed to actual instructions. I can think to myself “I am sitting on a beach,” but that information is semantic in nature. I can describe the attributes of a beach using words like “there is sand” or “it is warm,” but I have no imagined sensory information that I am referencing. I cannot conjure an image or sound or smell from my memory. It’s as if the concept of “beach” exists only as a catalog of attributes in my mind.
(Side note: I find yoga and guided mediated exceedingly boring. Is this why?)
When scientists studying animal minds discuss the way animals think, they often describe abilities that assume animals, like 98% of humans, can imagine visual images. That they, for example, solve problems by cycling through different solutions using visual information in their mind’s eye. When we find animals that can solve for example, the famous “string pulling” test (see the below video), some scientist attribute this to the animals creating a “mental model” of their future actions and choosing the best solution by playing out those visual models in their mind.
Imagined mental imagery, then, is thought to be how animals “think”. They think in pictures. Temple Grandin is a scientist who is quite famous for her ability to think in pictures. Her latest book, Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions, explores how some people with autism (like Grandin) use visual thinking as their primary means of solving problems. According to Grandin, it has allowed to her to “think” more like the animals she studies, and thus gives her deeper insight into their behavior. “People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations,” Grandin wrote; they are thus “cognitive visualizers”.
Throughout my research into animal cognition, whenever I heard Grandin or other scientists describe animals as “visualizers” I thought I knew what they meant. I thought they meant that the animals were thinking about visual concepts from an underlying conceptual standpoint. I didn’t think they meant that the animals could actually “see” mental images in their minds’ eye. Because I myself cannot do this, I honestly did not think it was a thing that any brain—human or animal—could do.
But now I know that people like Temple Grandin really truly see images in their mind’s eye and that this is the primary way that they translate underlying conceptual information into their conscious mind (as opposed to words). So I realize how much I’ve misunderstood about the field of animal cognition. Specifically, I am not at all convinced that animals “think in pictures” as most people assume. Because I, like most aphants, do all of my thinking it non-pictures. And my “thinking” (whatever that even means) is not always linguistic in nature either. When I have a sudden flash of insight into how to solve a problem—whether that’s an abstract problem like “what do I do with my life” or a concrete problem like “how do I fix this broken roof shingle”—I am not always using words to arrive at the solution. In fact, words are not even the primary vehicle for thought most of the time. Instead, there is some underling thinking happening that exists before being translated into words for me. Or visual images in Grandin’s case.
Could it not be that whatever this underlying “conceptual” thinking might be is the same method that non-human animals use to think? Could not the crows solving the string-pulling problem be using conceptual thinking as opposed to visual thinking in the same way I would have to do to solve that problem? The idea of “thinking” or using “imagination” to plan behavior or predict future outcomes might be entirely decoupled from a capacity for conjuring visual imagery in animals, as it is for me.
At the moment, I do not know or understand enough about these concepts to write coherently about them. So this is just me warming up my brain to start thinking more seriously about the issue. Aphantasia is still new to me. In fact, it’s still new to everyone. It has only been the subject of serious scientific study for less than a decade, and there is much to learn about the condition. I am also rather ignorant of the scientific study of imagination and even the study of thought itself (mentalese?). But now that aphantasia has upended my view of the world, I am about to take a deep dive into the problem of “how animals think” based on my newfound understanding of what non-visual thinking must be.
It is true what Grandin points out in her latest book: the world is not geared toward visual thinkers because linguistic thinking is often front and center. And yet, the world (and the education system) fundamentally ignores people like me who have no visualization skills whatsoever. We are even more of an afterthought than visual thinkers. Much of the education system assumes at least some ability to imagine and manipulate visual images in the mind’s eye. It’s assumed that students can “picture” what Daisy Buchanan looks like based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s written description, or draw an apple after conjuring the image of an apple in their mind. I simply cannot do these things.
What intrigues me most is the possibility that Grandin might be wrong: maybe non-human animals think more like me than people who are visual thinkers. Animals certainly can’t think in words like I sometimes do, but perhaps they think without images OR words. Perhaps they think with that unexplained, underlying conceptual system. The kind of non-visual, non-linguistic thinking that has been central to my own life.
It's time for me to dive into the scientific literature on this subject, and to see how aphantasia not only impacts my own life, but whether or not it’s the basis for animal thinking. Just imagine a world in which animals, like me, can’t imagine the world.