In Search of the Mind's Eye

By Carl Zimmer | March 23, 2010 3:08 pm

Writing about the brain can sometimes bring me amazingly close to my readers–so close that I feel like I’m inside their minds. Case in point: my new column for Discover, on the subject of the mind’s eye.

Here’s how it begins:

One day in 2005, a retired building surveyor in Edinburgh visited his doctor with a strange complaint: His mind’s eye had suddenly gone blind.

The surveyor, referred to as MX by his doctors, was 65 at the time. He had always felt that he possessed an exceptional talent for picturing things in his mind. The skill had come in handy in his job, allowing MX to recall the fine details of the buildings he surveyed. Just before drifting off to sleep, he enjoyed running through recent events as if he were watching a movie. He could picture his family, his friends, and even characters in the books he read.

Then these images all vanished. The change happened shortly after MX went to a hospital to have his blocked coronary arteries treated. As a cardiologist snaked a tube into the arteries and cleared out the obstructions, MX felt a “reverberation” in his head and a tingling in his left arm. He didn’t think to mention it to his doctors at the time. But four days later he realized that when he closed his eyes, all was darkness.

I describe the singular case of MX, and what he tells scientists about our mind’s eye. The original paper that inspired the column compared MX to a group of normal men of his age and profession to figure out what was unique about him. But to my surprise–and to the surprise of the scientists I wrote about–a lot of readers felt a great kinship with MX.

Discover is running a selection of letters to the editor about the column, and a response from the scientists. It won’t be available online, but I was so fascinated by the exchange that I’m reprinting it here.

In March’s “The Brain” [page 28], Carl Zimmer assumes that having a mind’s eye is a normal function of the human senses. Yet I have never had a mind’s eye, and when I bring this up in conversation others often voice the same complaint. How common is this?
Marshall Krause
 San Geronimo, CA

Neuroscientists Adam Zeman and Sergio Della Sala reply:
We have encountered people who report that they have never experienced imagery; they seem little if at all disabled by their deficiency. We hope to study this neglected phenomenon using psychological and brain imaging techniques like those with which we explored the case of MX. Such research may help explain both the basis of imagery production in the brain and how (if at all) imagery is useful to us.

I enjoyed reading about MX and his mind’s-eye blindness. Were MX’s dream experiences also affected by this affliction?
Arlene Barker 
Homer City, PA

Zeman and Della Sala reply:
For about a year after the loss of his mind’s eye, MX reported that he dreamed without visual imagery. But then his visual dreaming recovered at night, even though his mind’s eye remained blank by day. This suggests that the brain mechanisms involved in dreaming can be teased apart from those involved in deliberate imagery formation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (29)

  1. johnk

    Neat. A few guess (from a neuroscientist).

    1. Seems that MX had lost use of the ‘visuospatial scratchpad’, a critical part of Baars’ global workspace model of consciousness.

    2. I doubt that the spared ability on the Shepherd task is related to blindsight. From what I can gather, blindsight relates to procedures, like reaching or walking, and is not related to (conscious) perception.

    3. Many years ago my job included testing ‘digit span’ in children. The digit span test involves the tester saying a string of numbers and asking the subject to repeat the series. Most subjects report they ‘hear’ something like my voice reverberating until they speak the numbers. A minority (e.g., my sister) say they ‘see’ the numbers in their visual fields. People who see the numbers can repeat them backwards as fast as forwards. People who see the numbers are good spellers.

  2. chizadek

    I mentioned my lack of this mind’s eye in a comment to this 2007 Cognitive Daily post that got a comment in response from a Nigel Thomas summarising some of the limited knowledge on the subject at the time. His website has more. Its good to see additional work now being done on the topic.

  3. chizadek

    I mentioned my lack of this mind’s eye in a comment to this 2007 Cognitive Daily post that got a comment in response from a Nigel Thomas summarising some of the limited knowledge on the subject at the time. His website has more. It’s good to see research continuing on this topic.

  4. Fascinating. I certainly don’t have a “mind’s eye”. In fact, I had never even encountered the concept till reading this.

    I do have a “mind’s ear”, though, and can “hear” music that I am remembering. Is that something that also varies between individuals?

  5. Harold L

    I had a TBI 12 years ago and I am finding great web-sites that are good.

  6. Blink several times at a series of lights that form a pattern, then close your eyes. You will see the faint outline of the lights against a black background. Now, repeat the blinking and then with your eyes still closed, rotate your head to the right or left. The outlines will rotate too. Our inner ear helps the brain reframe the image echo in our mind’s eye, no?

  7. Interesting, I clearly have a mind’s eye and can’t even begin to imagine what life is like without one. It really boggles me. On the other hand, I have a lot of trouble hearing noises in my memory or repeating voices to myself. It actually has bugged me for a very long time. That and the lack of a mind’s nose. I mean, I’ve got a good mind’s eye and my sense of smell is clearly on the upper end for humans so why can’t I recall scents in the same way? I’d tentatively suggest that the prevalence of the mind’s eye without similar mind versions of other senses is partially connected to how incredibly visual humans are.

  8. The ‘mind’s eye’ certainly isn’t as annoying as the ‘mind’s ear’ can be. Today’s featured hit on the radio in Diane’s head? Synchronicity, by the Police. Not just the vague melody, but a full blown musical hallucination: synthesizer runs, cymbals ringing, floor tom pounding, Sting singing. I’ve been told that most people don’t experience this much accuracy in their mental replay, but I have no idea whether it’s true.

  9. pheldespat

    I had a mind’s eye, almost eidetic memory. Then I lost it. It’s possible to live without it, but frustrating. :(

  10. Phillip Moon

    When I was young, I went to classes that taught you how to visualize for this or that reason (mostly a lot of woo). The teachers would talk about seeing trees, rivers, blue skies, and other tranquil images. Years later I started trying to learn lucid dreaming, much to the confusion of my wife. One day she asked why I didn’t just close my eyes and day dream?

    I told her I didn’t see anything when I closed my eyes. Nothing. Just dark. Unlike her ability to visualize and see clearly whatever she wanted to see with her minds eye.

    I never realized that people could day dream just like the T.V. characters do in sitcoms, complete with images. But in my dreams, I see clearly and in full living color. I would love to be able to day dream and actually see something for once.

  11. outeast

    Think I’m in the middle, from the sounds of it. I can imagine things visually, but certainly not as though I was seeing it… or anywhere close. More like shadow images, though that’s not quite right. Something like 3D ultrasound images? And kind of vague, with the details filled in with words. And not in front of my eyes, either – do people really ‘see’ like that?

    This is odd. I suddenly don’t know what other people mean by ‘picturing’ stuff any more. Not really sure what other people see – or don’t see.

  12. Howard

    @10 Phillip: It’s even more interesting to have to deal with something that happens often to me: beyond just daydreaming, sometimes an entire visual, auditory, tactile scene will “impose itself” – for anywhere from < 10 seconds to sometimes a few minutes. It seems to trigger when I concentrate on a specific aspect or concept in a situation, and my mind 'riffs' on that and creates an entire dream-like scenario expounding on the seed.

    (It feels like my 'consciousness' just takes a left turn and drives down a side road for however long, then it evaporates and leaves me fully aware and conscious of reality afterward, with full recall of what I just 'saw'.) I would seriously hate this and be terrified of the occasional breaks even in driving the car, etc., EXCEPT that these interludes are often some of my most creative, most intuitive leaps… some occasionally breathtaking insights that I would never have seen were it not for the scenes I get handed.

    Never mentioned this to anyone before, never heard anyone describe anything like this. Am I unique, or uninformed? :-)

  13. J Morber

    This is so fascinating. As a highly visual learner I find it amazing that people can function normally without this skill. I read your print article just the other day and loved it.

    In response to some other comments, I had never thought of a mind’s ear since I don’t have one. When I think of music I visualize the words, where I was when I heard it, how I felt about it, etc. I have to really concentrate to come up with the tune, somewhat as if trying to remember an old nursery rhyme from childhood.

  14. Matt Tarditti

    Often, when I am right at the edge of sleep, my mind’s ear and eye start to work their magic. Sometimes I can close my eyes, and within moments I can “see” the room that I occupy, fully detailed and in full light, though the physical room is dark. Other times, music (usually not of my choosing) will start to fill the room, in full detail as if I was listening to a CD. Both phenomena dissipate the more I concentrate on them.
    During my waking hours, however, both of my mind’s senses are severely attenuated. My visuals are dim, shadowy representations of their platonic forms, and the music seems like it is being played three doors down the hall.
    I have no recollection of having a sense of smell or taste in my day-or-night dreams, nor does my mind seem to have a sense of touch except in what must be my deepest slumbers.
    All of these responses are just fascinating to me.

  15. Anu

    This is quite interesting.

    Am not sure what mind’s eye is…but even now, sitting, writing this, i can visualize how any particular thing looks like – in full detail, as much as I’ve observed. But isn’t it imagination or visualisation rather than actually seeing them? And I think everyone can see like that – the way one visualises the person at the other end of the phone, recreating their face in mind while talking to them…it can be fact/fiction – primarily it is imagination, isn’t it? I can visualise my holiday trip, the way the sky looked or the clouds or the water or the tree – or how the coffee tasted, but the taste becomes fuzzy…and i thought all the people imagine/visualize all the time without any second thoughts…and the more you observe, the more you remember – the way it is with memories. And these images are not near my eyes when the eyes are open…they are where they should be, at their designated place…

    When I close my eyes, its dark…though sometimes i can see negative like images for a few seconds (the way when you switch of television/computer screen) or the way kindle reveals a few words for a few seconds before switching off completely. Sometimes it is red (if you close your eyes facing the sun)

    When I dream, I can see things. I feel like am actually going through those experiences …its difficult to realize that it is dream till you are awake, so am sure i can see and feel things in dreams.

    But what is this mind’s eye?…is it imagination or can people see it like on a tv screen when they close their eyes? Quite nice to ‘see’ things from this new perspective

  16. johnk

    #15 Anu,

    Prior to this thread I had operated under the assumption you are making; that everyone visualized and had auditory perceptions similar to mine — originating from out there in the world or inside one’s head. What I’m hearing in this thread is that my assumption was not true. that the range of human mind styles is quite broad. Clearly, the participants in this set of comments aren’t a random selection from society. But they don’t appear to be unusual cases like MX, either.

  17. Steven

    Never though about it much, but I can’t visualize objects.

    I can think about a concept of a tree or a face, and can remember facts (it was green), but I don’t see them.

    My Dad seems to be able to walk through every golf shot he’s ever done, though I’d have to see if he actually visuals them ( I think so ). I assumed that was the exception, as he has an excellent memory.

  18. Dan

    Visualization is a big topic in sports psychology. Does the lack of a mind’s eye inhibit athletic performance? Is Kobe a great shooter because he can easily picture the arc of a 3-point make? Is Shaq a horrible free throw shooter because he can’t? Or, do they just “know” what a good shot looks and feels like? Or, is “visualization” the wrong word, because such practices in sports psychology often involve “feeling” your body move?

    In reflection I’ve realized that my overnight cram sessions in college often led me use my mind’s eye during exams to picture the notebook page with the right answer or formula. However, if I was recalling information that I’d known for a while and recalled before, I wouldn’t need to visualize at all. Is the latter experience like knowing a cat has four paws versus having to count them while seeing a cat in your mind?

    Although I’m not much of a musician, I often “listen” to favorite albums in my head, remembering songs in great detail. However, if I want to “hear” the lyrics as well I feel as though I have to recall them from a different place in my mind. If I’ve read the lyrics, I’ll often picture them (as if on a sheet of paper) as I’m “listening” to my mind-music. So, is my mind’s vocalist singing along to my mind’s backup band? Is my mind’s ear really more like Dan and the Imaginary Instruments than a magic jukebox full of songs?

  19. Dan

    One final question: Can people without a mind’s eye imagine and describe something that they’ve never seen before? If I were to ask MX how he would describe a rhinoceros crossed with a helicopter, would he say, “Well, it’s big, it’s gray, has a rotor on it’s horn, it’s loud…” or would he simply say, “HelifIno”?

  20. Sarah

    Wait, so do some people actually regularly see images when they close their eyes, while awake and sober? (“On the backs of their eyelids”?) Are they able to conjure up and actually visualize scenes and objects at will?

    I can definitely imagine and manipulate visual information, and describe or draw what I am remembering or thinking of, but it’s a distinctly different sensation from actually *seeing* it. It doesn’t matter whether I have my eyes open or closed — it seems more like a parallel pathway that uses different equipment. For me, these pathways only ever get “crossed” and overlap under certain circumstances: while falling asleep, dreaming, or, occasionally, under the influence of psychedelics. Normally, when I close my eyes it’s just black or red, depending on ambient light.

    Richard Feynman has an excellent discussion of this kind of “mind’s eye” phenomenon: http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/607/2/Feynman.pdf
    Among other things, he determined that he counts numbers by hearing “one, two, three…” in his head, and he can’t talk while counting but he can read and write. (I also count this way.) His mathematician friend, on the other hand, counts by seeing numbers tick off on a tape in his head, and he can talk while counting but can’t read. It’s like there are certain processing pathways that can’t be used for two tasks at once.

    Incidentally, I have an excellent “mind’s ear” — nearly perfect audio playback in my head, for short clips I’ve just heard or whole songs/albums that I’m familiar with. This auditory imagination feels much closer to actual auditory input than my visual imagination does compared to visual input — it’s much more accurate and “real.”

  21. I don’t have a mind’s eye, I never have. For years I had always been confused when told to “visualize a…” or “picture yourself in…” because I simply can’t. I just thought I wasn’t too abnormal and that I just needed to try harder. But after years of literally just trying to picture a red apple in my mind, I gave up. I know what an apple is, I know the shape, I can draw one, I know what it feels like, looks like, texture and everything, but I can’t SEE it in my mind.
    Then I read that article and realized just how odd I may be. I immediately sent an e-mail to each of the people mentioned in the article and to the editor. I got a reply a few days later telling me they had received numerous responses to it, and that if I wanted to get some more info on it to contact some doctor they listed who was in my state.

    Anyway, my main issue with this is that I can’t remember faces. I’ll recognize people I know, but ask me what they look like, even if just their skin color, and I can’t tell you. I think this is a good thing because I don’t notice “hot” women because I don’t look, why look when I won’t remember? The thing I look for in women is personality because its something I will be able to remember.

  22. Judi

    I was so glad to read this article and the comments above, and realize there were other people like me. I have been telling people all my life that I cannot and never could visualize a scene or object or person. But I can tell you what “feeling” they invoke in me and recognize their smell. I can describe objects because I have memorized the words that describe them, not because I “see” them. I am in my 60’s and did not realize until I read this article that scientists assume that ALL people can see with a mind’s eye. WRONG. Perhaps more study should be done on this topic.

  23. Hannah

    I was really happy to read this because i’ve never come across anyone else like me. although i dont have a minds eye, i have a minds ear and a minds taste and smell, so i wonder whether much in the same way as a blind/deaf persons other functioning senses are heightened, my other ‘minds senses’ are heightened?

  24. Jim

    I am so delighted to find this article. I was in a car accident a little over a year ago, since then I have lost my ability to picture images in my mind. Before my accident, I was a very visual thinker. I had things that I called my magic chalk board for “writing” things on for calculations, my navigation system that served as a GPS for myself. Losing these abilities changes everything. In fact I have had a lot of difficulty explaining this to my neurologist, I think it will be easier when I walk in with something that explains it in more scientific terms.

  25. Ruth Ann

    I fell out of my high chair in 1948 when I was 9 months old. It must have been serious because my parents took me to the hospital and I’ve inherited the receipt for that visit. I have never had visual dreams. The article made me realize why. Now I have an answer for all the people who say “I just don’t remember them.” I dream in music.

  26. Joanne

    I lost my “minds eye” after my 4th concussion a year and a half ago. It has been incredibly frustrating since I was very visual and artistic. Now I have to write everything down during phone conversations in order to remember them as I am not relying on my visual memory.

    I also have had a hard time trying to explain this to my doctors and neurologist. I will have to take this article in as well to show them that I am not making it up!

  27. David Pincus

    All of a sudden, when closing my eyes at night, and before I start dreaming, I am confronted by a lot of ghostly images, varying in clarity, of people who I don’t recognize (mostly). I am also for the first time hearing voices, or snippets of a sentence or two, that seem to be unrelated to the imagery. Frankly, it its disconcertingo – but interesting – and I am very happy to learn (by googling this article just now) that it isn’t apparently “abnormal”

    Am interested in learning more.

    Just as a side bar, I was just diagnosed with pneumonia, and have been coughing alot. Some of the people in this thread talk about a physical trauma eliminating their mind’s eye and ear, perhaps some sort of trauma can induce it?

  28. David Pincus

    Hey, just an update. I mentioned I had pneumonia, and as a result of the headaches, my doctor prescribed me tylenol with codeine. Which arr waking up the next morning after reading and writing on this blog, I discovered one of the symptoms
    was “hallucinations”. I am still taking the codeine, and last night.I had a ton more visual dikstra when I closed my eyes.

    O Ince stopping taking, it will be intruding to see if the “symptoms” go.away. I’ll let you know.

  29. David Pincus

    “dikstra” on my swyping key pad on my phone was my attempt to write visual “field trips”. I love the technology, but if your not very careful, every sentence has the potential to be turned into poetry : )

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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