Working with mental imagery or the lack of it—digging into hyperphantasia and aphantasia

By Xoic · Jun 19, 2022 · ·
In which I begin to lay out the terms hyperphantasic and aphantasic and what they mean. Developing and working with mental imagery, and without it. Creativity emerging from the unconscious.
  1. I just ran across an idea that spiked my fascination factor. In fact it's something I've seen mention of in many of my favorite subjects, such as visual art, writing, lucid dreaming, and mysticism.

    I was reading a recent book about William Blake, the English poet and artist (also a mystic) and ran across 2 words that are new to me: Aphantasic and Hyperphantasic. The words themselves are unfamiliar, but I can see they're both built around the root word from which we get phantom, phantasm and fantasy—all of which refer to imagery. Apparently Blake himself was hyperphantasic—able to see detailed mental imagery in his mind's eye. In fact he was what's commonly known as a visionary artist, one who sees such imagery and then basically copies it down on paper or canvas. Or in his case mostly as etchings to illustrate his books of poetry.

    I was somewhat familiar with the concept already from reading about Frank Frazetta, an artist popular in the 60's and 70's for exceptionally vivid paintings on the covers of paperback fantasy books such as Conan and John Carter of Mars. Frazetta was so popular that in fact he's credited with single-handedly causing a massive boom in the publishing of such books. As soon as his work went on the cover of one it sold out rapidly. There's been a lot written about him and his working methods—one recurring theme of which is that he had the ability to form powerfully vivid imagery in his mind, to visualize an image in detail, and then put it down in pencil or paint. He also said he was able to look at something—a photograph, painting, or a model posing in front of him, and remember the image with great clarity for a very long time, like months if not years. As an art student myself this felt like a super power or a cheat code. Those of us who don't have this ability have to struggle long and hard to memorize for instance the proportioning and anatomy of the human figure. He breezed through those things very rapidly. Before learning about these categories I always just assumed he had an eidetic or photographic memory, but he himself said that's not true. I don't think these terms were available at the time, at least not to the general public. But now I understand much better what was going on in his head and his art.

    A visual impression—a detailed mental image of something you've seen—was known in the time of Aristotle as a phantasm. Something like a mental ghost, a thing that has no physical existence but is strictly of the imagination. In fact, interestingly, the very word imagination is rooted in the word image. To imagine something is to form a mental image of it. The word magic also stems from image. A mage or magician is someone with a powerful abilty to work with mental imagery and use that to manipulate physical reality.

    I also ran across similar ideas when I was studying lucid dreaming. The researcher who became the first great popularizer of it—Stephen LaBerge—referred frequently to techniques used by Tibetan monks for what they called The Yogas of Dream and Sleep. In fact there's a book by that name that contains some really excellent techniques for developing a facility with mental imagery. They begin with looking at some simple image or object, nothing very detailed, and staring at it for a long time while meditating, then closing your eyes and concentrating on seeing it in the mind's eye. As your ability grows you begin to look at more detailed images or objects.

    In the book that inspired this post, called William Blake vs The World by John Higgs, it's said that throughout history practitioners of what is now known as hyperphantasia have often begun with sexual fantasy. Blake himself was a very sex-oriented man, and that's probably something he did a lot of, but it's known that he had the ability even as a very young child. Higgs seems highly knowedgeable about hyper- and a-phantasia. Apparently the terms didn't come into common scientific use, and weren't the subjects of much study at all, until around 2015, so this is an exciting new field of knowledge. Though as is often the case artists and thinkers throughout history have known about it and discussed it in great depth. It just takes science a long time to get interested in certain subjects.

    It might sound like hyperphantasia would give someone a massive boost in creativity, but that's not really the case. It certainly does give them certain advantages, but probably also some disadvantages, and people incapable of forming and working directly with mental imagery have become excellent artists and writers. They just use somewhat different techniques—a sort of patching-together of a lot of other kinds of sensory impulses. I'll discuss this in greater detail in later posts.

    Another field of interest that brought me up against these subjects is Jungian psychology. Jung was a visionary himself and a mystic (as many of them are). The technique he developed for getting near-immediate access to unconscious contents is called Active Imagination and consists of looking at a dimly-lit wall in a semi-dark room while in a meditative state and letting imagery form. Personally I'm convinced he would sometimes fall asleep and go directly into lucid dreaming, but he didn't know much about it at the time. He was famous for his dream interpretation techniques, and of course dreams give access to the unconscious itself. He was looking for something similar to dreaming but that wasn't just random, that allowed for some direct manipulation by the 'dreamer', and he found active imagination did the trick.

    Consider all of this just a precursor by way of introduction. As usual I'll be delving deeper into these ideas in future blog posts. There's been some talk on the board now and then about characters 'coming alive' in a writer's head, taking on a life of their own so to speak. Many of mine do this, and I've developed some techniques for it. Since running across these ideas of hyperphantasia and aphantasia and reading a chapter of the Blake book dedicated to it, I have some new ideas forming that I want to explore. I'll also be doing some research into related subjects.

    I'm looking forward to what I learn about this—it's exciting to know there's now some scientific literature to dig into about it. Though quite possibly the best information will come from artists, visionaries, and mystics of the past.
    J.T. Woody and Not the Territory like this.


  1. AntPoems
    Interesting stuff; I'm curious what you'll find. I'm kind of in the middle as a visualizer myself: if I concentrate, I can develop very detailed mental images, but I don't do it spontaneously (except in my dreams, which can be very cinematic). When I read, my focus goes to the language and dialogue first, and I often have to stop and take a moment to picture the scene in my head. The same thing happens when I write; my first drafts used to read more like scripts with minimal stage direction, though since I realized that and started working on it I've gotten better. Based on my experience and your post, I wonder if a basic training in visual arts would benefit most writers, even those who have no interest in drawing or painting themselves.
      Xoic likes this.
    1. Xoic
      "Based on my experience and your post, I wonder if a basic training in visual arts would benefit most writers, even those who have no interest in drawing or painting themselves."

      I'd say what would be more helpful is some training and practice in visualization skills. I'll go into that in more detail in a bit.
  2. Xoic
    Thanks Antman! There are several things I want to say here, but they really belong in my next few blog posts. I'll resist the urge to spill it all prematurely and develop the thoughts a little better.

    I will say this much—if I'm very close to sleep I can visualize excellently and the images are alive and move, just like in dreams, and I can interact with them (not really control them). This is exactly what it sounds like Jung was able to do all the time. I think I need to actually be in REM, which I've discovered doesn't only happen when you're asleep, but is a cycle you go through starting sometimes before you fall asleep, especially if you're tired or sleep deprived, and continues for a few hours after you wake up.

    If I'm not near sleep or in REM, I instead can get something I call the idea of an image, or a pre-image. Its sort of like a feeling of an image, and I get snatches of visual information like a color or a little patch of low resolution imagery, maybe something like a montage of close-ups of parts of the overall image. It's taken me many years to explore this and understand it, and just since running across this book I'm understanding it much better. But I'll go into more detail on the blog.
      AntPoems likes this.
  3. Xoic
    You know what, screw that! I'll add supplemental information here in the comments.

    A lot of my knowledge and experience with this stuff comes from my practice of lucid dreaming and my studies associated with it.

    There's a point when you're still partially awake, in fact you feel like you're still completely awake, but actually you're largely asleep already. You'll realize that if you try to move, it's like being immersed in molasses and you have to fight your way up to full consciousness. In this state you begin to experience dreamlets—very brief momentary dream images like little animated GIFs, but they come complete with sound, sensation, taste and smell, and false memories or ideas or imperatives like regular dreams have. I mean an imperative like "I need to find the control room and switch off the bomb before the world blows up!" Well, that's a little complicated, too big for a dreamlet really, but you get things similar to it, only they're smaller. These dreamlets usually only last a moment or two. I can often notice them consciously and if I'm lucky the knowledge doesnt shock me into waking up as it sometimes does.

    If I wake up after a dreamlet (and if I have the gumption for it) I'll lie perfectly still with my eyes closed, in order not to break the spell of sleep completely, and I'll re-visualize whatever I saw in the dreamlet and continue it. As I said, when I'm close enough to sleep I have incredible vizualization skills. And at that point I'm basically immersed in sleep. I call these visualizations (creative, huh?) They're completely interactive, but I can't control what other characters do or the environment or anything, only my own reactions or what I say. This is a lot like working with story characters that come alive, except when I'm awake and writing it's nowhere near as immersive or visually rich (nor in the other ways I mentioned).
  4. Xoic
    Running a full scenario
    I'll try to explain as well as I can what my visualizations are like if I'm not close enough to sleep. So this is what they're normally like.

    I get what I call a pre-image or a proto-image. It's like I'm seeing it through dark tinted glass. But really it's off base to put so much emphasis on the visual aspect, because it's more than that. I also get a sense of movement in my body, as if I can feel my phantom limbs moving and the sense that I'm moving forward or backward or tumbling etc. There are also proto-versions of all the senses, primarily sound and touch, and if they're called for also smell and taste. And really the entire scenario, meaning I'm aware of the surroundings even if only vaguely. It's helpful to think of it as if you're in a theater and there's a movie being projected, but the lights are still on and the curtain hasn't opened yet, and the sound system is on super low volume. So it's all extremely muffled.

    Use your words
    But I learned an excellent trick from somebody on the lucid dreaming forum. He said at times like this he proceeds by using words. Silently, in his head, he tells himself what's happening, and the proto imagery and all the rest of it will align with that. It works quite well for me too.

    So it's like this—I'm concentrating on 'seeing' the proto imagery and being immersed in all the rest of it, and I'm saying something like this to myself:

    I'm running along a trail in the woods at night. There's just enough moonlight that I can see dimly. I'm a ninja, in full ninja gear, with a straight sword sheathed against my back. I have the little socks on that are divided, so you could wear flip-flops with them, whatever they're called. As I run I sometimes leap and roll, very acrobatic. I top a rise and revealed on the other side I see a small Japanese temple with an elaborate garden in front, little pools of light made by paper lanterns, a fountain, and statues sitting here and there.

    Quite likely as you read that you got little snatches of imagery, right? This is how it works—you run a scenario through your imagination and the proto-senses activate and make it become more real. It's just that usually we're passively absorbing ideas from books or movies rather than actively imagining things. Learn how to do meditation, just the kind where you shut off the stream of conscious thoughts in your head (though you could go beyond that later and learn to concentrate on an image or something). And when you're in the meditative state imagine scenarios. Daydream. It's probably wrong when I say 'concentrate on the image'—really it's more like think of it and allow yourself to experience it.

    If you try this at various times it can be surprising how immersive it becomes, even though you don't get full clear visuals or any of the rest. It's like you can feel a little you running around doing this stuff, and you get sort of flashes of what the setting looks like. But rather than being clear and vivid like in a dream, it's like a slide show projected onto a wall when there's too much light and you can only barely see it. Your level of concentration makes a big difference too. It helps to be in a meditation-like state, relaxed and allowing yourself to see the inner world rather than thinking normal daytime thoughts (being outward-oriented).

    It helps to realize that the unconscious is always there, always running, but it's sublte and quiet, and if you let the conscious mind function it takes all the attention. Conscious thoughts are bright and noisy and aggressive. You have to relax conscious activity in order to begin to see, feel, hear etc the unconscious material. I think of it as the nighttime mind, lit by the moon, and the conscious as the daytime mind lit by the sun. And you do need to learn to relax yourself and let the daytime awareness fade before the much more subtle nighttime awareness becomes noticeable. This might be easier for introverts and daydreamers. I think some people have a hard time shutting down the boistrous conscious mind. It's like a hyperactive child that doesn't want to lay down and take a nap.
  5. Xoic
    I experienced a WILD
    It's an acronym for wake-induced lucid dream. It's a specific technique for inducing a lucid dream (duh) that's done by paying attention to the shifting patterns 'behind your eyelids' as you fall asleep. This helps you retain some conscious awareness even as your body falls asleep. I tried dozens of times but always just fell asleep after a while, but once I was successful, and it was a real trip. I watched a dream form. For some reason I bypassed the usual dreamlets, I suppose because I was in a deeper level of sleep at the time, I don't know.

    I could feel my body getting heavy and sort of numb. The patterns behind my eyelids were getting brighter and far more active, and they began to become little kaleidoscopic images shifting against each other. Like little heads and ducks and triangles and whatnot. At this point they were all very flat and colorless, sort of like line drawings in light grey against a black background.

    I began to feel extremely pleasant. This happens as you're falling asleep. It's like all bodily aches and pains just go away and you feel a mild bliss all over. I was no longer aware at all of my physical body in fact.

    The imagery sort of coalesced and drew together to become one image, still flat. At some point there was color, but it was dull at first. And it was no longer just line drawings but more like a photograph, though it still looked flat and the colors were dim. But suddenly it went to full vivid color and then I wasn't just looking at a flat image but it was now three dimensional and I was in it!

    I was looking at a field and it began to scroll by, almost as if I were looking out the window of a car that was rolling slowly forward. I became aware that I was sitting in the passenger's seat, sort of frozen in place as if I were really tired and didnt' feel like moving, and I was just watching the scenery scroll by outside. Then I wasn't so tired anymore. I lifted my head and turned to look at the driver and the dream began in earnest.

    The thing I can't emphasize strongly enough is the sudden powerful shift from dim color to vivid technicolor, and then the equally powerful shift from flat image to full scene with me in it. It was like the difference between watching a low resolution video on your cell phone to seeing it in 4k on a big screen with surround sound. Only better, because I was in it, and it was now fully interactive.

    I present all these to help people understand the difference between waking awareness and the dream state, and some of the various in-betweens. Just knowing about it helps, but having experienced them is far better. I mean, we all experience it several times every night, but we aren't able to pay attention with conscious awareness. Usually it happens when the mind is fully asleep.
  6. Xoic
    My current theory is that people who can experience full vivid visualizations are somehow able to connect partially with the dreaming apparatus while awake.

    Several things happen when you fall asleep. For one, the brain's sensory apparatus switches from recieving constant information from your sense organs to not reciving it anymore, so now the info comes from whatever part of the brain creates dreams. It's like cutting off the feeds from the webcam and microphone on your computer and instead hooking it up directly to your unconscious imagination. Then the mind becomes the dream theater.
  7. Xoic
    Playing around with visualization
    Last night lying in bed I did some deliberate visualizing and paid close attention to it. I noticed a few things I want to post here.

    I wasn't close to sleep or in REM yet, so it was what I'd call daytime visualization, like daydreaming. Whereas dream imagery looks completely solid and real, this is very transparent, as if it's projected onto a piece of glass and I can see the imagery at the same time as whatever is physically in front of me, like it's overlaid. Of course if I have my eyes closed that's different. I seem to do better with them open though, I need to experiment with that. At times it seemed the imagery became more solid and real-looking, possibly when I forgot about physical reality and lost myself in the visuals.

    I don't get a lot of detail, it's more like the overall impression of something. And I can easily manipulate it. I can either instantly switch what I'm looking at to something else, like a slide show, or I can change the parameters of it. Example, for a while I imagined skyscrapers. I just said to myself 'skyscraper', and there was one before me. Actually I started seeing it before I finished saying the word in my head, it was a response to the desire to see a skyscraper, the actual word came a moment later. It's a feedback loop—a collaboration between conscious desire and immediate unconscious response. And this is exactly what I've read time and time again, that in some ways the unconscious mind is a response mechanism. Ask and it will provide, instantly or after some churning. It's a problem-solving mechanism—I'll go into that in a future blog entry in more detail.

    The first skyscraper I saw was one of those classic 19th century ones, something like the Empire State or the Sears tower. It had an art deco feel to it, not one of the pure steel and glass utilitarian towers of a more modern period. A lot of nicely molded concrete.

    Then I thought let's change it, and I saw a different one immediately. Maybe it wasn't quite as clear, and I don't remember now eaxctly what type it was. I could make specific changes—taller, wider, more rounded corners, etc. Like mental silly putty. IN fact if I want to I can send it into some kind of insanely fast kaleidoscopic insta-change mode, where it just keeps changing rapid-fire. Not sure what good that would do, but it's fun. Like a mental amusement park ride.

    Then suddenly a problem. I became aware that I was lying in bed on my side, and I got confused. Which way should I be picturing these skyscrapers? Do I see it sideways? Or as if the entire axis of the world has tilted to align with my head? Well, that immediately ended that portion of the session. No imagery for a while. I think you need to not pay attention to your physical orientation in space. Headspace has no connection to it, and thinking about it will disrupt the smooth flow of information between the conscious and unconscious. Or just be upright and you won't have to worry about it.
  8. Xoic
    I managed to get visualizations back after a while, by very deliberately forgetting about my physical alignment in space. I also decided not to imagine things with such an obvious physical-world alignment. I tried things like a tractor. As soon as I thought tractor (a moment before the word formed) I saw one. Not completely, it was like just the front end of it, and it was very rounded-off, again like something from the Victorian era. Red. I decided to change the color, and it responded instantly. I made the top half red and the bottom half bright blue. Worked like a charm. Then the entire thing yellow. No problem.

    I then did haystacks and a bunch of other things. I seem to see impressions more than actual objects. It's sort of like a vague impression with a few details here and there. At one point I pictured a hay wagon, and I looked to see how detailed it was. It wasn't. I tried looking specifically at the axle to see what kind of mechanism it used, and it was just a very simple thing, a sort of hasp design. very primitive. I realized I don't really know anything about the axle designs for various types of hay wagons, so how could my unconscious instantly design one? It gives the impression of it, but if you 'zoom in' and look close, there's no actual design there. I was able to manipulate that as well and supply a more modern sealed-bearing sort of thing, but I don't really know much about what those look like, so it was vague. I also did camels for a while and realized in order to get detailed images I'd need to study photographs, by actually copying them. It's the way to study something as a visual artist—if you just look intently at them for a while you can't then draw it without looking. Not with any accuracy anyway, though there are ways to train visual memory—I'll go into that briefly at some point. But if you copy a few photos then you learn the actual forms of the thing and can draw it much more accurately from imagination.

    So the unconscious cobbles things together to invent false detail where your knowledge isn't good. I mean that's pretty obvious, but now I have confirmation of it. It's good to run experiments like this. I'll be doing a lot more.
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