Archive for April, 2016

Reading, Antihistamines, and Aphantasia

by Jason Stotts

This post isn’t like most of my posts. In fact, it came together quite by accident. You see, just a little over a week ago, I watched a friend defend his dissertation and earn his Ph.D. (congrats, Dr. Moore!). What’s interesting about this is the subject of his dissertation, which was a phenomenological investigation into how we experience reading. This got me thinking about how I read and I eventually wrote him this letter titled “On Reading”:

I’ve been thinking about my own experience of reading recently and have some interesting insights I wanted to share with you. First, some back-story.

A couple of years ago I developed a pretty bad allergy to something that blooms in the Spring here. As a result, this year, I’ve been on antihistamines all Spring. At first I just felt tired and “out of it” and that was all the more I could describe it as. I’ve been changing antihistamines and finally settled on Allegra. Now, that’s not very interesting in itself, but it’s important to understand for what follows.

Usually when I read fiction, I do not experience the words on the page and, instead, experience pretty vivid mental imagery. In fact, I know that my mind has wondered when I start seeing the words again and then I go back and pick up the thread again. I experience reading fiction as a meditative experience or trance where I am not aware of my surroundings at all and I am immersed in the story and its images.

On the other hand, when I read nonfiction, I don’t experience the words imagistically. Indeed, I don’t usually find my mind populating the concretes subsumed under concepts when I think of the concepts (e.g. when I hear “table,” I don’t immediately start picturing all of the tables I have ever seen or even any of the things I know to be tables). When I do philosophy and read nonfiction, my mind stays in a purely conceptual frame, without images. When I think of arguments, I think of them as “flowing” or perhaps as links in a chain (although not with images), but rather they have a “feel” of one thing flowing or leading to another. (Partly, I’m sure, this is also my subconscious telling me whether things cohere with my own antecedent belief structure or what people call “intuition”.)

Anyway, my question at your defense grew out of thinking about my own experience of reading. I realized that the act of reading must first involve perception of the words on the page. However, concepts cannot be understood perceptually and words are simply symbols to stand in for concepts, so we must process the words conceptually. For me, then, when I deal with nonfiction, my mind stays in this conceptual area that doesn’t involve imagery. However, when I read fiction, my mind converts the concepts back into perceptual data based on story (e.g. reading “the moonlight shone softly across the water, highlighting the snow along its banks, and transforming the scene into a softness that enveloped them in its embrace” would give me the visual experience of this.) Now, you might be right that this isn’t a per se perceptual experience. Certainly, it’s what we would call the imag-ination in Aristotelian philosophy of mind, or the faculty of the mind that is capable of having visual experiences that are not immediately tied to our senses.

All of this, though, is partly a pre-amble to something I just realized: my ability to read is not the same right now as it usually is. Because of the allergy I’ve been on antihistamines. I’ve read several fiction books during this time, but even though they were well written and I enjoyed them, I couldn’t quite “see” them in the way I usually do. I realized that it started when I started taking the antihistamines. It seem that something about them prevents me from visualizing fiction in the way I usually do. To double check, I reread a passage from a book I’ve read several times and with which I usually visualize. It was the same: I was stuck seeing the words and not seeing the action.

Moreover, I also realized it’s deeply affected my ability to be creative while I’m writing. Even when writing nonfiction, I’m struggling to access my creativity in a way I don’t usually and I’m having a much harder time writing.

Because of his defense, I had been thinking about my own cognitions since then. So, imagine my surprise when I saw this essay “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind” by Blake Ross on Facebook. Let me give you a small sample:

I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.

This is not a joke. It is not “blowing my mind” a la BuzzFeed’s “8 Things You Won’t Believe About Tarantulas.” It is, I think, as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.

Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.

You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

[…]

What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.

[…]

And if you ask about my day, there’s a good chance that—having had no time to prepare—I’ll lie to you.
It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why. And there is a sadness, an unflagging detachment that comes from forgetting your own existence.

Imagine how I felt reading this! My mind was blown (but don’t actually form images of my mind being blown, or else we’ll be in different places). His account goes a long way in explaining the way I experience the world, although it’s not quite to the same degree as Blake. As a matter of course, I do not remember things imagistically. I can form mental images and hear music and such, but it’s very hard and comes with effort, I don’t simply do it (except for music, which comes easily). This has led me to have a very bad memory for what I’ve done in a day as well (or what Blake calls “experiential memory”), but a very good memory for philosophy and arguments: I can recall philosophic texts I read more than 10 years ago pretty clearly.

Just like with Blake, this leads me to forget things that I’ve done, even with people I care about, unless there was also some cognitive content with the experience to tie it all together. This is one of the reasons I like taking pictures so much: I really won’t remember how things looked without them.

It’s weird to think about how different my experience is from other people’s. I already knew, for example, that I am nearly indifferent to other people’s emotions: unless I already care about you, your emotions will not affect me in the slightest. Even then, I don’t always know how to handle other people’s emotions. This, however, may be tied to the same issue of visualization: I can’t actually imagine myself in your shoes (which I now assume might be literal).

Now, to bring everything together, I’ve noticed that since I’ve been on the antihistamines, my visual experience has been even more paltry, closer to Blake’s, than it usually is. I would have never noticed this, except that I noticed it in how I read and my friend’s dissertation defense got me thinking about the experience of reading. So, I’m wondering if there isn’t some connection between some part of the brain that antihistamines affect and our ability to form mental images. Undoubtedly, I would be a bad test subject, because I’m already bad at it. But, maybe by standing just on the cusp of being able to do it, I was able to notice the effect of the antihistamines in a way that others don’t, because they only have a small change.

Anyway, I will definitely be thinking more about this and its impact on my life, now that I have a clearer idea that its going on and how it is divergent from others’ experiences.

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