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Monday, November 21, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia (2/?, Faw and Galton)

I continue to look at the rhetoric around aphantasia, or not having a mind's eye. Part 1 is here. Now I'm looking at two papers written before the word "aphantasia" was coined. Both recognize that some people do have mental pictures (minds eye type stuff) and that some people don't, which involves recognizing some level of cognitive diversity. What people then do with the knowledge is another story. Galton is known for eugenics, after all.

So I'm starting with Bill Faw's paper, "Conflicting Intuitions May Be Based on Differing Abilities," which looks at the history of psychological/philosophical thought about mental imagery or the lack thereof. He points out a tendency for people to assume that everyone does this imagery (or doesn't do this imagery) the way the researcher them-self does(n't) do it. By and large, researchers assume it's a thing: most people can visualize things, after all. Faw claims, “Much of the current imaging literature either denies the existence of wakeful non-mental imagers, views non-imagers motivationally as 'repressors' or 'neurotic', or acknowledges them but does not fully incorporate them into their models.” 

Faw argues that the everyone uses mental images camp (thanks Aristotle) comes from two things: most people have mental images, and people tend to assume that what they do is what everyone does. Which leads me to ask regarding mental imagery what I've asked before regarding autism: theory of whose mind? (Sam mentions the incident in his thesis and on his blog.) Also, Faw is himself aphantasiac, or a non-mental-imager, as he calls it in his paper. (He's writing before the word aphantasia was coined. I kind of want to check if he's written on the topic since.) He describes reactions of disbelief from others, that non-imaging is even a thing, as well as challenges to the notion that he could know this about himself. Hello, parallels to autism with the “you can't know what it's like you be yourself” thing.

It does make skeptical sense to question whether people filling out a 5- or 7-scale survey all mean the same by ‘vague and dim’! But it seems untoward to dispute such strong statements of mental imaging abilities — and the lack thereof — as seen in the self-reports that Galton and I and many others have elicited. (16 in the ResearchGate PDF, probably 60 in the actual journal)

And that's the thing: I don't think people all mean the same thing by vague, dim, vivid, or any other inherently subjective descriptor. I (and Faw) do think there's a clear difference between "vivid" and "non-existent," though. Enough of a difference that assuming that everyone does (or doesn't do) mental imagery the same way seems ... less than logical? But it's something quite a few philosophers and psychologists seem to have been doing along the way.

Aristotle assumes “normal” thought involves imagery. (What the heck is normal? Hi, neurodiversity paradigm, it'd be nice to see you here.) Hobbes isn't talking about pictures so specifically, but does seem to hold that thinking/imagination depends on internal sensory creations. Locke writes of memory as re-experiencing or re-creating prior perceptions with the knowledge of having had them before. That's probably what my intro to neurobiology teacher meant by vivid recall, and it's not a thing I do except with sounds. Titchener describes his own mental imagery as a gallery and can not conceive of even small gaps in the streams of others imagery, assuming that his own experience is universal. (Theory of whose mind?) He was actually one of the respondents to Galton's survey, and he challenges the reports of other respondents who don't experience mental imagery.

Then he turns to the opposite intuition, where someone who describes what sounds like their own experience without conscious mental imagery (Watson, in this case) and assumes that this experience is the one that generalizes. (Theory of whose mind?) He denies mental imagery as being important to anyone and questions its very existence for most. And I do think generalizing ones own experience is a reasonable way to make guesses unless and until you get better information, but he's doing this in the face of a whole lot of descriptions of mental imagery by/from/for others. Interestingly, this guy was one of the big definers of behaviorist thought, and he claims thought as internal speech. (My thought is usually internal speech, but sometimes it's externalized typing or handwriting. Sometimes it's recognition of patterns that I then need to somehow translate into language in one of those forms.) That's the only person Faw describes as having rejected the importance and possibly existence of mental imagery, and even his descriptions of non-imaging are called ideological rejection by folks who assume we all have mental pictures.

On a similar note, Faw suggests (following Thomas Leahey) that Watson might have been a strong auditory imager but weak or non- visual imager. Which is a funny way of writing about it, since I always thought imagery meant visual stuff, but there doesn't seem to be a word for any similar activity with the other senses. Now that's a fun question – why don't we have words for internally created sensory perceptions for hearing or smell? We do have the idea of songs getting stuck in our heads, so I don't think it's most people not having those sorts of perceptions. Since I describe my own non-imagery as “no minds eye” I would make a parallel description using the idea of a minds ear, nose, or tongue, but that doesn't quite work with tactile sensations.

Then he gets into Galton. I actually read Galton's 1880 paper, and my thoughts on it come next:

This paper is cited as being the first place where aphantasia is described. Galton had no problem calling it a mental deficiency (unlike the folks who coined the term in 2015; Faw refers to it a dis-ability in describing his own experience in 2009 and gets cited in 2015):
"They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing." (302)
Remember that this guy is one of the big eugenics guys. Of course, he found this was most common in "men of science" and therefore had some motivation to find a reason that this was OK. Or not genetic, instead caused by disuse. Or both.
"Scientific men as a class have feeble powers of visual representation. There is no doubt whatever on the latter point, however it may be accounted for. My own conclusion is, that an over-readiness to perceive clear mental pictures is antagonistic to the acquirement of habits of highly generalised and abstract thought, and that if the faculty, of producing them was ever possessed by men who think hard, it is very apt to be lost by disuse ... I am however bound to say, that the missing faculty seems to be replaced so serviceably by other modes' of conception, chiefly I believe connected with the motor sense, that men who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures can nevertheless give life-like descriptions of what they have seen, and can otherwise express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination." (304)
That doesn't stop him from calling it a feeble ability or a mental deficiency, but he talks about compensation as not just a possibility, but as something that definitely happens.

But what does Faw have to say about Galton? He points out that Galton's the one of the few who seems not to have assumed that his own experience of mental imagery or lack thereof is everyone's experience of mental imagery, and that this is good research. Which is true enough. I still don't trust Galton as far as I can throw his long-decayed corpse, because eugenics, but his thoughts on mental imagery seem to be better balanced than the other folks Faw's been reading.

George Betts made a scale to measure visual imagery and looks around to see how common aphantasia is. He finds 2% among his college students and 19% among other psychologists. Which means he, too, has to have worked under the assumption that variation is a thing.

Then we get more recent work which tries to check mental imagery objectively rather than based on subjective self-reports, alongside continued surveys of subjective reports that find people tending towards “vivid” imagery. (Ok, but I'm still only understanding vividness as a thing that I don't experience.) I assume that some of the assumptions that internal imagery is required for object recognition (I can do this), freehand drawing (I am terrible at this), and spatial reasoning tasks (I'm good at these) come into play with the supposedly objective measures, since Faw described this sort of conflation as an issue in much of the literature. Even Faw's eventual hypothesis of subliminal/unconscious imagery that doesn't reach the conscious level still seems to be working with the assumption that some sort of image-like process is needed. It does recognize that it doesn't require an actual image, which is nice (and which may relate to Faw being aphantasiac himself and therefore knowing it's possible!)

Works Cited

Faw, Bill. "Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research." Journal of Consciousness Studies 16.4 (2009): 45-68.
Galton, Francis. "I.—Statistics of mental imagery." Mind 19 (1880): 301-318.

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