Pictures in my mind

April 25, 2012

Today’s Five for Five post, on the subject of Pictures.


“I can’t see any pictures in my mind, Mom.”

This appeared to come out of nowhere, as most of her most crucial pronouncements tend to do. But it actually came from a very important somewhere: our shared evening meditation.

Grace, age 13, and I have been meditating together the last week or so — yet another brick in our shared family wall against the anxiety that tends to creep in around all the edges if we let down our guard.  We have lots of bricks stacked up, and we keep rebuilding the mortar as life chips it away.

So in the evenings, when it’s time to go to sleep, I click on a goofy little iPhone app rather promisingly called “Happy Now.”  The app walks us through a seated meditation (which we prefer to do lying down) and instructs us to “picture ourselves” in a specific place.  The droning voice asks us to “imagine the smells,” and “hear the sounds” and “feel the sensations” of our special place.  By imagining, and focusing, we are to gain all the benefits of meditation:  Calm.  Focus.  Serenity.  A temporary reprieve from the Monkey Mind of Worry.

Except for one problem — which I had always assumed was mine alone.  When my eyes close up, there are no pictures in my mind.  I breathe, I relax, I think a lot, but no pictures ever arrive.  I can kinda sorta not really call up a scene for maybe a second or two, but when it comes to truly envisoning something in the way Mr. Happy Now is asking, I’ve always been a big failure.  Since the meditation seems to have the intended effect of driving away worry, at least for the fifteen minutes or so I’m listening to the voice, I try to let go of this funny problem I have with my imagination.

I was strangely relieved by her announcement as I discovered it’s both of us.

“That’s so funny.  Me too,” I admitted.  I suppose I should have been sad for her, but I was just so happy to have a partner in my mind-blindness. “I never have.  Not once.”  She too looked relieved that we were both broken in the same way, and then came over to sit next to me on the sofa.  She rested her head on my shoulder.

“I guess we’re both alike, then.  We must keep other stuff in our minds.”  Leave it to Grace to find the deep truth, and to hand it to me just like that.

And how about you?  If you see pictures in your mind, what do they look like?

And if you see just the inside of your eyes, like me and my Grace, do you have a theory of why?


Laurie April 25, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I’m another one who can’t put a picture in my head like that. I did some counselling a while back and the therapist tried visualization techniques. They sounded cool, but I just couldn’t force the image into my head. No idea why though.

Stacia April 25, 2012 at 3:23 pm

“We must keep other stuff in our minds.”

So wise. So true. Love.

BigLittleWolf April 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm

What a delightful post. I love that you and your 13-year old are sharing this time, and equally, your revelations about ways in which you are alike.

Not every mother of a 13-year old could say the same!

Like you – I also can’t put an image in my mind on demand. If anything, when asked to relax or slow down or meditate, I feel pressured! My mind dashes off to the lists of things to do, words I want to write, images of laundry, dirty dishes, stacks of bills…


Still, I sense that you both can find a place of calm. Just not in the ways some “prescribe.” And that’s pretty cool.

Kristin April 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Funny, I never really thought of this until now, but I’m pretty certain I think of all the things I’m not supposed to be thinking about instead of what I”m being asked to think about!

Stephanie April 26, 2012 at 8:23 am

First start with imagining a color.

Then search for an app that does guided imagery.

T. April 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

In this kind of situation I seem to only have one image I can call to mind. It is of the view from the dock at the little cottage on the lake my family rented each July when I was a child and where my mother still stays each summer. I can picture the scene in perfect detail, with sounds and smells to boot. It is serene and perfect. Until I also remember the ginormous dock spider and her progeny who have terrified me for 35 years. Inevitably I am jolted out of my reverie by the image of that huge creature lurking at my feet. I think mental images may be overrated.

Sarah April 27, 2012 at 11:15 am

Ooh, I think I need to try this app. But I fear I am the same. No pictures in my head. Something about trying too hard to see them, I think.

Tony Asdourian July 11, 2012 at 8:39 am

I also have no visual imagination. I have trouble remembering specifics of anything, even including how I look– my eye and hair color, for example. One of the big reasons I went in to math and physics is because I don’t have to remember anything much– I can just re-derive what I need.

That said, I am very responsive to visual stimuli, and have opinions about how things should look. I just have no imagination and extremely limited visual recall. When I walk in to an empty house, that is all I can see, not the “possibilities” that others always seem to be able to conjure up in their minds. And I can’t remember the specifics of the house I live in every day, other than exceedingly vaguely. When I close my eyes, I too see only my eyelids.

JH March 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm

The inability to form mental images is called mental blindness. Roughly 5% of the population has no mental images and 10% has very vague, momentary ones. The only known correlation is hypoxia at birth, which damages the hippocampus. The hippocampus is key to visual memory, which is key to visual imagination.

I’m in the 10% that can barely visualize. Its frustrating to miss out imagination and memory. Unfortunately there’s no known cure. Some key circuits in the brain just don’t work…

JS May 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Can you cite some studies backing up those figures?

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