To what extent do individuals vary in their ability to mentally visualise?

To what extent do individuals vary in their ability to mentally visualise?

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Background: Yesterday I was shocked when a friend of mine told me that he can see only "completely black darkness" when he closes he eyes. When I close my eyes, I can see some images or "movies" of what I'm thinking of just now. I don't see the real world. I can "imagine" anything I would like, e.g., a car crash or a sunshine or someone who I know or who I do not. I also can control them in any way: change colors, action, everything. I was sure that anybody on Earth can do it. Indeed, when I asked him if he could "see" even a simple figure, e.g., a circle - he couldn't. He said he could not see anything.


  • What is this "phenomenon" called where a person cannot mentally visualise images when they close their eyes?
  • Are there many people who can't see anything with closed eyes?

Short answer: there appears to be a whole range of ability at the task of mental visualization. Based on what I have found on the Web, your own level of ability is fairly unusual. Your friend's level of ability, by contrast, seems to be fairly common. Sources I found on this were fairly sparse, though, and my conclusions should not be relied on too heavily.

The Wikipedia article on "Closed-eye hallucination" seems to have some problems, but is helpful on this question. It describes five distinct levels of "Closed-eye visualization."

  • Levels 1 and 2 correspond to very little visual information.
  • Level 3 is "patterns, motion, and color."
  • Level 4, "objects and things," appears to correspond to your experience.
  • Level 5 describes impressions not immediately distinguishable from reality.

Level 1 and 2 are very common, and often happen every day. It is still normal to experience level 3, and even level 4, but only a small percentage of the population do this without psychedelic drugs, meditation or extensive visualization training.

Wikipedia also links an old paper in Psychological Review that studied variations in the ability to willfully shape closed-eye perception, describing what seems to be a wide distribution of ability:

Of the sixteen persons experimenting with themselves, four only reported no success; nine had a partial success which seemed to increase with practice and which they considered undoubtedly dependent directly upon volition; and with the remaining three the success was marked and really phenomenal.

I seem to remember that there was an early debate in psychology about whether it was possible to mentally visualize images. Some scholars insisted that it was, others were adamant that it wasn't. Today we can dissolve the debate because we know it is possible for some but not for others. Unfortunately, I can't find a source for this story online.

There is also an old debate in philosophy over the role mental imagery plays in cognition. For some early thinkers, an "idea" was a visual mental image; other philosophers questioned whether actual images were so important. For an overview of the debate you can consult the topic "Mental Imagery" in Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The mental imagery debate is not really the same thing as what you're asking about, but participants sometimes seemed to be debating whether it was even possible to "see" mental images.

The phenomenon of not being able to visualise has recently been dubbed "aphantasia" by Adam Zeman at Exeter: see the university's press release Can't count sheep? You could have aphantasia. They had a year-long project which finished a few days ago called The Eye's Mind to study people at both ends of the ability spectrum. One of their objectives is to produce a meta-analysis of the research that has examined what happens in the brain when we visualise, searching for consistent patterns in the varied and sometimes conflicting results of previous studies.

More anecdotally, if you read this Reddit thread, you'll discover that quite a few people can't visualise. It's an informative thread, which shows that visualisers and non-visualisers are often unaware of each other's existence. Look also at this MetaFilter thread and this blog post. Googling phrases such as "I can't mentally visualise" will turn up more discussions on the same theme, including suggested "cures".

What Causes Anosognosia?

We constantly update our mental image of ourselves. When we get a sunburn, we adjust our self-image and expect to look different in the mirror. When we learn a new skill, we add it to our self-image and feel more competent. But this updating process is complicated. It requires the brain&rsquos frontal lobe to organize new information, develop a revised narrative and remember the new self-image.

Brain imaging studies have shown that this crucial area of the brain can be damaged by schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as well as by diseases like dementia. When the frontal lobe isn&rsquot operating at 100%, a person may lose&mdashor partially lose&mdashthe ability to update his or her self-image.

Without an update, we&rsquore stuck with our old self-image from before the illness started. Since our perceptions feel accurate, we conclude that our loved ones are lying or making a mistake. If family and friends insist they're right, the person with an illness may get frustrated or angry, or begin to avoid them.

Early studies of anosognosia indicated that approximately 30% of people with schizophrenia and 20% of people with bipolar disorder experienced "severe" lack of awareness of their diagnosis. Treating mental health conditions is much more complicated if lack of insight is one of the symptoms. People with anosognosia are placed at increased risk of homelessness or arrest. Learning to understand anosognosia and its risks can improve the odds of helping people with this difficult symptom.

Five top tips for success

Don’t fear failure. “Part of what it takes to be courageous is overcoming the constant battle between the desire for what we want and the fear of failure. Most of us don’t expose ourselves because we are fearful,” writes Grange.

Reframe emotions: you’re not “nervous”, you’re “excited” a penalty shootout/job interview/important speech is not something to dread, it’s an “opportunity”.

Positive thinking is unhelpful if you’re simply fantasising about achieving an Oscar/the World Cup/a fuller social life. Instead, focus – positively – on the steps that could get you to your goal.

Treat your employees/children/customers as individuals rather than a homogenous group. Different approaches will work for different people.

Kindness, listening and empathy will take you further than barking orders. Use praise to motivate people.

Mental rotation

Mental rotation is the ability to rotate mental representations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects as it is related to the visual representation of such rotation within the human mind. [1] There is a relationship between areas of the brain associated with perception and mental rotation. There could also be a relationship between the cognitive rate of spatial processing, general intelligence and mental rotation. [2] [3] [4]

Mental rotation can be described as the brain moving objects in order to help understand what they are and where they belong. Mental rotation has been studied to try to figure out how the mind recognizes objects in their environment. Researchers generally call such objects stimuli. Mental rotation is one cognitive function for the person to figure out what the altered object is.

Mental rotation can be separated into the following cognitive stages: [2]

  1. Create a mental image of an object from all directions (imagining where it continues straight vs. turns).
  2. Rotate the object mentally until a comparison can be made (orientating the stimulus to other figure).
  3. Make the comparison.
  4. Decide if the objects are the same or not.
  5. Report the decision (reaction time is recorded when level pulled or button pushed).

This Article Contains:

Happiness. It is a term that is taken for granted in this modern age. However, since the dawn of time, philosophers have been pursuing the inquiry of happiness… after all, the purpose of life is not just to live, but to live ‘well’.

Philosophers ask some key questions about happiness: can people be happy? If so, do they want to? If people have both a desire to be happy and the ability to be happy, does this mean that they should, therefore, pursue happiness for themselves and others? If they can, they want to, and they ought to be happy, but how do they achieve this goal?

To explore the philosophy of happiness in life, first, the history of happiness will be examined.

Democritus, a philosopher from Ancient Greece, was the first philosopher in the western world to examine the nature of happiness (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). He put forth a suggestion that, unlike it was previously thought, happiness does not result from ‘favorable fate’ (i.e. good luck) or other external circumstances (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Democritus contended that happiness was a ‘case of mind’, introducing a subjectivist view as to what happiness is (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

A more objective view of happiness was introduced by Socrates, and his student, Plato.

They put forth the notion that happiness was “secure enjoyment of what is good and beautiful” (Plato, 1999, p. 80). Plato developed the idea that the best life is one whereby a person is either pursuing pleasure of exercising intellectual virtues… an argument which, the next key figure in the development of the philosophy of happiness – Aristotle – disagreed with (Waterman, 1993).

The philosophy of Aristotle will be explored in depth in the next section of this article.

Hellenic history (i.e. ancient Greek times) was largely dominated by the prominent theory of hedonism (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Hedonism is, to put it simply, the pursuit of pleasure as the only intrinsic good (Waterman, 1993). This was the Cyrenaic view of happiness. It was thought that a good life was denoted by seeking pleasure, and satisfying physical, intellectual/social needs (Kashdan, Biswas-Diener & King, 2008).

Kraut (1979, p. 178) describes hedonic happiness as “the belief that one is getting the important things one wants, as well as certain pleasant affects that normally go along with this belief” (Waterman, 1993).

In ancient times, it was also thought that it is not possible to live a good life without living in accordance with reason and morality (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). Epicurus, whose work was dominated by hedonism, contended that in fact, virtue (living according to values) and pleasure are interdependent (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

In the middle ages, Christian philosophers said that whilst virtue is essential for a good life, that virtue alone is not sufficient for happiness (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

According to the Christian philosophers, happiness is in the hands of God. Even though the Christians believed that earthly happiness was imperfect, they embraced the idea that Heaven promised eternal happiness (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

A more secular explanation of happiness was introduced in the Age of Enlightenment.

At this time, in the western world pleasure was regarded as the path to, or even the same thing as, happiness (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). From the early nineteenth century, happiness was seen as a value which is derived from maximum pleasure.

Utilitarians, such as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, suggested the following: “maximum surplus of pleasure over pain as the cardinal goal of human striving” (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). Utilitarians believe that morals and legislation should be based on whatever will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

In the modern era, happiness is something we take for granted. It is assumed that humans are entitled to pursue and attain happiness (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). This is evidenced by the fact that in the US declaration of independence, the pursuit of happiness is protected as a fundamental human right! (Conkle, 2008).

Go into any book store and large sections are dedicated to the wide range of ‘self-help’ books all promoting happiness.

What is This Thing Called Happiness?

It is incredibly challenging to define happiness. Modern psychology describes happiness as subjective well-being, or “people’s evaluations of their lives and encompasses both cognitive judgments of satisfaction and affective appraisals of moods and emotions” (Kesebir & Diener, 2008, p. 118).

The key components of subjective well-being are:

  1. Life satisfaction
  2. Satisfaction with important aspects of one’s life (for example work, relationships, health)
  3. The presence of positive affect
  4. Low levels of negative affect

These four components have featured in philosophical material on happiness since ancient times.

Subjective life satisfaction is a crucial aspect of happiness, which is consistent with the work of contemporary philosopher Wayne Sumner, who described happiness as ‘a response by a subject to her life conditions as she sees them’ (1999, p. 156).

Thus, if happiness is ‘a thing’ how is it measured?

Some contemporary philosophers and psychologists question self-report as an appropriate measure of happiness. However, many studies have found that self-report measures of ‘happiness’ (subjective well-being) are valid and reliable (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Two other accounts of happiness in modern psychology are firstly, the concept of psychological well-being (Ryff & Singer, 1996) and secondly, self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Both of these theories are more consistent with the eudaemonist theories of ‘flourishing’ (including Aristotle’s ideas) because they describe the phenomenon of needs (such as autonomy, self-acceptance, and mastery) being met (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Eudaimonia will be explained in detail in the next section of the article (keep reading!) but for now, it suffices to say that eudaemonist theories of happiness define ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) as a state in which an individual strives for the highest human good.

These days, most empirical psychological research puts forward the theory of subjective wellbeing rather than happiness as defined in a eudaimonic sense (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Although the terms eudaimonia and subjective-wellbeing are not necessarily interchangeable, Kesebir and Diener (2008) argue that subjective well-being can be used to describe well-being, even if it may not be an absolutely perfect definition!

Can People be Happy?

In order to adequately address this question, it is necessary to differentiate between ‘ideal’ happiness and ‘actual’ happiness.

‘Ideal’ happiness implies a way of being that is complete, lasting and altogether perfect… probably outside of anyone’s reach! (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). However, despite this, people can actually experience mostly positive emotions and report overall satisfaction with their lives and therefore be deemed ‘happy’.

In fact, most people are happy. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the US (2006), 84% of Americans see themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Happiness also has an adaptive function. How is happiness adaptive? Well, positivity and wellbeing are also associated with people being confident enough to explore their environments and approach new goals, which increases the likelihood of them collecting resources.

The fact that most people report being happy, and happiness having an adaptive function, leads Kesebir and Diener (2008) to conclude that yes people can, in fact, be happy.

Do People Want to be Happy?

The overwhelming answer is yes! Research has shown that being happy is desirable. Whilst being happy is certainly not the only goal in life, nonetheless, it is necessary for a good life (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

A study by King and Napa (1998) showed that Americans view happiness as more relevant to the judgment of what constitutes a good life, rather than either wealth or ‘moral goodness’.

Should People be Happy?

Another way of putting this, is happiness justifiable? Happiness is not just the result of positive outcomes, such as better health, improved work performance, more ethical behavior, and better social relationships (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). It actually precedes and causes these outcomes!


Happiness leads to better health. For example, research undertaken by Danner, Snowdon & Friesen in 2001 examined the content of handwritten autobiographies of Catholic sisters. They found that expression in the writing that was characterized by positive affect predicted longevity 60 years later!


Happiness is derived not from pursuing pleasure, but by working towards goals which are reflected in one’s values (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Happiness can be predicted not merely by pleasure but by having a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Happiness is also associated with better performance in professional life/work.

Social relationships and prosocial behavior

Happiness brings out the best in people… people who are happier are more social, cooperative and ethical (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Happy individuals have also been shown to evaluate others more positively, show greater interest in interacting with others socially, and even be more likely to engage in self-disclosure (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

Happy individuals are also more likely to behave ethically (for example, choosing not to buy something because it is known to be stolen) (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

How to be happy?

The conditions and sources of happiness will be explored later on, so do keep reading… briefly in the meantime, happiness is caused by wealth, friends and social relationships, religion, and personality. These factors predict happiness.

This section has provided a comprehensive summary of the philosophy of happiness. Following on from a brief historical overview, the possibility, desirability, and justifiability of happiness will be explored. Now, onto Aristotle…

Mind’s object

Next they tried a visual illusion. When you look at a contracting spiral for a short time and then transfer your gaze to another object, the object expands. This is as a consequence of how your brain processes motion. But the illusion doesn’t occur if you stare at a blank screen after looking at the spiral, since the brain only ascribes motion to things it perceives as objects.

ML gazed at the spiral for 20 seconds, then looked at either darkness, a static image or her mind’s eye calendar. As expected, nothing happened in the darkness and the static image expanded. But surprisingly, her calendar also expanded. If ML tried to imagine an apple and looked at that after the gazing at the spiral, it didn’t expand.

“It suggests the calendar is not the same thing as a mental image,” says Ramachandran.

Promoting Healthy Brain Development

If you are under the age of 25 and your brain is not yet fully developed, you may want to take advantage of this critical period. This means that you can effectively be a co-creator in how your brain decides to mold itself. Engaging in healthy behaviors and giving your brain optimal stimulation will help ensure healthy prefrontal cortex development.

  • Cognitive challenges: Giving your brain cognitively demanding or challenging tasks can help stimulate development. Examples of things that may boost brain function include: brain training games and applications (e.g. Lumosity), Dual N-back training, working memory training, writing, regurgitating and processing information, etc. All activities that may help increase IQ may improve brain development.
  • Dietary intake: It is widely disputed as to what diet should be eaten during adolescence to ensure healthy brain development. It is recommended to eat plenty of vegetables, some fruits, proteins, fats, and the right carbohydrates. Avoiding artificial sweeteners and substances with high sugars may be beneficial as well.
  • Education: Proper education and/or learning can go a long way towards improving brain development. The more you learn before the age of 25, the more solidified that information will (likely) become. Getting a good education provides cognitive stimulation to the brain in a variety of ways.
  • Environmental enrichment: There are numerous studies showing the benefits of environmental enrichment on the brain. It appears as though living in an enriched environment such as: going to a great school, having positive social connections, access to healthy foods, trying new things, learning new skills, and having lots of resources can improve the brain’s development.
  • Exercise: Getting enough exercise has become highly underrated in a society focused on immediate gratification. The psychological benefits of exercise are very significant blood flow improves, neurotransmitter levels get optimized, your emotions become more positive, and you can actually grow new brain cells.
  • Meditation: Not only is meditation a great activity for stress reduction, but there are studies demonstrating (that if you’re doing it properly) it can enhance development of your prefrontal cortex. This makes you more resilient to stress, improves your attention, and clarity of thinking. Consider taking up a meditation practice if you want to improve brain development.
  • Sleep optimization: Most people talk about pulling all-nighters like it’s an impressive feat. In reality, not getting enough sleep and/or poor sleep quality can detrimentally affect brain development. To ensure that your brain develops properly, give it enough time to recover and rejuvenate itself by getting adequate sleep.
  • Socialization: Positive social contacts and/or friends are what humans need in order to stimulate brain development. Staying involved in groups and social functions is a great way to stay connected and can reap benefits for the developmental outcome of your brain.
  • Stress reduction: A daily practice of stress reduction can go a long way towards reducing activity in anxious, stress-provoking brain centers and can enhance development of the prefrontal cortex. Brains that are under chronic stress may not develop as well as those that are allowed some down-time for relaxation.
  • Supplementation: Certain supplements may help strengthen development of the brain. These include things like fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids), antioxidants, etc. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of each supplement before taking it. Also realize that while supplementation can provide benefit, getting proper sleep and eating a healthy diet are more beneficial.

A life ruled by obsessions and compulsions

People with OCD either have obsessions or compulsions or experience both.

Professor Kyrios says the obsessions are unwanted, intrusive and persistent ideas, thoughts, images or urges that cause the person a lot of distress.

“In order to cope with that distress, what people do is they act out strategies to either get rid of the intrusions that they’re experiencing or to minimise the threat that they see, and these actions are called compulsions,” he says.

“Compulsions can either be obvious behaviours or they can be mental acts.”

One common obsession is irrational concerns about safety, where people with OCD physically and mentally repeatedly check that their appliances have been switched off or that their windows and doors are locked.

Obsessions also include sexual issues, such as unwanted thoughts about engaging in sexual activity, and religious or moral issues, such as a compulsion to pray or seek reassurance that they have not committed an immoral act.

Other obsessions involve cleanliness and a need for order, where people continually wash their hands, clean the house, experience a fear of contamination, and perform tasks or place items in particular places or patterns.

“They may feel that they have some germs on them, which they got from touching a door handle, so then they’ll wash themselves or cleanse the doorknobs compulsively in a particular order,” Professor Kyrios says.

“If they lose sight of the ‘proper’ order, then they start over again and again.

“People can spend hours and hours a day having these thoughts or carrying out these behaviours and, not only do they experience enormously high anxiety levels, but it also compromises their ability to work and have a normal life.”

A common mental disorder, OCD is often caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors, including behaviours learnt in upbringing, while about 75 per cent of people with OCD first experience the early onset of the disorder by their late teenage years.


We have observed that community mental health care is potentially more humane and more therapeutic than hospital care, but that this potential is realized only when certain preconditions have been met. The lessons of deinstitutionalization discussed here reflect those preconditions. It is worth noting once again that although these lessons are now widely—if not universally—accepted, they were virtually unknown in the days before deinstitutionalization. In this regard, deinstitutionalization may indeed be viewed as fostering progress in the care of mentally ill persons.

At the same time, however, it is clear that there have been serious disjunctions in the pursuit of the three component processes of deinstitutionalization—hospital depopulation, admission diversion, and development of comprehensive community-based services. We have taken away from mentally ill persons the asylum from the pressures of the world and the care and treatment, however imperfect, that they received in state hospitals. The central problem that now needs to be addressed is society's obligation to provide adequate care and treatment—and, when necessary, asylum—to these individuals in the community. With the advent of the modern antipsychotic medications and psychosocial treatments, the great majority are able to live in a range of open settings in the community—with family, in their own apartments, in board-and-care homes, and in halfway houses.

Nevertheless, there remains a minority of persons who have chronic and severe mental illness who need highly structured 24-hour care, often in locked facilities, and these individuals must not be overlooked. The fact that a significant proportion of this minority are not receiving sufficient care but are instead living in jails, on the streets, or in other unacceptable situations (74) is evidence that adequate community care has not been provided for some of the most severely ill persons.

The lives of most chronically and severely mentally ill persons have now changed permanently from institutionalized living to community living. With adequate treatment and support, this change greatly improves their lot and leads to a much richer life experience. We have learned what must be done to bring about this change. What is needed now is the will and the funding to realize the potential of deinstitutionalization to improve the lives of all severely mentally ill persons, whether they reside in the community or in hospitals.

Dr. Lamb is professor of psychiatry and director of the division of psychiatry, law, and public policy at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, 2020 Zonal Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90033 (e-mail, [email protected] ). Dr. Bachrach is dean of the William A. Keese School of Continuing Education at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and formerly research professor of psychiatry at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

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Development of Self-Concept

Self-concept begins to develop in early childhood. This process continues throughout the lifespan. However, it is between early childhood and adolescence that self-concept experiences the most growth.

By age 2, children begin to differentiate themselves from others. By the ages of 3 and 4, children understand that they are separate and unique selves. At this stage, a child's self-image is largely descriptive, based mostly on physical characteristics or concrete details. Yet, children increasingly pay attention to their capabilities, and by about 6 years old, children can communicate what they want and need. They are also starting to define themselves in terms of social groups.

Between the ages of 7 and 11, children begin to make social comparisons and consider how they’re perceived by others. At this stage, children’s descriptions of themselves become more abstract. They begin to describe themselves in terms of abilities and not just concrete details, and they realize that their characteristics exist on a continuum. For example, a child at this stage will begin to see himself as more athletic than some and less athletic than others, rather than simply athletic or not athletic. At this point, the ideal self and self-image start to develop.

Adolescence is a key period for self-concept. The self-concept established during adolescence is usually the basis for the self-concept for the remainder of one’s life. During the adolescent years, people experiment with different roles, personas, and selves. For adolescents, self-concept is influenced by success in areas they value and the responses of others valued to them. Success and approval can contribute to greater self-esteem and a stronger self-concept into adulthood.


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  5. Deron

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