Reverse Aphantasia

By | Monday, September 11, 2023 Leave a Comment
The "red apple visualization" above is a common way to explain aphantasia, the inability to visualize something in your mind's eye. It's estimated to affect upwards of 5% of the population, but it's hard to get precise numbers because people who have it often don't even realize it. Because it's just how their brains process from birth, they don't know any different -- like how would a fish know how to differentiate being wet from being dry? Being wet is just part of their existence, so how would they even begin to process something else? I've heard from those who have aphantasia say that they had long assumed language like "close your eyes and picture a beach" was simply metaphorical and never meant to be taken literally.

Because aphantasia affects only a small minority of people and it's entirely reliant on subjective/qualitative responses from subjects, it's not a condition that has been studied very robustly. And, more to the point of my post today, it's usually only examined in the extreme. That is, it's only really brought up in the context of not having any mind's eye at all; where someone simply cannot visualize anything. But what we do know, and is not emphasized nearly as much, is that it's not an all-or-nothing condition. As the graphic above suggests, there are degrees of visualization. Some people can conjure photographic level results in their heads, and others can't come up with anything, but there are an endless variety of in-between stages. Where someone might be able to imagine a 'generic' apple but not have the level of detail to make it a specific one. Or where someone might only be able to picture the idea of an apple that looks almost cartoonish in its simplicity. Or where someone might have a depiction so vague, it's barely distinguishable from a red ball.

Those in-between stages are a notion that I've become interested in over the past few years, as I've come to realize how my wife and I picture things differently. We've had a few instances where we'd be looking for a solution for some "issue" with our house -- usually some form of storage. I would find a bookshelf or a cabinet or something online, and point it out to her in a "how about this" kind of manner. She'd comment on whether she liked the design or the color or whatever, but when I would try to explain how/where I'm picturing it in use, she would express that she had trouble seeing what I was talking about. I initially assumed it was a fault on my part for not explaining myself very well. And while there may well be some of that in play, we've had enough of these conversations over the years for me to realize that a good chunk of it also comes from her not being able to take the picture of the thing from online and mentally project it into our actual living space. Often, she winds up saying, "OK, try it and I'll let you know what I think" and is then pleasantly surprised when it works. She's come to often just trust my judgement on these types of things because my mind's eye is frequently clear and detailed enough that I've tried all the options in my head first, so it looks like I put things in the "correct" place right from the start.

Now, taking this notion to comics, I'm retroactively recalling several instances from people who were able to watch Jack Kirby work. I've heard multiple people say they were amazed in watching him draw a page because he would just start in the upper left corner of a blank sheet of paper and just start drawing. No preliminary sketches or layout tests or anything; the images just appeared on the page as Jack worked his way from the top left to the bottom right. Len Wein once described it as looking like Jack was just tracing lines that were already on the page but invisible to everybody else. And, in learning about aphantasia and the various levels of people's mind's eye, I'm wondering if that were more literally true than Wein thought. What if Jack could visualize the finished artwork on the page so completely, in such detail, that he really was effectively just tracing? He not only visualized a picture of Captain America that he was trying to replicate, he saw in his head a picture of Captain America on the specific sheet of paper in front of him. He didn't have to "test" whether a line should go here or a millimeter to one side or the other, he knew the precise place on the page where any given line should go because he had already 'seen' all the different options in his head. He knew precisely what the outcome of his page would be before his pencil ever touched the paper.

I don't know that I've ever heard another comic artist's work process described in the same way as Jack's. That's not to say no one else can do that, of course, but it stands to reason that if 5% of people in the world have aphantasia, then it stands to reason that only 5% have the polar opposite of it, whatever that might be called. "Reverse aphantasia"? I'm assuming the level of detail in people's minds eye follows a fairly typical bell curve distribution over the whole population. I think it would be interesting for this to somehow be charted or measured at an individul level, and then graph where various comic artists lie along the curve. Would the 'average' comic book artist be further away from the aphantasia end than the peak of the bell curve? Or would they be pretty close to typical, because that's why they use erasers after all?

Setting aside whatever weird peculiarities may be present in a population of comic creators, I think it's an area that requires quite a bit more study, and I think more research could yield some absolutely fascinating results.
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