We take hundreds of things for granted as part of the ‘human package’ with which we are born, but there is one specific thing that we need to revaluate: the mind’s eye, more commonly understood as ‘visual imagination.’ The emphasis on revaluating this capacity comes from a recent study in which it was confirmed that there exists a congenital condition called aphantasia in which that ‘mind’s eye’ is blind; meaning that the brain for some people (one in 50) is incapable of forming images.

The mere existence of the ‘mind’s eye’ has been recently confirmed by neuroscience. It is something that, in literature and philosophy, has been one more fact that is more than assumed for the understanding of ideas and concepts, but for neuroscience there was never a way of measuring it and therefore proving its existence. Now it has been revealed as a fact that there are people who simply cannot process visual information (a poem, a literary description or a conversation with graphical references). Those who suffer from aphantasia (and few of them actually know it) have great difficulty in describing their imagination or how to process visual information. For them, the most common experiences such as reading are experienced in a completely different way. A man with aphantasia reported not being able to “count sheep to get to sleep” for example, or recognize family faces. Can we imagine what it would be like to read Borges or Bradbury without being able to visualize their descriptions, or read poems whose verbal images are treated like paintings (“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”).

It is no surprise that it was Shakespeare who coined the phrase ‘the mind’s eye’ in Hamlet, one of the works that most require (both from the character and the reader) a capacity to visualize the events and their ghosts. “We call the moon the moon,” said John Donne, but now it turns out that there are those who call it thus without being able to see it by just closing their eyes. It would appear that aphantasia sharpens the memory of facts, and which serves as a solace to those who suffer from it. What we do not know is what those who don’t see with their mind’s eye dream about, what science fiction they read, and what they hear in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

As so often happens, finding out what one has and that another lacks it brings gratitude and perspective. The mind’s eye has brought us so many happy moments – as well as terrible ones, why not admit it – that it would not be excessive to over estimate it. Here is a poem by William Blake (who perhaps reimagined the imagination) and 13 ways of looking at a blackbird with the mind’s eye.

.

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

We take hundreds of things for granted as part of the ‘human package’ with which we are born, but there is one specific thing that we need to revaluate: the mind’s eye, more commonly understood as ‘visual imagination.’ The emphasis on revaluating this capacity comes from a recent study in which it was confirmed that there exists a congenital condition called aphantasia in which that ‘mind’s eye’ is blind; meaning that the brain for some people (one in 50) is incapable of forming images.

The mere existence of the ‘mind’s eye’ has been recently confirmed by neuroscience. It is something that, in literature and philosophy, has been one more fact that is more than assumed for the understanding of ideas and concepts, but for neuroscience there was never a way of measuring it and therefore proving its existence. Now it has been revealed as a fact that there are people who simply cannot process visual information (a poem, a literary description or a conversation with graphical references). Those who suffer from aphantasia (and few of them actually know it) have great difficulty in describing their imagination or how to process visual information. For them, the most common experiences such as reading are experienced in a completely different way. A man with aphantasia reported not being able to “count sheep to get to sleep” for example, or recognize family faces. Can we imagine what it would be like to read Borges or Bradbury without being able to visualize their descriptions, or read poems whose verbal images are treated like paintings (“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”).

It is no surprise that it was Shakespeare who coined the phrase ‘the mind’s eye’ in Hamlet, one of the works that most require (both from the character and the reader) a capacity to visualize the events and their ghosts. “We call the moon the moon,” said John Donne, but now it turns out that there are those who call it thus without being able to see it by just closing their eyes. It would appear that aphantasia sharpens the memory of facts, and which serves as a solace to those who suffer from it. What we do not know is what those who don’t see with their mind’s eye dream about, what science fiction they read, and what they hear in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

As so often happens, finding out what one has and that another lacks it brings gratitude and perspective. The mind’s eye has brought us so many happy moments – as well as terrible ones, why not admit it – that it would not be excessive to over estimate it. Here is a poem by William Blake (who perhaps reimagined the imagination) and 13 ways of looking at a blackbird with the mind’s eye.

.

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

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