Seeing in Pictures

I went to a really interesting presentation last night by a guy named Daniel Reisberg, an expert in cognitive psychology. He was talking about how some people can visualize things in their minds and some people can’t, although they may not know they can’t. Researchers can tell this by sticking people in FMRI machines while they are being instructed to visualize something. For the visualizers, when they follow an instruction like “picture your living room in your mind”, the visual cortex lights up just like it would if they were actually looking at their living room. But for others, he said, the areas of the brain that light up have nothing to do with vision. The way he put it is that they appear to be “dancing through their living room” rather than looking at it. Apparently, these people think in terms of spatial relationships rather than pictures.

I came away realizing that I don’t have the defective memory I’ve always thought I had. I’ve had this secret shameful fear that one day I would be the only eyewitness to a crime, and the whole case would depend on me, and they’d want me to describe the perp to a sketch artist and I’d be like, “Umm, he had a head, and a nose, and two eyes…” Then they’d take me to the lineup and show me a bunch of guys and I’d have no idea if I’d ever seen any of them before or not, and the bad guy would get off because I couldn’t identify him. It has haunted me. How come all these people on CSI and Special Victims can tell an artist exactly what shape someone’s nose was, and how their eyebrows tilted just so, and what kind of earlobes they had? I can’t even tell you what my husband’s earlobes look like, now that I think of it, and I’ve been looking at them for over a decade.

It turns out I’m a “spatializer,” not a “visualizer.” I’m not sure what the implications of this are, just yet. The research is still going on, funded by, of all people, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, courtesy of Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, I suppose. As it turns out, Tibetan Buddhists are very interested in visualization, and whether you can teach a non-visualizer to visualize, and what the limits of the brain’s capacity for visualization are. And that the Dalai Lama, had he not been the Dalai Lama, would have liked to have been an engineer – so he’s very much into using scientific investigative techniques and properly designed experiments.

In the meantime, at least now I know I’m not broken — just different. Whew.

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