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dreaming in emotions
my inability to visualize
by katherine l (aka clevertitania) (@CleverTitania)
11.16.09
general

As I've mentioned in earlier writing, I am unable to see pictures in my head. By that, I mean, whether I am awake or asleep, I am completely incapable of clearly picturing anyone or anything. And if you think zombie dreams are scary when you can clearly see the zombies, and the sidewalk you're running on, and the door you're going to hide behind... imagine if all that was just a series of blurry blobs? That's some night terror.

While this has been my state as long as I can remember, it truly never occurred to me that there was any other way to be. In retrospect, it's actually slightly silly. For years I've heard people say, "Visualize that in your mind." Why I never thought on the fact that I am incapable of performing the task, I'll never know. I guess, like a poster of a new forum I found, I just assumed they meant it metaphorically.

There were other things too, that should've brought me to really examine this deficiency in my mind. For instance, I cannot draw. I don't mean I just can't draw well, I mean I am truly crap at it. I hated art classes in high school, because I couldn't create anything visually motivated; painting, sculpture, even collages were fairly pointless. Later in life I got decent at doing some graphic work on computers, but even that is usually manipulating other things I've seen into a form I like better. Photography is the only kind of visual medium I don't suck at. I guess it's because I don't have to hold an image in my mind to create it. The camera does the heavy lifting.

My turning point, when I fully realized just what I'm missing, happened about a year ago. For a single moment my brain actually worked as (in my opinion) it should. Fiction has commented before on that magical time between awake and asleep. That's when it happened. Suddenly, there was a flash in my mind, and it was just there; a perfect purple stormy sunset, over an ocean side cliff. I could see the cliff line in sharp relief, the fluffy yet ominous clouds and the light filtering through them to splash colors across the sky. It wasn't even a memory. I'm fairly certain I've never seen that gorgeous vista before in my life, but it was truly breathtaking. Maybe a second or two later, it was gone, and I was asleep.

I wish I'd been awake enough to fully appreciate it, though I wonder if it could've even happened while I was more conscious. Sadly, while I recall what elements were in this glorious image, thanks to my defective brain, I cannot recreate even that picture in my mind. But the next morning, as I thought of this vision, I was fully cognizant of just what I have been missing all my life. And I will admit a certain resentment over the facts. My brain has an inability to create visual imagery. Despite the fact that I've been told I have a certain talent for writing visual imagery, I can't actually see it.

It is in moments like these, I really feel a small sense of satisfaction in who I am. Despite this impairment, I learned to create pictures in the minds of others. Even with my attention and memory problems (which I suspect are closely tied to this deficiency), I've learned to be an effective technical writer and a manager of a fairly large department. I will never claim that I've come close to overcoming these problems, but I can at least admit to myself that I've adapted fairly well. I am not a completely non-productive and unimaginative person. :)

But still... to see that sunset again.

So through a little research, and some self reflection (and we all know how I love to do that), I've pieced together this much. For one thing, there is a real condition called prosopagnosia (visit prosopagnosia.com to learn more), but more commonly referred to as "face blindness." This is why I felt like a schmuck when an old high school acquaintance approached me recently, and it took several moments for me to remember that I'd known her at all. Without the ability to see faces in your mind, it's fairly difficult to recall them later for recognition purposes. It also means I would be rubbish at describing a criminal to a sketch artist. Let's hope I never witness a crime. But clearly my issue goes beyond that.

I also found an article, where a german university did a study on people to see how many suffered from prosopagnosia. Of the 689 tested, they found 17 cases. Of those 17, 14 of them had at least one close family member who also had the condition. My sister, as I believe I mentioned earlier, also has the same visualization problems I do (her former roommate does not have this problem, and she is an incredibly talented artist). My mother, like most other people who aren't afflicted, almost seems to think I'm just imagining the issue. She can't conceptualize how I see things in my head. Since dad passed when I was 6, no way to know if he suffered. And since my sis and I were over 30 when we came to this realization, he might not even have known himself.

But the article also presented another odd wrinkle. People with prosopagnosia often have a hard time following movies, and can't recognize actors in other films, because it's hard for them to follow who is who. Now that is something I've never had any problem with. They'll occasionally be two or three actors I mix up a lot at first (like Thomas Jane, Aaron Eckhart & Josh Lucas), but eventually I get them sorted in my head. But then again, I watch A LOT of movies. My sister does as well, but she does have a harder time remembering actors.

Additionally, the faces are only a part of the problem for me. I cannot see anything, in my mind, with any definition or clarity. So what is that called? Hell if I can find out. I've been hunting, and so far I can't even find evidence anyone has even studied this phenomenon. But I'm not alone. I found a forum where a handful of people were discussing this very topic. I've joined, and hope to use their input and my own experiences to research more on this.

Here's what I've learned about dreams and visual imagery in my head. I don't see anything at all. What my mind conjures are vague blobs of color and substance that my brain can explain as something I want to interact with. What I genuinely experience is my sensory and/or emotional response to said object/person. When I dream, I'm experiencing every emotion involved in a scenario, and it drives the narrative, but because there's nothing concrete to work with, it jumps around haphazardly. As a result, even when I'm completely aware I'm dreaming, I can't ever go lucid. It's simply impossible to interact with nothingness.

Something else I've noticed. There are a some faces I can almost see pieces of in my mind. It's not fully there, but every so often I'll catch an eye line or an accurate move of the lips. But it's not my family. It's actors. Actors who are among the most emotionally expressive can win over my brain... Christian Kane, Jensen Ackles, Michael Weatherly, Zachary Levi... Ok they aren't all cute guys around my age. :P Also, Sally Field, Richard Dreyfuss, Alyson Hannigan, Tim Roth, Meg Ryan. There are others, but you get the gist. It's only certain scenes, in certain films, and certain emotions, but it's there. I can picture the scene and occasional get a glimpse of a piece of a face, that truly drives my emotional response to their work.

So once again I'm back to the theory that whatever part of my brain is not function the way I'd like, is not entirely broken. That there are brief moments of clarity must indicate that it's somewhat functional.

I am also aghast at just how little I'm able to find on this condition. This phenomenon would have huge impact on education. One individual on the forum above had serious difficulties with math, as a result of the condition. I was actually fairly good at algebra, but atrocious at geometry. And I do use his trick of figuring out simple multiplication problems, in my head, by using the 5 times table and adding/subtracting from there. And imagine how this affects the ability to learn geography (a class I abhorred almost as much as art). People should be studying this, treatments should be investigated, it needs attention. It may only be a small part of the population, but that also applies to dyslexia. We still realized that we had to adjust our educational model for those individuals. I can't even find good statistics on how many people suffer from prosopagnosia, much less this more pronounced version that seems to have no definition.

I will continue to do my own research on this problem, and will pass along any insights I can gleam. I'd also love if some of the other afflicted would pass their own stories along. Comparisons to different forms or levels of ability could be useful. And finally, I'd like to offer myself up as a guinea pig. If you are in a position to study this condition, and/or study any possible treatments, I am game. There are several things that I know I could do, if I could only address this short circuit. I am willing to be poked, prodded, MRI'd and electroded. Anything to advance this topic into, at the least, something that the world recognizes and understands. Got a lab? I'm your rat.


ABOUT KATHERINE L (AKA CLEVERTITANIA)

When I grow up, I want to be; whoever Joss Whedon wants to be, when he grows up. I am a writer because it's the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning; aside from eating and using the lavatory of course. My work includes screenplays, short stories, film/TV/music reviews and socio-political commentary. The last one is a fancy way of saying I like to shoot my mouth off on many topics. I excel at using $1.50 words. They gone up, thanks to inflation. Isn't our economy awesome?

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