So the recent labeling of the inability to visualize is picking up steam, the BBC has run an article (Here) as well as IFLscience.com (and here). I have often touched on sensory difference in my blog, and I want to take a moment to put forth a few thoughts on how our sensory baseline and toolkit influence our personality and choices.
We interact and understand the world through our sensory capabilities, everything we perceive and understand must be processed via our sensory functions. No person can take in all of object reality, we do the best we can with what we have, and this is often part of the core of why our very notions of reality can be strikingly different. Someone who is a color synesthete and translates micro-expressions into a visible color spectrum may believe they are reading auras, some folks see music in color, some people like me have pronounced tactile responses to visual, olfactory, and auditory stimuli. Since this is our baseline, barring degeneration or brain trauma, it is the only way we know how to view the world, it is comfortable and normal for us, and thus it is very easy to make the mistake that this is a shared human experience. Our ability to take in, process, store, recall, and manipulate sensory data is not the same, and it could potentially explain a great deal about our unconscious choices and personality, refuting in a way nulla ratio ad gustum or in simple English “there is no accounting for taste.”
So, we all perceive the world a bit differently, and what we can do with that data varies greatly too. If people have a better understanding of their sensory baseline, then they have a powerful tool into personality and knowledge of self. When you think about your sensory capabilities, you should ask yourself a few important questions. How do I take in data (and which methods do I prefer)? How do I store that data? How can I manipulate that data? and finally, how do I utilize that data when I am thinking? The answers are not the same for everybody, let me put a few bullet points below to get an idea of some possible differences and how they can affect personal choices. Also, realize that a great deal of research still needs to be done in these area, so do not confuse my questioning and hypothesis as fully vetted science, it would take a lifetime of research to even begin to touch on these things alone, so I hope anyone with a stronger science background recognizes this for what it is, thoughts, ideas, and questions.
- Visual data: So aphantasia, the inability to picture something in your mind and Hyperphantasia the ability to build photo-realistic imagery in ones mind are two polemics on a bell curve. Hyperphantasia has some obvious advantages, it is arguable for example that Nicola Tesla was hyperphantasiac, able to build and construct things in his own minds eye. Where as I am aphantasiac, I cannot visualize at all and instead rely on an inner monologue and vague feelings to put together my conscious thought processes. Now in the case of me, I have had pronounced and real trauma in my life, and I have often been baffled by people who are stuck reliving their trauma. Visualization could be an important component in this, I cannot visually or auditorily relive this trauma, I have only feelings and verbal memories, in a way that may give me greater resilience. So when it comes to researching trauma, it might be a powerful clinical tool to understand the sensory personality of the individuals, if they are reliving it in full detail, then you can develop the means to help them work through it. If they don’t you may be able to prevent a misunderstanding when the clinician thinks the person is not processing it, it may simply be it has less long term impact. Because I have experienced real and prolonged trauma in life, my lack of visualization may be why I am still here in reality with the rest of us, I tried so many ways to escape reality, books and games aplenty, if I was able to construct my own vivid imagery and fantasy world, I think it likely that I would have long ago retreated from a reality that was terrifying to me. Likewise, our visual acuity influences some of our tastes, I often like to use a discussion between my wife and I as an example, my vision is above average 20/15 in my left eye 20/17 in my right eye (though that is a few years out of date, so degeneration may be setting in), my wife has poor vision and relies on bifocals to make the world anything less than blurry. We both disagree a great deal on how stripes look, for her the stripes tend to be softer, they blend into each other, for me they are stark and in contrast, if they did appear softer I imagine I would like them more. It is a simple enough example though, our visual capabilities mean we do not see the same thing in the same way, our relationship to the aesthetic appeal of stripes is as much a function of visual acuity as some vague notion of personal taste.
- Audio Data: So I have had the (dis)pleasure of growing up with an older brother who is essentially a musical prodigy, he can hear something once, pick up any instrument, even one he has never used, and replicate it. He has perfect pitch and lives in a world where music is a living and vibrant construct. I can do no such thing, not only (arguably as a result of not being able to visualize, applies to maths as well) can I not read music, I cannot manipulate it or pull it apart in my head, though I can emulate it and I am a passably good singer as long as I have vocal warm ups before hand (or else I have a gap in the middle of my range). His love and experience of music is very different than mine, and it makes sense he ended up using music for a time as his career (he was a semi-pro Christian musician, did the Nashville circuit for a bit and still has a Christian music band and is a youth minister). I enjoy music and singing, but I am strictly a vocal sort of person, the mathematical qualities of purely instrumental music are fascinating too me, but I look for patterns in cognition and thought as part of my ASD related obsessions, so I want words, and words that have meaning, so I am not a fan of pop music or fluff either, so to me music is as much about singing philosophy as a simple enjoyment of it. Would this be different if I could hear a voice other than my own in my head? Most likely, then I could better piece together melody and harmony, I could manipulate it differently, but I can’t and I am no musical prodigy, just a competent singer and I used to feel inferior because of this, but I have different intellectual gifts that my brother does not have, and that is not such a bad thing. So how we relate and manipulate auditory information is likely to have a profound impact not just on musical talents, but on musical taste as well. Another noteworthy point in auditory processing is that some people cannot separate out conversations in noisy environments, they can’t filter out the background noise, and it is quite likely that most of us know people who dislike meeting in noisy environments to have a chat, they prefer smaller venues, this preference could simply be dictated by their ability to manipulate auditory data and make sense of it, I am one of those who cannot filter out specific sounds, as a result of this I am also the person who tends to get louder and louder at social gatherings, and when I am singing I must have either a source of feedback, or I cover one ear so I can hear my own voice amongst the clamor and surrounding noise. What seems like a personality trait “I prefer quiet environments” could be a direct result of ones ability to hear and how they can utilize and manipulate what they are hearing, just more food for thought.
- Tactile Data: Here is where I excel and also suffer, I am hyper-tactile, I am picky about clothes, hate having foreign substances on my skin, sticky hands drive me nuts. I also believe that my tendency to chew my fingers is less of a nervous habit and more of a means to remove callouses that try to develop, I hate how they mute my ability to feel things. Likewise, I feel more pain than most people and this greatly restricts some of my activities, when someone wants to feel the burn, I cringe at the thought of it. I have trouble sitting in one position too long, the pressure becomes painful, it makes going to sleep a night difficult as I must toss and turn in an attempt to get comfortable, one position hurts my shoulders, the other my hips, and I have to dangle my feet off the bed or else the tendency to extend them against the bed causes me great discomfort as well. And yet, there are positives along with these drawbacks, sure I was never good at manual labor or sitting still for long periods of time, but I am very good at feeling textures, even playing with air currents beneath the palm of my hand. If something is painted and fixed, it may look visually the same, but it is easy for me to tell where metal ends and a bondo job begins on a car frame, the texture difference is stark and obvious to me. I take in great deal of tactile information, and I can remember that tactile information. As a child I played a game with my siblings, we would imagine while driving jumping from one mile marker or fence post to another, I could not see that being done, but I could feel it, even now just thinking about it my stomach reacts as if I am actually jumping, I can feel that movement, my muscles remember it and thus I have an excellent tactile memory, in fact it is what I most often use to get around my visualization difficulties. I also process information well this way, I am the type of person who takes notes but never looks at them again, the act of writing helps encode the information into my long term memory, it is the process not reviewing them that helps me remember these things. But not everyone is as sensitive to touch and pain as I am, I see people wear articles of clothing with no discomfort that makes me itch just looking at it. Wearing a tie around my neck? horrific, but so many folks manage to do it will no discomfort, this is simple tactile difference…well and folks who make themselves suck it up for business, etc. How many of us know someone who when they get home get right into their comfy clothes? How many times have folks made fun of someone wearing sweats, PJ’s, or even a mumu when they are shopping? Is it that they are lazy or slovenly? Or does it indicate a person who may just be hypertactile and has issues with restrictive clothing and textures against their body, one is a moral judgment based on assumptions, the other is objective neurological difference that has real potential causation behind it, I naturally favor the later as the case.
- Olfactory and Taste Data: I am clumping taste and smell together as they are both chemical senses and very closely linked. Sight takes light waves and converts it to what we know as vision, auditory is a specific form of tactile sense that makes use of vibrations in the environment around us that we know of as sound. Tactile is actually very complex, we have specialized nerves for hot and cold, pressure, etc. But olfactory and smell, these are a result of chemical compounds that fit within specific chemical receptors and thus are very different in nature. For example, one can trick the nose with similar volatile organic compounds, I once tricked my wife and even my cats and dog into thinking I was cooking hamburgers, when in fact I was making an inedible combination of panko, egg, and fresh home roasted coffee grounds, because coffee shares volatile organic compounds with cooking meat. And it worked exceedingly well I must say, my wife was rather stunned she had truly believed I was cooking hamburgers when she walked through the door. And like our other senses though, some people can recall smells and tastes with vivid detail, others cannot, some of us have very sensitive palates and noses, some of us do not. Again, neurological difference that sometimes is confused with moral judgments of character and personality. A person with limited taste may get a fine meal and slather it in hot sauce or ketchup, some may see this as uncouth, but they simply may not have sensitive chemical receptors and thus need strong tastes, instead of picking apart the subtle and nuanced flavors. I am very sensitive to taste, I know well in advance if something is beginning to ferment or rot, and many folks I know still gladly eat food in that state, I avoid it like the plague. In the area of smell, strong smells overwhelm me, they make me nauseous, sick, and even impact my ability to maintain my balance (connecting back to my strong tactile/kinetic reactions to other sensory inputs). I cannot remember a smell on my own in my head, but I have excellent recall when exposed to it, I am one of those people who can walk into a kitchen, just grab a bunch of seemingly random spices and make a wonderful tasting meal (my presentation sucks though, shaky hands and such). To me it is easy to meld together those scents, even though I may not be able to actively recall them without them present (so I have limited ability to utilize stored scent data) I am able to do wonderful things with them (so I have a strong ability to manipulate that sensory data), once again this is difference, not everyone can do this. But these capabilities explain behaviors, do you know people who douse themselves in fragrances to the point of nausea? What about folks who stubbornly refuse to go to crowded areas or complain about the smell of places or people? Are they being just picky and judgmental, or are they taking in more sensory data than other people do? Our ability to use our senses differently can easily explain why one person may find a candle shop a bit of personal heaven while another has to be coerced into going in.
Those are just quick anecdotes for examples, not remotely an exhaustive list, but enough to really help illustrate just how different people can be based on nothing more than difference in our sensory capabilities. One mistake often made in our current cultural paradigm is that we test these abilities for the mean, we often do not test to see if someone has a superior sense of vision or hearing in our annual screenings. We should though, that information is important, it can tell us about possible strengths and explain aversions to certain things. Not everyone is suitable to be a wine taster, it can be trained to a degree, but someone with exceptional chemical sensory capabilities is going to be able to pull more data out of the sip with the same training as someone who is not as sensitive. It is not a point of superiority though, our brain has finite room and finite capabilities, so strength is some areas are likely to result in perceived deficits in other areas (such as sensitivities to chemicals and smells as well, want to get me to run out of a room? Open a bottle of bleach and see me haul tail out of there, and good luck dragging me to a public swimming pool). Much of what we assume are character flaws or quirks, can be understood as very natural consequences of our sensory capabilities, thus our sensory personality. And every interaction we have with object reality will by it’s nature be influenced by these things. The world becomes much less black and white when people realize just how different our brains are wired. So the next time you call someone a wimp because they complain about something hurting, remember that science is showing that some people do in fact feel more pain. I for one am far from a wimp, I live every moment with pain, I still get up and get things done that I have to, but I will not enjoy it while others might, the pain I feel may often exceed the endorphin rush I would get from certain exercises (or I lack the gene that influences dopamine when it comes to physical activity and thus would not get more pleasure out of it anyway).
As more people begin to understand this difference though, the more we talk about it, and the less judgmental we will be out of completely understandable ignorance. Science is opening up the human brain, Barack Obama called this the decade of the brain, and he is correct. We can communicate with folks in vegetative states (check this out here) and we can even see a person’s answers before they are even consciously aware their brain made a decision (here and here). We live in a fascinating time, but our society needs to catch up before we implode. So much rigid belief, judgment, and biases are putting us at odds, we attack each other over perceived slights, morals, and politics and expect folks to see the world the way we see it, which is not a neurological possibility. We need to take a collective breath, recognize how alien and different we can be, stop labeling one as superior, one cannot be morally accountable for inherent neurological difference, there is no fault to be had, and instead start talking dialectically instead of using rhetoric and sophistry to attack and undermine each other. As closing example I have used before in my writing is the use of the hoodie and how people perceive it. To some it is the clothing choice of criminals up to nefarious purpose, others a comfy way to show off their school logo, and for some of us it is a critical piece of clothing for reducing stimuli. The hoodie is often made of comfortable materials, with the hood up it reduces peripheral vision that many people over-utilize, especially on the autism spectrum. It can dampen sounds coming from behind and to the side of the head, but helps funnel sounds directed at ones face, helping those of us who have difficulty isolating conversation is noisy places better hear the conversations around us. The hoodie becomes more than just a fashion statement, for some it becomes an unconscious tool to help deal with an overstimulating world, and before we pass judgment on the person wearing one with sunglasses on, we should ask ourselves what else could be a reason for wearing such an ensemble, the results could be surprising indeed.