The False Mirror, 1928 by Rene Magritte
I’m a very ‘visual’ person. I was always keen or art and trained as an architect so, whether it was nature, nurture or both, I do ‘see’ things in my mind in very visual terms and find it hard to imagine that other people imagine things differently. Perhaps that is why I am fond of visualisation in mindfulness, ‘Mountain’ and ‘Tree’ meditations are among my favourites and, in breathing practice, I favour techniques like the square breath when we can imagine breathing around a picture frame for example.
We place a lot of emphasis on visual imagery in our modern world of screens and magazines, but writing, and language generally, can be a much more powerful communication tool. A picture may ‘paint a thousand words’ but a thousand words can usually explain a lot more, and with greater clarity, than a thousand pictures. I had an architect friend who taught in Hong Kong and noticed that the students, from a cultural background where language is stronger than pictorial art, were often more able to express themselves better in writing than in drawing. Sketching is obviously important in architecture, but he found that encouraging his students to write down in words what their design was about could be enormously helpful in developing their ideas. They dubbed him ‘Mr Text’.
We also know that visual images can be illusory and misinterpreted- the black and white figure-ground image of the vase and/or the two faces, and dozens of similar trompes l’oeil, as well as the rugs that look like holes in the floor and cats bursting out of t-shirts that are doing the social media rounds at present, are a testament to this.
Visualisation techniques can be used in sport where players are asked to picture the shot they are going to make and how successful it will be, or before a difficult game they might be asked to bring to mind a picture of what they will be doing when they have achieved a successful outcome. In the film Gladiator the Roman general played by Russel Crowe rallies his cavalry with the words: “Three weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so.”
But some people cannot imagine things visually at all. This is called aphantasia. Comedian Richard Herring has this to say about realising he had the condition:
“I had an astonishing realisation about myself today when my friend posted a test on Facebook asking you to close your eyes and visualise an apple and then choose what apple you saw with your mind’s eye: a 3D colour one, a 2D colour one, a 2D black and white one, a 2D white one or just black nothingness. I tried it and discovered that I am a number 5 - blackness. I can’t ring up an image with my eyes closed. I just think of the word apple. Maybe [this] explains why I am not great at remembering the faces of people that I haven’t met that many times… I can still dream, but I can’t conjure up an apple (or anything). I envy you people with a mind’s eye. But I am mind blind.”
A version of this is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, when people cannot distinguish one face from another. I had a friend who had an extreme version of this when he had a stroke. Not only could he not see faces—all he saw, where someone’s face should be, was a black hole! (Fortunately, it didn’t last too long). All this is very counter to what we know of human development where it has been shown that babies will focus on a human face before anything else, and indeed we see this in adults when we can pick out a face in a bathroom tile or a damp stain on a wall.
Another interesting distortion of the senses is synaesthesia, where people are so highly tuned into a particular sense that they can hear colours, a certain shade of orange may be associated with a musical note for example, or they can taste sounds. It is surprisingly common, about 1 in 30 people are thought to have the condition in some form. Here is James Wannerton, the president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, describing how he experiences sounds:
“Every sound I hear, especially word sounds, comes with an involuntary taste and texture experience attached. This is a real mouthfeel and not just a simple association. If I hear my dog bark, I experience the taste and texture of runny custard in my mouth. The word ‘like’ tastes of yoghurt, the name ‘Martin’ has the tastes and texture of a warm Bakewell tart. Individual voices have taste and texture, as does all music.”
I love the specificity of this—like a sommelier describing a wine’s bouquet as being redolent of the sun on a newly creosoted fence.
But where does this lead us in terms of our mindfulness practice? Certainly, visualisation can be a very useful way of focusing our busy minds, but we need to be aware that we all think and imagine differently. Even from one moment to the next each of us may change in the way we work with the different tools at our disposal. A student in our class remarked that visualisations that relate to the body, imagining her torso as a trunk of a tree in ‘Tree’ meditation for example, was much easier than imagining what colour her mood was. Even for someone as ‘visual’ as I believe I am, I could definitely relate to that.