You've probably heard sentences like this a thousand times: "Picture it in your mind's eye". How literally can we take that?
"What Does it Mean to 'See With the Mind's Eye?'" (Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic [12/4/14]):
Imagine the table where you've eaten the most meals. Form a mental picture of its size, texture, and color. Easy, right? But when you summoned the table in your mind's eye, did you really see it? Or did you assume we've been speaking metaphorically?
From Hill Gates*:
Learned a couple of years ago of this condition, which explains a lot about my pathetic capacity to retain characters (perhaps also to retain friends!). Aphantasia is the incapacity to visualize — the mind's eye. I've seen you many times, Victor, and couldn't call up an image of your face to save my soul (although I can say things that describe your face — you have light eyes and fine nose, for example). Nor can I visualize Arthur [VHM: Hill's late husband], my Mother, the keyboard of my computer, anything. Certainly not one of the few complex characters I can reliably reproduce, because it is "double man, cross eye lion [line] hearted" 德 [dé — "virtue"] in words. At one time I might have had a few dozen such mnemonics, but ran out of bandwidth after that.
Why I write about this is that there are probably as many aphantasics in a Chinese population as in a Western one (assumption), and for them, fluent reading and writing would never be possible. Does the Chinese Min of Ed know such things? If they did, would they care?
I've made no secret of my feeble control over the Bronze Age chickentracks, …[and yet] I've been able to do a fair amount of work using only oral Chinese….
I was SO excited when I first ran across this research, because I really did try to learn characters, and finally had Harriet Mills [VHM: Hill's Chinese teacher at the University of Michigan] tell me I was never going to get anywhere in Chinese studies because I was so poor at writing. Figured I was doing something wrong, but never knew what. So I used what I had; I'm no genius in oral Chinese, either, but do have ears that seem to catch on to the many idiolects encountered as I spent time in many places while doing oral interview/surveys.
*Author of China's Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism (1996), Footbinding and Women's Labor in Sichuan (2014), Chinese working-class lives (1987), and other important works on Chinese anthropology.
Until I received the above paragraphs from Hill, I had never heard of "aphantasia"; it is, after all, a new term. I had certainly heard of "mind's eye" — one of my father's favorite expressions — but I never dreamed that it might have implications for the (in)ability to picture Chinese characters in one's mind.
The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 in a statistical study about mental imagery. Galton described it as a common phenomenon among his peers. However, it remained largely unstudied until 2005, when Prof. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter was approached by MX, a man who seemed to have lost the ability to visualize after undergoing minor surgery. Following publication of MX's case in 2010, Zeman was approached by a number of people claiming to have had a lifelong inability to visualise. In 2015 Zeman's team published a paper on what they termed "congenital aphantasia", sparking renewed interest in the phenomenon now known simply as aphantasia. Research on the subject is still scarce, but further studies are being planned.
2. Galton, Francis (19 July 1880). "Statistics of Mental Imagery". Mind. Oxford Journals. os–V (19): 301–318. doi:10.1093/mind/os-V.19.301. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
3. Zeman, Adam; Dewar, Michaela; Della Sala, Sergio (3 June 2015). "Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia". Cortex. 73: 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019. ISSN 0010-9452. PMID 26115582. Retrieved 24 June 2015. (subscription required (help)).
4. Gallagher, James (26 August 2015). "Aphantasia: A life without mental images". BBC News Online. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
5. Zimmer, Carl (22 June 2015). "Picture This? Some Just Can't". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
6. Grinnell, Dustin (20 April 2016). "My mind's eye is blind – so what's going on in my brain?". New Scientist (2070). Retrieved 9 July 2016.
7. "To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour." (Galton, 1880)
8. "You might not be able to imagine things, and not know it". The Independent. 2016-04-25. Retrieved 2016-12-16.
9. Zeman, Adam Z. J.; Della Sala, Sergio; Torrens, Lorna A.; Gountouna, Viktoria-Eleni; McGonigle, David J.; Logie, Robert H. (2010-01-01). "Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: A case of 'blind imagination'". Neuropsychologia. 48 (1): 145–155. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.024.
The perception of the elements of writing is not constant from one individual to the next nor is it constant from one writing system to the next.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I came to know that some people experience color sensations when seeing letters or characters:
"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)
Then there's aphasia, dyslexia, and, of course, character amnesia, about which we here at Language Log are familiar:
All such psychological conditions that have a bearing on human ability to read and write ensure that there is no single model for literacy in different writing systems and for different individuals.