Artists with aphantasia: extended imagining?

Matthew MacKisack is a cultural historian and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School. His research explores the intellectual and cultural history of imagining; he recently co-curated 'Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye', an exhibition of art by people who cannot visualise.

Matthew MacKisack is a cultural historian and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School. His research explores the intellectual and cultural history of imagining; he recently co-curated 'Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye', an exhibition of art by people who cannot visualise.

A post by Matthew MacKisack.

In this post I am going to discuss the procedural narratives of visual artists with aphantasia, ‘a condition of reduced or absent voluntary imagery’ (Zeman et al 2015, p1). With the aim of finding out how aphantasia informs the individual’s creative process, I will focus on a claim that appears several times in the narratives: that the pictures the artists make stand in for or somehow supplant the mental imagery they lack. I will explore what could be meant by this, suggest an answer, then conclude by looking at how the answer might square with aphantasia being specifically a deficit of voluntary imagery. The post is a sketch for a more comprehensive qualitative study - comments and suggestions are very welcome.

The term ‘aphantasia’ was coined by Adam Zeman and colleagues in a research paper in 2015. Following description of the paper in the popular press, many thousands of individuals contacted Zeman to say they too were ‘aphantasic’, and many of them, to the researchers’ surprise, said that they maintained a creative practice. And the notion of, in particular, visual artists who cannot visualise is surprising. Why? Most likely because it contradicts some common assumptions about how artists work (probably owed to the continued strength of the ’Renaisance genius’ stereotype): that to make anything one has to be able to imagine what the thing will look like; that making art essentially entails having an idea then realising it in the world (Panofksy 1968). To understand how aphantasic artists do work, we developed an exhibition of their art – the 19 participants included architects, milliners, and all levels of professional ‘art world’ involvement - and asked them to describe their working processes. We soon found that, for many of these individuals, art-making replaces ‘mind’s eye’ activity.  

Canadian artist Sheri Bakes, whose aphantasia (like Zeman’s earlier case study ‘MX’ [Zeman et al 2010] and indeed Charcot’s ‘Monsieur X’ [Charcot & Harris 1991]) was acquired, was explicit on this:

‘Before my stroke, it was all figurative. ... My work was more narrative, more literal, more photo real. [...] Recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe not being able to see things in my mind ... maybe that’s a good thing. The paintings have become my brain. The paintings have become the picture inside that I can’t see. I can feel those stars in my chest when I look at them on my wall, and while I am painting them. I can feel them crackling and sparkling. I might not be able to see it in my brain, but at least now I can feel it.’ (Euringer 2017)

For Bakes, painting has a double function: the act of painting replaces the lost act of visual imagining; and the finished work ‘on [her] wall’ seems to serve as an external representation or marker of that ‘inner’ experience. There is also the sense that aphantasia does not necessarily inhibit artistic production, as one might expect, but actually provides a motivation, giving a reason to produce images externally. British artist Michael Chance, who paints detailed figurative scenes, also views his aphantasia as a stimulus, because he cannot personally entertain images other than by creating them in paint:

‘The lack of ability to visualise images in my mind is a great motivation; I must physically work on a drawing or painting in order for my imagination to become visually manifest. I often start a picture with no intention and certainly no end goal; it materialises in an improvisatory way. This sense of stepping out into the unknown is thrilling and the subsequent discovery of latent imagery fascinating. Largely bypassing conscious decision making, the way images (usually figures) emerge from my subconscious is akin to dreaming, and the resulting work is often just as strange, surprising and revealing as that would suggest. However (yet, somewhat like dreams) these visions are informed by my everyday experience and observational drawing practice, and structured by my artistic understanding of illusionistic space, light, form and anatomy.’  (MacKisack & Aldworth, 2018, p35)

What is immediately noticeable is the way that ‘physical’ work replaces mental work. Painting takes the place of visualising or dreaming. Secondly, by making the images the artist ‘discovers’ something (about themselves?), which they did not or could not foresee: ‘imagery’ which before putting brush to canvas had been ‘latent’.  We’ll come back to this in a moment.  

There are several points of agreement in another account, from Australian artist Susan Baquie. The particular work she is referring to was made, she says, in response to news of the suicide of an acquaintance.

‘My emotional state caused me to “work blind” within a process of cutting and tearing papers and applying the mixed media in abstract forms onto the backing. In this process, there is a desire and energy to make and to create, but the mind is not concentrating on much more than the energy within the process. Gradually, shapes and colours evoke essences of meaning within the experiences being “blindly” depicted. As I have aphantasia, there were no images in my mind of the distressing events, but it seems that a figurative representation of them emerged unintentionally, growing from the action of making and the subliminal or subconscious knowledge of the death of the young man.’ (MacKisack & Aldworth 2018, p44)

As for both Bakes and Chance, ‘physical’ work – here, pre-existing materials combined, altered, and added to a surface – is taking the place of ‘mental’ work, in as much as the collage gives form to something that the artist could not do by mental imagery. Also, as for Chance, there is no conscious plan for the work to depict a specific object or scene, and again, there is a sense of discovery: that it is a depiction emerges retrospectively, by the artist perceiving what they have already produced and recognising it as a ‘figurative representation’.  

This use of the canvas or picture surface as a surrogate ‘mind’s eye’ is, I think, explained well by ‘extended cognition’ (Clark & Chalmers 1998): the individual brain performing some operations, but delegating others to physical manipulations of external media. Chance’s painting and Baquie’s collage on this view are outsourced processes: a way of manipulating data that, as Clark writes ’the biological brain would find hard, time consuming, or even impossible’ (Clark 2003, p3).

Impossible is the key word here. Non-aphantasic artists also (contrary to stereotype) work by adjusting physical marks until they ’look right’ – when sketching out an initial idea, for example. And they do this rather than simply visualising what they want then executing it, claims Clark, because visualing is inherently limited. Mental visualisations are ‘interpretatively fixed’ (Clark 2003, p76): they are what the visualiser makes them to be. By starting to draw, however, the artist begins a feedback loop, in which each mark they make suggests possibilities for the next. The artist ’perceptually, not merely imaginatively, re-encounters visual forms, which she can then inspect, tweak, and re-sketch’’ (Clark 2003, p77). Now, Clark’s claim about why artists sketch is based on the limitedness of imagery per se, disregarding individual differences. The aphantasic’s mental imagery, however, is more than limited – it simply cannot be voluntarily experienced. So while the non-aphantasic might indeed sketch for the reason Clark gives, the aphantasic artist is obligated to make ’physical’ images if they want to see what the thing they are thinking of looks like. They have extended image-making as a cognitive process to include paper, paint, and canvas, using those materials for a task that their brains in particular find impossible.

On the basis of the reports, then, we can reasonably describe what these artists are doing as distributed or extended imagining. But the phenomenology of aphantasic artistic production – the 1st-person ’what it is like’ to make art or be creative in such circumstances – also provokes further questions. What, for example, can Michael Chance mean when he says he is ’discover[ing] latent imagery’? Is it that these artists have an ’inner’ representation to guide the production of an ’outer’ representation? If so, where is it? Is it unconconscious? Inaccessible? These are a matter for further work, but one related question we can briefly address here concerns the issue of voluntariness.

Imagination as it serves creativity is cognition ostensibly under the will of the agent (Stokes 2014). A person decides to take on a project then deliberates, hypotheizes, etc. While both Chance and Baquie decide to make work, then decide to work in the way that they do – i.e. painting, collage - they also describe things happening unwilled. They talk of ’discovery’, of images emerging (either in the moment of execution or retrospectively) outside of immediate voluntary control. If aphantasic art-making is a form of imagining, is it, on this basis, more like dreaming, as Michael Chance feels it to be? Again, non-aphantasic artists will also incorporate involuntary events and actions into their production processes, but we are interested here in how aphantasia might lead or even obligate an individual to create. In the knowledge that the majority of Zeman et al 2015’s participants reported experiencing imagery in dreams, confirming a significant dissociation between voluntary and involuntary imagery, we are left wondering if aphantasic visual imagining can happen, but only without the agent’s intention - in dreams or as an extended cognitive process, using paint, paper, and canvas.


References:

Charcot, J. M., & Harris, R. (Eds.). (1991). Clinical lectures on the diseases of the nervous system. London: Routledge.


Clark, A. and Chalmers, D. (1998) The Extended Mind. Analysis , Vol. 58, No. 1. pp. 7-19.

Clark, A. (2003). Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Euringer, A. (2017) Art after a Brain Injury, canadianart <https://canadianart.ca/ features/sheri-bakes-art-after-brain-injury>

MacKisack, M. and Aldworth, S. (eds.) Extreme Imagination - Inside the Mind's Eye.  Exeter: The Eye’s Mind Press. (2018)

Panofsky, E. (1968). Idea: a Concept in Art Theory. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press

Stokes, D. (2014) The Role of Imagination in Creativity. In Paul, E., and Kaufman, S. (eds) The Philosophy of Creativity. Oxford: OUP pp157- 184

Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery: Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378-380.

Zeman, A. Z. J., Della Sala, S., Torrens, L. A., Gountouna, V.-E., McGonigle, D. J., & Logie, R. H. (2010). Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuospatial task performance: A case of ‘blind imagination. Neuropsychologia, 48, 145-155.