noigroup logo

Don’t you wonder sometimes

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 02 Jul 2015

During Graded Motor Imagery courses we run an exercise as part of the session on imagined movements that we call ‘taking a virtual walk’. Divided into pairs, one participant takes a literal walk around the venue, noting the specific sights, sounds, smells and feelings. Upon their return they take their partner on the same walk, but do it virtually – they describe in detail the specific sights, sounds, smells and feelings, asking their partner to vividly imagine the experience. On occasions, we have had participants report that they are just unable to imagine seeing what their partner is describing. When questioned further, they’ve reported that they simply don’t ‘see’ anything ‘in their mind’. This has always intrigued us and definitely had us wondering about imagined sound and vision.

A recent piece by Carl Zimmer in The New York Times explores this experience and reports on a recently published paper in Cortex that gives this phenomenon a name – aphantasia:

“Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds…

Among the questions, the scientists asked their subjects to picture things like a sunrise. Try as they might, most of the respondents couldn’t see anything. But some of them did report rare, involuntary flashes of imagery. The mention of a friend’s name, for instance, might briefly summon a face.

When the scientists asked their subjects to mentally count the windows in their house or apartment, 14 succeeded. They seem to share MX’s ability to use alternate strategies to get around the lack of a mind’s eye.”


I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to imagine an image… David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” seems like appropriate pondering music here:

I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision

And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Drifting into my solitude, over my head

Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision




Would love to hear from anyone out there that has this experience, or knows of someone who does, in comments below.


-Tim Cocks



Last chance to get on a Graded Motor Imagery course in Australia this year – David Butler in Sydney 10-11 July.


  1. In Buddhism, one way to perform jhana meditation is by staring at a kasina (object like a candle flame) then attempting to maintain the after image with eyes closed.

    Basically the retina holds onto the image for a while. Most people would have experienced this phenomenon when staring at a bright light in the dark then having the light turn itself off. There’s also the “nimitta” which is a bright light one sees when in deep absorption and probably the origin of the phrase “I saw the light”. Quite literal, in other words. Never done it myself, but I know someone who happened on it by chance. Her description was a perfect match for what one reads in the old texts. Accompanied by ecstasy and all the trappings. And this was someone who knew absolutely nothing about meditation or buddhism. Fascinating stuff when it happens by chance AND matches detailed ancient descriptions.


  2. betsancorkhill

    This has fascinated me for a while. When I first started thinking about developing knitting as a therapeutic tool some 10 years ago, I had one of those wonderful ‘out of the box’ discussions with a Research Psychologist who had a particular interest in researching depression. One of his first comments was ‘I wonder if it could ‘re-awaken’ the Mind’s Eye?’ His observation was that depression often causes the ‘Mind’s Eye’ to close. There followed a long discussion on whether it would be possible to ‘re-awaken’ it through carefully structured therapeutic creative activities.

    I view the ability to visualise as crucial to planning forward, ‘looking’ forward, anticipation of the future, excitement, having a knowledge of where you are in space, even who you are in the world. It gives you a future but also a core knowledge of how you relate to the world.

    Perhaps for some people we need to have a graded approach to visualisation / opening the Mind’s Eye before we even get started with anything else. As you know, visualising anything involving movement can, in some, trigger pain, so perhaps, in some, this ability to visualise closes down gradually in much the same way as mobility decreases?

    I was intrigued to read that some people are born unable to visualise so I’d be really interested to observe how these children play…. Also intrigued to know how they ‘know’ babies are born without this ability…rather than it being something they ‘learn’ in early childhood.

    Fascinating stuff – love these conversations!

  3. In our hand therapy clinic, we recently had a client who participated well with the right/left discrimination portion of GMI and was anticipating trying the mirror box. When we tried explicit motor imagery, though, he was resistant and finally admitted that he couldn’t do it. We had him watch other people using their hands instead. Is there another method to use during GMI if your client is unable to visualize their hand performing an activity?

  4. davidbutler0noi

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for the question. It’s not an uncommon one.

    Overall, l I think there is enough evidence supporting the notion that explicit imagery abilities are required for best mirror outcomes.

    Watching (action observation) is fine but I would still try ways to get him to imagine movements. Some broad suggestions to consider.

    – imagine postures before imagine movements
    – imagine gross movements such as swinging the arm while walking/or more local movements such as imaging rubbing a lotion on the hand
    – imagined movement with as many SIMs (Explain Pain Hand book) in action
    – get explicit MI skills with the other side or the leg/body on the painful side
    – use any hypnosis , mindfulness or meditative skills
    – and yes, anecdotally some people have “jump started” explicit MI skills by carefully using the mirror.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Product was added to cart.