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Aphantasia and meditation

I came over an interesting psychology research topic on youtube. A group of researchers are studying peoples’ internal experience. They have an interesting research methodology: the study subject wears a device that beeps at random times during the day. When the subject hears the beep, the subject pays attention to what their internal experience is like. At a later time, the researchers interview the subjects about their experience.

A cool observation from the research is that when a person says “I’m thinking about whether to have a hot dog or a hamburger for dinner”, the internal experience of that person can range from:

  • Speaking to oneself in the mind with words “hotdog or hamburger for dinner?”
  • Visualizing images of a hot dog and a hamburger without any words
  • Experiencing the taste of mustard
  • Feeling anxiety over not being able to afford a hamburger
  • Just knowing a choice is being made, without any of the above

It’s also the case that some people have aphantasia, i.e. they are unable to see any images in their minds (but they do see images in dreams it appears).

Some people also do not experience any internal monologue, i.e. they cannot “speak to themselves” in their minds, they do not hear their thoughts in words.

I can’t help but think that these different ways of experiencing must affect how people experience the process of meditation as well.

It could maybe explain to some extent why people seem to click with different meditation practices or understand meditation in a certain way.

Anyway, food for thought :slight_smile:

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Thank you for sharing this!

How would this affect mettā meditation?

Are people with aphantasia more attuned to evoking the emotion of mettā through a mental practice that’s different from visualization? Or are people with aphantasia at an overall disadvantage when it comes to cultivating mettā?

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I don’t have aphantasia, but I don’t generally do any visualization for mettā. For someone who is a very strong visualizer though, it might be natural to do so.

IMO, there’s probably pros and cons with all ways of experiencing. But I think someone who has a hard time visualizing, e.g. with aphantasia, could get discouraged and think “I can’t do this” when they attempt a style of meditation built on visualization.

But instead of getting discouraged, they should probably just try a different style :slight_smile:

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Very interesting topic. I have aphantasia, I became aware of it only a few years ago while reading an article online. It came as a big surprise that most people were actually really seeing pictures in their minds. I always thought it was a metaphor.
I also realized why I never liked guided meditations that required visualizations.

I think very few teachers are aware of this, they just assume that everybody can see pictures in their mind.

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If you have practiced mettā meditation, have you been able to find ways to cultivate it that are not designed around visualization?

Bhante Vimalaraṁsi recommends focusing on sensations in the body rather than on mental images (p. 10):

Some people visualize easily; others do not. It is not important that you clearly see your object of meditation. Just know it is there. Keep the feeling of yourself in the center of your chest, wrapped in this happy and content feeling.

The somatic focus would make sense. It would also tie into MN 10 and MN 118. But I suppose there is no direct discussion of this in the suttas.

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I don’t know if I have aphantasia or not; maybe, because when I “visualize” with my eyes closed, it’s really mostly just a series of verbal comments about remembered visual memories: it’s quite abstract, really, for example “a tomato” has redness or greenness or yellowness, round irregulaity, softness and variable density throughout, perhaps scent, perhaps distant association with flavor, perhaps distant associations with human and nonhuman consumption or use. I have some difficulty at times recognizing faces, even of people I know, in the sense of tying a face under observation to the complex constructs of lives I recall. I do have quite visual multi leveled metaphor dreams. I will be discussing this, with persons skillful in mind, as I have some mild curiosity.

But in regards to metta meditation, often I work with feelings especially feelings of intention towards other lives, at that moment and in a broader perspective of life and lives. Visuals don’t seem especially relevant, except as iconic bookmarks for directing attention. This is directed attention moving from my own POV, to an empathetic or sympathetic not-mine POV, towards a compassionate not-personal regard for all beings. This is a recognizable, trainable action, which can become habitual over time with practice.

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I don’t have aphantasia, when I read or listen to things I get the visualizations clear as a 4k movie running through my head. But I can’t do any kind of visualization meditation as I always end up distracted. Using verbal meditation techniques (i.e.: a mantra, counting breaths, etc) also ends up with me being distracted, probably because my mind is very talkative. If I counter the inner monologue and inner movie with experiencing feelings or generalized knowing then I can meditate on that kind of stuff. I’ve also found “feeling” meditation allows me to shut off the movie and monologue. It’s cool to see there are so many ways that we can process things through thought that show up in psychology.

I doubt there is any hard and fast rule for what way our mind uses thinking to process information inclines us to certain meditation techniques. I wonder if there are suttas on the different ways of thinking or did the Buddha not categorize them?

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What is meditation built on visualization in EBTs? Which EBTs teach about this kind of meditation?

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I think one may present and repeat any kind ‘words’ ‘sentences’ in mind, in reading out, for the mettā practice. E.g. I wish all living beings without karmic suffering; I am without malice, whether fearful or steady.

Just highlighting that “Aphantasia” isn’t necessarily a real thing. It is just a label for describing things from a western psychological framework. This framework doesn’t necessarily match that of the Buddha. ie it is just a categorisation system of a particular bunch of oberservations and not any kind of objective truth :slight_smile:

It may raise points of interest and lead to exploration of mind states which is good :slight_smile: But personally I find that current psychological theories and frameworks are all pretty flawed, especially at a deeper level. I much prefer the Buddha as supreme ‘psychologist’. I say this even though my background includes formal training in the discipline of psychology :wink:

Added: As far as mind training goes, there are so many techniques. And I also find that insight comes in a variety of different ways. I tend to look at it more from the perspective of setting up causes, rather than slavish following of specific techniques. The techniques/mechanics are just multiple modalities, or ways in - to get the insight.

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I have a pet hypothesis that aphantasia can be lessened with Shinzen Young’s "See In"technique. In my experience, non-aphants tend become more aware of their mental imagery after learning this technique, so I wonder if that would be the case for people who claim to have no mental imagery.