Beauty and the Mind's Eye


A long thought involving introspection, abnormal psychology and beauty.

As some of you know, I have never been a visual thinker. In fact, my mind doesn't do mental pictures nearly as often as I think (most) other people's do (read: never). Interestingly enough, this now has a scientific name: aphantasia (roughly Greek for "no imagination").

For people who haven't heard of this a would like a good (if rather long) explanation, a good resource is:

Based on reading this, I think it might be related to another long-standing eccentricity of mine: I can't see beauty.

Immediately, I have to qualify this. I am pretty sure that beauty refers to 2 similar but distinct standards. There is the beauty of a beautiful sunset, and the beauty of a beautiful woman. (Men get called "handsome", not "beautiful" which I suspect has its own distinct criteria.)

I don't think I have trouble with the first one. Probably.

Beautiful women, on the other hand, have always given me trouble. Not in the normal sense, but in because I don't know which ones they are. When I was younger, I collected a fair number of definitions, none of which were any practical use. I probably didn't help that they were nearly all different as well ("long hair" and "meaningless compliment" showed up twice). It was pretty clear by the end that the people (nearly all girls) that I got the definitions from didn't understand it either.

One thing that definitely does not work is comparing women on the "sunset" beauty standard. These days it provides Breanna Chin as the most beautiful. However, it fills up the spots below with everyone else (racially) Far Eastern that I know, including males. I suspect that Breanna is getting the top spot simply because she is the only young woman on that list I have a fair chance of meeting these days. Or maybe not. Perhaps she really is stunning. I don't know.

Now that I think about it more, I am not sure I see the first beauty the same way other people do either. You see, I get a fair bit out of descriptive writing without seeing mental pictures.

Lets start with the the passage quoted in the article above:
"The slender, olive-skinned man brushed the golden locks out of his hazel eyes. He was so focused on preparing for the assassination that he burned his tongue on the scalding cuppa joe (hazelnut, light cream)."

The article author mentally pares this down to "There’s an assassin".

I got a bit more. For example, he is also -> absent-minded (unexpected in an assassin - possible plot significance) -> a coffee-drinker, and given the details provided about the coffee, possibly a connoisseur -> either far eastern (olive-skinned) or blond (golden locks) or maybe both (hair dye) -> possibly athletic (slender - also possible plot significance) But there is no picture. I don't know know if he is handsome, and unless he has to talk his way past some easily-impressed woman later in the story, I don't care. I'd much rather know how he's planning to do his victim in. That probably matters.

But that passage is straying well into woman beauty. Instead, here is a description of the sun behind a cliff by one of my favorite description-writing authors.
"When Linden turned her gaze to the west, she saw the high cliff of Landsdrop above its foothills. The sun lay behind a precipice, leaving a blaze of late afternoon glory along its age-etched rim. From that angle, it cast its shadow across the whole company, leaving only Branl and Clyme on the hilltops lit."
~Against All Things Ending, Stephen Donaldson (p. 301)

I don't see a picture in my minds eye; it's still blind. Nevertheless, I understand the description well enough to comprehend its beauty. The process goes something like this:
  1. Meta-level: There is a flatish area with a big cliff to the west. Actually, previous descriptions tell me that they are camped near a ravine, and it is rocky, so it isn't entirely flat. Also small hills.
  2. Meta-level: The sun is just behind the cliff, so its light reaches some parts of the ground and not others. The focus of the scene is that some areas are lit up and others are in shadow.
  3. I have seen such scenes before (in real life and photos). The contrast between them is often beautiful. Especially because they are parts of the same whole and thus belong together, in contrast to just being juxtaposed by some artist.
  4. The areas of light and darkness will each have their own detail, but it is hard to see them both at the same time. This is especially the case with photos, where either the dark areas will appear as near-black, or the light areas will appear as a washed-out near-white. The difficulty is perceiving both at the same time lends the scene an air of mystery. Thus, curiosity will make people focus on it and derive pleasure from looking at it, a form of beauty.
  5. This is a constructed scene, not a painting (or similar). As such, the boundaries of the lit areas will be exactly where they should be, not just where some artist thought might look good. This gives the scene a sense of fittingness, which, while not beauty, is similar.
  6. The sun is just below the clifftop. As such, there is likely to be a brighter area in the sky along the cliff just above it. Bright glowing things tend to be beautiful, provided that they are not too bright to look at.
  7. Similarly, there appear to be plants (uncut grass?) along the top. These plants will be exposed to the light along the other side, and, as leaves are quite thin, a fair amount of the light will come through them, coloured by its passage. It had been assuming that the light was golden because a) that is how I think of tall grass and b) it fits better with the "sunlight" colour scheme for the rest of the image. Bright lines are pretty, especially next to dark things, like the cliff face below.
  8. The clifftop is irregular (age-etched). As such, there are probably rocks, gullies, and other features. Some of these will be tilted so that the sunlight on them can be seen from below. As such, the mind will have enough information to figure out the 3D forms, but not so much that it is easy. The beauty here is the same sort as in 4.
  9. The shadows cast by this irregular cliff will have a beautiful complexity. Straight divisions look boring and unnatural, but here the edge of the lit areas will be very complex. The rough ground at the bottom make it even more so.
  10. Different: A number of terms in the description carry connotations of emotion and/or beauty in themselves:
Writing this, I also came up with a pair of suitable symbolic interpretations, although I would (probably) not have noticed these while reading the book.
  1. Branl and Clyme also claim moral superiority at this point in the story, and thus, they stand in the light. Our main characters have all betrayed their own principals to varying degrees by this point, and they stand in shadow. Of course, not everyone there agrees with Branl and Clyme's judgement.
  2. Our heroes are under a tight (if unknown) time limit, and they have mostly sat around resting today. Thus the sun (representing time) casts a shadow (representing condemnation) across them. The only ones to escape are Branl and Clyme who, subscribing to a strictly deontological form of ethics, don't actually care if they manage to save the world, provided that nobody tries anything improper in the attempt. They have failed miserably so far, but not through lack of trying.
I don't think things out this explicitly while reading, of course, so I may have a bit more here than normally goes on in my mind. It's hard to measure my own though processes in too much detail.

At this point, I realize that there is a giant objection coming: Given that I didn't ever have a mental picture in my mind, how can I find it beautiful? Isn't that like saying something tastes good based on how it looks?

And now we come to what makes me think that I am don't understand beauty like other people. Seeing a picture (or reality), I recognize the beauty in in much fast. Instantaneously, in fact (or close to it). But from what I can tell, these are the same things that make me think the picture is beautiful.

I don't know what to think about all this. I don't really know what is going on in other people's heads. Words can obscure as well as clarify -- we went millennia without agreement on whether "visualize" was a metaphor. When talking about minds, it is nearly impossible to work out of someone else is using words to mean the same thing.

Do we ever truly know anyone? Most of you can probably summon an mental image of anyone you like, but a face is not a person. Once, to "know" someone could mean to mate with them. But the body isn't a person either. You are probably closer if you can predict their actions, but even them you might be mistaken about their motives. And even if you understood someone's thought processes, is that truly all that there is? After all, people are still themselves while unconscious.

I suspect that it is impossible, at least to us as we are now. Nor am I the first. "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." ~ 1 Corinthians 13:12

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