Aphantasia, inner monologue, and the challenges of describing inner experience, with Russell Hurlburt

A talk with Russell Hurlburt, who’s researched inner experience for more than five decades. He is the author of 6 books and many articles on the topic of mental experience. Transcript is below.

Topics discussed include: The challenges of describing and measuring inner experience; his contributions to improving how we measure and talk about inner experience; the ambiguities in the classification of “aphantasia” (reporting no visual qualities in one’s thought processes); the ambiguities in the “inner monologue” concept; thought on whether dreams are visual or not; and more. 

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Zachary Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better; you can learn more about it at and you can sign up for a premium subscription there that gets you ad-free episodes and lets you learn about and collaborate on upcoming episodes. 

On this episode I talk to Russell Hurlburt about inner experience, including mental visualization, aphantasia, and inner monologue and narration. Russ has studied inner experiences for more than five decades. To quote from the bio on his professor page at University of Nevada: “In the 1970s, he was the first to use beepers in psychological research and was the creator of the ‘thought sampling’ method. Dr. Hurlburt considers the understanding of inner experience to be a fundamental task of psychology, and has written six books and many articles exploring how best to investigate experience.”

As you may have noticed, there have been a lot of people lately talking about inner experiences, whether that’s aphantasia — which is people saying that their thinking has no visual qualities — or about inner narration, or the lack of inner narration. For this podcast, I’d previously aired an interview I’d done about my own so-called aphantasia, and I thought it’d be interesting to follow that up with a more in-depth one with someone who’s researched that. If you’ve seen aphantasia and inner narration mentioned recently and wondered “What’s going on with that?” or wondered how your own internal experiences would or should be categorized, i think you’ll find this a very interesting talk. We dig into some of the nuances and ambiguities in these areas. And I’ll put some of the resources and books we mention in this talk on the entry for this episode on my site at 

If you’re listening to the audio version of this talk, that audio comes from a video talk I had with Russ. You can find that video on my People Who Read People youtube channel.

Okay, here’s the talk with Russ Hurlburt. Hi, Russ. Thanks for joining me.

Russell Hurlburt: My pleasure.

Zach: Maybe we could start with how you got interested in researching inner experience. I realize that’s probably a big question, but maybe you could summarize your beginning interest in it and what you thought was fairly unexamined in that area.

Russell: Well, that is a big question and it’s basically my entire career, or before that, depending on how you define career. I was an engineer before I was a trumpet player, and then I was a trumpet player before I was a psychologist, and the interest in all of those things goes back to probably before I was an engineer, so several lifetimes ago. But I’ve always thought that other people were the most interesting things on the planet, and I’ve always thought that people’s inner lives were the most interesting part of people. And so the object, I’ve always been interested in that. And in the course of my previous lifetimes, I’ve tried to figure that stuff out and decided that I didn’t know and that psychologists didn’t know and it seemed like nobody knew, and so I set about trying to figure out, well, how would you try to answer that question? And so 50 years ago- a few months ago, actually, 50 years and a few months ago- I figured out that the way to do this was to give somebody a beeper and ask them to report what was going on in their inner experience at the moment of a beep. And 50 years ago, the world was a different place as it is now, and the way that seemed to answer that question then and now, too, for that matter- except for everybody almost except me- would be to have given people a pad of questionnaires that just triggered when the beep went off, what is now called EMA or ESM or something like that. I was the first one to do that. I invented the beeper in 1973 and used it in 1974 and onwards, starting out with something that would nowadays be called ESM or EMA.

Zach: And what’s that stand for?

Russell: ESM is Experience Sampling Method, and EMA is Ecological Momentary Assessment. They’re both more or less the same thing that basically involves giving a random beep or some kind of an external beep to people and asking them to fill out some kind of questionnaire- usually a questionnaire- EMA sometimes uses some biological measurements like heart rate or whatever. There’s a lot of different ways that people use that. But when it comes down to inner experience, most people are doing questionnaires triggered by beeps, which is how I started 50 years ago. But by 48 years ago, I had decided that I wasn’t learning anything that I thought was very interesting so I gave up giving questionnaires and launched into what I now call the Descriptive Experience Sampling method or DES. But it’s a simple method designed to answer a very simple question. Like, a simple question is what’s in your inner experience? What’s your inner experience like when you’re being Zach? I’m not particularly interested in what you’re like being Zach when I’m giving you some kind of an experiment to run, I’m interested in the Zach as Zach goes to the grocery store and interviews people and drives his car and does whatever it is that Zach does. That’s when Zach is interesting. He’s not so interesting when he’s responding to a probe in some kind of a psychological experiment because that’s as much about the experiment as it is about Zach.

Zach: Right, because the observing and the experiment change people and such.

Russell: Right. So my goal would be- my goal still is- to get at what Zach is like when he’s not being interrogated. And so I give you a beeper, you wear the beeper in your everyday life doing whatever it is that you generally do, and every random time at some random times, the thing beeps and your task is to pay attention to what was in your inner experience just before the beep occurred. I call that the moment of the beep but what I really mean is something like the last undisturbed moment just before the beep, which is not really undisturbed, but as best we can to get the last undisturbed moment. Sometimes I call it a microsecond before the beep. It’s not a microsecond and it’s not before.

Zach: You’re trying to capture those unselfmonitored moments.

Russell: That’s exactly right. So, what I want you to do is to capture your self-monitored moment while it’s still in short-term memory, whatever that is, while you still have as direct access to it as you can get. And let’s talk about that.

Zach: Yeah, if you had to recommend one book of yours, is there a favorite one that you recommend for people to understand your thoughts in these areas? Or another resource if it’s not a book.

Russell: I would say a book of mine… If I had to pick one book, it would probably be my 2011 book, which is called… I don’t remember what it’s called, “Exploring Inner Experience”, I think. Cambridge University Press, 2011, whatever that book is called. Oh, it’s called “Moments of Truth”. That’s the book.

Zach: Gotcha.

Russell: But there are two other books that people might be interested in. One is a debate, basically, with a philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel. That’s my 2007 book. That’s the one that’s called “Describing Inner Experience?” Schwitzgebel is a skeptic about introspective kinds of things and so we have a book-length debate about that. And then my most recent book is sort of like that, except one step more modern, I guess. It’s a debate, in a way with, a literary scholar about inner experience.

Zach: That sounds interesting. Yeah, I wanted to read the Schwitzgebel one. That looked really interesting because you go through examining snippets of people or a specific person’s descriptions of their inner thought and going back and forth with his skepticism and your thoughts on it. Yeah, that looked really interesting.

Russell: That’s exactly what that book is about.

Zach: So, maybe…

Russell: But I guess I should also say I have been creating a website for the last three or four years that I’ll send you the link to it and you can make that available to your folks. But basically, the interviews that I do… So if you were going to be a subject in my research, you’d wear the beeper for a day and we would get together and talk about the half a dozen beeps that you got on that particular day. And you wouldn’t be very good at it because it’s a skill that you have to master like any other skill. And so we would say, “Well, we need to do this again.” And so tomorrow or next week or whenever it’s convenient, we do it again. And then we do it again and then we do it again. And on a second or third day, you’d start to get pretty good at it. And on the fourth, fifth, or sixth day, typically, we would be limiting our discussion pretty much to talking about your inner experience at the moment of these beeps and we’d have ruled out the stuff that isn’t really inner experience, and we’d have ruled out the stuff that isn’t before the beep and isn’t.

And so I have been of recent years, I guess, recording those and putting them entirely on the web with quite carefully drawn transcripts with annotations about what’s happening. So if people are really interested in what we’re talking about here, they can go to that website and spend 100 hours listening to me ask the Zachs of the world what’s going on in their inner experience and read the transcripts and read some discussions about the questions that they might have. Basically, I prepare the transcripts carefully, and then I answer questions that I think people might have or make comments that I think people might have who would be seriously interested in what it takes to find out about Zach’s inner experience.

Zach: I would imagine with all the recent interest in aphantasia and mental imagery and people talking about inner monologues, have you seen an uptick in people reaching out to you in the last few years about those kinds of things? Because it really seems like some of that stuff has gone kind of viral in terms of people writing about it on social media and their experiences and whether they have aphantasia or not, these kinds of things. Have you seen a lot more interest in the last few years?

Russell: Yes. I would say the interest has gone up fairly dramatically in the last seven or ten years or something.

Zach: So, what are your – maybe pivoting to the aphantasia area, what would be your summation of that? Because I’ll say from my perspective, I would classify myself as someone with aphantasia. I don’t identify with reporting mental imagery and these kinds of things. I actually did a previous podcast where someone interviewed me for their podcast on those things asking me questions about that. But at the same time, I see a lot of ambiguity there. I’m very uncertain about… I do get a sense that there are differences that exist because it’s kind of hard for me to understand how somebody could report having something very visual, but I also see a lot of ambiguity in the sense that I’ve talked to a lot of people that are like, “I don’t know if – I’m not sure if I would qualify these things as visual or not or how visual they are,” and a lot of it seems to come down to- for at least some spectrum of the differences- seems to come down to the difficulties of reporting inner experiences. But I’m curious to ask you, do you have a high-level view of how you see that landscape?

Russell: Well, yes. I’ve got lots of views on that subject. The first one I would say is that the skepticism that you’re reporting there is good. I think you ought to be skeptical about that. But the second I would say is that what you should be saying when you’re expressing that skepticism is, “Well, what we need is a good method, and we should spend some time thinking about what the method is.” I’ve spent 50 years thinking about the method, and Descriptive Experience Sampling- DES, what I do- is the best that I can do. That doesn’t mean it’s the ultimate method, it means it’s the best that I’ve been able to find in 50 years of pretty careful looking. And I would say most people don’t look very carefully, and so the methods that they use are not very good. And the methods that they use are sort of like what you’ve described, which is sort of like armchair introspection and trying to decide what my inner experience is like. And I would say that’s a very difficult thing to do. So, that’s the first part of my answer to your question.

Zach: And really quick, I’ll throw in there one interesting example of how hard these things are to describe. When I asked one person about this, they initially said, “Oh, yeah, I would describe it as visual.” And then when I inquired more about it, when I threw in some of the ambiguity of what people said about the ambiguity in those areas, he said something like, “Well, now I’m not clear. Is it mental imagery or am I thinking about mental imagery?” That’s just an example of how difficult it can be, especially for the people that aren’t on the extreme end of saying… There’s some people that are very confident, like, “I see things extremely visually,” but there’s this large swath of people, it seems to me, that are like, “How do I exactly describe those things?” But go on.

Russell: That’s a good interjection. I’m on your side as far as that goes. Because people don’t use the same terminology about their own inner experience as they use about the external world. They don’t know that. People are very ignorant about how they use their own words. And I would say people are pretty ignorant- many people, maybe most people, but many people are quite ignorant about their own inner experience. And so there are a lot of people who are like you who said, if I remember calling correctly, you said something like, “Well, I don’t have very much of this imagery stuff.” And some people, when they say that, are right, and other people, when they say that, are wrong. It can go either way. I have sampled a lot of people who say, “I never have visual imagery,” and yet at some random beeps, they’ve got quite a bit of visual imagery. And vice versa. Other people who say, “I’ve got great visual imagery all the time,” but when we get it to beep, it turns out that they don’t have it. And part of it is the reason that you identified, is that they think of themselves as visual until you really start to ask, “Well, what do you mean by visual again?” And then when you pin them down on that, well, it turns out visual doesn’t have anything to do with something that you would see. And that’s worse, I would say. It’s worse with the inner speech deal because inner speech sort of has a wider uncertainty of definition than maybe even in visual imagery. But all of them are terrible. People are very unspecific about what they mean.


Zach: Oh, go ahead.

Russell: The clearest example for that that I would give is about the word thinking, where you ask people what thinking means and they will tell you, “Well, thinking is some kind of a cognitive thing where I’m trying to decide this kind of a thing.” And then you beep them and they say, “I was thinking about something.” And when it turns out that what thinking means then, when they’re describing their own inner experience, for one person it would mean I’m seeing a visual image. And for another person thinking it’s going to be, I’m talking to myself in inner speech. And for another person, the word thinking, as in I’m thinking, means I have an emotional experience. And for another person, the word thinking means I feel a tingle in my back or something like that. The point that I’m trying to make here is that the word thinking, when applied in the external world, has a Webster kind of definition.

But the word thinking, when applied to me, has a private personal definition, which probably I acquired at age two or three or something like that when I heard my mother or whoever say thinking. And what that meant was, well, there’s something going on in her that I can’t see. So I apply that to me, what’s going on with me with what I can’t see. And so when I apply that word to myself, it means whatever is sort of frequent for me. I call that thinking. So that’s the reason why- or one of the reasons, one of many reasons- why I’m skeptical about questionnaires. Because questionnaires ask questions that use public definitions, and public definitions and private definitions are not the same. And I’m skeptical of armchair introspection because, like you gave in your example where you were giving an easy interview or slight interview with a guy who changed his mind about what was visual, if you really want to know what’s going on in somebody else’s experience, you have to be careful in that interviewing method.

Zach: Yeah, I really liked your… I was reading some of your work and describing the- I think you called it the unsymbolized thinking, I think that was what it was called, where it’s like sometimes if you inquire- like you do inquiring at the moment- sometimes if you really inquire what you’re currently thinking, it’s just a rough non-cognitive thing of like, is this thing going to happen? But it’s not verbal or anything, it’s just like imagining if something’s going to happen. It doesn’t require any verbal or even… But sometimes we’ll put those into words, you know? We’ll put a narrative to it. So we’ll apply the… Yeah, it’s just really hard to pin down exactly what’s going on there. But going back to the aphantasia thing, it’s like you see these kind of confident descriptions sometimes about that. Journalists, for example, or writers will write about like, “Oh, 3% of people have aphantasia or these kinds of things,” whereas to me in just talking to people, I found that that seems really like a strange, overly confident or just wrong way to describe it. Because when I’ve dealt into this with random people, including doing Twitter surveys of people who follow me, it’s like there seems a lot more range of ambiguity, and trying to pinpoint who’s interviewing is highly visual versus not seems really hard to do. But I’m curious if you have a personal take from everything you’ve researched and read. How do you group the general population into highly visual versus non-visual if you do?

Russell: I think since Galton, since Sir Francis Galton, who was sort of the first guy to explore widely the visual nature and he discovered the members of the academy that had reported and he believed them- and I think there’s reason to believe them- widely different frequencies of visual imagery. So I think it’s true. I think it is true that people have widely different frequencies of visual imagery. That’s number one. Number two is I don’t think people are very good reporters about that. As I said a little bit ago, people I think are substantially mistaken about that. So, anybody who tells you they know what the percentage of people is, you could ask them, “Are you doing a method that’s as least as good as Hurlburt’s?” And if they say no, then you should say, “Well, then there’s no reason why I should believe you.” And I’m not saying my method is the best method, I’m saying you got to do something that’s better than just asking somebody.

Zach: Something methodological. Yeah, something with some method to it. Yeah.

Russell: Right. And it can’t be a questionnaire, and it can’t be just a casual interview. You have to have worked out some kind of a method. So, what is aphantasia? I think it’s a more a popular term than it is a… You know? It’s sort of like a [Tennesseer] or something like that. You know, some people play tennis, some people don’t play tennis. There’s a guy who doesn’t play tennis, we’ll give him a name. We’ll call him a Tennessee kind of a thing. You know?

Zach: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that because it’s what I’ve gathered. I see so many people using these labels for themselves. And it kind of strikes me. It seems like people in general are so label-happy when it comes to these kinds of ambiguous mental… Whether it’s, you know, it could be autism or any number of things where it’s like, yes, there are some differences, but we’re also too quick to lump ourselves into these categories without really knowing where the boundaries are. I see a lot of people confidently saying like, “Oh, I have aphantasia,” or, “I do or don’t have an inner monologue,” and I just think that that seems to me to be like… It’s almost like an interest of I want to quantify myself, or I want to confidently have some sort of label for these strange inner experience things to kind of make sense of a confusing inner thing. Because I think there’s something almost interesting but also almost stressful in a way to have these large differences with other people, you know, these fundamental differences or at least perceived differences. So it’s almost like we want to be like, “Oh, I’m in this group and other people are in this group.” I don’t know if you have noticed that too, almost like a label-happiness for these kinds of experiences or conditions.

Russell: In broad strokes, I would agree with what you said. I haven’t applied myself to trying to understand why that is that. But that is pretty self-evident, I think. From my point of view, it’s sort of an interesting thing. Because I think inner experience is about the most interesting question that there is. And I think a lot of people agree with that. Maybe even most people agree with that. And I think it’s remarkable how methodologically sloppy people are, including maybe especially psychology or philosophy or whatever, people are not methodologically sophisticated in answering that question. You would think, if you knew what the most interesting question is, that you would work at trying to answer it. But most people, it would appear, would prefer to give an answer than to have the right answer. That’s what people call aphantasia or whatever.

Zach: Yeah. Just in general, surveys in general often strike me just as so bad for whatever it is. It’s like there’s just so much ambiguous language that will mean different things to different people. I’m constantly examining surveys including political psychological surveys, that could mean many different things to many different people. And then you get into inner experience areas where it’s even more ambiguous so the difficulty is hundreds of times harder or something.

Russell: I agree.

Zach: So when it comes to inner monologue, that’s another area where when I’ve tried to inquire about my own thinking, there just seems to be so much ambiguity in the sense that sometimes I am thinking in ways that could be called monologue-like. Sometimes there’s repeating, you know, like a sentence that repeats in my head or is much more verbal than at other times, and other times it’s more like the unsymbolized kind of thinking that you describe where… And sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is, right? It’s like, did I… When I’m thinking about what I just thought, sometimes it’s like… I think a way to see the ambiguity is sometimes what stood out to me was sometimes I will have a fully formed thought that I want to communicate, but it’s quite hard for me to put that into words because I’ll have to work for a while at how do I phrase that? Or I’ll be missing a word. Right? But the thought is there in my head in some way, it’s just clearly not verbal because the fact that you have to work at describing this amorphous thought that you have is hard to get out. That’s what stood out to me in terms of like, yeah, sometimes my inner thought is like I’m writing something. But other times, it’s just amorphous kind of concepts and I have to think about getting those out. But would you agree that that seems to be the case for most people? And so people lumping themselves into like, “I have an inner monologue,” or, “I don’t have inner monologues,” I would imagine that’s a faulty binary framing for most people who have a wide range of experiences if that makes sense.

Russell: That’s a complicated set of questions in there, but let me see whether I can make sense out of it. So, you described a rather wide range of experiential things. Sometimes I got a full sentence, sometimes I’ve got just sort of a hint of something, sometimes there’s a sentence with some holes in it, and sometimes there’s whatever. There were a lot of ‘sometimes’ in there. One question would be, “Well, how much of that should you call inner monologue or inner speech or something?” And the answer to that varies widely. So I think many people who say, “Well, I got under a hundred percent inner speech,” what they mean, if they were halfway careful about that, would mean that all those things that you talked about, I’m going to call those inner speech. And if you’re going to talk about that, then I got a hundred percent about that.

But they don’t usually say that. They usually say, “I just got a hundred percent inner speech.” But if you nail them down, so, okay, I don’t know. Let’s be interested in inner speech. I’m happy to be interested in inner speech, but let’s know what we’re talking about. So, does speech have to involve words? Well, if you say yes, but then inner speech has to involve words. Well, that narrows it down because there’s quite a bit of what you described in the range of your stuff, which is sort of like leaning into something that doesn’t have any words to it. And so then if it has to involve words, does it have to involve a voice if we’re going to call it inner speech? External speech has to involve some kind of an experience of a voice or speaking or something. Well? And it gets to be hard because in the inner world, you can have words without a voice and you can have a voice without words, and you can have a complete sentence and you can have a partial sentence and you can have a hint of a sentence, all those things. And how much of it do you call inner speech? Well, there’s a lot of variability in there.

But I personally think if you’re going to call something speech, it has to have words involved. It at least has to have that. And if it doesn’t have words in it, then you probably shouldn’t call it speech. I think that would be true in the external world, you know? If you heard [knocks on desk], you wouldn’t say, “Oh, my desk was speaking to me.” You would say I heard a knock on my desk or something like that.

Zach: I heard some sensations of some sort. Yeah.

Russell: Yeah, yeah. And if you heard speech or somebody was singing, la, la, la, la, la or whatever, you wouldn’t say, “Well, Russ was speaking.” No, you’d say he was singing or something. So there’s got to be words involved, I think, if you’re going to call it inner speech. But when you do that, and then you get sort of careful about discerning whether there are words present, then the frequency drops dramatically down from a hundred down to 25 or so.

Zach: There’s also this ambiguity around, like people will say, “I hear my inner voice in my voice, basically.” I’ve thought about that too, where I feel like there’s so much ambiguity around that. Because sometimes if I inquire, like, “Oh, I had some sentence or verbal-like thoughts. Is that in a specific voice?” And then there’s almost this element of like, “Well, yeah, I guess it’s in my… It’s the sound of my voice,” but in another way, it’s very amorphous and maybe I’m just fooling myself into thinking like, well, that’s just like the voice I know or think I know. So if I had to put a name to what the sound of that voice is, it’s my voice. And I think there’s a lot of ways to fool yourself but I’ve seen, in that area, people saying, like, “Yes, I hear this voice and it’s in my voice,” and I’m like, “Is it really in your voice? Or are you just…” You know? Sort of like you’ve described it. It’s like we can fool ourselves and see things that aren’t there for those things and assume it would be in our voice and these kinds of things.

Russell: People make all those kinds of assumptions and it gets in the way of their actually paying attention to what’s actually going on in their experience. I call those presuppositions. People have presuppositions about the way things are, and people would prefer to, to corroborate their own presuppositions rather than to find out what the truth actually is. That’s the way most people are, actually, but it doesn’t get you actually at what’s the interesting question. So when I say the interesting question is, “Well, what’s Zach’s inner experience really like?” Some people would say, “Well, you don’t really want to know what Zach’s experience is really like, you want to know what Zach would tell you his experience is really like.” And I would say, “I don’t really care much about what Zach would tell me about his inner experience, I would like to know about his real inner experience. Because he’s going to tell me… What he tells me would be a mix of what his experience is, plus how he wants to present himself, plus what he wants to think about me, plus what he told somebody else and he’s trying to be consistent with that, and any other self-presentation biases that he might have that get mixed up into that.” And all of that stuff makes a mess, which by comparison to what is actually going on in Zach’s experience at the moment was some beep. Well, that would be interesting.

Zach: I could say… I just think, like a lot of human experience, there’s so much chaos and uncertainty and multiple threads going on. People have written about boiling down this really complex and convoluted thing into this single, simple narrative. And I just feel I can sense that in my own thinking. It’s like there can be a tendency to try to put it in some sort of order, but often it just seems like it’s all over the place and it’s really hard to pin down. Like those experiments they did on people with split brains where they would make up explanations for the things that they did, even though they would be doing something or seeing something but wouldn’t know why and would confabulate. It kind of reminds me, too, of the blind spot in your eye where the optic nerve goes in and your vision just kind of smooths it over. It’s like there’s so much of this hiding of all the chaos that goes on under the surface, I feel like, when it comes to our inner reports of what our experience is like. Yeah, sometimes I can just really feel the chaos of like, I don’t really know. There’s all sorts of weird random dead ends and multiple layers going on at the same time, sometimes that…

Russell: What I would say about that is, I think there is chaos. I would prefer to call it multiprocessing, but chaos is as good a word as either one of those is fine with me. The question is-

Zach: Chaotic multiple processing.

Russell: Yeah. The question is whether what you said is a sort of a general characteristic of Zach, or whether it is a, at some particular moment, characteristic of Zach. And so it could be that at some particular moment, Zach is experiencing this chaos that’s all these things going on, or it could be that at some particular moment, Zach has determined, his body has determined, his bag of bones or whatever that is- bones and neurons and synapses and whatever- has determined that for this particular moment, he’s interested in the goldness of the picture that’s in the back of my head. And of all the chaos that he could be interested in, he has zeroed in on that. And at that particular moment, there’s no chaos. I’m zeroed in on that gold. But it’s very difficult for Zach or anybody else to recall that at a particular moment, he was interested in gold because- actually, that’s sort of the overall thing- he was trying to figure out what question is next or what thought about Hurlburt or whatever that was. And the gold, which actually drew him at that particular moment, would be forgotten like a dream on waking, you know? A second later, that’d be gone. But that is, I think, what makes up Zach’s actual inner life. Maybe. Maybe he clearly makes this the figure of his perception or whatever you want to call that, a figure of his consciousness, whatever it was before the footlights of his consciousness. There aren’t any good terms for that. But something becomes centralized, focused, thematized, whatever you want to say about that, for Zach at a particular moment. And then something else at another particular moment, and then something else at a particular moment. Those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

Zach: Yeah, it made me think of the trance-like state when you’re focused on something like you’re driving and your mind’s seemingly blank, but who knows what it was really doing. It’s hard to say what it was doing. It’s kind of dreamlike or trance-like or something. And maybe that’s a good. I was going to ask you this thing I’ve wondered about dreams, which I think seems kind of related. And I don’t know how many opinions you have on dreams, but one thing I’ve thought about dreams is that I don’t think, at least for me, I don’t think they’re visual. I think they basically are concepts and ideas that go straight into memory. And they get stored in a similar way because they’re in our memory and so they can have elements of… They can be hard to distinguish from the memories of visual things we’ve seen. But I think, for me, when I remember dreams, it’s often like it’s not like there’s a set image. It’s more like I know things happen. It’s much more conceptual and idea-related. That, to me, seems related to the mental imaging thing because I feel like it helps explain why they’re so ephemeral too in our memory because they don’t have all the solidity of I actually saw something and had all these extra details. It’s just the bare wisps of ideation and concepts coming together. I don’t know how you feel about that, whether dreams or everyone’s dreams are actually visual, if you have any thoughts on that.

Russell: I would say, first, I’m not a dream researcher, so I’m not in a position to say I’m an expert on that subject. Second, I would bet against almost everything that you said in your last question. If I were a betting man, I would guess that most of what you said is not true. I think most people have dreams. Most people that dream probably do dream (or many people, let’s not say most, but let’s say many people, and by many, I mean a lot) dream and it’s entirely visual or a big part of it is visual. I would bet most of the ranch at pretty good odds on that statement being true. It’s the same thing as I would say, there are many people who in their everyday waking life, which I think I do know something about, do have visual imagery. And it makes every bit of sense to say, “I saw whatever that was, but it wasn’t really there. It was in my imagination. So I would say I innerly saw that.” And there are some people who innerly see and convince me- I’m as skeptical as they come, or probably more skeptical than almost anybody you know, or a lot of people. I’m a very skeptical guy. So when somebody says I’m seeing something, I want to know what they’re talking about. And I’m convinced that many people, when they say I’m having an image, they mean I’m innerly seeing something. Other people who will say I’m having an image, they mean something conceptual, like you were describing. But I would say most people who talk about having an image are having some kind of visual experience.

But I don’t want to get us down into counting the number of people who are doing that kind of thing. But from the standpoint of what the phenomenon is, I would say I am 99.9999% sure that some people innerly see things with every bit as clarity and maybe more clarity than external seeing. And it’s just as visual an experience as an external seeing would be, in the sense that there’s colors and there’s forms and there’s motion sometimes, and sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not.

Zach: Have there been studies on brain imaging to see if when people are doing that, do things show up in visual areas? Has there been that kind of stuff? Do you know?

Russell: There has been that kind of stuff. And most of that kind of stuff would corroborate that there is visual. The visual cortex lights up when people are reporting having visual. Those studies are not as good as I would like them to be, but then very few studies are as good as I would like them to be. But because they’re mostly about self-reported, people at this time are saying I’m having a visual image. I think there’s reason to be skeptical about that until you’ve got somebody pretty well-trained and knows what we’re talking about when we mean that. And those studies don’t generally have anywhere near adequate training.

I’ve done one set of studies, one small study or set of studies or whatever, where I’ve put people into the scanner and using the descriptive sampling method I’m talking about, just let them do whatever it is that they’re trying to do or would be happy to do in the scanner. And sometimes there’s visual imagery and sometimes there’s inner speaking and whatever. I think we’ve had enough. Scanner studies require a lot of reps and it’s hard to do this. We’re putting people in the scanner for like 10 hours, it’s a little tough to do that at scale. But I think we’ve done enough. We’ve done enough where I’m pretty convinced that there’s reason to believe that when I tell you that I’ve got a subject and that person’s got visual imagery and it really is seeing, you should believe me. That’s what I think. And you can say, “Well, you know, Russ could be crazy,” which he might be, but I think I have a track record that you shouldn’t just dismiss. Let’s put it that way.

Zach: Have they done a study… Have they noticed, when it comes to lighting up the visual cortex for inner thought things, have they noticed big differences in people in the aphantasia? Kind of like these people report seeing mental imagery and their brains light up in that way and these people don’t report it. Has there been anything like that?

Russell: I’m not particularly an expert in that, but I would pretty be pretty confident answering that question yes.

Zach: Oh, really? Okay. Yeah, I know there hasn’t been actual… From what I was reading, there hasn’t been that much research on the whole aphantasia thing. So it sounds like maybe nobody’s really done that.

Russell: And that could be, too. I don’t claim to be an expert there.

Zach: Gotcha. Gotcha.

Russell: The reason that I’m not particularly interested in that literature is that the…

Zach: They don’t describe… They may be bad describers, is what you’re saying.

Russell: There you go.

Zach: Yeah. Even if they say it, they may not be accurate describers of what’s going on inside. Yeah.

Russell: Right.

Zach: Right. Gotcha. Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, even just the most basic psychological things are so hard to study, so this just seems much harder to study. Well, yeah.

Russell: Let me… I’ve thought about saying this for a while so I’m going to say it now. Let me tell you why armchair introspection is difficult. And by armchair introspection, I mean, well, I’m going to ask myself what’s going on in my inner experience? One of the reasons that that’s difficult is that if you ask yourself, “Well, what’s going on in my inner experience right now?” Well, what’s going on in your inner experience right now is you’re asking yourself the question, “What’s going on in my inner experience right now?” But you think that’s not important. I want to rule that out because, obviously, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in my experience that goes beyond that. But the problem is you’re ruling out everything that’s there. What’s there when you’re in the armchair introspection mode is the question, the intention of asking yourself what’s going on in my inner experience. That’s what’s in my inner experience. And then you rule it out and you can’t find anything else that’s left. And then you say all kinds of crap after that because you have ruled out what’s actually there. So what you need, I think, is some kind of an external signal to get you to engage in that armchair introspection task without the armchair, which is what the beeper is about. Some people derisively say, “Well, Hurlburt says he’s got a magic beeper,” or whatever. Well, that’s not true. What I say is I have an external signal that has a well-defined characteristic. It’s a beep, and the beep is either not here or it’s there. It has a sudden rise time and it comes at a time that’s not under your control, so you don’t have to ask yourself… And that’s a big deal when it comes to introspection. People will say, critics will say, “Well, you know, you hear the beep and then you’ve got to decide to introspect.” Well, yes, that’s true. But this is a skill that you can amass over a while so that you can do that skill pretty quickly. So the question is, “Well, can you do it quickly enough?”

William James says introspection is like turning up the gas to see what the darkness looks like or something like that. Well, that’s hard to do, but it was harder for James than it is for us because James had to turn up the gas where we have the virtue or the advantage of being able to create a beep in a way that was out of his ability. So, I can’t give you a beep and turn up the light to see what the darkness looks like. But I can, I think, give you a beep that allows you to see what kind of nocturnal animals are there before they get a chance to scurry away into the holes or wherever. And so I’m not getting a complete picture of what the darkness looks like, but I’m getting a picture of the darkness that’s better than armchair introspection work, because armchair introspection is, you know, I got to decide to do this and think about that.

Zach: Yeah, you’re trying to sneak up on it and catch it in the act. Yeah. So, getting back to the dream question because I personally am just very interested in dreams, when you said that you were confident that dreams were visual, there’s also the point that I think was brought up in that book you had with Schwitzgebel,; the point that people reported in the 1950s dreaming in black and white and then they reported dreaming in color. That’s not to say I think I’m not confident at all… I don’t have any confident beliefs that dreams are visual or originate in visual or don’t originate visual, but I’m curious you seem pretty confident in the visual origin of them. And I was just kind of curious what was behind that confidence.

Russell: Why should I be confident about that?

Zach: Mhm. If you are confident. Yeah.

Russell: Setting aside that I’m not going to talk about dreams because I don’t know much about dreams, but I talk about experience in general and I think people can be confident about visual experience in general. And if they can talk about it in general, they should be able to talk about it in their dreams as well, it seems to me, which is… So, why would I be confident about it in their waking life? Well, the example that you gave, I had a participant- a couple, actually- of older folks, they were 75 or 80-ish people. And one woman that I have in mind right now said, “I have quite a lot of visual imagery,” and she did. A beep occurred when she had visual imagery. She told me, “At one beep, I was seeing my flower garden. I wasn’t in my flower garden, but I was imagining my flower garden and I could see the yellows of the daffodils and the red of the roses laid out just like they were in my experience.” And then I had another picture and she said, “I see my piano. And on my piano is a photograph of my son in the army, and he’s in his uniform in front of the flag. And I see this whole scene in color and detail. The picture is looking in this direction and it’s like it really is in the real world.” And so she’s giving me a description that makes sense.

Then on the third day, she says, “You know, I don’t think I’ve been honest with you. I’ve been trying to be honest with you, but I don’t think I have. Because what I am now seeing in my experience is that my visual imagery is in black and white when it occurs. And then when I tell you about it, I colorize it. And I don’t feel myself colorizing. For example, if I were to really have been careful on that second day when I told you I saw my son in front of the flag, I think” she says, “that at the moment of the beep, that vision was in black and white. And there was no red, white, and blue on the flag. There was black and gray and white on the flag. But then when you asked me about it and I reflected back on it and could put all my attention to that, well, then I produced it in color.” And so what I think happens in that kind of thing is that a person, when they get older, loses some of their computational power or whatever that is. I don’t have a theory about computational power. But you’re going to simplify your life. And one important way to simplify your life is to deal with black and white imagery rather than color imagery. If you’re a computer person, you know that a black and white image has a lot fewer pixels to it. A lot fewer bits to it- same number of pixels- a lot fewer bits to it than a color image. Because you’ve got to provide the color information as well as all the rest of the information.

And so the processing on a computer, a computer can process black and white imagery a whole lot faster than it can process color imagery. So what I think happens for older people when they go through life and they’re seeing this image in their mind and seeing that and seeing whatever, and they’re extracting out of that the information that they need, it’s not probably the color information. But when they stop and think about it or stop and focus on some particular aspect, well, then the color information becomes somewhat more salient again and they put it in there. So, that kind of experience with me makes it seem to me, well, here’s a woman who hadn’t… That’s a pretty high-powered theory that she’s spinning. There’s no reason why she would have had that in mind. She didn’t have the theory. What I told her was the theory. She told me, “I was lying to you.” You know? “I was trying to be honest with you, but I think I was lying to you.” Why would she say that if she didn’t really have visual experience that was in some ways black and white and in some other ways in color?

Zach: Yeah. I guess the skeptic would say if she’s thinking of those, if she has the concept of that image of her son’s picture or whatever it is, it’s like that’s sparking all the neurons associated with that. So then later, from all the construction of all the things that spark all those things she’s saying, she’s adding detail like the faultiness of memory and such.

Russell: I agree. I totally agree with that. That’s why the method that I say, the Descriptive Experience Sampling method, has to be iterative. I don’t think we’ve used that word here, but iterative means we got to do this over and over again. Because there’s no way to answer the question that you just asked about an instance which has already occurred. But there is a way to say- and I could say to this woman that we’re talking about here- well, isn’t that interesting? Maybe going forward when the beep happens and the only shot that you’ve got is right then and right then, when the beep happens and you got a visual imagery, well, pay attention to whether it’s in black and white or color. That’s sort of interesting. You’re never going to get a better shot at that, including asking a philosopher about that. Because the skeptics aren’t going forwards, they’re going backwards. They’re given an explanation like you just gave, which is fine, a perfectly good explanation, but it’s not an adequate explanation because the only time the explanation actually counts is at the next beep and the one after that.

Zach: A quick note here. Obviously, I can only speak about my own experiences here, but I will say that even though I think it’d be easy for me to think of my dreams as visual in nature, I think that perception mainly comes from the tendency to assume that things we find in our memory have their origins in visual experiences. But I tend to question that assumption. For example, I seldom have a sense of having seen a dream scene from a specific angle. It’s often more just concepts and ideas that make up a scene. Even when I sometimes have a sense of something being visual, it’s hard for me to say confidently that it was really a visual experience and not, to quote the acquaintance that I spoke with, more like thinking about visualizations. This all reminds me of a strong ketamine trip I had once where I was conscious of having all sorts of conceptual scenes running through my mind. For example, the sense that I was experiencing all sorts of battles and conflicts in the early days of human history, but nothing I experienced was actually visual. But as Russ would probably agree, it’s difficult enough to study waking conscious life. It’s much more difficult to study dreams, which we only consciously remember after they’re over. And of course, it’s possible that because I don’t have mental imagery or don’t see myself as having mental imagery, maybe my dreams are much less visual than other people’s are. Okay. Back to the talk.

If I was going to read the book that you wrote with Schwitzgebel, is that still a good explanation of your ideas in that book? Because I know it was put out a while ago, do you still recommend it as a way to understand your views?

Russell: I haven’t read that book. That book is 15 years old now. I think the answer to that is in general, yes. There are probably some details that I would squirm at about what I said then and what I would probably say now. It’s different now. But I think in broad strokes, the answer to that would be yes.

Zach: Cool. Yeah, I wanted to read that. Yeah, I plan on reading that. Is there anything you wanted to throw in that you think we didn’t touch on that you’d like to mention that you think people would find interesting in this area before we end?

Russell: I would say anybody who’s interested ought to go to my website and poke around and watch it happen. Watch Descriptive Experience Sampling happen.

Zach: And what’s the website?

Russell: I don’t know. I’ll have to send it to you. If you Google me… Let me see what I can-

Zach: Is it live currently?

Russell: Yeah. So if you Google me, you would find my website. And my website is called

Zach: Oh, gotcha. Okay. Yeah, I’ll put a link to it.

Russell: And on the left-hand side of that website is a link that’s called complete DES interviews with annotated transcripts. If you clicked on that link, that would take you to 100 hours worth of interviews with aphantasia people and face blind people and journalists.

Zach: And it’s Was that it?

Russell: Yes. Yeah.

Zach: Okay, that’s great.

Russell: I’ll email it to you and make sure you get it right.

Zach: Yeah. But for people listening, I just want to make sure they checked it out. Okay. Thanks a lot, Russ. This was great and I think people will find this very interesting.

Russell: You’re welcome. My pleasure.

Zach: That was a talk with Russell Hurlburt, the author of several books on inner experience. You can get some links to resources that we mentioned in this talk at the entry for this talk on my site, Thanks for listening.

Music by Small Skies.