Involuntary Visual Imagery

I’ve become interested in the topic of involuntary visual imagery because of my own recent experiences. After my partner died of cancer, I’ve had periodic episodes of involuntary visual imagery (akin to flashbacks) of traumatic events leading up to her death. I’ve also had images of places appear for no apparent reason. The places themselves are neutral, but in the context of loss they become fraught with distress. {As an aside, I have vivid auditory imagery of popular songs which can play in my head with high fidelity.}

Today I was reviewing a paper, with a song playing in my mind in the background (Save a Prayer by Duran Duran, which I had heard a few days before). It’s a sad song, but I was managing the workload just fine. Then an image of driving onto the on-ramp of the Second Narrows Bridge appeared in my head and totally derailed me1. The view wasn’t from the car, like I was driving, but more from above (a bird’s eye view), like a detached observer fixed in mid-air. It reminded me of all the travel to a city I may not see again (especially of all the trips back and forth during the last months).

Last week, I was writing a report at work, and suddenly a vivid image of standing across the street from the BC Cancer Agency appeared. My partner had 6 weeks of radiation there in 2015. This was even more upsetting, for obvious reasons.2

Derealization

This isn’t a new phenomenon for me, although the current level of distress is novel. I have very strong memories of significant places, and sometimes an image of a specific location from my past springs to mind for no apparent reason. These visual images can be accompanied by a sense of derealization, a subjective alteration in my perception of the outside world. Revisiting these old places from childhood was disorienting:

I went on this trip once, back to my hometown after a long absence. Have you ever felt that your surroundings seem odd and distant, and that you’re completely detached from them? That the things and places around you aren’t real? This can happen to me, on occasion.

It did on this trip, perhaps because I’ve dreamed about those places so many times that the real places and the dream places are blurred in memory.

Visual imagery can be an elusive phenomenon to study scientifically, but there’s a solid literature that I’ll eventually review. A recent fMRI experiment examined the neural correlates of visual imagery vividnesss, and the authors reviewed 11 previous papers on the topic (Fulford et al., 2018). An early study found that visual imagery ability may be associated with flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder (Bryant & Harvey, 1996). I recently speculated that individuals with both (the inability to form mental images) and PTSD must not have visual flashbacks.

Seven years ago, I wrote a grant that was mercilessly rejected (one of many); the only section of the proposal that the reviewers liked was on imagery. So I’ll retrieve that file, dust off the virtual cobwebs, and perhaps look at the approach with a fresh set of eyes (so to speak). A bleary set of eyes is more a more apt description…

 

ADDENDUM Jan 17 2019 (2:22AM): I didn’t mention that the image below came to mind while I was writing this post. These sorts of situations, when you’re preoccupied with doing something else like reading and writing, aren’t the most conducive conditions to voluntarily imagining a visual scene or recalling a visual autobiographical memory. And yet there it was, Phibbs Exchange, appearing without warning or conscious thought.

Question for the readers: Do any of you experience involuntary visual imagery, whether confined to visual images alone or incorporating other sensory modalities (e.g., hearing, smell, touch)?

 

Footnotes

1 We were in a long-distance relationship that involved travel between Vancouver and California. I’ve taken great pains to find images on Google Maps that are the closest to those conjured up by my mind.

2 She was told she was “cured” several months after that, which clearly was not the case. Imaging the liver in all those subsequent CT/MRI screenings was not part of their “protocol” (despite suspicious early results, and despite the fact that the liver is the most likely site of metastasis). So you can see why imagery of staring at that building was quite upsetting.

References

Bryant RA, Harvey AG. (1996). Visual imagery in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Trauma Stress. 9(3):613-9.

Fulford J, Milton F, Salas D, Smith A, Simler A, Winlove C, Zeman A. (2018). The neural correlates of visual imagery vividness–An fMRI study and literature review. Cortex 105:26-40.

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Derealization / Dying

Derealization is a subjective alteration in one’s perception or experience of the outside world. The pervasive unreality of the external environment is a key feature, along with emotional blunting. The world loses its vividness, coloring, and tone.

I’ve spent much of the last year walking around in a fog, hazy, underwater, under glass, where nothing is real. This isn’t happening.

My partner has end-stage cancer, and was transferred from Acute Care to the Palliative Care Ward about 3 weeks ago. I was standing there, just staring at her while she slept in a hospital bed, knowing where we were and who I was and yet, the scene was surreal. Detached from my real life. Like flowing curtains.

Then her psychiatrist walked in, and suddenly everything was real. I started sobbing at the horrible reality of what was happening, and what will happen.

People speak, I’ve no reply

I’m empty inside

But for the incessant screaming

Which refuses to subside

–Single Gun Theory, I’ve Been Dying

Less than a week later, she was transferred to hospice.

I’ve been dying a long time

Down on my knees

There’s no way out of here

I’ve been dying a long time

Can’t seem to pick up the pieces of my life

–Single Gun Theory, I’ve Been Dying

Single Gun Theory were an Australian band who sampled from myriad sources, including Robert Oppenheimer, Natalie Wood, spoken word samples recorded in India, Turkey, and Southeast Asia (e.g., Islamic call to prayer, recitation of the Qur’an, Indian female vocals), and The Twilight Zone.

Twelve months ago to the moment you destroyed yourself

Much as I told you you would

{sampled from The Silence, Season 2, Episode 25 of The Twilight Zone}

Nearly a year ago, Sandra was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I tried for 7 months to enroll her in a clinical trial, to no avail. I wrote about how hard that was, and what was wrong with the cancer clinical trials systems in both the US and Canada.

[That] post [was] my own personalized rant about the false promises of personalized medicine. … It [was] about oncology, for very personal reasons: misery, frustration, and grief. After seven months of research on immunotherapy clinical trials, I couldn’t find a single one in either Canada or the US that would enroll my partner with stage 4 cancer. For arbitrary reasons, for financial reasons, because it’s not the “right” kind of cancer, because the tumor’s too rare, because it’s too common, because of unlisted exclusionary criteria, because one trial will not accept the genomic testing done for another trial. Because of endless waiting and bureaucracy.

But somehow, I’ll have to go on without her. Sandra was very active in suicide prevention efforts on social media, as @unsuicide and with her Online Suicide Help wiki so there you go.

September 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day, and Dr. Erin Michalak of CREST.BD wrote a touching tribute to Sandra’s work.

Sandra Dawson’s Legacy

. . .

Most significantly, Sandra created the Unsuicide directory of online and mobile crisis supports, as well as a popular corresponding Twitter feed (@Unsuicide) with close to 25,000 followers. Her Unsuicide online supports are authentically grounded in her lived experience of bipolar disorder, but also unfailingly focused on helping people, regardless of their geography, to access credible and safe online and mobile support tools. In 2016, she was awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers from the Governor General of Canada in acknowledgement of the impact of her work as an advocate for people facing mental health challenges and in suicide prevention.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.