Lately a flurry of articles have drawn attention to the phenomenon of aphantasia. This is a recently named brain condition (not a disability) of those who cannot summon up mental pictures in their mind’s eye. (Some have “total aphantasia”, which affects all the senses, but that’s not me.)
Realisation slow and fast: that’s me too
A long article by Blake Ross woke me up to what a big deal this is.
- I knew I was face-blind.
- I knew I had peculiar difficulty in remembering things, and always have had. Big blanks where others had instant recall.
- I knew I was pretty smart at conceptual thinking, had a busy brain forever generating new deductions and ideas.
- I often used words like visualize and picture this, never dreaming that others could do this literally. To me they were just metaphors.
- I had no idea that others could summon up faces and other mental pictures at will.
Boom! Suddenly I get it, and the revelation is a whopper.
Further reading and experiments confirmed that the way that I (and at least 2% of the population) process information is not the norm. The killer question was: “Imagine a red triangle.” How hard is that? So what really happens when I ask myself to do this? I see black, black, black. I laboriously pick a point and sort of join the dots. But I still see nothing. I’m just shuffling data, drawing conclusions, and attempting to construct something from scratch. Same if I try to visualise a scene, or my childhood home: I kind of draw it, flat. The process is cognitive and deliberate. Nothing spontaneous about it!
In dreams and in that dream-like state before and after sleep, I do sometimes see things in my mind, vividly. So I know what it’s like, sort of. But I cannot, do not do it when awake.
But a writer — a poet! — with aphantasia? How can that be?
Easy. Information is flooding in, with further research and active forums for people with aphantasia. And it seems that many of us develop strong conceptual skills, mathematical skills or yes, verbal skills. This, I dare say, is how our brains automatically compensate for a lack that we never knew we had.
Instead of mental pictures, we use other information. Click click click, we work away slotting facts into place.
I have trouble describing people and if I do, I’ll just pick a detail or two and let the reader do the imagining. Sometimes I draw people from TV (Antiques Roadshow being a favourite) and use those drawings as models for characters.
It’s hilarious. Since childhood I have been admired and condemned for my too-vivid imagination. The word imagination deconstructed means constructing images, doesn’t it? I do that with words. Moreover, in the real world I have a powerful aesthetic sense, fascinated by photographs and design.
Often our life work emerges from our own inadequacies. So I failed the secret visualization test? Inevitably my dear little brain steers me into a bypass route, boosting my scores on real-world visuals, turning me into a cracker writer, gifting me the ability to explain things to others, teach them a different way …
Two minutes of self-pity over aphantasia
Last night a friend told me that if she thought about anyone, a picture of them would instantly appear in her mind. Sometimes pictures arrive without being summoned, without an apparent trigger. Wow! Really? Literally? All the time? Who knew? Answer: about 98% of people. Apparently using the mind’s eye features large in how other people think.
This morning early, last night’s revelation hit me with a bang. So … you mean … if I had a neurotypical mind’s eye, I could do this too? I would be able to see pictures of my sisters, my daughters, my sons, my granddaughters, my grandsons, my friends, like a slideshow or even a movie?
How bloody wonderful that would be! How comforting! How blissful! How healing that would be if I were sick, or when I become old in body and afraid.
I allowed myself to weep at this terrible loss of something that (as far as I know) I have never had. I let rip with delicious self-pity for two minutes. That’s more than enough.
Enough: aphantasia is neutral or positive
It just is. I can see how it has affected my life in a hundred ways, most of them not bad ways but harmless or interesting or useful or funny. Over the years I have mastered many a workaround — that’s neuroplasticity at work. Sometimes my solutions to problems seem ingenious to the receiver. Often my solutions seem ludicrous because, to other people, they are totally unnecessary. Now, finally, I begin to understand why that is, and why aphantasia is, on balance, neutral or positive.
Image from “Surgery, its principles and practice” 1906 Internet Archive Book Images