How Aphantasia Affects Me
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Aphantasia is a recently categorised neurological condition. It is often described as the absence of a ‘minds eye’ or the distinct inability to generate mental images.
Picture if you will, a Smurf; those little blue fellows with white hats. Now put that Smurf into a forest, and have it snow softly on the happy little guy. Do you have a clear mental picture? Well if you have aphantasia like me then you don’t. It’s not that you don’t know what a smurf looks like, or don’t get how snow falls, or don’t get why this might make him happy. It’s just that you can’t actually picture that scene with any kind of detail or clarity.
To make it absolutely clear from the start, my Aphantasia is not severe. At the severe end is a complete inability to even recognise a familiar face. It can be a debilitating and difficult condition. For me, it is thankfully much closer to a pesky but intriguing quirk. The research is still new, but everything suggests that aphantasia is a spectrum. Take the Smurf example. Ask me to picture a simple blue rectangle (representing the Smurf), on a green background (the Forest) with a couple of moving white circles (the Snow) and with some concentration I can sort of see it. However, begin to add in the complexity of detail and the whole thing simply disappears.
It is as if all my images are formed by a drifting smoke; every time my brain reaches out for them, they slip frustratingly through my mind’s fingers.
So what’s it like actually living without a mind’s eye? Well, for me at least, not as difficult as you may think. I work in marketing which you might imagine is the worst job ever for someone who cannot visualise. Yet just because I can’t ‘see’ something it doesn’t mean I can’t get an overall ‘sense’ of it. When advising designers I can’t ‘see’ how it will finish - but I do have a keen instinct for what might or might not work in a final design. When organising an event I can’t picture how it will look on the night, but I do have a good appreciation of how different elements might successfully come together. It’s like instead of actual images, I have packets of information or knowledge which slot together as simply as an image comes together for everyone else. Logic and experience can still paint a very clear picture of something, even if I can’t actually see it.
However, over the years, I have found several specific ways which Aphantasia seems to affect me.
Picturing people; and then recognising them.
Ask me what my girlfriend and co-blogger Mackensie looks like and I would struggle to give you a very detailed answer. All you would get is the characteristics (height, build, hair colour) I have remembered about her. I’d recognise her the second she walked through the door (or maybe the second after that) but present me to a sketch artist and I simply can’t hold a picture of her in my head to describe. In practical terms this has little impact on my life, but there is something slightly heartbreaking about not being able to picture the ones you love. More problematic is remembering people I don’t know so well. The ones who I can’t use some deeply embedded instinct to recognise and place. When these people pop up unexpectedly I don’t seem to have a catalogue of mugshots in my head to compare them against. The result is often an embarrassing game of Guess Who.
Remembering memorable places.
Many people like to visit the places they love in their minds. To reminisce in the warm glow of their original encounter and bring back to thought the emotions of a specific time and place. I can’t incite such recollections. I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world and be in the presence of some of the most amazing sights. However without the ability to rerun them as visual memories, the details of these places and the feelings which accompany them fade quickly in the memory. When I see photographs I can’t effectively rebuild the vivid feeling of being there. It is as if the photographs are of different me, or maybe a cardboard cut-out of my body which was dragged around on their holiday.
Bringing other senses to mind.
Close your eyes and imagine the distinctive scent of freshly cut grass. I’ve been reliably informed that most people can bring a picture and sense of that particular fragrance into their heads. To me, it is absolutely amazing that someone could possibly imagine a smell. The very concept is completely confounding.
Getting lost in a good book.
Most fiction relies on the reader’s imagination to transform the words on the page into the world of the novel. In fact, most modern literature is judged by its very ability to conjure up the most vivid imaginary pictures. I, unfortunately, have no such imagination. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get caught up in the action and the pace of the prose. I can be teased by a mystery, outraged by a injustice, share a chortle at the humour, and admire a witterly worded sentence. I just can’t picture the scenes and step myself fully into them. I may be missing out. But then again, I may not so easily have earned my first class degree in English Literature without my innate analytical ability to pick apart the text of a novel.
There are numerous other small ways that aphantasia changes my experience and perception of the world.
Yet in writing this article I have come to realise how difficult it really is to define those differences. In the permanent absence of a mind’s eye, I think that the other parts of my brain may have adapted and picked up some of the slack. I don’t have to be able to see something in my mind, to know or imagine it. In many other cases - such as with daydreaming or calling upon the imagination - my inner voice just whirrs on fine without the pictures. It is never just lingering blackness. There is always the sense and shape of something, just not something I can put into plain and simple images.
If you think you may have aphantasia, then there is an aphantasia test you can do. I would be delighted to hear about your own experiences and thoughts of this neurological curiosity so drop a comment below.