We were driving somewhere and I was in the passenger seat, not quite drifting off but really relaxed, when suddenly I was running in what looked like a scene from a movie.
I was on a sandy, almost orangey, dirt path and there were clumps of grass here and there.
As quickly as I was there, I was back, shocked.
It only lasted about 2 seconds, but I had never experienced something like that in my mind, and it was AMAZING.
I could SEE, in my MIND.
That was in 2016 or 2017, but the 4-year time period from 2015-2018 has really started to all blend together for me, so I can’t say for sure.
I think it wasn’t long after that, that a conversation with David caused me to realize he could see pictures in his mind all the time. I thought oh, some people can see more than others, how lucky of them.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across the term “aphantasia” in the comments of a YouTube video about visualization that I looked up what it was and realized how very differently I had apparently experienced life than approximately 97-98% of the world.
Although mental blindness was recognized back in 1880, aphantasia wasn’t coined until 2015, which explains why most people who live their lives with blank screens have no idea they’re in the minority.
As someone put it, my computer works, there’s just no monitor.
So how does someone with aphantasia “picture” things?
Well frankly, they don’t.
There are quite a few common phrases that have never really made much sense to me, but I always just assumed were figures of speech.
Self-help gurus, therapists, law of attraction proponents, and whatever other situations in which mental visualization is heavily relied on – that’s all been largely lost on aphants.
When I’m supposed to picture something I just assemble facts about it (which I have to actually know in the first place) and try to keep a sort of verbal image of them all together, but it’s more like a narrator reading a list than anything else.
I never realized this wasn’t what everyone did – I thought I just sucked at it more than most people.
Having such a crappy imagination made me feel like I could never be a real artist – I was always amazed at what people could draw seemingly out of thin air, while I was an imposter who couldn’t draw anything without at least a picture to go off of.
It’s a big reason I don’t doodle.
This explains it perfectly.
Understanding aphantasia connected a lot of dots for me…
- It’s like the complete opposite of photographic memory.
I’ve always been frustrated and weirded out that I remember SO LITTLE of my life, to the point of wondering more than once if I had some sort of repressed trauma that was affecting my ability.
But like one writer describes, “Think of memory as a favorite book with [I would add picture] pages that you return to again and again. Now imagine having access only to the index.”
I can recall all, or at least most, of the headings of my life, but inside the chapters, there are only a couple pages here and there, possibly just a few paragraphs or sentences.
I’ve never understood how David (and anyone) can remember so many stories to tell from their past. Anything I can manage to think of to relate is easily told in a couple of sentences. I just always though I simply sucked at storytelling, and felt pretty lame about it.
- Aphantasia is why very descriptive books annoy me (ugh, so flowery and pretentious, lol) and I skip all those parts – it actually makes sense why I wouldn’t like LoTR and other fantasy series!
- I’m just realizing aphantasia is probably why I find a lot of poetry so very stupid/lame. I always just felt unsophisticated that it bored me so.
- Wow, it’s probably why the thought of playing make-believe is so painfully dull to me! I thought I was just a crappy mom to not want to have to do that.
- It’s also probably a big reason why I always want to just get to doing something instead of sitting around talking about it how to do it. Like with rearranging furniture – I need to see it.
- I’m guessing it’s definitely related to why if someone explains to me how to do something it goes in one ear and out the other – I need to do it myself so I can see the why and how while I do it to have anything stick.
- Similarly, aphantasia is probably why I need to see a map to understand how things are situated in relation to each other, and feel completely lost about it otherwise.
Now I know you might be thinking nah, I have some of those issues and don’t have aphantasia. Sure, I’m not saying they’re all directly correlated, but I can tell you for sure that being able to access mental images would certainly change the way I’m able to process and retain information!
I feel so much better being able to point to a definition and larger group of people with similar experiences to explain how I experience things.
At the same time, I feel SO LEFT OUT not being able to see in my mind’s eye this whole time!!!
However, I can also recognize some possible benefits to this disability.
The advantages of aphantasia
Thinking of being able to visualize, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t get completely caught up in daydreams. How distracting that could be!
One advantage might be having less issue getting negative images or memories stuck in your mind, although I can’t say for sure since I don’t have anything to compare to personally.
Everyone is different, mentally blind or not, but the best way I can relate to visualizing what I remember is like if aftersmell was a thing… like aftertaste, but even more abstract. It’s a combination of facts and feelings about the person, place, thing, or scenario.
So I certainly can get negative things stuck in my mind, but much of the time, if something like that happens it’s more like a broken record being played – something dumb I said and imagining how it made others feel or what they thought. But everyone gets conversations stuck in their mind sometimes, right?
I do know I’ve never been one to hold a grudge or cling to resentment, though I have no way of knowing if that’s at all related to not having visual memory.
Likewise, it may or may not contribute to my lack of tendency to live in the past or harbor regret.
It does make me curious if it helps with things like homesickness… if you can picture your comfort zone and loved ones, are you more or less likely to miss them?
That’s one thing I think is particularly sad, not being able to picture any of the people in my life.
I never understood people saying to leave the camera off and live in the moment, take a mental picture, etc……………. because to me that was like saying just enjoy it now and never remember it.
I’m so, so thankful I live now when I can have an abundance of pictures and capture on video the moments I want to be able to relive someday.
And it’s interesting. While contemplating this, I realized scenes from videos I’ve recorded and watched back multiple times I almost feel like I can picture, sort of. It’s like having the chance to see it again gives me more facts to subconsiously reconstruct a better impression of a visual in my mind.
This is definitely a good time to be alive with this way of processing, being able to search almost anything and find a visual if need be.
One other advantage I can think of is that I’m sure not being able to visualize in the usual way means aphants hone other ways of thinking. I can’t say what that is exactly, since I don’t know any differently, but I’m curious if it’s related to being able to quickly assess situations and instinctively know how to take action. Maybe, maybe not.
The biggest thing this has reminded me of is how very differently other people may experience life than you, regardless of how it may appear.
We can logically understand everyone is pulling from different information, experiences, and ways of thinking.
But when core ways of functioning and processing are completely different, you just don’t have any way of knowing it until you know it… it can be impossible to get on the same page because you’re foundationally talking past each other.
Early in our marriage, I had a really hard time not thinking poorly of David because he didn’t qualify his frustrations in life with phrases such as “I feel like…” “It seems like…” etc when venting, so they came out as statements of fact, which sounded utterly ridiculous to me.
It took me years to realize and then fully grasp that he was verbally processing – literally thinking out loud, the same kinds of thoughts that might flow through my mind but went through a filter of logic before coming out.
Differences are not excuses, nor license.
Let’s be clear, many people, on discovering they have aphantasia, don’t feel it’s a disability at all. If you’re one of them, no need to get offended. I consider it a disability in the very basic sense that it is a distinct lack of ability to visualize.
To my understanding, it’s essentially like neural pathways are missing or aren’t functioning properly, causing what could be considered a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Are aphants perfectly fine, intelligent people?
Just as I suspect those with more severe and commonly understood disabilities are…
The life you know is the life you know.
While it can be easy to see others as beneath you because of your “superior” way of functioning or feel like a victim because others have an “advantage” over you in some capability, your reality is limited by your perception.
The fullest way to experience life is by keeping an open, humble, and curious mindset.
If you’re struggling to connect with someone or understand something about the way they approach situations, give them the benefit of the doubt and seek to learn their side.
You never know what other very basic thing you take for granted that everyone has in common will be discovered to be different in the future…
Where do we go from here?
I didn’t mention it at the onset of the post, but I think the reason I caught a glimpse into the world of the mentally sighted in the first place was because I’d been praying about wanting my eyes to be opened to more of what was available to me.
I’ve always dreamed, but I also started having much more vivid and frequent dreams. (The frequency greatly increased when I made it a point to start writing them down – at least one a week, but sometimes as many as 4 a night.)
Waking up I’ve been in awe of how incredibly creative my mind actually is, and gained hope that one day I might be able to access that while awake.
There have been a few more instances of getting to experience brief glimpses of mental vision and they’re always moving very quickly, like a video on 10X or a slideshow set on millisecond freezeframes. My eyes physically strain towards the back of my mind, scrambling to focus as the images speed away from me and quickly fade back to black.
It’s soooooooooooooo intriguing.
I know I can and will grow this ability, and I’m excited for what it will open up!
You may have zero visualization, or maybe you have some ability but not as much as you’d like. I’ve run across a number of exercises that may help and would love to know your experience and if you discover other techniques.