Aphantasia is a pleasant-sounding condition except that it isn’t. It refers to the inability to make mental images. If you close your eyes and can picture your bedroom, you are part of the 98% of the population who can create mental images at will. I belong to the other two percent.
When I close my eyes, I see black. I am unable to call to mind my daughter’s face, my house or even what I am wearing. This also feeds into my inability to recognise faces, especially of people I don’t know very well. I make up for it by smiling and never using people’s names. I have had many a conversation with people who clearly know a lot about me while I remember nothing about them.
Professor Adam Zeman who coined the term aphantasia, described it as a “fascinating variation in human experience.” This may be true for an academic looking in dispassionately, but it isn’t how I feel about it. I experience it as a loss; a door shut to a world I would love to inhabit. Imagine not being able to recall the face of your parents, people you love, loved ones who have died. Without a photograph, I am lost.
Strangely enough, I dream in technicolour, and it is the only time I can see loved ones in my mind’s eye. I do wonder why I can access images in my sleep but not when I am awake. I even will myself to dream about a lover I miss, just to see his face once more. It never works. My subconscious is random access only.
I first realised I had no mental images when a friend at high school showed me a piece of art she had created. I couldn’t work it out. ‘This is what I imagine the inside of my mouth looks like when I am kissing,’ she ventured. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, confounded. She patiently explained the range of images that went through her head, while I saw nothing but black.
In my twenties I went to ‘relaxation classes’. I became increasingly frustrated when the instructor said, ‘Close your eyes. Now imagine walking along a sandy beach. Waves are gently lapping at your feet and there is a cool breeze caressing your face.’ While I love beaches, I can’t form an image of the sea, nor can I hear seagulls or feel the sand under my toes. These exercises served only to make me feel frustrated and tense – not the intended outcome of the class! When I tried to explain my problem, I was told to try harder. That’s like telling a blind person to look more carefully next time.
Aphantasia does have its funny moments though. Once I called home for a recipe I wanted to pass on to a friend. ‘It is in the red ring binder on the right-hand side of the page’, I said confidently. It wasn’t. The folder was blue, and recipe wasn’t where I thought it was. Then there are times when people ask me to describe what something looked like. I just stare blankly, and they inevitably get frustrated with what they perceive is my lack of attention. I sincerely hope I will never be called up as a witness in a court of law.
Since my memory has no pictures at all; everything is stored in words. I am always amused when people tell me that my writing is vivid and that they can see exactly what I am describing. I wish I could. For me, words evoke feelings and that is what I get out of reading a descriptive passage or a well-written novel. I have no idea what the character may look like but I am invested in their personality or how they react to situations. Sadly, I forget a lot of what I have read but I always remember the feeling I had when reading the book.
As it is with many long-term conditions, the brain learns to compensate. Mine has allowed me to gain a rich vocabulary to make up for my non-existent visual memory. I love words, playing with them and rolling their sounds around in my mouth. I will search endlessly for an appropriate synonym, checking nuances before choosing the right phrase, for I paint pictures with words for others to see. I just wish, for once, I too could have access to this miracle of the mind.
3 thoughts on “Aphantasia”
Fascinating Viktoria. I never knew this about you or that this condition existed.
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It really helped me to find a name for it and know that other people think and remember the way I do. I am always blown away by people who have perfect visual memories and those who see words and hear music in colours (synesthesia). I find that mind blowing!
I know what you mean. I live life as a kind of empty or hollow abstraction. All I see when I close my eyes and try to visualize anything is a dark space, and empty field of nothingness. Until recently, I even thought the word imagine to mean: as if to see or visualize something. I thought everyone “saw” the world this way. Now I know I’ve this something called, aphantasia—this condition more or less exhibited by the inability to voluntarily recall an image. I had no idea people, most at least (about 98–99%) could actually recall an image voluntarily. I simply thought of it as some kind of abstract way of expressing thought in language, not literal to say the least.
So what do I see when I close my eyes. Nothing, absolutely nothing. Darkness. In fact, I received a 0 on the VVIQ questionnaire. I do however experience a sort of intuitive web of relations if you will, a strangely intangible interconnected net of associations. How A relates to B, a B to C, and C back to A, etc. It has no visual, aural, olfactory, tactile or gustatory feel about it. It is simply put, there and nowhere. Strangely, I’ve above average spatial and navigation skills, my navigating though experienced as if a kind of internal blindsight, that is, experiencing the visual memory without consciously seeing it in my mind’s eye. Odd, very odd indeed.
Some notes about myself. I am sixty, just finding out there’s such a thing as aphantasia. If this is meaningful, I’ve an officially tested IQ in the 98–99.9% range. I’m an overly expressed INTP (99% introversion for instance) for all you typology buffs. I’ve degrees in mathematics, BA magna cum laude, and an MS in mathematical physics. I worked (retired) for all manner of software companies and was a computational scientist for years with a group of geophysicists designing and writing complex signal processing algorithms to run on massively parallel machines. I was brought up in an extremely narcissistic family environment, mother and stepfather, people who constantly beat the hell out of me and referred to me using every negative adjective you can think of, in fact, and moving about so much that I ended up attending some sixteen schools from the first to twelfth grades. Neither, mother or stepfather, were military by the way except for my stepfather being X military. Fortunately, I cannot recall, at least visually, aurally, etc. any of this—seeing them merely as a series of recast and hollowed out abstractions as if a web of events played out on a living chess board of sorts. They are, to put it bluntly, meaningless ideas—as I cannot see any of them or this voluntarily…
I can’t for the life of me understand the fascination with things like Harry Potter, probably, isn’t hindsight always 20/10, because of its highly baroque and visually enhanced landscapes. I can’t, for the life of me, imagine such spaces. Hell, I can’t even imagine a simple sunset or red circle or see a simple dot for that matter, each of these being highly abstract entities in my minds, not visually portrayed in the least. Anyway, I get it…