Are you aphantasic?

“Are you aphantasic?”
“Am I a fantastic what?”
“No, are you aphantasic?”

Cerebral lobes of brain
Gutenberg Encyclopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sounds like the beginning of a comedy duo routine, doesn’t it? But it is a serious question. Try picturing your favourite comedy duo having that conversation. Can’t see it? Can’t picture anything in your mind, perhaps? If not, you have aphantasia — mind blindness. It is surprising how many people don’t realise until they are decades old that when people say to picture something, they are being literal, not using a figure of speech. Some people with aphantasia can’t hear anything in their minds, either.

Gutenberg Encyclopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2204932

If your mind’s eye is blind, or you have a vivid imagination, or are just curious, read on.

I didn’t realise I had aphantasia until my 50s (and it didn’t have a name then as it had not been studied), when I was transcribing a talk on some Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques, and I discussed it with fellow listeners afterwards.

When Thom Hartmann said,

when you ask them, well ‘where’s the picture of that?’ they may say, ‘Well, it’s over there’ and they’ll point to an area that’s, say, ten feet away in front of them. And you say, ‘Is it color or black and white?’, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s black, it’s color’, let’s say. And, ‘Does it have a frame around it?’. ‘Yes’.

I thought, “huh”? My memories aren’t anywhere. They just are. I have no way to turn them from colour to black and white and push them away to make memories less painful. On the other hand, I don’t have vivid unpleasant memories giving me PTSD, either — though apparently we can get PTSD.

It is extremely rare for me to have a vivid dream. Usually I am just vaguely aware of what is in the scene, as one is aware of familiar landmarks looming out of the fog without really being able to see them, though I see no fog. I’m not sure if I rarely dream or if my dreams are so forgettable as a result that I rarely remember them.

I can count to ten (and beyond!), but I can’t count sheep. Many kinds of meditation involve visualisation and I cannot do them.

So far as I recall, I have always been this way, but some people only have aphantasia after a brain injury. And it is only because of them seeking treatment that scientists have studied the condition. Chief among them is Dr Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology at Exeter University, who coined the word ‘aphantasia’ in 2015. He also coined the word “hyperphantasia” for those people at the other end of the spectum who have very vivid imaginations. Not that people with aphantasia don’t have imagination — it’s just not visual. The aphantasia spectrum is just one of many traits where humans are spread along a wide spectrum and come up with different ways to do things. For example, how do you count in your mind? Picture a clock or tape measure? Hear a count? I feel a pale shadow of the movement in my throat of me counting verbally (though I don’t count physically).

With hindsight, probably the first indication that I was different was at school when I was lousy at art. If we were set the task of producing a painting or sculpture of a person or object, I simply could not do it.

Later, I found it hard to memorise the core diagrams of a subject — for example the components of a basic computer. And apart from struggling to reproduce them in exams, they are often a very useful aide memoire for the rest of the knowledge one has of the subject.

It has perhaps not surprising that I went into computing — a lot of people with aphantasia go into STEM, and a lot of people with hyperphantasia go into the arts, but there are exceptions — it is amazing the ways the human mind can find ways around problems. And of course, computing has got a lot more visual over the years. When I was updating my skills on a masters course, one of the modules was computer animation and the project set for it was to produce a short animation. While for some it was easy enough to draw a series of sketches of their subjects moving, I could not do it. All I could do was to think what pose I wanted the subject to take, then look for a real picture online and trace that. It was extremely laborious and time consuming, and one of the reasons I dropped out. This was before aphantasia had been researched, and I had no idea why I was having such a problem, and could not explain it to anyone else.

This gives some insight into what I think my problem is, though I have no idea if it is the same for everyone. I think the problem is not with storage, but retrieval. I cannot bring a picture of a person or object or scene to my conscious mind, and only very rarely does one come to my sleeping mind. If you were to show me a picture of a dog, say, somewhere deep in my brain there is some kind of representation of dogs, and I can tell if the picture is really of a dog or not. I can tell if something is familiar or not, but it is hard to put names to faces, as I cannot see them when not in their presence to keep visualising them while repeating their name until I have them pat.

I can’t remember scenes or people from my past, not even what my parents looked like, just such facts as I have memorised, plus what I have recorded in photos or diaries. I’d make a lousy eye witness as I could only swear to what I had thought to memorise, and would be unable to answer further questions so would make a poor impression.

We are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses and work arounds. I’d quite like to have been able to see with my mind’s eye, so long as I could restrict it to pleasant things.

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