Part 1: What do you mean, you see things in your mind?
I’ve always liked twist endings. Most of my favourite books and movies are the ones where you get to the end and the world shifts, and you can go back and read or watch them again and you see things from a whole new perspective. You see tiny things you didn’t notice the first time and go ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming’.
Now take that feeling of seeing things from a new perspective, and apply it to your entire life. And not just everything you can remember in the past, but everything that’s happening to you right now, and all the thoughts that are running through your head. That’s what my life has been like the past few days. It’s making it a little difficult to concentrate.
Why? I can’t see pictures in my mind. And until last week, I thought no one else could either.
I’m going to try to cover different ground from the Blake Ross article I read that started all this for me (if you haven’t read it and you’re interested, you should go and read it here https://www.facebook.com/notes/blake-ross/aphantasia-how-it-feels-to-be-blind-in-your-mind/10156834777480504). I’ll try to analyse what I’m actually doing when I think and what visual imagers might be doing, as well as what I noticed before realising I was aphantasiac (a WHOLE WEEK ago) and why I didn’t notice sooner. This is my experience, which does not apply to all aphantasiacs – we seem to be a pretty diverse bunch.
I realised in my teens that I was terrible at remembering unfamiliar faces – if you watch a movie with me, I’ll probably say ‘who’s that?’ at least once – and, if anyone enquired further, would say I couldn’t picture faces in my mind. (I never thought to ask whether anyone could picture ANYTHING in their minds.) When I did an undergraduate psychology major (yes, I did an entire 2 years of psychology without realising what exactly was different), I heard about ‘prosopagnosia’ or faceblindness and decided I had that. Later I realised that my accessible memory isn’t visual – I get sound and touch if I concentrate, but it’s mostly spatial. Think of standing in a room with the lights off but still knowing where things are, spatial awareness of other cars when you drive, or (my favourite, though imperfect, analogy), how Daredevil ‘sees’ the world without eyes.
And then I read Blake Ross’s article and realised most people in the world are phantasiacs. Pictures in your mind? You’re all aliens, I swear. Or you have superpowers (though of course I’m Daredevil, so you can’t have his superpowers. They’re mine). I understood the concept of visual memory and knew I didn’t have it, but the idea that people could imagine (IMAGE-ine) things in their mind had never occurred to me.
But why didn’t you notice, you might say. Look at my first paragraph above. See all the language to do with visualisation – see things from a new perspective, seeing something coming. To me, those are metaphors. I’m using them, above, as metaphors. I have it on good authority that to most people, they can have a more literal sense (correct me if I’m wrong). There are also several common sayings that imply pictures in your mind is a bad thing: ‘you’re seeing things’, for example.
Visually-related language is everywhere. And any time I see one of those words now, my mind goes ‘ping’ – so they’re actually talking about images. Even some words, which I would claim as spatial and so perfectly normal to imagine (the world shifting, impressions), I might be experiencing differently from most other people.
A few other things that have thrown me: the idea that people who have lost their ability to visually image have had to relearn how to do things like understanding speech or conducting business affairs (Faw, 2008; Zeman et al., 2015). You mean it’s that important? Questions like, “but how do you understand deadlines? Remember a loved one?” What is there that’s visual about a deadline, and why do you need to see someone to remember them? Remembering people telling me I have a good imagination (metaphorically, yes. Imagining actual imagination? I can’t do it). Realising I dream in images, and having trouble falling asleep because I’m waiting for the pictures to start. Thinking ‘how does everyone else do what I’m doing now?’ and then having to tell myself ‘I have functioned perfectly successfully without visual imaging for 28 years, and I don’t need it now’. Reading descriptions of aphantasia in the media written by phantasiacs who don’t seem to quite get it (though I don’t quite get visual imaging, so I guess that’s understandable). And the fact that Wikipedia currently describes aphantasia as a ‘hypothesised condition’. I am hypothetical.
Part 2: How I think I think.
Aphantasia seems to be on a continuum with no imaging at one end, and photo-real imaging at the other. There are also different continuums for different senses, and different people score differently on different senses. Faw (2008: 12), himself a non-imager, identifies seven possible senses for imagery: “visual, auditory, touch, motor, taste, smell, and organic (bodily-sensation)”. On a scale of 1 to 5, I am a 1 on sight, or possibly a 1.5 (I see ‘ghost-flashes’ sometimes, as someone on this forum termed it, but I’m still not sure they’re visual). Basically, what picture am I supposed to be rating? It’s not there.
Think about the other senses. Are there any you have a ‘what picture/sound/smell’ feeling with? Any you’re good at? What about less-traditional ‘senses’, or modes of thinking? Do you use proprioception (the idea of where your body is/how it moves)? The inner monologue seems to be quite important for some people (I’m transcribing my ever-present inner monologue as I write). Is there a ‘conceptual’ mode of thinking?
Thinking about my experience of spatials (what I always did when anyone said ‘visualise’) lets me understand other people’s confusion that I can’t image visually. I’ve always been very good with directions and layout, and I subconsciously keep an idea of where north is. If I’m wrong about the direction of north, I’m completely thrown, and I construct my memories spatially around north or another anchor.
I’ve often had the experience where perfectly intelligent people have indicated a street they think is outside the building, that way, and I have to clarify, you mean that street in the opposite direction, meanwhile wondering how on earth they could get that wrong. Or walking through a building with people who don’t know which way the exit is. Huh? It’s over there, obviously. But now I’m thinking that they’re relying on visuals when I’m relying on spatials.
Enough people have said ‘but you see flashes, so you do see something’, and ‘how do you remember something’ for me to think it through step by step, sense by sense. If I think of Puss ‘n Boots from Shrek, I get a ghost-flash of him standing staring up at someone over my right shoulder (I see him from slightly above and to his right side), his hat in his hands and his eyes huge and green (it’s the idea of green, not the visual. When I checked Google for the picture, his eyes were actually mostly black). If I think of it spatially, I can hold onto the ‘image’, an idea of his vibe/demeanor as well as the emotional impression of ‘awww’. The possibly-visual ghost-flash is gone almost before I’m aware of it, but it probably shows I have a visual memory in there somewhere. I just have difficulty ‘saving’ visual things (hence my problems with characters in movies) and almost zero ability to consciously access them.
When I’m thinking of a movie, what comes to mind, and what is it I’m sensing about the image? For me, the spatials and the music are key. My first thought was the ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast, where the ‘camera’ flies down around the chandelier and Belle and the Beast are dancing. I hear ‘Tale as Old as Time’, sung by the teapot, who is purple and white and played by the actress from Murder She Wrote. Coincidentally, this happens to be one of the first uses of computer generated 3D imagery in a movie. My brain likes the 3D aspect, and the fact that we’re moving. It can construct a 3D spatial of the scene from two-dimensional input. Belle’s dress is yellow and marshmallowy, the Beast is in a blue suit jacket with gold buttons, black and white underneath, but this colour is a concept, not a visual.
From this I wondered about more traditional, non-3D animation – what do I think of from the Lion King? Immediate image is of Simba and Nala tumbling down a hillside, with ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ – again, movement and sound. I can create myself a 3D picture from that, with soundtrack. There’s a sunrise at the start of the film, which I can ‘visualise’ – but it’s a really fast sunrise where the sun moves a lot, with “Naaatsinvetinyaam” playing in the background. And what about live action? Back to the Future comes to mind – the Delorean speeding along, fire in the tyre tracks, and the number plate spinning in the JC Penney car park. Movement. And the terrorists are going to come from over there in their VW van.
Real life? Here’s a memory, with probably a fair dollop of imagination. Interestingly, it’s a frozen 3D with no movement, unless I focus on something and make it move. I’m digging a hole at Hot Water Beach, the cliffs to the west, rocks around me. We came from the north. The feeling of sand beneath my toes, the feeling of rocks, those anemone things that poke into your feet. Hot water, careful you don’t burn yourself. The spatial of cold water mixing with hot water (in three dimensions, which is a pretty cool ‘image’), and the feel of it. If I think about the waves, I hear them, and the trickles of water over rocks. “I smell sausages” says my cousin in a stupid voice, from closer to the water, to the south-east. My brother, grinning mischievously – this is more of a ‘vibe’, divorced from any visual/spatial/auditory. Or maybe it’s a combination of spatial and proprioception? It’s hard to tell. My brother’s in line with my cousin north-south, slightly closer to me. They’re facing the waves.
At first, when I was asked the question ‘how has this affected your life’, I thought, not much. But then I started thinking about it (as may be obvious from this essay), and considering what my dominant modes of thinking (spatial, inner monologue and conceptual) have had on areas of my life. The most obvious is hardly ever getting lost. But I’m also good at three-dimensional drawing, writing and making links between concepts, probably because the way I think feeds into those skills. What would I be doing if I could think visually? Would I still be good at these skills?
Think about what you, yourself, are good at. Does the way you think contribute to your strengths?
If scientists had a machine they could put me in that would turn imaging on in my brain, would I do it? Yes. But I’d like to get out afterwards, please. It would be amazing to, say, read a scene in a book and actually see the characters, but to me it’s a novelty, not something that I really need. It’s sort of like 3D movies – yeah, they’re cool, but they might give you a headache and you’re usually perfectly happy to watch them in 2D. And it’s kinda cool that everyone thinks differently. The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same.