Aphantasia: having no mind’s eye

I have no mind’s eye. I can’t visualise things in memory or imagination.  This blog is about the experience of being trans, where some people find me viscerally disgusting and others are fomenting fear and anger against people like me. And still, it is alienating to hear people talk about how strange people like that (aphantasiac) are. It is a good thing that All in the Mind on Radio 4 should report on it, to help people understand others’ differences, but I now feel frustrated and sad- while also delighted to hear the voices of people who share this. I am here! Hominem scias!

On the programme someone commented It’s “only been known about for four years”. Well, I have known about it all my life. I have had to imagine what a mind’s eye is like, which I think is a greater leap of- the word is image-ination, but I can imagine, I assure you. I have told people about it, and they have not understood. I hate the word “Aphantasia”- I googled “phantasia meaning” and find the Greek word is usually translated “imagination”.

I have always avoided painting and drawing as much as possible, because I cannot imagine an image before committing it to paper. Instead I write verse: here I do not conjure up images, but sensuous experience. Does it do anything for you? My family as animals together, I wrote: you might create a picture, but for me it is a sense of togetherness unmediated by words, like a hug.

Unmediated by words-

I am good with words. Dysphasia is as frightening to me as blindness. On Radio 4 people like me at a conference reported my own experiences. One reads novels. Her friend said that was like a movie playing in his head, and she thought that sounded really cool, but for her it is just the words. Like an audiobook, the words play in my head. I don’t know if an audiobook conjures images for you, but for me it is just the sound of the words. Yet I know Dorothea Brooke and Elizabeth Bennett like real people- I have no idea what they look like, but know what they feel and desire. I had that conversation with my father as a child. He knew how many novels I read, but still could not understand how I could experience them without visualisation, and my impression now is of him finding this weird and sad.

So, letting words go, in meditation and immediate experience, is a way of touching emotion directly, inner experience as well as outer perception. I have done lots of guided visualisations too, and can use them to access the unconscious, just not in pictures.

On the radio, they said it is hard to come up with measurements so “we can only really ask people what their experience is”. Um. When I close my eyes, I see dark- or bright light shining through my eyelids. It makes sense to me that there might be gradations of this experience, or levels of skill in visualisation. Brain activity does not necessarily correlate to conscious experience. I do not know my unconscious experience, without hard work in excavation, or it just coming to mind.

And I have tried to visualise something: on the radio a CGI artist was asked to visualise a sphere, I tried a beach, the sea, the sky- two straightish lines, three colours. Like him I tried it for a week without success.

This experience blew my mind at the time, and is still intensely memorable. As it means so much to me, it might delude a researcher into thinking my usual experience different. I was driving home through the city, and I thought I could go — or I could go — . Not by Manchester Road or Featherstall Road, but-

I was thinking without words, and that was utterly strange to me. I only thought in words. I fantasised, planned, remembered in words. It wasn’t like seeing, really, but when I read of blind-sight, not seeing an image but knowing what is there, when someone has a healthy eye and optic nerve but brain damage causing blindness, it seemed it was like that. I know what’s there. I don’t see it. In dreams, I know what’s there- I don’t remember seeing anything, though I suppose I might. A nightmare must be more terrifying if like a movie. I know how the bookshelves are arranged in the living room. I know the colour of my Oware board, and its curve.

I have a good mind’s ear. Elgar could look at a score and hear an orchestra in his head. I can hear an orchestra playing a piece I know, and sight-sing a short, single-line phrase. I tried to imagine something I had not heard- a solo violin playing the National Anthem- and found this difficult, though having done it I can repeat the exercise. Like as if I have laid down a memory and can replay it.

On All in the Mind Claudia Hammond, who I am sure is more empathetic than that, played the presenter’s game of being the ordinary person, saying this is all a bit strange isn’t it. Her guest Catherine Loveday, a cognitive neuroscientist from Uni of Westminster, explained rather well:

For most of us, remembering is so wrapped up in the visual experience that it’s hard to imagine how someone can remember if they’re not visualising something but obviously people can, we know that congenitally blind people can still have memories, and if I think back to my holiday in Wales I can still have lots of other memories other than the visual thing, I can think about what I was smelling, what I was thinking about, what I was hearing and saying all of that comes back so we can still have memories without visual elements to them but about a third of people who have aphantasia also have significant memory problems.

And still it’s from the point of view of the Normal person. That Normal person may understand, though feel vaguely pitying. I was really excited to hear the programme trailed- at last! The experience of people like me! I still feel that delight, in hearing my fellow aphantasiacs, though I wish it did not need mediated through the perspective of the Normals- people who are Normal in that way, at least.

I would like a mind’s eye. It would be great to play a movie in my head. I am sure I would still retain all the ways of thinking, imagining and remembering that I have now. Possibly I have developed them because of the lack, but possibly I would have developed them anyway.

Hominem scias, I wrote, as if you would understand it, in order to alienate you if you don’t, so you may get something of the feeling I had listening. It is from the motto of the Royal Life Saving Society, Quemcumque miserum videris, hominem scias: whomsoever you see in distress, recognise in him (sic) a fellow man (sic). Educated people may do a bit of Latin, but I would not expect anyone to read the phrase if they did not know it, as I could not myself.

I learned another name for something that happens to me. Bright light makes me sneeze. People either say, Oh! Yes! Me too! if it happens to them, or express incredulity if it doesn’t, because it sounds ridiculous to them.

It’s called a “photic sneeeze”, or an Autosomal Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst.

There’s a village in Argyll called Ardrishaig, with the emphasis on the second syllable, to which the only possible response is “Bless you”.

7 thoughts on “Aphantasia: having no mind’s eye

  1. Aphantasia might explain why I don’t recognise faces. I can’t visualise them in my mind. I didn’t realise that anyone was able to form a mental image that was almost like looking at it with one’s actual eyes. I recall information, not images, although the information is not in words. Words only exist when attempting to translate those thoughts into sentences for the benefit of those I wish to communicate with. To me it makes no difference whether I read, hear or watch a story – they are all remembered the same way. In fact it’s often the case that I am unable to recall the medium by which the story came to me. And real life events are recorded exactly the same way.

    I’m amazed how most people are able to replay events from memory almost as though they are watching a rerun of the event. I simply have a lot of poorly interconnected information about the event with absolutely no time line.

    I remember that during counselling for pain management, there were exercises where visualisation techniques that were supposed to help, but I found it impossible to construct images necessary for them to work.

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    • I recognise faces. I can’t visualise them, but I know someone when I see them, after getting to know them a bit; though it is the whole person, body, voice, movement as well as face. Two short women in late middle age noticed that people often confused them, though their personalities were quite different. You show that it is not just the lack of a mind’s eye, but our other gifts and attributes through which we compensate, which define our abilities.

      A friend studied NLP, and I read a bit about it, but so many of the exercises were around visualisation. For example, a bad memory, imagine it as a small picture in monochrome. A good memory, imagine it in full colour, with as much detail as you can. Pay attention to good things, yes; but I could not do it in that way.

      Someone said she did not run a movie in her head continually, when reading a novel, but only with description.

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  2. those people who find you disgusting are Snotty Nosed WORTH NOTHING .take no -notice
    your a person REAL LADY ..helping lot others ,,do NOT for get this

    mark

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  3. If I had to sit down with a sketch artist to describe my own children, I couldn’t do it. And yet, somehow I never forget a face… Like actors, even in makeup looking different and I haven’t seen them in something in years..I can guess who they are. Also, if I drop something and it rolls under the couch I know exactly where it landed spatially. I can’t visualize at all, but I do see in dreams although the recall is bad probably due to visualization impairment. I’ve never known how to describe it other than when I close my eyes, I see black… If you tell me too visualize something, it’s there behind a black curtain. I know what’s there but I can’t see it. :/ It’s so paradoxical. I do like my “view” on things now overall in my maturity but still wish for the actual seeing. Thanks for your post, I always thought I was an alone freak about this.

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