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”.