I saw a post on Facebook where someone had come across the term “aphantasia”. It’s the label for the phenomenon of not seeing images in the mind. An estimated 1 – 3% of the population have limited or no sensation at all of mental pictures.
The meme was expressing dismay (and the comments, a deep sadness) over all that aphantasiacs must be missing. This post was specifically imagining a terrible loss in the experience of reading without having the words on the page make a movie in your mind.
Well, I’m aphantasic. And it’s not sad at all. It’s only hard to explain. But I’ll try.
I know what things look like. When I’m seeing the world with my eyeballs, I process visually like everyone else. But there’s nothing that feels like vision in my memory or during invention—in daydreaming or while composing fiction. I can’t see anything. I don’t even really quite know what that would mean.
When I’m remembering or wool-gathering or writing a scene, I’m doing that other thing about what the world looks like: the thinking about it thing – which is a completely different beast.
Everything that’s taken in through my sense of sight becomes something different once it’s in my head. There’s no picture, per se, to recall. It’s kind of like that raining code in the Matrix. I mean, I don’t “see” a code like that either. There’s this altogether separate sense that serves as a transcription for everything that’s gone from visible to conceptual.
Scientists only coined the term “aphantasia” in, I think, 2015, and I first ran across it last year. It’s something I’d been trying to describe my entire life. What’s really funny is that this whole time, I thought everyone else was being metaphorical when they said they saw things in their minds. I thought that calling it vision was a convenient shorthand like even I use—oh, I can picture suchandsuch or I can just see him doing that.
I didn’t know I was an oddball. (Seriously, I’m not sure how many times I have to learn that lesson.)
I’m not missing out, though. I get to hear, see, smell, taste, and feel things the way everyone else does. But all the recorded regular senses, the information that’s delivered in them, is translated into a distinctly different sensory property—a bonus sixth one, if you will, of What Things Are Like.
What things are like and what they look like are slightly different. It’s analogous to the difference between seeing something and recognizing it. Those two sensations are similar (and usually related) but they’re not the same thing. The experience of recognition is different from the physical sense of sight. There’s something else going on there, a non-visual component. That’s what I have instead of pictures in my head.
I feel it like a magnet pulling metal shavings around a thought, giving it shape. Remember that toy? It’s like that. Except it doesn’t look like that. *sigh* This is difficult.
I don’t have images in my mind, but there’s a separate device, a comprehensive catalog of recognition, as vivid and developed—and pleasurable when it’s pleasing—as my other senses. It’s a trove of what things are. Does that make sense?
When I read, I don’t ever bother trying to put together what things or people in the stories look like. I mean, if there’s something where the fact of what it looks like is important to the plot or character, I’ll certainly take note of it. But the description of things translates to me as what it’s like to be in that place or in that body, or the sense of what it’s like to have that fictitious emergency or salvation or despair or triumph.
It seems that for most people, imagining what it would be like to not see pictures with their thoughts is this awful, black, cavernous loss. But it’s nothing like that for me. I have a very rich internal life and imagination. It’s just different from what, as far as I understand it, most of you experience.
And, luckily, reading is a singular pleasure in synthesizing that sense of recognition from words alone.
If someone came to me with a pill or a potion and told me it would give me images to go with my thoughts, I’d only take the medicine if it were guaranteed that I could go back to the way I was before if I found I didn’t like it. From here, the only way I’ve ever known, I can honestly say that vivid visual imagery sounds kind of unpleasant. Distracting. Rushed.
I love being in my head. I love how it feels considering things with that other, translated sense in my mind. It’s an important, even treasured, facet of my experience of being alive.
It’s almost hard for me to imagine how you normals do it. But I’m starting to, ahem, get the picture.
11 thoughts on “The Mind Half-Empty or Half-Full: A Tale of Aphantasia”
Great post, Jamie. A question—when you dream, if you do and remember them, are there images? Dreamlife and waking life are often very different imagery so I was curious how it was for you.
I do dream. I actually lucid dream and always have. I didn’t know it was unusual to know you were dreaming and to be able to control, somewhat, what happens in the dream. (The great upside is that I almost never have to have nightmares. I almost always can redirect it.)
But this question is definitely interesting, because it seems that I do dream in pictures. At least I think do. Or when I remember them, perhaps it just placeholds the same way things I’ve seen do. I don’t think I can be sure. And that’s a little maddening.
You know what’s super weird? In many ways, I’m a visual learner. Take audiobooks: they generally don’t work for me. I need to see the words to get the story into my head right. I don’t continue to see the words, of course, but that’s the rail all the stuff needs to ride in to my aphantasia on.
People who are born blind, do not dream in images—they have no real reference. But those who lose their sight later, do—for a while. I forget all the details but it’s something like if you lose vision before age 1 or so you won’t dream in images but if you do so after the 4 or so year old range you will dream in images for 10-15 years and then this ability fades in many if not most. The ages and years might be off but you get the concept.
Yeah, this does make me think that the imagination of blind people is cobbled together much like my own — from whatever you take in through your working senses. It’s pretty interesting.
If someone came to me and suggested that with a medicine or procedure I could have a movie in my head, I think I’d decline. It sounds like a pain in the ass to me! Isn’t that funny? I like the different way of observing things in my mind.
I agree. Why change anything if it isn’t a problem? And lord knows, based on your wonderful writing, your mind does observe things differently—and that’s a good thing.
You are very, very kind. Thank you so much.
Is there a test for aphantasia? Because while I think you tried really hard to explain it, I don’t know…I think I have it, but am not sure. I close my eyes, try to picture a horse, say, and get…nothing. But writing a story, I can imagine action on a beach, or on a boat — but I’m not sure I “see” it. I’m glad I found you and this and your books, but this — arrrgh! :)
I don’t know that there’s a standard test. Everything I’ve seen seems like it was composed by someone who doesn’t understand what they’re asking. It’s often conflated with the idea that aphantasiacs can’t remember things or details of those things, which isn’t the case at all. Aphantasia isn’t associated with memory problems or cognitive impairments.
For me (and many other aphantasiacs) the facts and details of our experience, as well as those of the creations of our imaginations, are available to us as easily as they are to someone who sees a visual representation of the facts and details of their own experiences. There’s just no picture. (Try to recall how many windows are in your house, they say. No problem. I know what my house looks like. I have that information in my head. I don’t need to “see” my house in memory to know how what rooms I have and how many windows are in each. I don’t walk around rediscovering my house at every pass.)
That’s really difficult for some people to understand.
Here’s a good article to start with, I think.
I recognized that I had aphantasia at age 66. I was stunned, I did not know what i was missing, and like you thought “seeing” things was a metaphorical reference. I might have mourned for 5 minutes when I recognized my “loss”. In pages I have read, science has determined that we do indeed find ways to function without having to ‘see’ things in the mind’s eye. At this point in time, aphantasia is not considered a handicap of any sort. It has been determined that the reason we can see things in our dreams is that we use a completely different part of our brain in dreaming… a part that has nothing to do whatsoever with visualizing.
Yes, I never felt any loss. In fact, having images with my thoughts sounds kind of chaotic and unpleasant to me. If someone had a syringe full of “cure”, I’d have to say no unless I could test drive it first and give it back if I didn’t care for it.
The dreaming is interesting because during REM sleep, much of our brains are functioning as if we were awake. Since aphantasiacs process vision normally, it’s just like looking at stuff, not recalling of inventing anything during plain old consciousness.
It’s fascinating to learn how everyone describes their inner world. For me, aphantasia has done nothing but pave the way for great conversations. It’s pretty neat.