“Picture yourself in a boat on a river / with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” Nope. Not a thing.
Remember all those times at school when you were asked to close your eyes and imagine yourself on a beach, or in space, or whatever? To picture the blood running through your veins? I was a drama club kid, so I had more than my fair share of this. But I never saw anything when I closed my eyes. I assumed no one else did, either, not really. “Imagining” for me was a purely… imaginative… process. Intellectual. Conceptual. Not visual. Not in the slightest. Because I have aphantasia – an inability to see things in my head. A lack of a “mind’s eye”. No visual memory or imagination.
Except I’m not sure “have aphantasia” is the right way of putting it. I am aphantasic, perhaps.
So I got myself on the local news website the other day because of my slightly unusual brane (I’m the human interest hook to an exhibition which is the news hook to an academic conference; this is how media works, kids), and the reaction has been interesting; people either seem to have gone “my brane works the same way, I didn’t realise it was weird” or else “omg I can see things in my mind and you can’t this has Blown My Mind how do you even survive?”, which is an interesting dichotomy that leads me to believe that it’s not that uncommon to lack a mind’s eye. In fact, I suspect a mind’s eye is, like most things, a continuum, or spectrum, with people positioned all the way along it, from seeing nothing at all to having photorealistic imagination and recall.
I distinctly remember a conversation when Nora was small old between me and Em, where Em said she couldn’t picture Nora’s face when she closed her eyes, and that this made her feel bad as a parent somehow. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t actually see pictures in my head, and I wasn’t sure anyone really did in that way, and we both know what Nora looks like, so what’s the problem?
Around about the same time, a press release came out of the office next to mine at work about aphantasia, which I read with interest, but didn’t go doolally over. It wasn’t until several months later that a guy who used to work for Mozilla and Facebook wrote a blog post which went a bit viral.
I read that and went… not quite doolally, but certainly ‘oooh’. My sense of identification increased as I read, as I recognised points about my daily thoughts being a constant monologue rather than a stream of images, about not hearing music in my head beyond the “dum-de-dum-de-dum” of my brain silently humming (rather than recreating an entire arrangement), about how my memory is shocking (good recall on facts, awful recall on who spoke to me when – I’m forever telling things back to Emma that she told me first – or on other details of events in my life), about how I have certain pre-loaded descriptions and anecdotes queued up in my mind that I can reel off when necessary, about being unable to write fiction despite being told by numerous people that they expected me to do so, about the books that clicked with me and the kinds of books that didn’t. Salman Rushdie’s indulgently descriptive prose lost me completely, for instance, but anything where ideas and linear plot are placed ahead of literary evocation tends to stick – even so, I rarely read fiction as an adult, and always, always struggle to follow descriptions. If I do read a book I’m never disappointed with the film afterwards,
I don’t completely identify – I can (or could) draw, I do dream (but it’s nothing like watching a film), and I feel like I do have some, albeit miniscule, degree of visualisation (like catching something in your peripheral vision and turning quickly to look properly but it’s gone), but I definitely felt like I understood his experience far more than the opposite. I catch myself saying “I can see them but I can’t think of their name” quite often, for instance, but I’m not ‘seeing’ a face in my head, I’m just… knowing that I know who they are, and would recognise them if I saw them.
I think of myself as a very visual person – I’m a decent (amateur) photographer, I commission and instruct professional photographers, I write design briefs and approve design schemes in my day job, I sign-off artwork, I used to draw and paint all the time when I was a kid. (I wonder if I could visualise and if it’s slowly evaporated as a skill as I’ve got older? I don’t think it has; I think I never could.)
So I took the test on the BBC site, and came in the bottom 5% of the population for being able to visualise things. I’m not completely brain-blind like Blake is, but any ‘images’ I do get are very, very indistinct, and so fleeting that I can’t concentrate on them at all. Off the back of that I volunteered to be part of Professor Adam Zemen’s further study, which meant filling in various questionnaires and having an FMRI scan on my brain while being asked to picture famous people in my head after being shown pictures of them, the aim being to see if the same areas of my brain lit up while imagining them as when I could actually see them. Because it was an academic study I didn’t get given my individual results, but I might ask for them, as I’d quite like to see scientific proof of the lack of activity in my brain…
This revelation has explained to me a number of behaviours and instincts. I’ve stopped tagging anything or pursuing followers on Instagram, for instance, and have reconciled with myself the fact that I look at my own photos considerably more than I look at other people’s. Because social media is my repository in the absence of my brain doing the job. It’s not *just* that I’m a narcissist.
Some thoughts, in a list…
- “Catching” the memory of a face out of the corner of your eye is a great way of putting it that I saw somewhere. As soon as I try and concentrate on it, it’s gone.
- I much prefer impressionist, abstract art to figurative; I like swirls of colour. A strong visualiser I used to share an office with was very much the other way around and hated any abstract art. Is there a connection?
- I always used to assume that people who said they were, for instance, picturing sheep to count to fall asleep, were being weird and kind of lying. Or just saying “one sheep, two sheep, three sheep” etc silently in their head.
- I don’t tend to get anxious or stressed; I assume partly now because I don’t visualise negative potential outcomes. I don’t really get nostalgic either.
- I also don’t really get that excited about the future, for presumably the same (inverted) reason.
- Yes I am creative; I need to move ideas from the abstract into the concrete, or they get lost. I’m learning more and more as I get older how methodical I need to be about this to preserve ideas, though, and methodical is not always my nature.
- I do not understand ASMR – autosensory meridian response – that thing where people get tickly necks and rushes of warmth from hearing other people whisper into microphones and stroke balloons and slice cheese and stuff, and I wonder if this is related, if aphantasia is connected to how all sorts of sensory inputs are interpreted and relayed by the brain?
- I’ve never done psychedelic drugs so I have no idea whether LSD would bust my mind’s eye open or not. A friend at uni told me I was psychedelic enough already. But it appears I’m not! Not like that, anyway.
- I prefer doing to watching or having done – football and cycling being two examples. I have very little interest in watching other people do these things. I also find it difficult to predict what will happen tactically in a football match?
- Yes I dream; my dreams give a sense of a landscape without any detail.
- I am very intrigued by how hyperphantasia and photographic / eidetic memory work together; I suspect they’re related.
- Yes I know what my wife and kids look like – I can describe them on a factual level, and I would never not recognise them – I just don’t ‘see’ them when I close my eyes. Or you, or anything at all.
- I was very intrigued by my own reflection as a kid, probably more so than usual. I’ve trained myself not to be as an adult (hence very few selfies) so as not to appear to be a narcissist, but I don’t ‘know’ what I look like beyond the brief factual description; brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, beard, 5’8”, etc etc.
- Don’t ask how I masturbate. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how you do. (Joke stolen from somewhere else but I’m damned if I remember where. QED.)
- I think in a pretty constant monologue. Certainly no pictures. Just words, all. the. time. Like I’m writing constantly. Or doing a silent internal commentary track on what I’m doing. If I’m not paying attention to you, if I miss something you’re saying, it’s because I’m paying attention to this internal monologue. Or thinking, as other people seem to call it.
- I wonder if people who were born with sight and become blind through illness or accident can still visualise (if they could before). What about people born blind? How does that work?
- Those people on Record Breakers when I was a kid who could remember a pack of cards by visualising and turning it into a story? Never understood even remotely how they were doing that.
- I don’t really do ‘memories’; I can recall facts about my life, but there is no visual component, just information and, sometimes, emotion.
- I’m pretty level emotionally most of the time.
- I’ve had deja vu but only about four times in my life.
- I experience art, music, and film as evocative, especially the more abstract end – Turner, Dylan, and Loach don’t really do it for me.
- I prefer what I’d call “ambient world building cinema” (good grief that’s a wanky term) where you can revisit, semi-ignore plot, and just kind of hang out in that imaginary world for 90 minutes. Blade Runner 2049, Totoro, Star Wars, Zootropolis, Children of Men.
- Lyrics are not generally that important to me; or seldom the *most* important thing aout a piece of music.
I am amazed at the staggering level of variation in human brains; you cannot take for granted that other people can see, feel, or even perceive things in the same way as you, because they clearly don’t, and I think actually, now more than ever, research about things like this can help us understand and accept that people are different, and hopefully make us more compassionate as a society and culture.