Aphantasia is what they call it when you can’t see stuff in your “mind’s eye”, it’s latin for “no imagination”. It was a term originally coined by Dr Adam Zeman who did a study in 2015 that I responded to. I am an aphant and I spent most of my life believing that this is the normal state of affairs. When my secondary school art teacher got frustrated with me during still life drawing, they said “just visualise it in your mind’s eye” which completely threw me – I assumed that this was a turn of phrase or a metaphor or something. I didn’t realise that most people genuinely do have mental imagery.
I think in terms of “facts” and “statements”. If I ask you to picture a sunset in your mind you are probably able to see a lovely orange glowing sun setting over a beach with waves gently lapping across pink coral sand. I don’t see any of that stuff but I know, theoretically what sunsets look like and I can pick language that describes how that sunset might interact with other stuff (like a sandy beach). What I can’t do is “picture” anything in my head.
Living with Aphantasia is welll… all I’ve ever known. It’s my lived experience. I don’t believe it’s ever held me back in any major ways. I’m not very good at visual art but I never set out to be an artist (perhaps there was alway an unconscious bias there?). There are a few things about being an aphant that annoy me.
I am very bad at facial recognition. I’m not face-blind, I know my wife and family when they are there in front of me. However, I’m awful at recognising people “out and about” or actors in movies. I am often reminded by my mother of occasion from my childhood where, upon seeing a photo of the famously beautiful model Heidi Klum, I remarked “she looks just like Gollum from Lord of the Rings”. I’m not consciously aware of how my facial recognition faculties work (or don’t work) but I’m sort of vaguely aware that it’s quite brittle and “fact based”. For example, person in question has have big eyes and black hair and a particular shape to their nose or mouth and so does other person. This can make for some very embarrassing interactions.
When it comes to aesthetics, I know what good looks like but I find it hard to replicate. I often get excited about DIY projects and dream of replicating styles that I’ve seen in showrooms or other peoples’ houses or even fancy hotels. However, when I get home, I see how the room is now and I can’t picture how I want it to look. This is a struggle when I’m buying a house – they always tell you to “look past” the current appearance and imagine how it could look. Pahahahaha – I’d love to be able to do that! I have the same frustrations when it comes to all visual creative endeavours – web design, drawing, even designing the invites we sent out for our wedding. This is a major reason that I specialise in backend/server-side and machine learning code rather than frontend as part of my day job.
A third and final frustration I’ll talk about here is mindfulness and stress relief techniques. Many meditation and stress relief exercises involve statements like “imagine a warm beam of sunlight that beams up and down your body and relaxes your muscles” or “imagine going to your happy place” or “imagine you’re holding all your stress in a balloon and you’re going to let it go and it will float away”. None of these work for aphants like me. What does work for me is breath work and actual videos (for example, the headspace “thoughts as traffic” analogy which I couldn’t picture ‘in my head’ but I can appreciate as a cute cartoon)
Overall though, I can’t say that Aphantasia is particularly problematic for me, it’s all I’ve known for 30-something years and, as such, I’ve just generally “got on with it”. However, learning about Aphantasia, interacting with Dr Zeman and being able to put two-and-two together later in life (“oh that’s why my art teacher said that stuff and that’s why I’m not great at painting”) has been very positive for me.
I’m planning to write a series on aphantasia and how I “work around” it. If you have questions or are curious about it, I’d love to hear from you. Or, if you are a fellow aphant, drop me a message and say hi!