People who have aphantasia do not think, or remember, using visualizations. For some of you, this sounds absurd (for more information on aphantasia, various writers have published a plethora of good primers for you). Let me remind you that other people have differences, uniquenesses, that you cannot see. My father discovered that he had red-green colorblindness when he was 45 years old. Workers had laid an outline in the lawn, orange paint on green grass, and he didn’t see it. He fumed over their mistake – “Who just forgets to paint a line?” We’ve come to terms with it since then; colorblindness and its genetics are well known to our extended family now.
A recent article on The Establishment mentions this marvelous pulling away of the curtain. To some with aphantasia, learning that a friend can think and experience a remembered image feels like learning that they have telekinetic powers. So maybe more openness about people’s unique mental experiences can find a place in the world.
A Contrast to Aphantasia
I thought that perhaps people with aphantasia, or those who think they might have it, could read about my experience with a summoned visual sense. One thing I’ve heard is that people rarely discuss the seeming banalities of perception details, so perhaps this can be a good thing to compare your experience with.
I think and remember using visualizations, and I have visual dreams. When I try to remember a friend’s face, I don’t experience this as a remembered description; no “long hair, full cheeks, tiny nose…” for me. In fact I tend to write poor descriptions of faces, perhaps because I see them rather clearly. I can ‘flip’ through faces like an album. Each face that I am very familiar with takes less than a second to resolve. I can then take these faces and picture them in novel situations and poses. Smiling, laughing, screaming, etc. These work as animations, not just still images, though I have to focus to make it happen.
Similarly, I can do this with many familiar things. Buildings, maps, dinosaurs, clothing, book covers, all have their places in my mind, and I can pull them out and take a quick look. When I attempt to do this and fail, for whatever reason, I get frustrated with myself because that isn’t supposed to happen.
Qualities of this Sense
When I imagine things visually, the ‘image’ appears to be centered directly in front of my upper forehead. It has the ‘size’ of an index card at arm’s length, at best. It does not interact with my eyes’ image at all; there is no blocking of my eyesight, for example. I perceive this image by refocusing my sensations. The process has some similarities with choosing between focusing on either my eyes or ears. My natural thought and memory, which I use frequently, have these qualities. When I feel like playing around, I combine the senses more directly, though this feels crude and challenging.
One flaw in my inner sense: I do terribly at imagining faces from written details in novels. If I am lucky and focused I can associate a character with a stereotypical image or an actor and think of them that way, but often I make them generic.
An Experiment With Dreams
I mentioned earlier that I dream visually. I don’t know how visual dreaming connects with aphantasia. I’ve heard of people with aphantasia who dream with some sort of visual experience, and people without it who don’t. Regardless, I should share.
In one of my earliest still-remembered dreams, I flee from a cabin. A monster was in there, and it wanted to eat me. Or something else bad. I emerge from the cavern to find myself on a pedestal of rock, on top of a roaring lake of fire and lava. Fortunately, someone has built some rope and plank bridges to aid my escape. Unfortunately, that someone hasn’t maintained them well, and I break through a plank, and plummet to my doom.
My plummet stops; my mother has not only found me, but also grown elastic arms that she uses, superhero-style, to grab me in the nick of time. I remember nothing else.
I had this dream decades ago, and can still summon up some of my visual memories from it. After reading again about aphantasia, I sat down and sketched out the main scene, that rocky column with the cabin. I draw wretchedly. My drawing class in college helped me but not enough that you’d want to see my work.
But when I look at this page I think, “that’s not a good depiction of my dream.” And I can think that because I have a visual impression of this ancient dream in my mind.
The Drawing Eye
In this sketching class, our teacher maintained that the most important skill for a drawer is seeing accurately. When we look at the world, too often we see objects as stereotypes, generalizations, not just of their categories but of themselves. The crucial details of a thing or scene get washed away in a sea of bland.
By training, and practicing, an artists could learn to look at a thing and see not just what we’ve come to think of as the important identifiers, but its totality. We would stand and draw folds of cloth, inter-twinings of tree branches, and learn to get at what was actually there instead of merely what we assumed should be there.
With the drawer’s eye in mind, I can look at the world differently than I used to. It takes effort, but when you gain it you have in a very real way gained a sense. Our perspectives shape the world we wander. Empathy, a skill I highly value, requires in a very real way that we try to take on the feelings of those we empathize with. One way to improve our empathetic skills could be to learn more about the differences in how people sense the world.
I suggest trying to use of one of your senses in a new way. Try to learn drawing by seeing, or listen to music with a helpful guide. Give wine tasting a shot, and don’t just use it as an excuse to drunk-ride a train. Maybe you’ll find a whole new part of the world to experience.