Aphantasia: Do You See What I See?

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.

5 thoughts on “Aphantasia: Do You See What I See?”

  1. Thank you both for your thoughtful comments! I had my blog’s spam settings tuned a little high (it thought you were shopping-bots because you had two hyperlinks in your posts) but hopefully that problem will go away.

    Ollie – that was a pretty great scene! Thanks for reminding me that I finally need to just see that movie. I’ve seen so much of Spielberg’s sci-fi and genre work that I forget that I’ve basically seen none of his historical pieces! The context thing is interesting; the context my memories use most often by far is place. Time or events is not nearly as important. If I want to bring up my most poignant memories from, say, New Orleans, things from different decades, and things both happy and sad come together. Trying to come up with my saddest memories not only takes more effort but I am instantly reminded of where I was at each moment, though these places are thousands of miles apart.

    The exposure of PTSD patients to imagery is also fascinating. I am curious about how the imagery is chosen, and whether there exists a market for tailor-made visual material for the discerning patient with a budget of ‘Hollywood’.

    Courtney – That is a pretty nifty book! I have come across before and the language/technique is really close though my instructor may insist that he spoke from his natural artistic sensibilities or training. 😉 Thanks for sharing re: the connection between your drawing process and your mental images. When I draw just from the imagination, the results are pretty laughable! For one of my projects I had combined drawing from reality with drawing from my imagination and it sure does show. Your comments on shorthand, symbols, in representational art are very interesting. To me that topic is one of the more interesting things to look at in art history trends/ current artistic arguments, not just in visual arts but in all sorts of fields.

  2. It sounds like your art teacher had read Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” I came across that book in high school and it had a profound impact on me. As a cartoonist, it helped me understand a lot of things about art and about my own relationship to it. I’m not so much better at drawing realism than anyone else would be, and that book helped me understand why. Cartooning is a language I have learned. I know how to draw “my style”; how I draw eyes and noses and limbs and teeth. It’s all a shorthand, like speaking in code. I try to practice realism when I can because it helps inform drawing difficult scenes and poses later on. But the majority of my work is composed of what Edwards decries as the barriers to truly seeing. And yet those symbols are what I’ve chosen to work with; they’re what I WANT to use and manipulate, as long as I recognize them for what they are.

    Interestingly, I have trouble forming mental images, and your description of being able to picture something clearly in a specific, consistent space is totally foreign to me. When I draw, I don’t have a good idea of what it’s going to look like beforehand. That’s why my sketches are always terribly messy. I usually do a horrible sketch just to figure out what I actually want, then a cleaner sketch on top to refine it (on a new layer), and then finally the lineart. Example: https://twitter.com/altermentality/status/736308457855320067 And here’s a highly unusual example where I managed to skip the refinement stage, but you can see how messy my first sketch is: https://twitter.com/altermentality/status/778731911409577984

    I know there are artists who can just go at it and draw very clear sketches, or even jump straight to inks (at least of simple cartoons). I’ve seen them! I can’t comprehend doing that! Drawing for me is more like a stream-of-consciousness thing that I go back and edit later. Or it’s like clay that I have to gradually form and adjust until I get what I want. That’s why I’m relatively slow with it!

    When I “see” things in my mind, it’s more like a flicker – it’s not in any specific location I could describe, but the best I can do is that it’s at the back or side of my vision and is superimposed on my external vision temporarily – and I have a hard time keeping it there for long. And I have a lot easier time recalling drawings, cartoons, paintings, etc. than real images! I have no problem with faces, but only of people I know well and see repeatedly and have seen fairly recently. This is doubtless connected to the fact I have a terrible long-term memory and an excellent short term memory of all things.

    I’m also the same way with not being able to “construct” faces from a description. And yet my mind craves an image. When I read a book, my mind usually latches on to a facet of the character and links it, subconsciously and immediately, to another fictional character who has a visual representation. Then whenever I read about that character, my mind tends to call up the other character, even if they are only similar in superficial ways.

  3. Also, in my field, visual imagery can factor into therapy. Of course, individuals can be haunted by mental imagery (particularly in PTSD). Less well-known may be that imagery can be part of the therapeutic process for PTSD and anxiety disorders. Imaginal exposures, where you mentally picture your fear, can help just as “in-vivo exposures” do.

    One reason for an imaginal exposure is as an acceptable step before directly confronting a fear (e.g., an individual may tolerate imagining handling a snake before actually handling one in a later in-vivo exposure).

    Imaginal exposures are also a good option if an individual’s anxiety is related to a situation that is unable to be enacted practically or safely. Although they sound difficult to do with PTSD patients, they prove quite effective, even in the minority of cases of temporary symptom exacerbation:

    And of course, a licensed clinical therapist with training in evidence-based methods is your best resource for learning more about these strategies and doing them effectively (although some individuals successfully overcome problems with anxiety on their own).

  4. I recently watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time, and I think this scene from the film is particularly relevant: https://nzfilmfreak.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/my-fave-scene-saving-private-ryan/

    Imagery can be so powerful (even haunting for some, as Edith Piaf sings about) that we may assume others can easily have such a visceral experience. With effort, I can conjure up visual imagery, but I don’t find it as visceral or vivid as many people seem to do.

    Going along with your idea of training your perception/perspective, there’s another scene where Ryan admits that he can’t picture his brothers who have died in combat, and Captain Miller tells him to picture them in a context, which I find helpful:
    search “context” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120815/synopsis

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