I was standing in the field which surrounded the school I was working in with two of the fifteen year old girls I had been teaching. I think I had asked them to remember my earlier instructions or some such thing and said something like, “Listen to the words in your head!” They both looked at me as if I were daft.
Several years later I was at a meeting and the group was asked to ‘meditate’ by visualising a flower. I dutifully closed my eyes and tried to visualise a flower but all I could ‘see’ was black with a bit or orangey light floating around behind my eyelids. I tried hard but had to give up and pretend.😳
Another few years went by. I was at a party with a group of friends, just sitting around and chatting, when one of them said something that made me realise that she could actually ‘see’ pictures when she closed her eyes and thought about things. Other people talked about the pictures in their heads and I suddenly realised that I was the odd one out.
I spoke up and told the group that I don’t have pictures in my head when I think; rather I have ‘words’. Immediately one of my friends said, “What, words float by behind your eyes?” They all found it as difficult to understand that I couldn’t see pictures as I found it difficult to understand that they could. We spent the rest of the evening wondering at each others’ thought processes and it made me think about why I should be so different – even alone – in thinking the way that I do.
So much of my life started to make sense! My sister, Judy, spent much her primary school years ‘day-dreaming’, for which she got into terrible trouble at school and she was even held back a year because they thought she was stupid. She wasn’t. She was exceedingly bright and found school exceedingly boring so imagined an on-going story in her head. When she told me about this day-dream I thought I’d have a go but I found that I was telling myself a story, not seeing it in my head like a tv show and, what was worse, I had to start it at the beginning if I wanted to continue the next day. Obviously, I was doing something wrong!
After I realised I had this inability to visualise I made it a point to ask everyone I met if they ‘saw’ things when they closed their eyes. Almost always they would look at me as if I were mad then say that of course they did! Didn’t I? When I replied in the negative many people were unable to grasp what I meant. One young woman was adamant that I must be able to see things if I could remember and recognise things and was astonished to hear that I have quite a good memory and can recognise, for example, an elephant each time I see one or remember which of the many colours, ‘blue’ is even though I can’t visualise it. Also, and this surprises me, I am quite a good speller but only know a difficult word is correct if I see it.
When I am reading a novel I am most annoyed when there is lots of description as it means little to me. It’s okay if the author says that the hero’s eyes are blue and hair is black but if she starts describing in minute detail the building he walks into, the people he passes, the noise of the lift, the office furniture, the fabric on the chairs, I don’t see (or hear) those things in my mind’s eye – if there is a reason to remember any of those things I am out of luck. I suppose that people without aphantasia can see those things and remember them via some sort of picture in their head but I would have to remember all the words – and I really want to get on with the story. Maybe this is why I have difficulty remembering which names go with which faces, at least until I know people more than just casually.
Think of a phone call you’ve got to make or a meeting you have arranged with an old friend. You will probably be able to picture what you imagine is going to occur during that call or meeting in some detail, rather like watching a programme on tv. I can’t do that! What I do is, I think the words – it’s like talking to myself. I imagine whole conversations, word for word as well as setting the scene. I say the dialogue for both of us – or all twelve – although remembering who said which words then becomes very difficult. I don’t have a video in my head recording it all! I think of the words that will be said and I ‘say’ them in my head; if I go over it, the words are different though, usually, the meaning remains the same. This is what I’m doing now, as I’m writing this.
How do I find my way? If I don’t see things behind my shut eyes, how can I tell you how to get to my house from yours? I don’t know! I am sitting here at this moment trying to describe, in my head, the way to get to the nearest beach. I find myself ‘almost’ having a picture but I think it’s more like a physical memory of which roads to go down, where to turn, where it’s safe to cross the road. It is definitely a memory rather than something I ‘see’.
I don’t think that aphantasia is from some sort of brain injury or disease; it doesn’t severely curtail your enjoyment of life or have an impact on the subjects you study or the grades you get on exams but it might be important to remember that not everyone ‘thinks’ in the same way when it comes down to the way children are taught.
Before you pity me completely (assuming you don’t have aphantasia), I do dream in pictures! I love my dreams, normally. They don’t make a lot of sense, they don’t look like a Salvador Dali painting but they are usually fun, sometimes exciting! I don’t normally remember them when I wake up but I remember the essence of them – whether they were fun, full of adventure or – and this is a typical woman’s dream, I think – whether I needed to find a place to pee that was not in front of all and sundry!
Two things before I finish. First, there are probably other ways people ‘think’. One person told me he thought ‘in music’, another that she sees her thoughts in terms of film. I can’t begin to guess what either of those means. Second, I found a very interesting account of aphantasia on Google the other day while I was looking up how to spell it! It’s by a fellow sufferer, Blake Ross, who is a ‘real’ writer and whose story is fascinating so, if you are interested, go take a look!
I read about aphantasia recently. I can’t imagine what that would be like to have.
It must affect the way to paint. It was interesting that you said, when referring to your portrait, that you said that you can’t paint what you see. Perhaps I misread it.
Unlike my gardening partner, friend and artist, I can only paint or sketch if I can see it in front of me. Elly sees a bird in her head and paints it.
You must have developed strategies without even realizing it to deal with the aphantasia. Have you met anyone else with it?
PS I might not always have time to read/respond to all your blogs.
I have enjoyed them so far. Thank you for sharing!
Hmm-hah. Your younger brother has it too. Oddly (to you, possibly), the impossibility of visualizing a scene except in words is precisely why I do so much (deeply irritating) descriptive writing and appreciate same in other fictioneers’ work. Smily-winky thing.
OK, that’s weird. I’ve always said that the reason I can read really bloody and gory thrillers is because I don’t ‘see’ the result of the horrific murders unlike others who think I am somehow condoning the evil in the books.
Also, studies of aphantasia conclude, somehow, that it’s about one in fifty people who have it and yet you and I and my sister Jennie who is no blood relationof yours, all three, have it! I wonder if it’s more than one in fifty but loads of people just don’t know. When did you discover/realise? Such an interesting subject!
Being solipsistic and self-centered, I never believed people who said they had a mind’s eye and saw pictures in their heads. Vivid liars or fools. I went along with the fantasy because I prefer not to rock boats.
So, uh, I didn’t know there was a name for it until reading your post and doing a bit of follow-up googling. And I still don’t really believe it’s peculiar.