I always knew there was something a little bit off with me (don’t start), but until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know what it was.
Simply put, it is an inability to conjure mental images. A lack of a mind’s eye, as it were.
All my life I thought “visualizing” something was just a figure of speech. If someone asked me to picture something in my head, I would create a sort of list.
“Picture a horse.”
Okay, it has a large elongated head, short fur, long legs, muscular haunches etc.
I believed that was everybody’s experience.
As soon as I heard about aphantasia, I started asking everyone I knew if, when they tried to picture something, they actually saw it? Virtually everyone I asked said yes.
That was absolutely mind-blowing for me.
Of course, it makes perfect sense from a neurological perspective. Our brains are wired for sight, so those neurological pathways should be available to us whether we are actually looking at something or imagining it.
They are not for me, and approximately two per cent of the population.
After my initial discovery of the existence of aphantasia, I didn’t really go any further with it, but last week a documentary on CBC radio rekindled my interest.
It really explains a lot.
I am quite a competent journalistic writer, but not a good novelist. I have started dozens of novels in my life, even completed a couple. But I get frustrated because I have a really hard time doing descriptive writing, unless I am doing it in the moment, which works for poetry and songwriting, but not so much for long-form prose.
I always thought with practice I would get better at it. I don’t.
It’s the same with art. I am quite a good illustrator and painter if I’m actually looking at my subject, but trying to do it from memory just doesn’t work. I was always jealous of my artist friends who could work from memory, thinking they were just better artists. Turns out it’s more because I’m working with a handicap.
I am mind blind.
It’s a significant disadvantage for a writer and artist and has other implications.
I would make a lousy witness, for example. Unless I wrote down all the details of something as it was happening—or made mental notes and memorized them—there is no way I could recall it otherwise.
I can’t even see my own mom’s face. I can sort of describe it just because I’ve seen it all my life, but even that description would be an impersonal list of features, red curly hair, blue eyes, pale skin, freckles etc.
The more I think about it, the more I recognize the impact its had on my life.
I wonder, for example, if there is also a mind’s ear. I know lots of musicians, no better than me, who can learn songs from memory. Can they hear them in their head? I bet they can.
Not me. If I want to learn a song, I have to be actively listening to it. Sometimes, if I’ve heard something enough times, I can recall it, but if I want to learn it I have to actually sing the parts.
It may go even further to emotions and feelings. I tend to be emotionally detached from the past. I remember the facts of events, but not the feelings associated with them. That could be a double-edge sword. Nice not to relive the painful moments, but prone to repeating them.
It also makes me wonder why it is I am so attracted to activities, to which, it turns out, I am not particularly well-suited.
On the other hand, it makes me somewhat proud, in a way, that I have been able to develop these skills despite my disability.
The science of aphantasia is in its infancy. Not really surprising since nobody can get inside anybody else’s head so, we kind of assume our own experience is similar for everyone else. The term itself was coined only four years ago.
Some of my fellow aphantasics say they wouldn’t want to change it. Not me. I wonder if there is a way to train your brain. I want a cure. I want to see what I’ve been missing all my life.