All the Things I Do Not See
Updated: Aug 16
I had one of those moments a couple of weeks ago that unsettles you because it redefines some aspect about what you know about yourself and other people:
I don’t see images in my mind…but other people do.
At 52 years old, I wonder how in the world has this never come up in a conversation before? The answer to that is likely because we assume that other people are just like us. We normalize our experiences in life and since we assume other people are just like us, we don’t inquire about how someone else may be different. At 52 years old, I am still realizing just how different we all are.
Turns out there is a name for this phenomenon: aphantasia. It is not considered a disorder, but rather a variety on the spectrum of human experiences. It is not widely understood and, curious enough, it was only given its name in 2015, although its characteristics were first identified in 1880.
I am still dealing with jealousy and irritation about others being able to see things in their minds, what is often called their “mind’s eye.” I dreamed the other night that I saw something in my mind’s eye for a moment and felt relieved in my dream that I could actually see things! But, alas, as with all good dreams in life, I woke up. My biggest jealousy is for those few people at the opposite end of the spectrum than me, people who can see vivid, detailed videos in their minds that they can manipulate at will to create different scenes and scenarios. So, yeah, a little jealous.
However, the more interesting question to me is how do I actually “see” things in my mind if I cannot see images of them? I am a highly visually oriented person, an artist, someone with exceptional spatial capabilities who could draw a fairly detailed drawing of something from memory. I am decent at remembering faces (…I just cannot remember the names that go along with them!) So how do I do all those things if I cannot see actual images in my head. This has never been a question I have had to wrestle with before. All of this happened automatically for me for 52 years and I never gave it a second thought until I realized that there was another option. Another case of the availability of variety causing discontent.
But how does it all work? My wife (who can see and manipulate images in her mind) and I have been having some interesting conversations about how each of us think about things and images. She has always claimed to be a visual speller, and she is good at it. She has always closed her eyes to “see” the word she was spelling. And turns out, she actually sees the word in her mind. She can tell if it does not look right and is able to correct it in her mind until it looks right. And it almost always is. For 29 years I have assumed that she was just “concentrating” more and thinking about how the word was spelled. After all, that is what I do. But no, she is able to pull up and an image of the word in her mind.
I on the other hand am a phonetic speller. I sound out the word and spell from that. Of course, in English, this only works part of the time. If only I had been born into a Spanish speaking family, all would be well. Instead, my spelling is awful. Sometimes I wonder if spell check is the program on my computer consuming the most energy.
I asked her to visualize an apple the other day. She saw the apple, could make it different varieties and colors and told me that it had a leaf connected to the stem. Me? Well, all I have is the faint glow of light bleeding through my closed eyelids. And yet, if you asked me to draw an apple, I can conjure up an apple from memory and draw it. I could rotate it in my mind and draw the underside of it. But these are all coming from memories, not images I see in my mind. It matters not whether my eyes are closed or open, except for the possible distractions of having my eyes open and other visual stimuli distracting me.
So, what am I drawing from that I can pull visual information about an object but cannot “see” an image of that object? It really is a curious thing when I think about it, and I do not yet feel that I have any real sense of how it works that I can remember something, but not see an image of it. Again, this all happened automatically for me without thought for 52 years, but now is it the source intense contemplation.
I have wondered if it is possible that my spatial and visual abilities are somehow enhanced because of how I process information. My wife’s brother also has aphantasia. And like me, his spatial and mechanical abilities are well above average. Without instruction, he can completely disassemble and reassemble an engine down to the piston and its rings. Patti shared with me that he too is frustrated/jealous that he does not have the ability to see images, feeling that this added visual ability would further his mechanical abilities even further. But I am wondering if just maybe it is the lack of mental imagery that has that has caused his brain to develop differently and causing his advanced visual and mechanical abilities.
But as of now, there is still a shroud of mystery that surrounds aphantasia in my life. And maybe that is a good thing. While answered questions are nice, they usually end the conversation. On the other hand, mystery furthers the conversation and the discovery that inevitably comes with it.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but mystery is the muse of inspiration.
May we all be inspired!
1. Image credit: Filipp Romanovski via Upsplash.com