In the month of August, just weeks before starting tenth grade, I invited two of my friends over to watch a movie. We were assigned the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as summer homework, and, since we had all finished our readings of it, we decided to gather together to view its filmic depiction.
We sat on the couch, munching on popcorn and muffins, joking about the portrayal of the main character, Melinda Sordino, by the actress Kristen Stewart. By that time, the Twilight franchise movies were starting to be released, and it was amusing to see the parallels between the way Stewart played Melinda and Bella Swan (the Twilight protagonist), despite those characters seeming very different in their book forms. We spent much of the run time of Speak in a giggly mess.
Then we got to one moment in the movie when the art teacher, Mr. Freeman, instructs Melinda to “close [her] eyes” and “picture a tree.” “Any tree,” he says. “There it is. It’s burned into your retinas. You got it. Do it.”
I laughed loud and hard. Obviously, this was an instance of the art teacher being crazy and expecting the impossible from Melinda. My friends were not laughing along with me, so I turned to them. “It’s not like someone can just see a picture of a tree in their head,” I explained.
My friends’ faces changed from confused by my laughter to incredulous at my words. “Yes, you can,” one friend insisted.
“Oh.” I leaned back against the cushion of the couch, no longer able to meet their eyes. I stayed silent for the remainder of the film.
I knew in that moment that something was very different about my way of thinking. I didn’t see images when I closed my eyes. I didn’t see anything.
That’s a nice, neat little story about discovering that my mind works differently than that of most other people, but it’s not the complete story. The truth is, my realization about my lack of visualizations came in fits and starts. I remember writing in a journal in seventh grade that I didn’t have visual memories the way that other people seemed to. Even before then, there were moments of people describing their thoughts that just never made sense to me.
The reason why this movie viewing party stands out so clearly in my head is that it was the final straw. I had some idea that other people were able to “see” their memories, but this was the first time that I fully recognized that people were able to conjure images in their minds whenever they wanted to. No wonder I was so bad at visual art. No wonder other people equated reading a book to watching a movie. No wonder I was just dying to get to the character development and advancements in the plot in the Harry Potter book series while other readers adored the vivid descriptions of the scenery.
Something was clearly wrong with me.
At the time, I didn’t have the words to articulate what was so different about my thought process. In fact, at the time of this event, 2010 (writing that makes me feel so old), the term for this phenomenon had not yet been coined.
For a few years afterward, whenever I tried to tell other people what I was experiencing, I tended to do so incorrectly. At one point, I told my mom that I’m face blind because that was the closest psychological term I could find. But I’m not face blind. In fact, I am rather good at recognizing faces. I just can’t pull up a picture of a face in my head.
By my sophomore year in college, I had gotten better at describing this experience, and the friends I told started to believe me. My then-boyfriend tested me with visualization exercises from his math classes, resulting in one particularly memorable incident of trying to help me visualize a tesseract, the four-dimensional version of a cube.
“Picture a point,” he said calmly and patiently.
It took all of my concentration and several minutes to do this, but eventually, I was able to.
“Now picture four points on a plane with line segments of equal length connecting them so that they form a square.”
Another bout of concentration, another several minutes, but I was also able to complete this feat.
“Now, we’re going to look at three-dimension space. Imagine another square of equal size above the first one with line segments of equal length connecting the corresponding vertices to form a cube.”
I tried and tried, but the original square was already so difficult to hold in my brain, and I wasn’t even sure if I had done that part right, considering that I had never successfully managed to visualize anything before, so I gave up.
“That’s not even the hard part!” his roommate insisted, the frustration clear in his voice.
But it was the hard part for me. In fact, trying to hold a single point in my non-existent visual consciousness was hard. I spent the rest of the day nursing a headache and feeling completely exhausted.
The scientific term for a lack of visualization ability from birth is “congenital aphantasia” or just “aphantasia” for short. According to its Wikipedia entry, aphantasia means “a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.” Though the condition was first described in 1880 by Francis Galton, the study of it kicked off within the last decade, led by Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter. Zeman was originally studying a subject who had lost his ability to visualize following a surgery. After the publication of his paper, life-long aphantasics began to reach out to him to say, “Hey, wait, I have never been able to do that.” Zeman created the word “aphantasia” to describe these experiences and has been on the forefront of research into the matter ever since.
I don’t remember when I first heard the term “aphantasia” to describe this lack of visual thoughts. During my fact finding for this post, I saw that the term wasn’t even coined until 2015, so if I had seen the word during my sophomore year of college, it would have been super freshly minted. (Get it, ’cause the word was “coined” that year? Never mind.) I know that this Facebook article written by software engineer and sometimes writer Blake Ross had a huge impact on my understanding of my own thoughts, but this wasn’t published until well into my junior year of college. Since I heard the term and found this post, though, I’ve never looked back. Finally, I had a word for what I experience every day. Finally, other people were beginning to write about their own experiences.
I used to feel bad about how long it took me to realize that my way of thinking falls so far outside the norm. I don’t feel that way any longer as more and more people, many of whom are much older than me, are beginning to discover that they possess this same weird brain-thing. Until recently, it wasn’t really talked about, and now that it is being shared, people are coming to realize that this term fits them, too.
Another reason why this lack of visuals is so difficult to recognize in oneself is because saying “picture _____” sounds metaphorical. You are not literally changing your surroundings. It’s all in your head. I just extended that metaphorical meaning further.
“Picture a tree”–metaphor. They must mean think about all the elements of a tree to help you draw it.
“Visualize yourself achieving your goal”–metaphor. They must mean make a list of what actions you must take to succeed and what emotions you might feel when you do.
“Count sheep”–metaphor. They must mean count until you fall asleep while you ruminate on the concept of sheep. Which is a weird thing to do. Like, really weird.
One might say that I don’t truly have aphantasia because I was able to conjure a square in my mind albeit by dint of much blood, sweat, and tears. I also know for a fact that I dream with visuals because I have memories of what those dreams looked like the same way that I have memories of what I look like or what my friends look like–it’s all descriptions of visual elements stored as words. Not all aphantasics possess the ability to do these things. The research on the topic of aphantasia shows that visualization abilities exist on a spectrum. Some people have vivid, realistic mental images. Others have more cartoon-esque, more faded, or more blurry pictures in their heads. Despite my prior examples, as a general rule, I have such a limited ability to see any visuals whatsoever that it would be laughable for me to pretend otherwise. If it takes me minutes to picture a dot and I come away from that experience with a headache, I cannot be expected to picture a face. When it comes to pulling up a mental map, even one of a familiar place, forget about it. These are the times when having a visual consciousness would be helpful. In the big picture, sometimes being able to visualize a single point is about as useless as never being able to visualize a single point.
I don’t know how I feel about this lack of mental images because I don’t know what it would be like to exist in the world otherwise. I don’t think that I’ve ever had the ability to visualize, so I’ve never associated it with a feeling of loss. Some things would certainly be more convenient if I had pictures of things in my head, like wayfinding on semi-familiar streets or manipulating shapes in higher levels of mathematics, but I have workarounds and solutions to the problems that arise from this lack of visuals.
In fact, I credit aphantasia requiring me to find different ways to do things for part of my problem solving ability. It certainly provided me with lots of practice with thinking outside of the box. (Were you just picturing a box as you read those words? Do you picture a box whenever you hear that phrase? I don’t even know what that would be like.)
And, no, if you were wondering, having aphantasia does not seem to have a detrimental effect on my memory. I’ve read articles written by people with aphantasia who have terrible memories, and I’ve read articles written by people with aphantasia who have great memories. I’m lucky to fall into the latter category.
So that’s been part of my experience with aphantasia! If you have any questions for me about this, I would love to answer them. If I get enough, I will do a separate post with all the Q’s and all my A’s.
And if you want to learn more about aphantasia or read about the way other people experience it, here are some resources:
- That Facebook article by Blake Ross I mentioned above
- A BBC article comparing someone with aphantasia to someone who is a “super-visualizer”
- A YouTube video by an artist who has aphantasia
- This interview style YouTube video with a girl who has aphantasia and also lacks an inner monologue (which I think is actually pretty common for aphantasics)
- And finally, the Vividness of Visualization Quiz (VVIQ) to find out where you fall on the visualization spectrum