Has this ever happened to you? You’re using a colored pencil to draw when all of a sudden…SNAP! The tip breaks off leaving you with a useless shard and an imprecise, blunt drawing instrument. You decide to sharpen the pencil, but it’s not working. The wood is too soft or the lead is too fragile, and the tip keeps breaking off before you can taper it as much as you desire. Eventually, you give up because continuing to sharpen it is not granting you the results that you want. I mean, what is the point?
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But now, on a more serious note…
Even though I write about creativity, compassion, and positivity, in real life, I am very much inclined to resign myself to futility. In fact, one could argue that the reason why I try to put such a positive, helpful spin on the articles that I write is to convince myself that altruism isn’t futile. I practice positive talk in my written words, hoping that I can incorporate more of it into my thoughts and the words I speak.
It’s hard sometimes.
It feels like the more you learn about any particular topic, the more you realize that change usually happens small and slow, without much impact coming from any single individual. Forget the Dunning-Kruger Effect with its “valley of despair.” Looking into any issue will at some point leave you in a valley of futility.
I had a brush with these negative thoughts last week shortly after I published my article A Self-Planned Education: What Would You Learn in a Decade?. I was nervous posting that article, but I quickly began to receive comments from people who enjoyed reading it and wanted to engage in interesting conversations about personally driven education. And then, just a few hours later, I received a notification that someone had linked to that blog post. This was not a share or a reblog. It was not someone who was inspired by my article and decided to write their own response to its fundamental question. Nor was it someone who disagreed with me who wanted to write about those differences. No, this was someone who had copied my work, changed a few of the words and phrases (many of which were changed so that they were no longer correct), and reposted it to their own website that was not in any way affiliated with WordPress. My copyright had been infringed.
I was frustrated, and that frustration prompted me to write this blog post, requesting advice. I wanted to take action.
I also knew that I should give myself a little while to actually consider what my next move should be. I always make kinder and overall better choices when I have given myself time to calm down from my initial emotions.
The next day, I did more digging into the website where my content was reuploaded, and found that this was the way that they get all their content. I couldn’t find a single article that was originally written for this website. I also couldn’t tell whether any of the people who post to this website hold the copyrights on any of the material.
In that moment, I felt a sense of futility. I could pump hours and hours into getting my post taken down and still not make a dent in the stolen material on the site. My efforts likely wouldn’t prevent the same website from stealing copyrighted content in the future. I don’t have the ability to take any sort of legal action right now, either, so the results of any action I could take would be small at best. What was the point of pouring my energy into this if the best-case scenario consequences would be so tiny?
Like I said, this feeling of futility is common-place for me. I presume that it’s very common for a lot of other people, too.
Here’s a different example: consider the low-waste movement. One person switching from single use paper coffee cups to bringing their own reusable cup to the coffee shop is not going to make a big difference. What’s the point if my individual actions only save a single tree from being cut down throughout my whole lifetime?
To me, it seems counter-intuitive that digging into the research about social, animal, and environmental issues could have the effect of dissuading me from action rather than encouraging it, but that has been my experience. In our modern times, even well-intentioned actions can reap negative consequences because of how complicated and interconnected the world is. (No spoilers, but The Good Place explores this issue in a really fascinating and entertaining way. I highly recommend that show.) What’s the point of taking positive actions when they might have negative repercussions, anyway?
There are several points, but I’ll only speak about three of them. First of all, a lot of small actions can lead to much bigger changes. If large numbers of people each eliminated the need for a single tree to be chopped down for their paper use, that could add up to a whole forest-worth of trees that no longer need to be felled. If every content creator who had their work reposted on the same website as mine took action, we could cause the website to shut down or at least pivot to original content.
“You can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that you can do.“
Secondly, standing up for yourself and your values has its own intrinsic worth. I’ve noticed that when my actions align with my ideals, I feel better. I have more self-esteem.
Finally, people who see you taking positive actions in kind and relatable ways might be encouraged to take their own small steps. Most people want to do good in the world, but it’s hard to know how. Your example might be the thing that prompts them to action.
In a poem that I wrote for this blog but never ended up posting, I crafted the lines “I know that it’s not enough just to say these words./I know that my thoughts and prayers are just as empty/As those mouths that they promise to feed.” I constantly need to remind myself that good intentions are not enough. They must lead to good actions.
With my stolen content, saying that I am against copyright infringement is not enough. I must actively try to get the copyrighted material removed.
In the case of the website that reposted my copyrighted content, I don’t think that enough people will request their own take downs from them to make any real change. After all, most of the articles they steal come from big news sites that likely have much larger and more pressing legal issues to deal with. However, standing up for myself and getting my article removed sends them a message that I am not okay with them taking my content, and it tells me that I am willing to fight for my rights as a content creator. Leaving up the post that talks about my stolen article shows other people that they are not alone in having their content taken, that the WordPress community will support them in their efforts to stand up for their rights as copyright holders, and that standing up for yourself in this way will (hopefully) result in some actions from the people who stole the material.
A story that I read at the end of last week, “The Best of All Summers” by Bobby Stevenson, contains these words “‘Don’t you ever believe that what we did was in vain, son. Never think that…Nothing is in vain. Always, always remember that. Everything matters.'” (I highly recommend reading the whole story for the context.) Actions that align with your beliefs and values matter. They produce effects. Those effects might be smaller or different than what you want or expect, but they are present. All we can do is to keep taking these actions to become better people and make society better, monitoring the results of those actions, and changing our approach when it isn’t working. That is the point.
I wanted to post a couple of short, lighthearted pieces that I’ve written. The following poems are incredibly corny and cheesy. I cringed while writing these, and I apologize for any cringing that you may experience.
The Chemistry of Love
Some may say that science talk is the antithesis of love talk, but, baby, I know when we converse, we have chemistry. The bonds between us are the strong kind. And isn’t it ionic how electric it feels every time we get close and touch? I feel so positive each time it happens.
The Particle Physics of Love
Baby, I love every quark of you! I knew as soon as I looked you up and down that I was charmed by your strange appeal. I truly love you from top to bottom.
Update May 16, 2020: When I first wrote and put up this piece, my plan was to only leave it up until my next poem gets posted (on May 17, 2020). My reasoning was that I didn’t want to have this piece cluttering the flow of my other posts, since I mainly try to stick to writing poems and articles. I also thought that only a few people would see this post and I would only get one or two helpful comments. I was so wrong. I have received such a great outpouring of support and advice from so many different people. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have decided that the best thing to do with this post is to leave it up indefinitely, not because I need more help, but because I want this to be a resource for anyone who runs into a similar issue. I want other bloggers who also have had their writing stolen to know that they are not alone and that the WordPress community will support them in their efforts to reclaim their work.
I will continue to update this post as I take actions to try to get this stolen article taken down. You will be able to find those updates at the end of this piece. If you stumbled across this article because something similar happened to your blog, please note that I am not an expert at sending take-down requests, nor am I a lawyer. I will simply report what I have tried to give you some idea of what works and what doesn’t when contacting these shady websites. If you need any further clarification from me, feel free to leave me a comment here or utilize my contact page.
Um…So, this isn’t anything like my normal posts of articles, poems, and awards, but I had an issue and I was wondering if any of you had advice for me. Given the fact that this is the platform where I have the largest following, I thought that posting it here might help me the most.
My article that I posted on my blog today, A Self-Planned Education: What Would You Learn in a Decade?, was also posted to another (non-WordPress) website without my permission. I don’t want to say the name of the website that reposted it because it seems like they do this a lot, and I don’t want to provide them with any free publicity. The only reason why I even know that the article was posted on there is because they linked back to my blog (thanks, I guess) and so WordPress sent me a notification about whether to allow the link. I am glad that they attempted to credit me, but even just a comment asking if they could use it for their site would have been nice.
Here are my thoughts about it:
Firstly, I am flattered that they would want to use my writing. They definitely went about it the wrong way, but I’ve only been blogging for just under 3-1/2 months, and I didn’t expect anyone to even want to repost my work yet.
Secondly, I am frustrated because they changed some of my wording. I noticed this because I skimmed these lines,
and went “Whoops! I wrote ‘cowl’ instead of ‘cover’. I should go back and fix that in the original post.”
But it was correct in the original post. In fact, in my original post, those lines look like this
There are several other changes in wording. My best guess as to what happened is that they plugged my article into Google Translate or something similar, translated it into another language, and then translated it back to English.
My first thought was that they did this because the website is originally in another language and the version I see is retranslated back into English. I also have thought that maybe they did the retranslation so it would be harder to accuse them of stealing my work or so that it wouldn’t pop up if I tried to use a search engine to look up phrases from my own article. Either way, it’s irritating because I took the time to edit my post, but in their version, some of the wording is bizarre or nonsensical. Here’s some other examples because, honestly, they’re kind of funny. My originals are on the left and their changed ones are on the right.
Also, some but not all of my images got copied over, and some but not all of my links got copied as well.
So what should I do?
I allowed the link because disallowing it wouldn’t take the content off their site, and I might as well get some amount of credit for my writing. Should I disallow the link again? Does that even work? (I already tried rescinding my permission via the WordPress notification and yet their website still redirected to my blog through the link.)
Should I take down my article from my blog? I was hoping that posting it would generate some thoughtful dialogue, and so far it has, but if you guys think that having it up on my blog is doing more harm than good, I will gladly remove it.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to flag the post on their website and it isn’t run through WordPress, so I cannot simply report the post, but they do have a contact page. Should I send them a request to remove my article from their site?
Should I just do nothing and be grateful that I might have gotten some free publicity?
I can imagine that someone reading this post might roll their eyes and think, “Welcome to the wonders of posting your content on the internet, Joy…” I get it, but that’s exactly why I created this post. I figure that lots of other bloggers have been through this before and might have some words of wisdom for me.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your help!
Update May 16, 2020: After the advice that I received through my comments and sleeping on my decision, I went ahead and contacted the website to which my stolen material was posted. Like I mentioned in the body of this post, the only obvious place to reach the creators of this website is through their contact page, so I did that. I mentioned the name of my original article and provided a link to that, and I also provided a link to where the stolen article was posted on their site. I stated that they were infringing on my rights as a content creator and quoted a section of their own terms of services stating that their users may not upload content that belongs to someone else. I also noted my frustration about the changes in wording from my original piece. I ended the message with an explicit request for them to take down the article. As of yet, I have not heard back. Sadly, looking at the contents of the rest of their website, this is how they get their material. They just reupload articles that other people have written. Generally, they steal content from news sites and large blogs, places that quite possibly have no idea that their content is being stolen. I feel lucky that WordPress has a great notification system that alerts me whenever someone links to my content. What I’ve learned thus far is that WordPress (the platform and the community) is wonderful, this other website is really shady, and I’ll just have to sit and wait for a while to see what happens.
Update May 18, 2020: Brother’s Campfire was so kind and looked a little deeper into the situation for me. He reached out to Herb Thiel who wrote this post with suggestions of how to proceed when your work is taken and reuploaded to another site. Herb also clearly and concisely explains the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. My work was not plagiarized because the website did not claim to have written the article and even credited my blog as the article’s origin. However, by copying and pasting my work to their website, they did infringe upon my copyright. Because this ordeal occurred just as a weekend was beginning, I am going to wait a few weekdays before taking any more action. My next step is to reach out again via their contact page and simultaneously send an email take down request to an address that they have buried in one of the other pages of their website. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start reaching out to the larger corporation that owns the website as well as making more frequent and more strongly worded requests, trying to make it so that I’m hard to ignore.
Update June 29, 2020:The stolen article was removed from the website! It took 2 attempts to reach out to them through their contact page, which was the most apparent contacting method, and 2 emails sent to their address which could be found at the very bottom of their Terms of Service page. It also took about a month-and-a-half of time in total, but they finally responded and took down the article. Here’s what I learned:
Titling the email “Article Takedown Request” did not elicit any response from them.
Titling the email “Terms of Service Violation” caused them to respond and take down the article the next working day. It probably also helped that I read through their Terms of Service and stated specifically why the existence of my article on their site violated their terms, though I cited the exact same terms of service violation information in all of my other attempts to contact them, but received no results.
Changing up my tactics and wording worked better than contacting them more frequently. You never know when you are going to hit on some magic keywords that flag your email for review within their system. It is possible that shortening the amount of time between my contact attempts did assist me, but I truly believe that the phrase “Termsof Service Violation” was really my ticket to get the article removed.
I’m pretty sure I misunderstood what “allowing a link” meant in my WordPress notifications when I first wrote this blog post. Now, with more WordPress experience under my belt, I am fairly certain that your response to that notification only dictates whether or not a pingback is created on your post that was linked to on another site. If you allow the link, a pingback will appear in the comment section of your original blog post, linking to the page that linked to you. If you do not allow the link, the pingback will not appear.
The other thing that I really want to showcase here is their response to me because I think they did a very bad job, but I also don’t think that replying to them will help me or cause them to change their site.
First of all, even if that is their intention (and I do think that the intention to highlight good articles from throughout the web because search engines cannot select for quality and are not always the best at selecting for certain types of relevancy is a good intention), that is not the outcome. I can see in my analytics that only one person was redirected to my blog through their site, and I’m certain that was either me testing whether the link redirected to my site, or Ben from Brother’s Campfire or Herb Thiel, the guys I talked about on my May 18 update. (Now, I’m not convinced that anyone actually even read my article on their site. They did have some stats listed on the page that said that over a thousand people had read my stolen article and that it was shared tens of times, but those numbers remained nearly if not completely stagnant between the first time that I saw them just hours after the article was posted and the last time I saw them a few days ago. Unfortunately, I did not think to take a screenshot of those numbers at any point to show to you or to see for myself whether they were changing, but believe me, the views number stayed at around 1,000 and the shares number stayed at around 50 the whole time. I’m certain those analytics were fake.) If they really wanted to be a homebase where their readers could find relevant content, they would only need to post the title, a little blurb, and a link to the articles, and allow their readers to be redirected to read those articles on their original sites. They did not need to copy and paste entire articles to their own site, which leads me to my second problem with their statement…
Copying and pasting someone’s entire article to your website, regardless of your intentions, violates that person’s rights as the creator of that content. I’ve noticed that many of my fellow WordPress poets have little tags at the end of each of their poems or at the bottom of their website to state that they are the copyright holders of the content. As a blog owner, you shouldn’t have to do that. When anyone posts content to their own blog, they are immediately the holder of the rights of that content. That doesn’t inherently mean that no one can take pieces of your content and use them. In this very blog post, I took and used screenshots from the site that stole my content, but what I did falls under Fair Use; I took content from another website to illustrate a point that I was making, I only used enough content to illustrate that point, I never claimed to be the creator of that *cough* stolen *cough* content, and I did not draw traffic away from their website by using it. Copying and pasting whole articles, even if you modify some of the wording, does not fall under Fair Use. It is illegal.
Lastly, I hate how unprofessional their reply was. They are a large website. I contacted them about a violation of my copyright. We are not on friendly terms. Their reply contains no greeting, informal language, and no apology. Their treatment of me was not okay at any point of this process. Their treatment of other content creators whose stolen content they have on their website is not okay. I am done with them, hopefully for forever.
Just to reiterate, if something similar has happened to you and you want my support or advice, feel free to reach out to me. You can reply here, email me via my contact page, or DM me on Instagram. I am more than happy to help you.
Recently, I have been on a mission to read or reread every article that I have bookmarked on my computer. I’m a bit of an article hoarder, guys, so this process has already taken me a few weeks of reading at least one article per day, and will likely last much longer. Add onto that the fact that I keep adding to my article list with resources I have found for upcoming blog posts, and there’s a good chance that this an-article-a-day habit will have to go on indefinitely.
One article that I rediscovered earlier this week was this one written by self-proclaimed author, programmer, and entrepreneur, Scott H. Young. I remember reading this article along with a close friend back in 2017, and we used its basic question, What would you learn if you had a decade of time to commit to your education and a small stipend to cover your expenses? to discuss the things that we hoped to learn in the future. I don’t think I still have the list I created back then, but I do know that my answers must have changed over time.
I want to create a new personal 10-year curriculum on here, both as an exercise in seeing what a decade of learning might look like for me and so that I can look back on my ideas 1, 5, or 10 years in the future.
Please note that, even if I don’t say so explicitly, most of these subjects and skills would be learned concurrently. The time frames are more of a helpful way to represent the percentages of the decade that I would dedicate to each area, not to indicate that I would complete X months of a certain topic before moving onto a new one.
1 Year Learning Survivalist Skills
This is the one place where I am going to contradict the note that I just made above. I think that it would be worth devoting a full year learning certain skills that could perhaps come in handy during the remainder of the decade.
This initial year would be devoted into furthering my self-protective survival skills as well as learning how to help other people in tough situations. I certainly would want to know more about edible vs. poisonous plants in different parts of the world, how to construct a well, how to build a shelter, how to start a fire, and the basics of first aid. I would also throw in here how to sew because of its application in repairing clothing and other supplies that I might need and the possibility of using the skill to put in stitches for a wound in a pinch.
This is a decade-long education plan, not a plan to go out and save the world, so I do not wish to imply that I would spend the remaining nine years deliberately putting myself in danger. There is simply the possibility that these skills will be required of me at some point during the decade, so I would want to learn them early in the timeline. And even if these skills never become a necessity, I still think that they would be interesting to acquire in order to be more self-reliant.
4 Years Traveling
Traveling throughout the world and taking the time to meet and get to know people from other regions and cultures would be supremely helpful in deepening one’s understanding of others’ perspectives.
Within the decade, I would like to take 1 year traveling to various locations within the United States, 1 year traveling to other anglophone countries, 1 year traveling to various non-English speaking locals, and 1 full year stationed in an area where I will be forced to learn a new language.
These years of traveling will afford me the opportunities to acquire some of the other skills listed below, as well as the chance to meet and talk with others who commit their lives to a range of disciplines. It will also afford me an opportunity to learn about the art, architecture, and literature. In fact, if my prior travels are any indication, I will spend most of these 4 years visiting museums and libraries and exploring the cities, which is why I didn’t bother to include any of the arts in the categories of my plan.
There is a chance that I could get burned out from so much travel. In order to stymie that burn out, I would spread out these years of travel over the course of a decade, and I would make an effort to spend large chunks of time in each place. Instead of spending a few days in San Francisco, for instance, I would spend a week there, or I might spend a month in France. Taking this time will allow me to truly learn about the locations as well as provide me with a sense of normalcy whilst there.
1 Year Learning Dance
One element that Young admits to missing in his decade-plan is physical activity. But, as someone who wants to spend most of this proposed time period learning about cultures, my understanding of those communities would be lacking if I didn’t attempt to learn the ways people move in various parts of the globe. A fun and informative way to do that is through dance lessons! (I also just really like to dance, even if I’m not very good at it.)
I would love to learn hula in Hawai’i, samba in Brazil, and the Viennese Waltz in Austria. Or perhaps I could learn these dances before traveling to these places and be able to participate in cultural events where these dances take place.
Also, I know it’s not the same as dance, but I want to include yoga and martial arts in this category, too, because those are also culturally-influenced ways of moving and controlling the body that I would also love to study.
1 Year Studying Philosophy
I want to know how different people think about the world. I would especially love to learn more about philosophy from people who ascribe to different ones. I want to pick the brain of a nihilist. I want to chat with an idealist.
I especially want to learn more about philosophies that I don’t even know the words for yet. I want to deepen my understanding of philosophy from Asia and Africa. I want to understand the ways that people all over the world process their experiences.
1 Year Studying World Religions
Much like Young’s assessment in his original list, trying to study the philosophies of different regions of the world is not likely to yield much understanding unless paired with studying the popular religions in those regions. I think that a year’s worth of time will give me at least a basic understanding of the most popular world religions.
Again, I would love to fill this year of education with conversations with people who practice different religions. I also think that attending religious ceremonies (whenever I am permitted) would be a really good way to gain an understanding and appreciation for those religions.
6 Months Honing Culinary Skills
Everyone eats and every region has their own variations on cuisine. Taking part in cooking classes or home cooking experiences around the globe will not only make me a better chef, but will provide for a deeper understanding of the areas where I visit. It would help me understand what foods are native to particular regions of the world and the cultural attachments that people have to their food.
And maybe, after this imaginary decade, I could host a dinner party showing off all of the dishes that I learned how to make. Y’all would be invited, of course.
1 Year Learning Programming
I would like to learn more. Even the little bit that I do know has come in handy, both in college when I had to use programs to create graphs, and now that I am blogging (for example, search algorithms can “see” headings so it’s best practice to actually use heading blocks rather than just manually making your text bigger and bolded).
I have a feeling that after some point, learning how to program will start to yield diminishing returns (considering that I don’t need to know it for any of the work I do), but I don’t care. I’d love to get into the HTML of this blog and fiddle around with it until I get a website that looks new and different and mine, even if it doesn’t translate to more views or a better SEO. Or maybe I could create an algorithm that scans through blogs and looks at the common phrases that people use. I just think that it would be fun to do.
6 Months Studying Soft Sciences Like Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, and Linguistics
I’m just really fascinated by these areas, and I would have taken way more classes in each of them during college if I had had the time. I’m devoting a relatively short time to these areas because I think that having an even slightly better baseline of knowledge in each topic will drastically increase my ability to understand the more niche ideas within them. Generally, I just want to be more literate in these areas so that I can better parse new information that I learn about them.
Where’s the Hard Sciences?
If I really, truly had a decade to devote to education with no limitations, I would want to spend as much of that time learning through hands-on experiences and discussions with other people. Ideally, I would spend almost no time taking classes or reading textbooks, and, unfortunately, the world isn’t well set up to learn hard sciences without these formalized experiences.
This is one area, though, where I know that my answer would have been very different even just 3 years ago. I love science. I want to know more about it. I just no longer think that committing a certain number of months to learning hard sciences or mathematics (outside of their applications in programming) would be worth taking away from the other things that I would want to learn within this decade.
Creating this curriculum forced me to ask myself, “Why don’t I do these things now?”
To be fair to myself, I am learning some of these things now. I take time out every day to practice different languages that I am learning. I try to cook different foods all the time to learn more about the craft. I sometimes try to learn a type of dance using a YouTube video.
That’s where I’m starting from, and now I need to figure out how to go further. I want to start prioritizing travel (once it’s possible again, that is). I want to go out and meet more people with different interests (again, once it’s possible). I want to read more. I want to be more mindful of the media I consume and make sure that it’s truly to unwind, not just to fill time. If it’s just to fill time, I might as well fill that time watching a film in a language that I’m trying to learn with subtitles on or learning how to sew.
If you have any interest in this idea, I think you should go back and read the article that inspired this one and start to create your own decade-long essential education plan. And once you have some ideas, I would love to hear about them!
So, what would you do if you had a decade to devote to education? Would your plan look more like mine or like Young’s?
Update: This post was taken and reposted to another site without my permission. I made this post to explain that whole situation.
We don’t look alike.
We don’t walk alike, we don’t talk alike.
Friends and family have often said that my brother and I look nothing alike. I have dark hair, he has light. He always smiles in a self-assured smirk, and when I grin, it crinkles the outer corners of my eyes. I inherited the dark rims around my irises from our mom and he got the vibrant green color of eyes from our dad.
No, we don’t look alike. We don’t walk alike, we don’t talk alike. He has a mind for logic and rhythm, and I work in language and metaphor. We grew up to have different preferences, different fortes, different lenses for viewing the world, different ideas, and even different ways of thinking those ideas.
But when we put our minds to the same purpose, we have blood harmony. Our thoughts weave together like complementary strings of the big-picture tapestry. Together, we can make you laugh at the most mundane occurrence. We can talk through tough problems and come out with a deepened understanding of life. We can take a thunderstorm and turn it into a rainbow.
Yes, we have blood harmony, and no one can take that away from us.
This cloak that hides my insides from the outside world.
This shell that I attempt to cover up.
This skin. This pockmarked shadow of a dream that never will be. This veil that I never thought I would strip for anyone. This cloak that hides my insides from the outside world. This shell that I attempt to cover up. This easily broken shield that promised protection. This numb covering that I thought would heal. This bruised and broken and scarred body that doesn’t even tell half of the story. This story, all those imperfections that are evidence of all I’ve been through. This skin that I am only just starting to realize is beautiful.
I didn’t see images when I closed my eyes. I didn’t see anything.
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: