Aphantasia

Ever since I became an author and interacted with other authors, I have been fascinated by the different ways peoples’ brains work when it comes to writing. Some people sit down and start writing, and the words appear on the page almost without their volition. Some people envision whole scenes, and interact with those scenes. Some people see a movie in their head, and simply write down what they see.

I have never experienced any of those things. For me, writing has always been a puzzle, putting together words to create characters and conflicts, scenes and scenery, plots and passions. But I have never once seen an image in my mind’s eye of anything I have cooked up in my brain pan. I simply don’t think in images, and never have.

I remember once telling my mother about a girl who clerked at the local Safeway. This pretty girl was kind and thoughtful, and never seemed to think the work a burden. My mother said she’d look for the girl. Weeks later, she told me she finally met the girl, and she shook her head at me. “It would have been easier if you had told me she was black.” I was taken aback because I didn’t remember that particular detail. I only had an impression of her, a vague idea of what she looked like. I took this to mean I was color blind as to race, when it really meant I was mentally blind.

Another time a friend mentioned a fellow we worked with who had a full beard. I thought the friend was joking because I was sure we didn’t work with anyone like that. The friend pointed out the fellow, and sure enough, there he sat, a few feet away from me, full beard and all. That time I took my lack of attention to this detail as a general lack of attention, when it was really another example of where I was mentally blind.

I’ve never understood how people could utilize visualizing techniques, because I can’t visualize. I can remember, of course, but my memories don’t take the form of images. They depend more on a sense of . . . essence. Needless to say, I would be a terrible witness if it ever came to that. I do notice things, and I do pay attention, but I don’t have the detailed visual recall necessary to a be good witness.

It turns out there is actually a word for the inability to see mental pictures: aphantasia. For some reason, aphantasics tend to be introverted, while hyperphantasics (those with well-developed mental imagery capabilities) tend to be extroverted, though what one condition has to do with the other, I don’t know.

Supposedly, there are techniques that can help “cure” me of this ailment, if in fact I have it. I do see vague images at times, which some researchers say means I am not aphantasic, though other researchers say that some aphantasics have visual memory recall. Either way, it makes no difference to me. After so many decades of not seeing pictures in my head, I’m fine with my lack of visual imagery, no matter what the condition is called. And anyway, at this advanced stage in my life, strong imagery could only confuse me.

***

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2 Responses to “Aphantasia”

  1. Estragon Says:

    Interesting… I’m fascinated by how our brains work. It must have rubbed off on my kids. One has advanced degrees in psychology, and another did computational neuroscience.

    Assuming you can recognize someone you’ve met before by seeing them (or a picture of them), your brain must be storing the image and be able to recall it at some level. It might be something like how we process “body language” in others – some of us do it in ways we’re quite aware of, others at a more lizard-brain level, and some not at all. Another example might be how some of us react quite viscerally to the sight of certain things (eg. snakes).

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re right about the images being stored elsewhere since I recognize people and things, and since I dream in pictures, though admittedly, even when I know who the people are in my dreams, they don’t look exactly like the real person. One byproduct (perhaps) of this lack of mental imagery is that I am very good at pattern recognition, knowing what the whole is from seeing just a part. But for all I know, everyone is good at that.


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