Have you heard of aphantasia? It wouldn’t be surprising if you haven’t since the name was only coined in 2015. Aphantasia is the inability to create mental images in your mind. The concept has been known since 1880, but we’ve known very little about it until recently.
Until less than 2 years ago, I was living life completely believing I had a typical “mind’s eye.” I just assumed everyone saw things in the same way as me. How would I know otherwise?
When I listened to visualization meditations, I didn’t see a favourite place when I closed my eyes. Instead I think the place and feel it. I remember how I felt there and I recall specific visual cues that were committed to memory. For example, one of the happy places I go to during visualizations is not so much the place as it is a specific moment in time. It’s connected to the image I included with this post, a Polaroid I took one morning on a trip to Cuba many years ago. I remember lush greenery, water, the feeling of sun on my face and the way the early morning light played off of those surfaces. As I recount this experience, I have no actual visual imagery in my head. I “see” nothing.
A common test for aphantasia is to close your eyes and imagine an apple or a horse. What kind of apple do you see? What colour is it? What does the horse look like? What are the colours of the horse’s mane and body? I don’t see an apple or a horse, and neither appear spontaneously as a visual. Instead, I think them. I remember the idea of apple and horse, and if I need details, I think of a specific apple or the traits of a certain type of horse I have seen before.
Sometimes, what I see isn’t complete blankness, but trails of light. I see a hazy outline of an apple or horse, but it is unformed and fleeting. This “image” is akin to when you draw in the night sky with a sparkler. It’s like an outline of light that never fully forms and that disappears almost as quickly as it appears.
Like all forms of neurodivergence, different people experience different degrees of aphantasia. That I can see anything when I close my eyes means I’m probably not 100% aphantasic. Some people can see hyper realistic imagery, which is referred to as hyperaphantasia.
Aphantasia is not a disorder that needs to be treated. It’s just a different way of seeing. The term, which translates to “without imagination” is highly inaccurate in my opinion. I have always had a very active imagination and am able to describe and write experiences accurately. My memory is good, and while I can’t conjure imagery on cue, my dreams are often extremely vivid and play like movies. I have a post secondary education in fine art and have been a professional writer and artist all through my adult life. I have always considered myself a visually oriented person. When it comes to enlisting my “mind’s eye” for creative pursuits, I simply involve other senses like sound (rhythm), touch, and scent in my recall. I don’t see this as compensation for a deficit or abnormality, but simply a different way of being.
There’s been a lot of talk about neurodivergence recently, and my hope is that as we learn more, we keep moving toward seeing it as difference rather than disorder. Many people are affected by their neurodivergence in ways that can be disabling and I don’t want to discount or undermine those experiences, but I often wonder how much of that has to do with being made to function in a world that expects everyone to fall into a norm. I think about all of those who have been pushed to the margins and devalued because their brains worked differently, and how much we have lost as a society and culture because we don’t make space or the conditions for people to thrive in their difference.