Aphantasia, possibly? TIL that most people don’t mean “mental image” as a metaphor

Content note: this post describes in detail the Prime Minister having sex with a dead animal, and relates an encounter in therapy

There’s been a Facebook post by Blake Ross going around which hit me quite hard. In it, a person talks about their experience with aphantasia, where you lack a “mind’s eye”.

It hit me because I realised I probably have aphantasia.

I’ve gone for thirty years of my life, gladly ticking along, thinking about things, writing about things, describing and remembering things, without ever having questioned that maybe I wasn’t doing it in the same way as everyone else. When I think about things, it’s never visual. I’d sort of assumed it was much like this for everybody else.

For my entire life, I’ve thought that phrases such as “mental image” or “visualisation” were metaphorical, and it was absolutely fascinating to learn that not only was this not true, but this is not true for the majority of people. After all, how can one describe one’s own chatter of thoughts outside of the realms of analogy and metaphor? To me, “mental image” has always meant something that you’re thinking about a lot, while “visualise” meant “think really hard about doing this”. It’s hard to even express how my own thinking works, because language is so set up–as I now understand it–to reflect thinking in images.

To me, my thoughts mostly come in the form of words, feelings and sounds. I can “think out loud”: an inner monologue, often in my own voice. There’s also more passive stuff going on, almost like reading a book that you don’t need to concentrate on–except I don’t see the words, and I don’t exactly “hear” it like a muffled radio–it’s just, I don’t know, kind of background processes which I could concentrate on if I wanted to and I cannot really articulate them how I perceive them, but it’s definitely a mush of words, feelings and sometimes even music. Maybe a little bit like people chatting in a coffee shop, and you occasionally pick up snatches of the conversation going on?

If pushed–for example, by tests checking your ability to visualise–I can bring up a picture in my mind to some extent. For example, the test in this article starts with asking you to picture someone you see frequently. I concentrated hard on visualising my friend, A, and I could eventually bring up something. But it was almost useless to me, not telling me much about what A really looks like. What I conjured up was like a passport picture: it’s arguably a decent likeness, but impersonal and ultimately looking not much like the person really looks. A dim and useless picture, devoid of any connection with the actual person. Instead, when I think about what A looks like without being forced to visualise it, I’d think of it almost as though it were a description of a character in a novel, with little personal quirks like the way A always walks with purpose, like she has to be somewhere very important.

The same is true for, say, visualising somewhere I’ve been before. It takes a lot of effort, though, like I’m squinting with my brain. I can call up a picture, but it is static and flawed, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an already-blurry photograph. Again, though, this information is mostly useless to me. If I wanted to remember somewhere I’d been, it’s far more vivid for me to remember specific incidents that happened in that place, as though they were scenes in a script that I was reading. It also helps a hell of a lot to create a mental image if I’m thinking about a photo I’ve seen of the place, ideally a photo that I myself took.

It explains a lot, if I have difficulties in visualisation, that a round of therapy that used visualisation heavily did not work for me. We did a lot of guided visualisation: my therapist would encourage me to visualise my anxiety as though it were a display in a museum, to visualise taking my anxiety and unknotting it. During these sessions, I would write these scenes in my head, describing in detail what I could “see”, even though I could not see anything. I would add set dressing: the whole thing read like Stieg Larsson in its levels of unnecessary detail. Nonetheless, I actually saw nothing, and didn’t find that therapy particularly helpful.

Luckily for me, my brain seems to do a lot of stuff without me knowing it that helps me function. I don’t know how I’m capable of recognising familiar faces without necessarily being able to visualise them, but I usually am.

I am aware, after reading Blake Ross’s account, that I am less impaired than him: I may not have a mind’s eye, but I have a mind’s ear and can hear music or noises or the sound of someone’s voice. I have the other senses, too, and can summon up a smell or a taste, or a brush against the skin. I also don’t have issues with memory: I can remember incidents, and so forth: they come up almost like diary entries but richer, accompanied by a host of feelings. I also don’t skip the bits in books where there’s lots of description of the setting, because I find it nice to know what a character looks like or the colour of the wallpaper in a cafe, even if I can’t see it myself.

I can appreciate visual art, but I unsurprisingly suck at creating it it. Absolutely fucking suck at it, and I always have. At school, I was asked not to do GCSE Art because I am so fucking shit at art. I didn’t really mind: I always hated drawing and sculpting anyway. I knew it was something I couldn’t do and others could, but I never realised that could be due to my inadequate visualisation ability, because I am dyspraxic and also crap at things like learning sequences of movements (which meant PE was also an unmitigated nightmare) and fine motor skills (handwriting was fucking dreadful, too).

I know I do have visuals without the effort of the mental squint, under certain circumstances. When I dream, I dream with vision as well as the other things that happen in my head. I can even experience visual thoughts when I am on the brink of sleep, and mix it in with my conscious thought.

Sadly, I am not necessarily spared the horror of a bad “mental image”: I may not see anything, but it’s nonetheless horrible. Take, for example, that time David Cameron fucked a pig. I thought about it, almost as if it were a particularly unpleasant scene in a book. I could think about the braying of the crowd, wonder about whose lap the pig whose head he fucked was in, ask endless questions, like was it to completion, and generally feel a sense of utter disgust.

Even as I write this, I realise I am probably doing a godawful job of explaining how things happen in my mind without images, because it’s very difficult in the first place to explain what thought feels like. So what does thinking with pictures feel like? I’m kind of imagining, if my own thought processes are like a bunch of cue cards with salient information on them, that yours are like a Buzzfeed article: mostly pictures, with a couple of words around them.

For me, basically, mental images are not something I find particularly useful, even if I can access them under certain circumstances. I suppose I must have learned to work around not visualising very early on in my life, and it’s something I just don’t rely on at all. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t affected me adversely particularly. In fact, I wonder if it was a gift all along: I find it quite easy to put things into words, most of the time. A lot of my writing practically writes itself, words tripping from me. Perhaps it’s so easy for me because that’s how my thoughts always looked anyway.


7 responses to “Aphantasia, possibly? TIL that most people don’t mean “mental image” as a metaphor

  • Nienna

    I wonder if you see images in your dreams. Because it’s hard to think rationally in sleep so how would a person dream if they didn’t see things. Most of my dreams are just like random film with no meaning, seeing things like tidal waves engulfing my home, (nightmare), or being on a fairground looking for candyfloss or something. Do you dream? It’s interesting. I’m extremely visual but I also register words and sound too. It’s very hard to remember smells or textures or sensations though, for me.

    • stavvers

      I do dream, and there’s pictures in my dreams. I also sometimes get visuals when I’m half-awake but on the brink of sleep.

      • Nienna

        It’s interesting. I really really struggle to remember smells. And if I try to visualise walking somewhere in a meditation, I can only “float” – I can never remember what it feels like to walk!

  • Limnaia

    This article has had me pondering. I’ve known for a while that for me, mental images are much less clear than mental sounds or scents or tactile sensations. My mental process is mostly running narrative- I turn everything into a novel- except with emotions imprinted on the words. If someone says your name, for example, I’ll remember your spoken voice/writing voice first, followed by the feelings I last felt when I saw you and your face somewhere after that. The visual tends to be isolated details, too- like someone’s haircut or their smile or them doing something. The rest of the scene is blurry or missing.

    The useful thing about hanging out with a bunch of pagans who do a lot of guided meditation type stuff is you learn really quickly that people have different dominant senses when it comes to the inside of their head. Sounds like you’re more auditory than anything.

  • Just a girl

    I can never picture things in my mind. I also thought it was same for everyone else.

  • bryanordonez

    This post caught my attention and manage me think about something which could be helpful. Can I ask you a question “do you ever imagined before?like having your own world, with your imaginary friends as a kid?”. You know what you’re experiencing is not a mental illness, God might not give this skills but on the other hand? He has given you things more significant the reason why you’re unique from everyone. Your world might only revolve unto words, it’s not a dissability, use it as your advantage.

  • nidahasanfancy

    “…may not have a mind’s eye, but I have a mind’s ear…” – loved this!

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