Back in 2015 I was casually watching BBC Breakfast and was completely stunned to realise that despite being in my early 30’s, I had lived my whole life completely unaware that I had a form of neurodiversity, called ‘Aphantasia’. Known as the ‘inner eye’, most people can visualise, to different degrees, images when they close their eyes or with their eyes open. I am at the extreme end of the spectrum and have complete Aphantasia, I cannot see a thing except for a few dots of light which has nothing to do with visualisation and is simply the retina at work. I cannot even see my own children if I try to imagine them with my eyes closed, so it was a little unsettling to learn that others could.
When told to close your eyes and imagine that you are on a beach, looking at a beautiful sunset, I just see black. There is no point in closing my eyes as it makes no difference, there is simply nothing there. Hearing people talk of ‘counting sheep’ or ‘using your minds-eye’ always seemed metaphorical, and so it was pretty strange for me realising that other people can literally visualise! So guided meditation is a little pointless as it just gets me thinking…
When you cannot see your loved one’s face
So how does this affect people and why is it relevant? Aphantasia is not classed as a disability but a form of neurodiversity, but it definitely can impact on memory, navigation, learning and social skills. Increased awareness of this condition could be so helpful for children in their education as we all learn in different ways, having different inner experiences. Despite the lack of awareness, assessment of this condition is relatively easy and can be done with a short, free test through an organisation like The Aphantasia Network.
You may be able to visualise in absolute clarity, see a blurry image, see a rough outline or see nothing at all. I have taken part in several university studies because have absolutely no minds-eye and hopefully this will help research to guide educational settings in the future. I wish I had known about this as a child as it would have explained so much. There is no mental chalkboard, no map or image that can be pulled back up mentally, and being given a blank piece of paper can be incredibly daunting in itself.
I know what my children look like and of course would recognise them, but it is a conceptual experience, which is difficult to describe to people who can see internally. I know how their hair feels, what colour it is, their mannerisms and voice. Often when I meet someone that I have met only once or twice I am surprised at how they look, but take note of funny minor details, so as to form a kind of longer-term imprint. Socially then I am almost ‘feeling the person’s presence’. It is very likely, however, that I would pass you in the street which can seem quite rude. When you cannot visualise, this definitely affects your memory and therefore has relevance for educational ability. Yet it has been suggested that people with Aphantasia have an above average IQ. This could be due to our necessary coping mechanism of creating alternate strategies to remember and conceptualise ideas.
But intelligence does not always translate into high grades in exams, we need to be able to teach children from an early age that they may see the world in different ways and there is a diverse range of learning techniques to help bring out their full potential. Aphants imagine with meaning, memory, logic, ideas, feelings, songs and concepts. We just can’t imagine with images. This does not need to be medicalised, simply recognised.
That lost feeling
We all know what it feels like to be lost, but with total aphantasia it can be a daily problem and often quite embarrassing. Being told that you have ‘a bad sense of direction’ is putting it mildly and Google Maps is like part of the family. For me north is whichever way I am facing; there is no mental map, no sense of bearings. This makes navigation, when driving especially, very challenging but it is possible to find other ways to manage using landmarks and a kind of story or sometimes not so logical list of turnings. I was the kid who was always lost at school despite the other children finding their way in the first week. And so I was often late for class or ended up hiding in the library or bathroom with a sense of anger with myself for being inferior, something being different. When I leave a shop, I turn right when I should turn left unless I tell myself very consciously which way to go later when entering, which is a little laborious.
This can bring a sense of social anxiety; not knowing if you are going to get lost when leaving the table or remember someone who you should recognise. But in general people with Aphantasia do not feel that it is any kind of disability, it is simply a form of difference. While I cannot imagine anything visually, like many Aphants, I am highly creative and have far too many ideas for hours in the day. Because you cannot see an end product, you tend to play with your craft materials and are often surprised at the outcome. Sometimes our differences can be our strengths.
Aphantasia is strange but not uncommon
According to The British Psychological Society, approximately 2-5% of the population have little or no mental imagery. I have found though that the vast majority of people do not have any awareness of this condition but when explained, think that this sounds like someone that they know. The opposite description of someone with extremely vivid mental imagery is ‘hyperphantasia’. When this is described to me it actually sounds a little daunting and I don’t think I would welcome this experience personally.
It may be that your child or maybe you, yourself have Aphantasia, so if you suspect this, it may be helpful to take the free test to gain better insight. This can bring understanding and make it easier to deal with our differences with compassion.
There are benefits! You can unsee things that are traumatic with Aphantasia, as you don’t have a visual imprint in the first place. It has been suggested that having a lack of mental imagery can in fact act as a kind of protection from PTSD, depression and negative thoughts, as described by Alexei J. Dawes et al. for Nature.
I am often asked, “So can you dream?”. I suppose it is a difficult question to answer because I do dream very vividly, regularly and intensely but am guessing that my dreams look a little different as they are not visual. It is like you are there, you can feel it and know what is happening, but just happen to be blind. Like when you lack a sense, the others step up to compensate so I can definitely smell, hear and feel while asleep.
So, if you know someone who never knows where they are parked, can’t remember faces or doesn’t do so well in exams despite knowing it all, perhaps share this as a possibility as there are ways round it. We often find these mechanisms ourselves, but not being ridiculed for our neurodiversity goes a long way. Learning that others have a seemingly richer experience can be difficult to process but it is important to remember that Aphants just do things differently; we can feel what we can’t see and create surprising end products.
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