“One in fifty,” the article said, “have no mind’s eye.” I looked at it in disbelief: I have no mind’s eye. Though I had never put it into words, I recognized the truth instantly.
The condition is called Aphantasia. Research into it is in early stages at the University of Exeter and I have given information links at the end of this post.
It means that people like me don’t easily make pictures in our heads. We don’t have visual memories. Our thoughts are not vivid technicolor; they don’t have the depth of 3-D. But then I never knew other people lived with a bright movie in their heads.
I asked Bill, who is highly visual, delighting in cartoons, which I had always thought were substandard reading. He described a world I never realized existed. I have always known I couldn’t recognize faces, which has caused me great difficulties socially and professionally. My father was the same and now I realize what he meant, looking at a beautiful view and saying despairingly, “I must remember this!”
Why write this? For the 2% like me, who may be bumbling through life thinking they are stupid or for those who live with them. Why does it matter and what does it mean?
It matters because being unable to make pictures explains a lot. I cannot, for example, do memory tests where you are shown objects on a tray, which is removed. You are then asked to name the objects. I can’t see them, so I can only recall them by reciting them over and over. Have always had a fear of being labeled with dementia because I can’t do these memory tests. It doesn’t help to say I never could do them – I just get blind disbelief or told to concentrate.
I don’t know where I am when driving, even a route I have done many times before. We lived 45 km from the nearest town and drove the route often. After 15 years, I still didn’t know what came next or even if I was on the right road. Now I realize: I can’t hold a picture in my mind to match the scenery to.
My recall for events is dim. I have the feeling, excitement or regret, but can’t tell you who was there or how the room was decorated. Unless speech is involved: I have word perfect recall of conversations, which is actually not a lovable skill! Because I tag memories by emotions, this means bad memories are more frequent. If I am with someone who frightens me, the whole meeting is recalled as fear.
Remembering a book is hard: no mental movie. I get round that by making a mental summary of each chapter as I go along. And now I understand why as a child I never read the description but went straight to the conversation. Modern books are so much more readable than the classics because today we use all the senses in description.
Finally, what are the gains? There must be some! Other senses sharpened? Unused neurons pressed into service elsewhere? Tricks learned?
It will vary from person to person, but I have excellent verbal recall, way ahead of Bill. I asked Bill and he answered immediately “language – in every form!” And it’s true, language has tempo, taste , colour and shape. Even punctuation I use as an artist would perspective.
I can read voices very clearly and actually prefer a phone conversation because I can pick up nuances, undistracted by facial expression. As I use feelings as memory tags, I am conscious of them like a colour swatch. They play like guitar music through my body.
Not that this is of wide interest, but it does point up that we should always look for the hidden gift in any negative. So I hope that any of the 2% who are minus a mind’s eye will see not their loss, but their gain and imagine how much poorer their lives would be without their extra skills.
New York Times: Picture This – Some Can’t – link
Aphantasia info and test: link. The test is fairly far down the page. When you answer the first question, the next appears. I scored 13 out of 40; Bill scored 36.
University of Exeter Aphantasia Study – link. They are looking for people to study. I have applied.
Science Daily: Can’t Count Sheep? You may have Aphantasia – link
Business Insider: One in 50 People have a Rare Disorder that Preventa them from Picturing a Beach in their Head – link
Face blindness (Prosopagnosia) description – link
Face blindness test – link
Note: Aphantasia can contribute to learning disabilities. For example, spelling is very difficult if you can’t visualize the word.