Rangi Krishnan

Aphantasia - Out of Sight, Out of Mind

11 June 2021

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Audio Version - Click play to listen to the story.

A little while ago I discovered something about myself that came as quite a surprise. Why it took me fifty eight years to get to this point was also a bit of a mystery as I’m fairly good at taking note, or so I thought. Perhaps it was because it had to do with me personally and so maybe an understandable blind spot.

“Aphantasia”, a cool name I think, is the inability to visualise. It turns out that most people are gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a private picture theatre in their minds. When most people close their eyes, it seems that they engage in their own private fantasy world where they can imagine whatever they like and it all comes alive for them on a picture screen in their “mind’s eye” – at least that is my understanding. But for me, and there are many others like me it would seem, this is not the case and our perception and perspective is quite different.

When I close my eyes, I literally shut out the world and immerse myself in the black. I always thought this was the case for everyone but not so. I mean, why else would you close your eyes? From a structural point of view, it seems that for most people, the front part of the brain, mainly known for reasoning and stuff like that, is connected with the visual apparatus located at the back of the brain. As such, people’s thoughts are translated to visual imagery in their minds eye – in other words they see what they are thinking about. However, for some of us that connection is not there or is very poorly developed. At least this is what some of the science appears to be telling us. This realisation got me re-evaluating some of my assumptions both about myself and others.

I don’t consider this “disconnect” as a disability and it has never stood in the way of my doing stuff or achieving goals in my life. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t have an imagination. Being blind in one area doesn’t mean you’re completely disconnected from the world. There are many ways to “see” and my other senses don’t let me down in this regard. I can imagine and visualise just fine without looking at a screen. It’s just that I “feel or sense” my way through the process and the so-called “imagery” I create in this way works for me even if it’s not in pictures. I “sense” whereas others “visualise”. Besides, I’ve never known anything else. I used to think that visualisation was something you learned to do and that I was just really bad at it. It never occurred to me that you may have needed some equipment wired up in the grey matter to make it all work. Looks like someone forgot to plug in the secondary video monitor for some of us.

Aphantasia - visualising

Another thing that used to get me frustrated was not being able to find my way out of a paper bag. This is unlikely to be unique to me but the reasons for it probably are. Riding or driving to different places could take me longer without a map and clear left-right directions. Getting lost even in familiar territory was not uncommon as I had no clear image of streets and places. As an auditor, I used to travel to many places and I made a lot of effort to note down directions before I even left the office.

I recall taking my mother to the doctors’ clinic which was located only a short drive away in our small town – a trip I had made on many occasions. I turned left and found myself in the car park of our local supermarket. Not only was my mum looking at me wondering what I was doing at the supermarket, but I was wondering where on earth I’d gone wrong. It often felt like people were moving places and buildings just to screw with me.

Aphantasia - directionless

Committing directions, locations and landmarks to memory was my only recourse, not to mention often a difficult chore. But that too failed me on occasions as my detour to the supermarket illustrates. I often commented that most places all look the same and sometimes places just are not where I expect them to be.

Travelling for the sake of sightseeing was never my thing because I could never truly immerse myself in such an undertaking and I knew it would just become a faded memory in due course. Travelling with “real” purpose where I could be fully immersed in doing something was the way to build more meaningful memories. This is where every part of me is actively engaged in some activity. These are the types of memories that I can use to build my stories and share an adventure. Perhaps this is why most travel, being a means to arrive at a destination, just doesn’t store very well – it remains at a superficial level so is easily tossed about.

I think that being able to see a map in one’s mind would have been a useful trick to have up my sleeve. Nonetheless, I usually managed to get to where I needed to go albeit that I might take a roundabout route and sometimes get there a little later than expected, often to the frustration of any passenger lucky enough to ride with me. Come to think of it, I am really feeling for the poor bastards who have been unfortunate enough to stop to ask me for directions and I hope I haven’t put them too crook.

I learned to be flexible with my time even if others considered tardiness to be a poor reflection. These days the google lady is my best friend when I’m out and about. It doesn’t worry me one iota that she might direct me to my destination in a roundabout route from time to time especially given that I wouldn’t have done any better. At least she knows where she’s going as I usually haven’t got a clue.

I rely heavily on my memory of things and, now that I come to think of it, it possibly explains why I have quite sharp memories going back to my childhood; even as young as two or three years old - maybe. It’s possible that while others were building their visual imaginations, I may have been building experiential memory – maybe. It’s all speculation of course as I don’t really know anything for sure.

Aphantasia - senses

Having said that, I do find committing raw information to memory rather hard work. Learning a new song to play on the guitar can take several nights sleep and regular playing for it to stick – almost obsessive even. It’s as if I’m trying to get my whole mind/body to vibrate with the words in order to connect with them at more than just a superficial level. Studying for exams often meant trawling through past exam papers starting two to three weeks before exam day. Once the answers have been given, all those questions and answers are easily forgotten; discarded as they generally have little relevance to my real life. I did just enough to become acquainted with the material but not enough to become lifelong buddies with it. For me, it really is a case of use it or lose it but I also note that this isn’t limited to people who cannot visualise. Being able to visualise can be a powerful tool as it would help to link raw information with something a little more “in your face” or “tangible” so to speak. Even people who can visualise can relate to what I’m saying here. Information on its own is meaningless. Its true power comes from being able to connect it in a meaningful way in one’s life otherwise it is quickly forgotten. What is meaningful, of course, is a very individual thing.

Principles; now there’s something that usually sticks. Learn a few principles and you can create, build or construct anything; legal opinions, a set of accounts, build a house, design stuff, develop software or tell tall tales with a single bound and I’ve done all this. Learning the basic principles of how stuff works or how things are done is far more important than learning the specific details – at least it is for me. When I need the detail, I do my homework and use it for its intended purpose. Then I just move on. I know that I’ll never clearly remember formulas and such detail but I will know what they are about and where to find them when I need to use them. I don’t avoid the details. After all, how else are you going to know what’s available without indulging yourself a little. I also note here that, because I don’t get bogged down with the detail, I’m usually free to explore all kinds of different ideas within the context of whatever it is that I’m working on. I’m pretty good at inventing or making stuff up as I don’t have any real constraints, other than the ones I conjure up of course.

Aphantasia - disconnected

Things to do with relationships can be a bit tricky. It is really easy to become disconnected from people so I do make an effort because out of sight is literally out of mind. The sense of someone or just committing some details to memory about them is not the same as being in their presence. When people are around, their presence acts to reinforce that relationship whereas the “sense” or feeling associated with people tends to fade. Memory on its own is just a piece of information. Its quality is entirely dependent upon how it is packaged in one’s mind. Images can be a powerful wrapping but in its absence I have to rely on other containers to hold the memories. I have a lot of pictures on my desktop which acts to remind me that connections do exist.

My biggest fear is being called into a police station and asked to describe someone I know; this is where a visual memory would be really handy – “yes officer, I know I’ve been married to this woman for a long time but …”. I can just see that conversation turning pear shaped in no time. On the flip side, ask me to describe a scene, such as the scene of an accident or an important board meeting, where all my senses have been heightened and I’ll give you an incredible amount of detail no time – except for faces; these are really hard.

On the other hand, I carry very little baggage as I see it. I have plenty of memories of places and people and I can tell a good story like most others. However, I don’t carry emotions about buildings and places so it is really easy to move on. Going back to places where I grew up or old haunts is pretty meaningless for me as I’m not emotionally bound to such things. The fact that everything changes makes such activity even less meaningful.

I also don’t dwell on things forever and a day like I see many people do. People often seem to have to jump through so many hoops just to get over issues. It occurs to me that perhaps many people are suffering from “post-traumatic stress” because they are trapped in their own little picture theatres watching reruns that continuously reinforce a particular state. Without an off switch on hand, I can see how this can become a problem for some. I’m only guessing here of course but the thought did occur to me.

Aphantasia - peace of mind

When thoughts easily translate to images for people, they have two things to deal with; their thoughts and the reinforcing images. I only have to deal with one and, in my case, my thoughts are generally carried on my breath. This is also how I read books. Breathing is such a basic and fundamental function of life and this might be why words connect with this action so easily in the absence of imagery. If the book is engaging, then I will devour every word verbally. Skimming is a somewhat different process as it requires a good understanding of language and structure. I recall signing up for a speed reading course once where they employed a lot of visualisation techniques. I stuck with it and gave it my best shot but, in hindsight, I really should have asked for my money back.

If I hold my breath for a moment or so, I can easily bring my thoughts under control. “Peace of mind” and being “present”, at least most of the time, is something I take for granted so my heart goes out to all those who struggle with this. Being “present” means I’m seldom disappointed by anything, at least not for long, and I get to enjoy many things as if it is a brand new experience. I recall going to the movies with my daughter to see “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” and how disappointed she and many others were with the show. “It’s nothing like the book” was a common refrain and my consolation at the time that the makers are entitled to take some creative licence made no dent in the disappointment

But now it all seems to make sense. People read the books and create their own movies in their mind’s eye or so it appears. They had created a set of expectations about how they thought it should all be. They wanted to see a movie that they had already seen and wanted to immerse themselves in the familiar – at least that’s my perspective. In contrast, I had no such expectations. I had enjoyed the book but seeing all those characters come to life on the big screen was a whole new way of experiencing that adventure and it’s always something when you put a face to a name – “ah, so that’s what they look like”.

We live in a world that seems to be focused predominantly on meeting people’s expectations – reasonable but also a very safe option. Criticism often results from expectations not being met or “unexpected” things get relegated to the fringes. I wonder what this world might be like if people weren’t doing mental gymnastics to elevate expectations. Would we be happier? Would we be more willing to celebrate creativity in a broader sense?

Visualisation is a powerful tool and like most tools, you’ve got to know how to hold it and use it otherwise you are only setting yourself up for disappointment or worse, to get hurt. Not being able to visualise just means that people like me don’t have this particular tool in our tool belt. I don’t necessarily see this as a disadvantage. I’ve just learned to get more out of what I have and sometimes with quite surprising results. I feel firmly grounded in reality as what I see with my eyes open isn’t subject to extensive distortion by what goes on in the mind. As I often remind a good friend of mine, “It is what it is”.

What follows is part of a conversation I had with my daughter on Discord. It seems she’s at the other end of the spectrum and she describes what that’s like.

Daughter: Yoooooo you have aphantasia? Wild. Interesting. Though I disagree to a certain extent with the movie thing. Yes we read and create a movie in our head but we don't expect adaptations to be exact to what is in our heads. Not most people anyway. However when it is described that a certain major event occurs because a major character does something, and then the following consequences occur, but the movie just has the consequences occur, those who read it know what should have happened to create that, but it didn't. And those who don't know, experience a series of disconnected events that don't actually form a cohesive story. As for say, personality, if you have a protagonist who is written and is known to be a witty, sarcastic, funny character, and whose on screen appearance is as grim as Batman, there is a massive dissonance that changes the whole context and tone that the movie has. Which when you combine both changing the story and the characters, and only keeping some names and a few little bits of the world (and even then not much), you haven't adapted the book, you have made your own movie and sold it under false pretences to a fan base entirely to get their money. Also likely earning the ire of the original creator too.

Dad: I didn't experience this at all. I didn't create any expectations. It was a blank slate for me and I thought it was okay.

Daughter: Legit, if they had named it differently and said "Inspired by Percy Jackson" then I wouldn't have given a shit. You don't say something is an apple, then sell people an apple, only for them to open the box and find it’s an orange - for them to then rightfully complain about the lies, and then to continue to insist for you to buy more "apples" from you. That is not okay and it is normalised in the film industry.

Dad: maybe - but I didn't know what an apple would look like so I'm none the wiser.

Daughter: -facepalm-

Dad: but that's the point isn't it - a picture is a powerful thing - if you take it away, what's left is an idea or concept and something less tangible and perhaps more malleable.

Can I ask you if you actually see images in your mind?

Daughter:Oh 100% yes I do. I am literally the entire opposite end from aphantasia. It’s why I have dyslexia. Everything, every single thing, has imagery associated to it. Making stuff out of clay and taking a mental picture to connect with words that didn't have appropriate images attached to them (words like 'the'), it is how that system worked to stop my brain from stumbling over words when I was reading. My ability to visualise is so strong I can visualise it in 3D in my hands and use my hands to facilitate imagined touch and texture. Most people are somewhere in between. You are one end of the spectrum and I am the other.

But yeah I have visual imagery connected to even broad conceptual thinking.

But also I can break down the imagery into component stuff, so I can analyse how something may work but taking it apart in my mind and simulating experiments in my head which I don't think a lot of people can do. I think also a lot of my memory at base works alike to the 'mind palace' technique.

I have a weirdly encyclopaedic memory for some things. Like FF14. Someone can mention a name of a monster, and I will be able to bring up the name of where to find it by visualising that monster, then seeing the environment around it, and use that to identify landmarks of particular map areas.

I also do that in real life.

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