If I ask you to think of an elephant do you see an elephant in your head when you close your eyes?
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I don’t. Regardless of how descriptive the imagery, story or text I can’t create any pictures in my head at all. 2% of people can’t do this either. This inability to visualize is called aphantasia.
I never knew this absence of mental imagery was even a thing until my daughter pointed out that she and I were missing something my wife and other daughter had. Ask us to visualize a rainbow or a sunset and we just see nothing. We can’t create pictures in our head of objects, people, places or experiences. Where others can visualize these things, we can’t. Not for people, memories, or images past or future. When people say visualize this in your mind’s eye I just thought that was a turn of phrase. It now dawns on me that other people were really seeing something in their heads.
Now close your eyes and try to imagine the apple, seeing it mentally in your mind’s eye. If you don’t see anything, you might have aphantasia.
For a more detailed test check out the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire.
(I’m also realizing that that when people describe that they can hear the sound of their voice in their head (a train of thought), that it wasn’t just a metaphor. But my thoughts are silent.)
My reaction to learning that most people can create visual images was “huh.” I lived my entire life thinking the word “visualize” meant “think about what this means,” not actually being able to “see” it. Reading that other people actually see images in their head was like learning there was another sense that most people had that I was missing. I was bemused that I had lived my whole life with the equivalent of seeing the world in black and white and finding out that other people see the world in colors. (The one exception to this is that I often wakeup remembering visual images from my dreams.)
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Handicap or Asset?
My inability to visualize doesn’t seem to have handicapped my imagination or creativity. I am constantly thinking about new things – I just don’t see them as pictures (or hear them.)
I’m not sure what it is I can’t do that others can. Perhaps I can blame my failure in sports on it? Or my inability to sing or dance? It likely explains why when my wife asks me what someone was wearing or what their house looked like, I come up empty. Or more telling, why I can’t visualize the descriptive language in poetry or in a novel.
What’s interesting is that lacking what most everyone else seems to be able to do may explain how I think, communicate and process information. Perhaps this explains how I go about the creative process. When I want to describe an event that happened, I don’t bring up the visual imagery of what the places or people looked like. Instead my stories are of what I remember about the facts/data/conversations around the event.
It might also explain why pattern recognition and abstract thought (the ability to think about principles, and ideas that are not physically present) come easier to me. Possibly because I’m not distracted by visual pictures associated with the data that others see. I just see raw data.
To work out complicated ideas, I often diagram ideas and concepts (but don’t draw pictures of things.) I break ideas and concepts down into simpler steps by drawing each part. This helps me simplify ideas so I can first explain it to myself and then to others.
I then translate the diagram into words.
At times the result has been transformative for more than just me.
The way I’m wired has given me (and likely other founders and those in other fields) an edge. So, how can others with aphantasia consciously harness that? And for those who do see pictures in your heads is there anything you can learn from those of us who don’t?
(I wonder if I could have benefited from a modified classroom curriculum if this had been discovered this early. Or if I could have been taught how to visualize. But what would have been have lost?)
Pluses and Minuses
When I first heard about aphantasia I wondered if those of us with it would tend to excel in certain fields and avoid others. I was surprised to find out that someone already ran a study that showed that people with low or no visual imagery are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries. And having hyperphantasia (people with the opposite condition – having an extremely vivid mental imagery) predisposes people to work in the arts. It makes me wonder if the response and recovery from trauma/PTSD has some correlation with those with the ability to visualize those memories versus those who don’t. (Here’s a great future study area for the Veterans Administration.)
We’re Just at the Beginning of Understanding
This latest recognition of aphantasia as a neurological difference is only a decade or so old (although references in the literature go back to the 1890’s.) My bet is that as science continues to explore neurodiversity (brain differences among people), we’ll gain a wider understanding that people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in many different ways. And how that leads to different strengths in comprehension, pattern recognition and problem-solving. We’ll likely discover more connections.
I’m curious if there’s anyone else who can’t see pictures in their head.
Let me know.
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