The title of this post is a sentence that has crossed my mind and my lips a few times in the past couple of years. Until this week, I didn’t understand how accurate I was.
Most people can think of something, say, an apple, and visually imagine it in their mind. They can manipulate how it looks, where it is and what it’s doing. Until this week, I thought “visually” meant metaphorically. Theoretically. But no, when people say visually, they actually mean visually.
The lack of the ability to see in that way? The inability to use “the mind’s eye”? That’s called Aphantasia. And I have it.
Before you continue this blog post, watch this video. It explains the base concept much better than I can.
Now, after watching the video – where do you fall on the scale? 0-10. Try to be honest with yourself.
Most friends that I’ve asked have answered in the 6-8 range, including my brother. My dad, however, reports a 0. As do I.
I spent a lot of time on Wednesday talking to friends and reading stories from other people who are on both ends of the scale. All of it explains so much about how I think and how I go about things.
If someone tells me “imagine an apple”, I can of course tell you what an apple looks like. That it’s red, that it likely has a stem. Can I imagine it somewhere, change its shape, colour, texture? No, because I don’t actually see it. I’m drawing on memory, past experience, to define the apple using words and descriptions. I can’t manipulate my past experience, not even on-demand, and so the apple that I’m thinking of doesn’t change. It doesn’t even have detail.
This ability to actually see using the mind’s eye, to me, sounds like a super-power. It sounds like what I’d want VR, or AR, to be. What I’d want hands-free control of a computer to be. The thought of creating an image and manipulating it, without using tools in front of me like a pen and paper or a computer, is entirely a foreign concept.
When I say that this lack of a mind’s eye explains so much about my past, I mean it.
As a teenager, I read a lot of books. Literally hundreds. I read them for the story, the characters, the interactions. The order of words used to describe the situations they’re in. Did I see the places being described, as I read the words? No. Did I imagine what Ron Weasley looked like, before I saw the Harry Potter movies? Also no. Seeing Philosopher’s Stone on screen, my response was “oh so that’s what he looks like” rather than “that’s not how I pictured him”. Same goes for any character ever. I assume that’s why when movies/shows deviate from the books, it doesn’t bother me much.
There is, however, one book I never finished. Only one book. Keep in mind, in high school I could rent out a book for 2 weeks. I finished most novels within days, and in a 2-week period I’d rent out at least 6 or 7 books.
That book was The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings: Book 1), by J. R. R. Tolkien. He goes into incredible detail, often multiple pages, about the locations. For two weeks, I struggled reading through the mountain of words that didn’t enhance the experience for me. When it came time to return/renew, I returned it. I didn’t see myself enjoying reading the rest of the book. I couldn’t keep track of the story because more words were spent describing where the story took place rather than the events.
Other situations come to mind, too. I’ve listened to audio-books, guided meditation, experimented with ASMR. I stay up to date with Critical Role, and I’ve been a character in a D&D campaign myself. But now I understand why I struggled to connect the dots, why I need a refresher before the next episode: I have no visuals to draw from. I remember snippets of the conversations, the jokes that occurred. What the starting tavern looked like? Nope. Which character is tall, short, strong, slim? I got nothing. Which voice goes to which name? Eh, maybe. I’ve probably forgotten most of the names anyway.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time playing The Sims, Minecraft, Age of Empires, Red Alert, Cities: Skylines. In each of these games, you design the area you work in. You design a city, or a house, or the layout of your base. In the Sims, I’d always use a pre-built house. Maybe one that someone shared online. Occasionally, I’d try to build the house I live in IRL, just to see how it would look. In Minecraft, I usually dig out a cave. Enough room to place a bed, space for a large farm, and a large storage area. If I do end up building a house, nine times out of ten it’ll be a box with rooms without much furniture, no external details, where getting from one room to the next is easy. I always thought “well I’m just not creative”.
How about designing a character in every RPG ever? I usually just base it on myself. Then I adjust from there, based on the tools the game gives me. What name should it have? Eh, let’s just put “WizardCM.” Hmm, only the first letter can be capital. Fine, “Wizardcm”. Whatever.
OH! How about that XKCD comic about remembering passwords? Yeah, I was never able to use that. I tried. I really did.
Then there are the questions I’ve always struggled with…
The ones asking about the future, the ones asking for me to come up with something creative. Let’s get some insight into how I legitimately respond to them.
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I dunno, with a job I assume. Likely living alone or with someone, a roommate or a girlfriend. Who knows.
“What is your dream job?” I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment, if that’s what you mean. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a web developer. Maybe a game tester? Computer networking might be fun, the ability to interact with a variety of devices. Actually, the kind of stuff people are doing in terms of eSports video production is pretty cool, I’d love to try that sometime.
“Describe your dream home.” Well, it’d have to be a house, everything else seems too small. There’d need to be a living area with enough space to fit 5+ friends and 3 TVs comfortably. A VR space at least 3m2. Obviously a bedroom, garage, kitchen, etc. At least one spare bedroom. Enough parking space out the front for friends.
“Can you design a website for me?” Not really, I’m a developer – not a designer. Bring me a design and I can make it, pixel perfect if you want. But I can’t put something together for you without a guide. You want navigation along the top, a sidebar on the left? I can do that. Will it look good? Not without a design I can reference.
“Why do you record a song or two with your phone when you’re at a concert?” It helps me remember how it felt to be there. Why wouldn’t I want something I can look at?
“But they’re low quality!” I mean, I usually have a steady hand, and I’ve always gone for phones with good microphones. It’s good enough that it can bring back memories from the rest of the concert. That’s all I need.
“What do you want for lunch?” I dunno, what do we have? I can always just make toast.
You’ll notice none of these answers contain visuals. No descriptions of places, items, or people. Rather, fact-based. Information based. Based on past experience, on challenges I’ve run into in the past.
So, how many people have Aphantasia? How much research has been done on the topic?
To answer the first question, one poll put us at 2%. Of course, this isn’t a topic that comes up in normal conversation, and those of us who have it have absolutely no idea, so I’d bet that number is at least 5-10%. In terms of research, very little – and that’s why I’m putting this blog post up after years of not posting anything. It’s why I’ll be asking my friends a lot of questions, and answering a whole lot more.
You probably have more questions now
So did my friends and my brother, so I’ve put together my answers to a few of them below. As my perspective has changed so much since learning about this, I’m actually unsure about the terminology that’s best to use. I’ll likely continue using standard terms everyone else uses just to make it easier.
“So, when someone told you to visualize something, what did you actually do?” This is a super interesting question, and I thought about it during my commute home. To me, visualizing has always been theoretical. A concept. Because of this, it’s more an idea of going “well, if A does this, and B does that, theoretically they could be C, and C would do these things.” If I was told “close your eyes, imagine you’re on a beach”, then literally all I did was close my eyes, stare at the blackness, and think about beaches. They have sand, and water, and people. When I then opened my eyes, that’s all that happened: I opened my eyes. From the blackness of my eyes being closed, to the room being bright because my eyes need to re-adjust.
It’s also interesting because the best I can do when visualising is the concept of motion. “Imagine someone tapping their foot”, nothing comes to mind automatically, I have to prompt it myself: “well, a foot tapping would have an up-and-down motion.” Even then, there’s no detail to the motion, just the actions of “up” and “down”, maybe to a rhythm, but no speed. “Imagine a person waving,” yep so there’d be motion left and right, performed by an arm. I’d assume the person waving is probably smiling. OK now I’ve just got the motion of waving in my head.
“So then, to you, how is it that an artist is able to conjure up imagery from nothing, or can get an idea that they wanted to put to paper/film/screen?” I’ve always seen artists who can do that kind of thing as a.. let’s call it a completely different frame of mind. A different way of thinking. I didn’t actually realise it was so fundamental as “they can actually visualise things, and I can’t.” It wasn’t that low-level to me.
“Okay, the AoE II main menu. I can visualize it, and from that remember details of it. What details would you be able to recall?” I [think I] could tell you most of the things on the AoE II main menu.. I couldn’t tell you what the background image was. I mean, there was a sign and a building, I think? Um, I can tell you there were 6 or 8 buttons either on the left or the right. And there’s an Age of Empires logo at the top. Past that, I got nothing.
Of course, seeing it now, I definitely recognize it as the AoE II main menu, and if you removed the logo I would have been able to guess that. The rest I can only name for as long as I see it on the screen.
“You mentioned earlier that you understand what is meant more by visual learning, but what did you think it was before today?” I don’t know how I would describe it. And this is one of the reasons this doesn’t get discussed. Because no-one knows how to phrase [how they think]. What I understood visual learning to be before, is clearly not visual learning. I.. don’t know how to describe it.
“How do you keep in your head the relationships between bits of code, or whole projects?” That’s where it gets interesting. Memory? I don’t know what the other way of describing something is. I remember the name of the function I needed to call, or which file contains the code I need. Or what the function looked like. And I remember enough to go “I wrote function X to call function Y to do action Z.”
“Like, to me, I don’t know how anyone could comprehend Model-View-Controller without being able to visualize.” In the same way I needed to properly understand the concept of header files and source files in C. I can’t differentiate MVC as much. I couldn’t possibly tell you what goes in each. And I’ve definitely tried to learn it. The APIs at work use MVC, and I kind of just extend what’s already there by tiny amounts because I honestly don’t know where any extra functions would go.
So here’s a question then: In your dreams, are you ever in places you recognize? Can you navigate those spaces? Have you ever been able to recollect when a dream got a detail about a space wrong?
See, I find it interesting while you described that, because you were using hand gestures to match the things you were describing, and to me, something like what you could see out a window seems like a visual thing.DillonEA, Twitch Chat
I’ve always described things with my hands. Now we know why. 🙂
And so, here we are. After learning about this around lunch time, I spent the rest of the day questioning many things. For the evening, I streamed with some friends, one of which rated himself a 0 too, and we discussed Aphantasia at length. I felt a tweet or two didn’t give this topic justice, so I ended up writing my first blog post in 5 years.
All of this being said, it’s nice to understand more about how my own mind works. I’ll probably be reading many things about Aphantasia for the next few days. Apparently there are ways to develop the skills to bypass it. Will I try it? Maybe, eventually. For now, this is how my brain has functioned for the first 25-ish years of my life. I’d rather learn more about my mind before considering trying to change it. (Fun fact: Google’s spellcheck doesn’t even recognise the word)
Now, am I going to put “Aphantasic” on every social media bio I have? No, that’s absurd. Am I super curious about how other people think, how they come up with ideas? Will I ask my friends questions? Hell yeah.