Aphantasia

I know I promised a few posts based around product reviews while I get some book writing done but this week an opportunity for a guest post cropped up which I was excited to take, so you can have that instead. The post is all about Aphantasia, a condition I had never heard of before and that has only been discovered by Scientists fairly recently. A friend of mine recently happened upon some information about it and realised that she has it. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words, all about it.

 

It started with a tweet …

So, on Saturday 31 March I read a tweet by Toksvig. I don’t follow her, I didn’t know who she was, but it was retweeted by Rufus Hound, who I do follow.

The tweet read:

“I have aphantasia. It means I don’t see any pictures in my head.  No visual imagination at all.  This affects my ability to retain memories, or perhaps, my ability to recall them.  I also don’t have an easy way to recognise the faces of people I don’t know well or see often”

I was gobsmacked.

It was the first time ever, just over a month shy of my 50th birthday, that I realised people did see things visually in their heads.  I was sat with my family at the time; husband, daughter and her partner, and asked them if they could do it, and was amazed that they said they could!

Further probing at my Mother-in-Law’s later revealed that she can do it too. When she counts sheep, she can see them in her mind.  She can add detail, like a grassy field and a sheep dog running around.  She just could not believe I couldn’t do it, and suggested I must be doing something wrong – concentrating too hard, over thinking it maybe!

I thought seeing things in your mind’s eye was a figure of speech. I thought people did what I did, and internally described situations, rather than actually seeing them.  In that respect, all I have is blackness – internally I am blind!

It made a few things make sense. I do have trouble with faces, especially if I see someone out of context.  I fail to recognise people I know, but I also do the opposite and think I have seen someone I know, but it turns out not to be them!  My husband has always said he hopes I never witness a crime, because I would be absolutely terrible at giving information to the police!  I’d have the wrong person locked up in a jiffy!

Only the morning of my discovery I had been to a local park to take part in Parkrun. I parked the car a 5 minute walk away and walked into the park.  I’ve done it before, but over a year ago and not alone.  After the run, I really wasn’t sure of the way back to the car!  I could see a path, a wide gate across it, with an opening to the side, and a huge puddle in front, so very visually distinctive, but  I could not remember if I had passed it or not!  I spent a couple of minutes eliminating other possibilities.  I was a straggler, one of the last to finish the run, there was no one to follow, so I just had to try it and see.  I was right and it was the correct way to go, but it required thought and effort on my part to reach that conclusion.

Googling the subject led me to an article on the BBC website, and a link to a quiz ( BBC quiz). It required me to try to picture faces of the people I know well, or a scene, like a beach . I literally answered every question with “no image at all” putting me in the lowest scoring bracket.

My first thought on this discovery was to feel quite sad. I’m already night blind, have no 3D vision and am self-diagnosed with dyspraxia – nothing official but I tick a lot of boxes, so I really felt that I was missing out – that my experience of the world was clearly a lot less rich than that of other  people.

I felt most sad that I could not picture up my Mum’s face; she died 22 years ago. If there was an image that I would conjure up if I could, that would be the one.

It’s very early days but at this moment in time, if I could change, and be able to perceive the world like other people do, I would, but I realise I do have a few things going for me!

I like language. I have a strong internal dialogue.  The reason I can now remember what the path at the park looks like, is because, when I was a little lost, I made a conscious decision to verbally describe it to myself, and doing so has made it firmer in my mind.

Also, I love to read. I devour books, and clearly my pleasure in them is not diminished by my inability to create pictures in my mind.  In fact,  Jenifer Toksvig commented on a tweet of mine that she speed reads,  because she does not need to wait for her brain to create images, and I read quickly too and take on verbal information well.  (Don’t expect me to forget that offhand comment you made 20 years ago!)

I’m going to take more photographs, and fill my life with pictures of people and places I love so that I can revisit them that way.

I am going to offer to take part in research by the University of Exeter on the subject, and thanks to Jenifer Toksvig I have joined a support group on Facebook.

And in the future, if I ignore you, or seem a little bit confused when I see you, remind me who you are and how I know you. I won’t have forgotten you, it just takes my brain a little bit longer to trigger the memory in some other way; the pieces will come together eventually!

 

 

Thanks to my friend, who wants to remain anonymous, for writing this when the discovery is so new and raw to her.

I’m fascinated by the concept and it’s got me thinking how my visual imagination works. I took the quiz and scored within the average range but when I try to ‘see’ something in my imagination I don’t know whether there actually is a picture there or not. I know that sounds daft. I know my visual imagination isn’t bad as I can recall a colour well and can go to a shop and find an almost exact match for something without having the thing with me. I don’t know if I can actually ‘see’ the colour if I shut my eyes but I have a perception of it on some level.

The points about facial recall are interesting too. I feel as though I have got worse at this with age and will often know that I recognise someone but can’t place who they are. It only really happens with people I don’t know well whereas I’m guessing for the author of this piece that it happens to her fairly frequently and with people she does know well.

It’s also interesting to think how this works for our children, especially if they have trauma in their background and may have blocked out some of their visual memories. I wonder if Aphantasia can be acquired. I read something that suggested that visual recall of memories can be intrusive and can be a symptom of PTSD which I guess is the polar opposite of Aphantasia.

The difficulty with it all is that it is a very subjective concept and it is almost impossible to know what is happening in someone else’s brain. I think I take whatever my brain does for granted, so much so that I don’t really know what it does. I mentioned Aphantasia and what that is to Grizzly and he was horrified because he said his whole way of thinking is based on visualisation and he didn’t know how his brain would work without it.

I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts and how other people’s mind’s eye works.

 

 

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Aphantasia

Fantasy versus Reality

Little Bear has been everywhere, man. He really has. He has been to America, Spain, the Eiffel Tower, Australia, the jungle. He has even been to Paradise. Any country you can name, he has been there.

And the things he has got up to! He’s wrestled sharks, ridden elephants, punched President Trump in the face and even witnessed the death of Princess Diana. Many people have tried to harm him along the way but he’s killed them; or punched them in the face at the very least. He’s very strong. SUPER strong. In fact, probably stronger than Batman or maybe even the Hulk. And he’s got guns. A whole arsenal of them. He’s taken out many a good man.

And he has two Fathers, but sometimes one is dead. His Father is also VERY strong. He can do ANYTHING. He has fast cars. He’s encountered a plethora of sharks, tigers and poisonous spiders himself.

Oh, and did you know Little Bear has a special car? One that can fly to heaven and bring people back from the dead! He quite often pops there and back in the day apparently. And all those songs you hear on the radio? Little Bear sang those. And all the sportsmen on the television? Little Bear.

As for that school he attends! Well, there are frequently brawls in the classroom and the teacher seems a right one for throwing the first punch. Sometimes the Head teacher joins in. Sometimes they do PE on roof. And they hardly ever feed them lunch.

Apparently.

According to Little Bear, anyway.

I wouldn’t describe it as lying, because Little Bear thinks these things are really true. I think I would describe it as a very fertile and fantastical imagination. Most of the time, Little Bear’s high tales are very entertaining and I’m sure that when he is a little more adept at writing, he will be able to conjure up some amazing stories. Perhaps he will be an author, or film-writer; he certainly has the creativity for it.

It does have its drawbacks though. It is virtually impossible to know when he’s telling the truth, especially as he seems so good at convincing himself that things that haven’t happened really have. Due to that he can get genuinely annoyed with you for saying something isn’t true (even though it very clearly is not) as he is so bought into the idea. We can’t rely on reading his responses because his own position of what he thinks happened is so skewed.

Most of the time, I don’t attempt to call him out on his stories. The only parallel I can draw (and please bear with me as it is a bit dubious) is that if somebody had confusion (Dementia) and kept forgetting things, you wouldn’t continually tell them they were wrong and draw attention to the forgetting and the repeating. You would just go along with them so as not to upset them. There would be no real benefit to either of you to insist upon correcting them.

It feels the same with Little Bear and his fantastical tales. What does it matter if he claims to have met the Queen or have been on a midnight adventure with a friendly lion? It doesn’t matter and there is no harm in it. To be honest, we mostly find him hilarious and he often takes us by surprise with a new, even wilder tale. The story-telling is part of his charm and we wouldn’t want to discourage it.

However, it is essential that, as he gets older, he does learn to know the difference between truth and lies and that he can be relied upon to tell the truth (even if he still likes some fantastical escapism). There are times therefore that I do call him out and label what he has said as a lie. This tends to be when he has said something that sounds more like an accusation or relates directly to one of us. For example, he does have a tendency to say that people have hit him when they blatantly haven’t. I could sit with him and a grandparent or Grizzly the whole time and despite me having seen everything, he might still claim that somebody present hit him. It’s not generally malicious, more that things just come out of his mouth and sometimes he can be purposefully provocative.

At these times I will call out the lie. I will say “you shouldn’t say that Little Bear, because it didn’t really happen. It is a lie.” I generally go on to explain what the possible consequences of telling the lie could be e.g. the person you are saying hit you could get into a lot of trouble with the Police. Occasionally, over recent weeks, when he has a made a wild claim and I have asked him whether it is true or not, he has sometimes admitted it is a lie, which is reassuring and shows he is starting to develop some awareness.

Obviously I have no idea if this is the right way of handling it, I’m just following my instincts (AKA making it up as I go along).

I have to admit that I have also duped him into telling me he’s lying sometimes by convincing him that our noses really do grow like Pinocchio’s when we tell an untruth. I have no idea what possessed me, it’s a very un-me thing to have done, but I’m reluctant to reveal the truth just yet as sometimes Little Bear will make a bold claim then a few seconds later say, “has my nose grown?”. Then I know I’ve got him. It’s the only time I can be certain he’s lying. It’s quite useful for situations such as ‘have you washed your hands after the toilet?’ where you really do need to know the right answer.

Don’t worry, the irony of me lying to him about his nose having grown is not lost on me in a blog about lying! I have to be a little bit wily though otherwise I would be constantly outwitted by a five year old.

We have discussed this issue with school and with PAS. Not because we are really worried about it but because school obviously experience it too – apparently Little Bear’s account of our summer holiday began with the boys enjoying the sea in their wet suits and ended with some sort of killer shark massacre.

The conclusion we have drawn is that Little Bear is in a developmental phase that would usually happen earlier. A quick bit of research suggests that typically developing 2 and 3 year olds lie frequently and spend a lot of time exploring the boundaries of fantasy/ reality. Most studies seem to suggest that around 3 is a pivotal age for being able to separate your imagination from real life.

Little Bear has such a spiky profile that it is quite possible that this is the level he is functioning at for this particular aspect of his development. We do wonder though how much this has been impacted by his language difficulties and whether he would have been able to move into this phase earlier had he have had a wider vocabulary at his fingertips. His language skills have leapt forwards again recently; perhaps this has allowed all those thoughts and ideas that have been in his brain for a long time to finally get out?

Often, when he is telling his tales, I am not worrying too much about the content but am marvelling at his fantastic turn of phrase and narrative structure. Only a Speech Therapist would say that, obviously, but nevertheless, I stand by it as a year ago, when he started school, Little Bear really struggled with those reading books without words that require you to make up one sentence to describe what is happening. And here he is, using words like ‘return’ and ‘sadly’ and ‘supposed’ and structuring a whole story that is cohesive and makes sense. It’s incredible really.

Whilst I do think this is likely to be a developmental phase, I came across something else today that really resonated. I was reading the Coventry Grid*, a resource developed by Heather Moran, to pull out the differences between the presentation of children with Autism and those with attachment difficulties. In the ‘mind-reading’ section, there is a subheading of ‘problems distinguishing between fact and fiction’. Here are the descriptors for children with attachment difficulties:

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I’m sure you can see why it resonated. Who knew that this type of presentation could be another result of a neglectful start? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have so much to answer for I’m finding; their effects being so pernicious and wide-ranging.

It also amazes me how much there is to learn about our children and despite reading a lot and thinking about Little Bear a lot and writing about him a lot, I am still learning new things and continuing to grow in my understanding of his behaviour.

 

 

*The Coventry Grid is an excellent resource that I would highly recommend. You can find it easily on Google.

I don’t actually spend all my days reading sensible things; I was working at the time. I was interrupted by a giant anteater appearing from my computer screen though. It sipped my tea with its long snake-like tongue before engaging me in a sword fight. I won.

 

Has my nose just growed?

 

Fantasy versus Reality