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