I can’t picture things in my mind. I didn’t realize it was unusual | Well actually

I I discovered I had aphantasia by accident. When you live your whole life without the “mind’s eye,” it seems completely normal to not visualize anything when remembering people and places, or imagining the future.

Two years ago I wrote an article on pupillometry, or the measurement of a person’s pupils to infer their cognitive state. Joel Pearson, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales, was trying to use students as a biomarker to assess aphantasia, a condition thought to affect approximately 3.9% of people.

A rapid at-home test for aphantasia, I learned, was called the Red Star or red apple test. Close your eyes and imagine a Red Apple. How well can you visually see the apple on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lightest? Can you see its color, shape and stem length? Is it a little fuzzy, incoming and blurry? For me, I saw nothing – no blurred outline, no trace of an image. As I worked on my story, I said to myself, “Well, no one can Really see an apple when they close their eyes. It’s just a metaphor. Then I asked friends. Not everyone had a 1, but most could see between 1 and 4. (There is also a more official questionnaire, called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, or the VVIQ.)

“But can you Really you see it ? I insisted, confused. I know what an apple looks like. I can easily describe many varieties of apples to you right now, even the subtle differences in their coloring. But when I do, I don’t “see” anything – I remember those details in a different way.

Although I had been reporting on the brain for years, it had never occurred to me that the lack of visual imagery was unusual.

Aphantasia is relatively new in name. In the late 19th century, scientists, notably Francis Galton, wrote that some people were better able than others to picture objects in their minds. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Adam Zeman, of the University of Exeter, published the first case report on aphantasia, after meeting a 65-year-old man who had lost the ability to mentally visualize familiar people and places after surgery.

After hearing from those who had never been able to mentally visualize, Zeman published a document out of 21 people with “congenital aphantasia” in 2015. Since then, more and more people like me have realized that mental imagery is a spectrum and that we are at its outer limits, in the dark.

WWhen I went on dates after a breakup in 2022, my friends often asked me what people looked like compared to their profile pictures. I would describe their mannerisms, how they made me feel, how they behaved in certain situations; a friend might say, frustrated: “Yes, but what are they doing? look like?” It was a clue that something was wrong with my visual representation of others. In a newspaper article from July 2022, I wrote about a man I was seeing: “Why can’t I can’t remember what (it) looks like in my mind?

There has been a wave of research into how aphantasia affects our lives. There are likely different subtypes of aphantasia, as shown by Pearson and colleagues in a recent article: for some, this only concerns images; some cannot imagine other sensory information, such as sounds. Some people with aphantasia have visualizations when they dream (that’s my case), and others don’t. There is evidence that it can make it harder for people to remember visual detailsalthough other studies show that canker sores fare better some memory tests unrelated to imagery. “I remember stories, facts and anecdotes from my own life, but I can’t experience them in any way,” said Tom Ebeyer, founder of the association. Aphantasia Network. “It also makes it difficult to sequence correctly and remember many specific details.”

The Red Star Test for Aphantasia. Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

But overall, people with aphantasia don’t seem to have serious problems in their daily lives, unlike those with more serious memory problems like episodic amnesia.

The way it affects me has been more discreet. In therapy, I struggled with therapy techniques that relied heavily on visualization. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) textbooks are full of such techniques, said Reshanne Reeder, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Liverpool. For example, an exercise asks people to practice responding to different situations by “imagining a scene as if it were a photograph,” followed by “imagining the action beginning as if it were a movie” .

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People who know me would agree that I have a very good memory, but I have noticed that my memory works a little differently. I can remember visual details, but not visually. I can determine what a person was wearing or what a scene looked like by remembering a list of what was there, not by seeing it. Most of the time, I remember what I went through – emotionally and physically. I’m the best at remembering concepts and themes from books or conversations.

I don’t have face blindness. I’m very good at recognizing people, often remembering people from long ago who don’t remember me: people I waited tables with, went to college with, or whom I I reported on it many years ago. But when I’m not physically with someone, I can’t call their face. As a result, I also have a somewhat unusual relationship with my appearance: it’s not that I forget what I look like, but I’m sometimes a bit surprised and I don’t feel linked to my external appearance in terms of identity. It’s not what makes me who I am.

WWhat I find most striking is the great variety that exists among people with aphantasia. Andrea Blomkvist, a researcher in the philosophy of cognitive science at the London School of Economics, said her group encountered canker sores who are not only skilled at non-visual jobs and hobbies, but who are also artists, writers and animators. “Aphantasics have no problem producing highly creative work,” Ebeyer said. “Our process can be very different.”

For example, visualizers can imagine their work before starting. “Aphantasics, myself included, tend to have a ‘sense’ or general idea of ​​what they want to create,” Ebeyer said. Ebeyer begins working, then edits and refines until he is satisfied. He often hears about other artists suffering from aphantasia when they are creating art: I know it when I see it. This teaches us that imagination extends beyond mental imagery.

Zeman has writing that people with aphantasia may be more interested in visual arts, because their minds lack them.

I love the visual arts – I originally majored in art history alongside journalism – but it makes sense to me that my medium would be words. They best match my internal perception, as well as the concepts and monologues that constitute my daily experience. In October, writer John Green tweeted about the red apple test, revealing that he cannot see mental imagery either. “I always thought ‘visualize’ meant thinking about the words/ideas/feelings associated with a thing, not the actual visuals,” he wrote, adding that his choice of profession aligned with that. “For me, everything has always been about language, so language is a natural choice.”

This showed up in other preferences as well: I seem like someone who would love science fiction novels, but growing up I found books with long visual descriptions of landscapes or landscapes boring. of characters. As a journalist, when I’m reporting, I have to make sure I take photos of everything I see so I can refer to them later. It’s not my instinct to describe physical details in my writing – it’s something editors often have to remind me to do. What someone looks like, what they wear – that doesn’t interest me as much as what they feel or the ideas they have.

SSome people view aphantasia as a deficit and wish they could reverse it. People claimed they could form escape from aphantasia, or use psychedelics to regain a certain sense of mental imagery (the the jury is out if it works). I have no desire for this – my mind is very busy without a flow of images. If I was born with images it would be commonplace for me and I’m sure I would appreciate it. But I can already find myself overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings that have no visual aspect.

Aphants often ask Pearson what the images look like. It’s not as simple as seeing an apple floating in front of you, he said, as someone who can mentally visualize. “I have a conscious experience, often fleeting, but I feel something in my mind of what an apple looks like,” he said.

Blomkvist has heard that some aphants struggle with not visually remembering loved ones who may have died or moved away. This rings true to me: One of my best friends, who died in 2020, had an infectious smile, and to see it – really see it – I have to look at photos of him, which I do often. An ex-boyfriend I haven’t seen since we broke up is often in my memories, but not in visual form. He may feel like a ghost.

But my memories of the people I loved are visceral to me in other ways. My favorite description of aphantasia comes from a essay by Mette Leonard Høeg in Psyche. She wrote that her imagination and memories have a strong spatial component. When Høeg remembers the house she grew up in as a child, “I can feel it, almost physically, when I think about it,” she writes. My memories are also very physical, and these sensations correspond to concepts and emotions. Recently, remembering something my current boyfriend and I discussed last spring in London, I remembered that we were on an escalator talking; I could feel the memory of my body moving up the moving stairs.

I love reliving my memories of people and places this way, just as I love knowing that people can actually “see” me in their minds. Conditions like aphantasia remind me how different our view of the world is from that of the person standing next to us on the street, or even our closest friends – we all see ourselves in our own way. “Aphantasia is part of neuronal diversity,” Pearson said. “Some people think in pictures and some people don’t.”

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