#15 Aphantasia and The Inability to Visualise Mental Images

A few weeks ago, I discovered something that blew my mind and has changed my perception of everything. Now that I think about it, it seems obvious and I feel stupid and like I am missing out on some of the joys of life. However, it has spurred me on to delve deeper into the brain and see if it is possible to overcome this “affliction” – known as Aphantasia.

I cannot – or should I say do not – visualise things in my head. I did not know that it was possible to formulate an image in your head. When people used phrased like, “imagine that.”, “picture this”, “remember when we were”, I thought that this was a figure of speech, a metaphor, a saying….

When I close my eyes it is black – ALWAYS

Aphantasia and the Lack of Imagination

I was absolutely gobsmacked to find out that most people will actually visualise themselves when they recall a memory! Or that they can even visualise new images, scenery, situations etc. I thought that the genius authors who create entire fantasy worlds inside their heads, (such as JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman etc.), were the exceptions. I thought that they could create these worlds and that was why they were genius authors.

The only time I have any visual imagery when I close my eyes is when I take psychedelic drugs. Maybe this was part of my fascination with drugs when I first started taking them. Given that I can dream, and I can hallucinate, my brain obviously knows how to imagine and create images.

So why can´t I do this when I am sober and lucid?

What If You Can´t Imagine?

The Inability to Visualise

When I try to visualise something, occasionally for a split second an incredibly dull image at probably about 2% resolution will flash, but only when I have my eyes open. I seem to have no ability at all to formulate a new, “imaginary”, image – just to flash up a split second of an image I have already seen.

The typical phrase is, “picture yourself on a beach”, which to me means, “think of how you would feel if you were on a beach” – in my case hot and uncomfortable. It blows my mind to think that people can literally visualise themselves on a beach.

Unable to Recognise Faces

I have always really struggled with recognising faces (known as Prosopagnosia) and I put this down to always being drunk when I met people. But I now realise that I simply can´t – or don´t know how to – picture people´s faces. If they have distinct features such as glasses, a beard, unusual hair etc. then I think I use this and then their voice to recognise them.

When people change their hair or shave their beard it really throws me off. If I see people out of the place in which I usually see them, for example, a work colleague outside of work, it usually takes me a bit of time to work out who it is.

I don’t even know what I look like – which may sound strange – but I can´t even picture my own face. When I was little my mother used to tell me to stop looking at myself in the mirror. I imagine that I used to look at myself because I was confused.

Aphantasia and Memory

I also have an absolutely terrible memory because there is next to no visual aspect of my memory. For key events in my life if I try to imagine them I can sometimes get a split-second snapshot of the place where I was – but there are never any people in the, “memory”.

There are whole chunks of my life which I have no accessible memory of. My friends often say to me “do you remember when we…”, and the answer is usually no. Even when I do remember the situation I just remember it based on the facts and events, there is no visual memory involved.

I am also not even sure if the memories are real – I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. I associate a snapshot blurry image with a whole sequence of events. A whole holiday will be summarised in one image, a major event in my life will be just one split second image and I can never even see myself in the image. The images also don’t have any colours in them because I am not sure what colour things are.

I, “remember”, for example, that I was in my parent’s bedroom when they told me that I had to get rid of my first bike because I was too big for it, and I was devastated. I remember being sad and I know the bike was red, but I don’t remember it.

It is bizarre but I also don’t even know what colour my parent’s bedroom is, or even my old bedroom in my parent’s house. This is even stranger as I know all the walls in my house are painted in very bright colours.

Factual Memory

My memory seems to be totally based on fact – things that I KNOW happened. There is no imagery involved to help these memories. Equally, there is no timeline involved with my memory – everything seems equally far away and equally close at the same time. If I want to think about what I did a few days ago I think about what I KNOW happened near to that time, and then I use that information to try and logically work through events.

I tend to categorise stages of my life based on which drug I was addicted to at the time – which although sad, actually helps me a lot to work out the timeframe of when something occurred.

Meditating without Imagination

I found out that other people could visualise things in part through meditation. When it was asking me to visualise things, after a few sessions I realised that it literally meant to visualise it. I tried doing this and it genuinely hurt my brain as I couldn’t summon any image and the exercises seemed wasted. I thought the point of mediation was to think of nothing.

Reading and Writing with Aphantasia

Shortly after this, I was at a storytelling event reading the first part of a children´s book that I am writing. Afterwards, I mentioned that I was searching for an illustrator and I started speaking with some people who asked me what the characters looked like.

I said I had no idea, I thought the illustrators were the ones who would create the characters. I know the concepts of what I want to be drawn but I have no image at all in my head about what it would look like.

When I said this, everyone looked at me strangely…. “How can you not know what they look like?”.

The Book Of Kells
The Book Of Kells in Trinity College Dublin is supposedly the oldest book in the world

When I read or write I do not picture anything, I do not know what the characters look like. If it was written that a character had black hair I would know they had black hair and I would associate character name with black hair but I wouldn’t, “see”, this. I always skip over all descriptive parts as they mean literally nothing to me.

I used to think the descriptions of things were just authors showing off their linguistic skills. For this reason, I think I have always been absolutely terrible at following fiction, and even following films.

When I was a kid I was a bookworm and read non-stop, but I would finish books and still not know who the characters are. I can watch films over and over again and each time its basically like a new film. Sometimes, halfway through a film or book, one scene or chapter will strike a chord and make me realise that I have read/seen it before.

My family still laughs at me because when I was little I loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and used to watch it, then rewind it and watch it again every day. For those of you reading from outside the UK – you need to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!    

Aphantasia Study

I started investigating about this inability to visualise and came upon an article which mentioned a study run by Professor Adam Zeyman in Exeter University.

I contacted him to ask for some information and I found out that they had coined the term Aphantasia (the inability to fantasise) – which apparently 2% of the population experience, (yet hardly anyone seems to realise). Some people have total Aphantasia and can’t visualise, recall music or sounds or imagine a taste or smell.

Thankfully I can imagine music, and I can imagine peoples voices and sounds. I am so grateful that I can recognise and recall music and sound because I think I would be incredibly miserable without this ability. Songs can trigger certain feelings and emotions within me and might remind me of a certain time when I heard the song but there is almost never any sort of visual aspect to the recollection.

I asked Professor Zeman if my Aphantasia is linked with ADHD and he said they were unsure yet if there was a definitive link. I also spoke about it with my Psychiatrist and she wasn’t sure either, but she has put me on the waiting list at an ADHD specialist centre for a more extensive examination.

The Inability to Imagine Smells and Tastes

Even more baffling to me was the fact that people can actually imagine a smell or a taste. I used to always think it was strange when people dry retched when thinking of sick, or bad smells or tastes. I always thought this was a massive over-exaggeration but now I realise that people can actually imagine these smells or tastes.

The concept of imagining a smell or taste to me is absolutely bizarre. I know if I like the smells of things or if I don’t but I have absolutely no idea what they smell like. For example, I know what perfumes I like the smell of but I have absolutely 0 notion as to what they smell like.

Trying to Cure Aphantasia

Now that I know it is possible to visualise things, I have started practising recalling memories, and trying to look at things and take note of the details – to hopefully enhance my memory. I have also started playing brain training games and generally just trying to conjure images of things.

I am hoping that with practice and maybe some sort of training I will be able to learn to visualise to some extent. I will keep everyone updated on my progress and with what I learn about Aphantasia!

Get In Contact With Me!

I would love to hear back from anyone else who has Aphantasia and little or no ability to visualise or imagine. I have been speaking to all my friends about it and so far, I have found one person who also doesn’t visualise and wasn’t aware that other people could.

When we were speaking about it he said to me, “Yeah but no-one can LITERALLY visualise themselves on a beach”…. So I had to break the news to him.

Please get in contact via any of the methods below or chat to me on Instagram, I will always reply and no question is ever stupid or embarrassing!

Any advice, suggestions, criticisms, ideas etc. are always welcome. I encourage criticism as it forces me to better myself and adapt my new content.

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Taken In Temple Bar – Dublin

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