Imagine not being able to remember a person’s face or picture a scenario in your mind. That’s what aphantasia is. Here’s what’s it like living with mind blindness, and why it’s actually a blessing in disguise.
Picture yourself standing along the bank of a slow-moving river. Can you see the way the sunlight reflects on the water? Can you imagine, in your mind’s eye, the color of the grass and the shape of the clouds drifting through the sky?
You can? Wow.
Like many people with aphantasia – the inability to form mental images of real or imaginary people, places, and things – I never realised that when people spoke about picturing things, they were being literal. I always assumed they meant something like, “think through the details of” or “hold this idea in your head.” So when I found out that many people can actually see things in their minds, well I was kind of bummed out. I felt like there was a special experience almost everyone else was having that I was not, a party I didn’t get to go to.
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In fact, there have been moments when not being able to see things in my mind has broken my heart. I lost a good friend to cancer a few years ago and realising that I couldn’t imagine her face, that without a picture in front of me I didn’t really know what she looked like, made her death feel even more painful and final.
When I first explained aphantasia to my wife, telling her that I couldn’t picture anything and that I couldn’t imagine faces, she asked with hurt in her voice “Not even my face?” I felt terrible confirming that even her beautiful face didn’t show up in my mind, though I certainly wished it did.
I also found that realising my brain worked differently from most others explained a few things that I’d always wondered about. Whenever a witness in a TV cop drama described a criminal to a sketch artist, I’d sit puzzled by the TV. I knew that actually happened in police stations every day, but I’d never understood how it could be done.
I don’t have face blindness (a condition in which recognising faces is impaired); I can recognise folks easily and instantly, but I simply can’t hold onto the details of someone’s face and describe them. I’d also been stymied by trying to redecorate a space or even plan an outfit.
When we were renovating our house and my wife asked my opinion on paint colors or layout, I felt like she was asking me to be psychic, like she was holding a marble behind her back and asking me to tell her what color it was. Now I realise she could easily imagine what our kitchen would look like with black cabinets instead of white, but for me there is no way to know how something would look without actually seeing it.
Now having said all of that, I don’t think of aphantasia as a disability. It is simply a different way for a brain to function and I find that it actually comes with some benefits. I, like many aphants also have a reduced ability to remember the past. In fact, I likely have something called Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM), which means that for the most part I have very few memories of my own life.
Though there are certainly some sad things about that, I find it very easy to live in the present moment.
Between aphantasia and SDAM, all I have to work with is what my senses actually show me, so I’m easily and deeply engaged with the world around me, which makes me more mindful and turns lots of daily activities into mini meditations.
Since I can’t replay a moment, can’t revisit – for example a sunset or the face of a loved one – when I look, I really look. I drink in as much as I can about what I’m looking at because I realise I won’t see that moment again. It makes my focus strong. I’m also not a worrier, I’m not likely to ruminate and I find a lot of joy and satisfaction in the small day to day experiences of my life. If comparison is the thief of joy, then my joy is safeguarded by having very little to compare it to.
And while my imagination isn’t visual, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a creative person. I write bedtime stories for grown-ups that are enjoyed by millions all over the world, though I cannot see the cosy sleep-inducing scenarios that I write about. I don’t need to see them to understand how they fit together; in fact, I suspect that not being able to see them made me even more prepared to construct them.
My writing is all about being present with small enjoyable sensory experiences and for that I think of my aphantasia is a gift. It’s taught me to live one moment at a time and to be aware and awake to the ordinary magic of daily life.
In the years since I learned the way my brain works had a name, I’ve moved past feeling like I was left out of the party. Now it feels more like I’ve shown up with a special skill in my back pocket. Maybe I can’t picture that spot on the riverbank and maybe I can’t imagine the shape of the clouds, but I can be present right now with this exact moment and in a busy noisy distraction filled world that feels like a superpower.
Kathryn Nicolai is the author of Nothing Much Happens Allen and Unwin, RRP: $29.99, available 7th October 2020. She is a Michigan based writer and creator of the enormously successful podcast NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS. She leans on her fifteen years of experience as a yoga and meditation teacher to seamlessly blend storytelling with brain training techniques that build better sleep habits over time. She is the owner of Ethos Yoga.