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Tribute to Alan Kendle

A true citizen scientist of aphantasia

There are certain people who come into your life, and leave a mark. Their place in your heart is tender; a bruise of longing, a pulse of unfinished business. Just hearing their names pushes and pulls at you in a hundred ways, and when you try to define those hundred ways, describe them even to yourself, words are useless.

Sara Zarr

Alan Kendle left a mark on so many of our lives.

As an early influencer, he played a formative role in developing a sense of community around aphantasia, and helping clear a path for greater understanding.  

Alan was an engineer who lived with aphantasia.

In 2016, while listening to BBC Radio 2, Alan’s wife Vanessa heard someone talking about a condition that prevents people from seeing mental images, effectively meaning that you’re blind in the mind. It was then Alan first heard that a condition he had lived with his entire life had a name, aphantasia.

“My wife heard about it [aphantasia] on [the] BBC and she told me about it,” Alan told TheJournal.ie. “I downloaded the podcast, listened to it and understood that’s what was going on in my head. I was surprised, I just didn’t see it coming!” 

This discovery snowballed into an insatiable curiosity and ongoing investigation into aphantasia.

Alan started using his personal social media to ponder deep questions and encourage others to participate in the conversation. He was fascinated by his own inner experience, and that of others.

Over time, he began collecting insights from people all across the world, detailing their lives with the condition. These stories became the basis for his first book, and the first book ever written on aphantasia: Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions and Insights.

Alan was a determined and enthusiastic spokesman for aphantasia. He was always eager to push understanding of this fascinating phenomenon a step further.
Professor Adam Zeman
Professor Adam Zeman
Cognitive neurologist, Exeter University

While writing this book, Alan became an integral part of the aphantasia community online. 

He helped shine a massive light on what it means to live with aphantasia”, says Robb Williams, “and when I was looking for someone to help moderate the Aphantasia Facebook group, Alan was the obvious choice. He was a natural and took his role very seriously. His work behind the scenes contributed hugely to the success of this group and helped to keep it a positive environment where people feel safe to ask questions, and search for answers about aphantasia.

Advocacy for aphantasia research and awareness is perhaps the topic that Alan is most known for among people in the aphantasia community. 

Alan was a huge advocate of research into aphantasia and knew the importance of research as a way to understand more about the aphantasic experience. He was also extremely passionate about generating wider awareness of the experience.
Zoë Pounder
PhD Student at the University of Westminster

Alan was keen that systems be put in place for diagnosis and individual discovery of conditions such as aphantasia. If children can learn about differences in visualization and have support to use learning techniques that fit their own circumstances, then it will be of huge benefit.

Alan had several other conditions which he was passionate about exploring, that he linked to aphantasia. Before he discovered aphantasia Alan did a lot of research into dyslexia – evidenced for example by a draft article he wrote on potential technologies that could help people with dyslexia read for pleasure.

Another condition that Alan spent significant time in his last few years researching, is Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM). SDAM is a condition which explains limitations in or lack of episodic and semantic memory. Alan realized that he had limited experiential and factual memories of his past, when compared to many other people. He explored his lack of long term memories, and his poor working memory, when writing his second book. Alan sought out explanations for his memory conditions and had tests with experts that backed up his experiences.

In his second book (yet to be published), Alan says, “Initially just working out what SDAM is seemed difficult, as the explanations I read were difficult to understand and to relate to my memory generally.

His research and communication with others on the topic meant that he had a clearer understanding of his conditions, but there was much more he would have liked to explore.

In addition to his aphantasia and memory conditions, Alan was recently tested for and had a verbal diagnosis of autism:

Alan did not see any of his conditions as a disability, and while he recognized the barriers, he felt there were ways to deal with them to better understand himself. And if he better understood how these conditions affected him, he could help others in the community better understand themselves.

Alan was a life-saver for me, as I’m sure he was for many, having discovered that I live with aphantasia and SDAM,” says Glenys McLaughlin, fellow aphantasic and community friend. “The experiences Alan shared were validating and informative, and his joyful curiosity was infectious. He was a true citizen scientist whose contributions form part of the foundations of research in this fascinating field.

In mid-March 2020, Alan was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer, and was given weeks at best months to live. During this time, his authentic and positive self never wavered. He carried on his aphantasia work throughout his terminal cancer diagnosis, with a strong determination to finish what he started.

On April 22nd, 2020 he passed away peacefully in a local hospice, leaving behind his wife, Vanessa Kendle and two step-children, Charlotte and Jack.

He maintained his interest and enthusiasm to the last, with phone calls and emails until just a few days before his untimely death. I feel his loss personally. He will be sadly missed by many members of the growing aphantasia community to which he contributed much and by which he felt supported and sustained,
Professor Adam Zeman
Professor Adam Zeman
Cognitive neurologist, Exeter University
Just months before his passing, Alan sat down with Adam Zeman for an interview. This Q&A is one of Alan’s most notable and important contributions to aphantasia:

If you look at the content of Alan’s life and work, you will gain a greater appreciation for his contributions to aphantasia, and the community he helped to establish.

Alan enriched so many of our lives by helping us tap into something that’s already present inside us, but hidden somehow, out of reach. He challenged us to think better, to see this alternative way of thinking not as a weakness, but as our greatest strength.

I’ve reached a point in my life where you just accept that you are who you are and you don’t think too negatively about your situation”. – Alan Kendle

Alan, thank you for helping us develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of aphantasia. Your legacy remains, and memory will never be forgotten.

Alan’s second book, with a working title “My history is stories I tell and not memories I have; Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory and poor working memory” is to be published at a later date. If you’d like to be among the first to get your hands on a copy email: [email protected]ionKearny.com.

Thank you to the community members who contributed quotes: Adam Zeman, Zoë Pounder, Robb Williams, & Glenys McLaughlin.

Special thanks to our co-writers, Alice Cann and Nelan Tagra.

Our heartfelt condolences to the Kendle family. 

If you knew Alan Kendle and would like to share your reflections and fond memories, please use the comment section below. 

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