Aphantasia – Can you hear that?

Alan Kendle

When I first realized I have Aphantasia I thought it was only impacting the visual sensory experience in my mind’s eye.

This was not unreasonable, like many people when they first discover they are aphantasic, they report on the visual experience or an inability to create mental images – like the picture a red star or think of a horse examples.

But what about the other senses? What about sound?

Pick a song.

Any song. Perhaps one of your favourites.

Allow the song to play in your mind. Can you hear that?

Can you hear the different instruments? Can you turn up the volume? Feel the vibrations?

Are you able to create a concert experience in your mind?

I was having dinner with my wife one evening when she told me she had a song stuck in her head. When I asked her what she meant, she described hearing the song play over and over again in her mind;

What do you mean you can hear the song playing?

I remember asking her curiously.

She described hearing the song as if it were playing in real time, at that exact moment.

I was shocked to discover my wife could actually hear the song at that exact moment when it so clearly was not playing aloud (at least not to my ears).

The thought amazed me, I mean really amazed me. 

While I could not comprehend it initially, the ability to play music in the mind for me, was extraordinary – almost like a magic trick seen on television.

Is my wife some sort of magician? I remember thinking to myself.

Come to think of it, I had always thought “ear worms,” used to describe involuntary musical imagery (IMI) or the experience of having a song stuck in your head after it is no longer playing, was just an expression and not the description of the actual experience people could have.

I quickly discovered that my wife’s ear worms are not some sort of magic trick but rather, her reality. In fact, this reality is quite a usual experience for most people, but how? 

How is it that some people can access songs outside of what they hear with their ears in the present? Why did I never realize that people could access music, sounds or voices in their mind’s eye before?

As someone with Aphantasia, who does not possess the ability to produce mental imagery nor musical imagery in my mind for that matter, how would I ever have known it were possible?

It was then I realized, Aphantasia impacts all of my senses.

Once I had accepted that playing sounds in the mind’s eye were something that others without Aphantasia could experience, my curiosity took over and I began searching for answers. 

What I found even more extraordinary from this initial discussion with my wife, is that she described an ability to turn up and down the volume of the music playing in her mind.

Not only can she hear the song playing but she can control the volume of the sound, is this some sort of joke? Can others play songs and control the volume in their head too?

Thinking I would explore this more, I started to ask a few people I knew about their experience with involuntary musical imagery or mental audio. I began asking questions like:

1. Can you think of a song and play it in your mind?
2. How loud or soft is the music?
3. Can you adjust the volume?
4. Is it the perception of music playing or do you think it’s actually playing?
5. What is the quality of the sound? A 16 bit old fashion phone ringtone, a modern digitally-recorded soundtrack or is it more like a live in-concert show?
6. Can you play music in your mind and still talk to someone?

Following this line of inquiry, a close friend of mine told me they could compose a piece of music in their mind. They described an ability to control different groups of musical instruments, everything from strings to the percussion. They told me that as many as three instruments were possible.

THREE INSTRUMENTS! Surely, they must be joking?

An ability to hear a song, play different instruments and control the entire experience in the mind’s eye sounds truly amazing, and was beyond anything I ever imagined possible at the time. 

I started to think is this the limit? Or could others possibly achieve something beyond this experience? It is possible for some to compose an entire orchesta with 10 or even 20 different instruments? Could they create a concert experience in their mind?

I feel bewildered just thinking about it, how is it that I never knew these realities were possible before now? 

I suppose we can never truly know what happens in someone else’s’ mind, unless we ask questions and inquire into another’s inner experience.

The more I think about it and the more I ask questions, the more other questions spring to mind; Music is made of vibrations of the air, so how does that work? Do people get a sense of that? Can they feel the vibrations of sounds in their mind? What exactly are the limitations from music heard in the mind to music playing in the present? Are there any limits at all?

There are so many more questions to ask. I guess you could say, I have a deep curiosity on this subject.

So much so, that I even wrote a book about my experience with Aphantasia, and some of my discoveries in talking with others about their experiences. The book is called: Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions and Insights.

Asking questions and inquiring into the experience of others – however different from our own – is the first step to discovering more about this unique perspective on the world, we call Aphantasia.

Afterall, it took a single conversation with my wife over dinner just to realize I did not yet fully understand the range of sensory abilities that could be possible in someone else’s mind. 

Can you hear that?

Alan Kendle

Alan Kendle

I have Aphantasia and wrote a book about the experience.
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