An Aphantastic Discovery

Debut author Max Watson shares how discovering aphantasia has impacted their creativity

My husband and I like to watch YouTube videos together on lazy weekend mornings while lounging in bed. On one of these snuggly weekends, we came across the video titled: ‘I have APHANTIASIA (and you may too… without realizing it!)’

In the video, you are asked to picture an apple and make it spin. I conjured up a memory of an apple I’d recently seen and… huh? How do I make it spin?! My husband could accomplish the task with ease. I, on the other hand, had my inner world realized. Could I have Aphantasia??

How could this be? I am a creative who enjoys art in the forms of drawing and painting and I am an author (debut set to be released early 2020). Having a blind mind’s eye has severely impacted my creativity in ways I never realized until I discovered the truth about Aphantasia.

Suddenly, things began to make sense. I had taken numerous art classes through high school with the intention of continuing on to obtain an art degree in college. But I struggled. Art assignments involving displays, present subjects, or pictures to copy into a new art form I could handle. But the assignments where I was asked to create an imaginary world? No can do. I aced every project with a subject that I could look at while drawing or painting. But all of the projects without subjects, I failed.

I thought my artistic ability was failing me. I thought my ‘muse’ had dumped me. So I moved on. My focus became automotive and my education pivoted to that direction. I put away the pencils and paint brushes and swapped them out for wrenches and ratchets. I was following in my father’s footsteps anyway. Artists never make any money, so it’s for the best. Right?

After I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Automotive Management, pieced together a sports car with a performance engine built by yours truly, and revamped an automotive business, something just didn’t feel right. I was going through the motions, but my work felt empty. It was in the midst of this listlessness that I began toying with writing.

But it was difficult. My characters had names and general attributes such as red hair and green eyes. But beyond that, I couldn’t describe what they looked like. I wrote two full novels but couldn’t picture a single character or setting in my works. I’m an avid reader and realized even as I read, I couldn’t visualize the characters or settings described to me. But I never thought anything of it. My reading and writing were always focused on the words. I would mentally implant faces and places with those that I knew, being unable to conjure any mental images based on description of something I had never seen.

I was in the middle of a career transition when I discovered the YouTube video that changed everything. I was leaving my automotive career in favor of self-employment. I wanted to focus on making my writing more than a hobby. And to fund the endeavor, my husband and I ventured into house flipping. My primary task was the design. It wasn’t until the discovery of Aphantasia that I realized why I had such a hard time visualizing the designs I wanted.

As with my writing, my artwork, and now my interior design, I had to seek images and real examples I could see for myself to piece together what I wanted. I could stare at the remnants of a bathroom I had just demolished but had no inkling as to how I would put a cohesive design together. I had to create something of a picture collage in order to ‘visualize’ the design. Even then, I wasn’t sure the design would work because I could only focus on the memory of each individual design element separately.

In the pictures below, you can see the before and after of a bathroom redesign I did after creating a collage of numerous photos to ‘visualize’ the design I wanted. The abstract art is a piece I had done in school where I did not have a subject. The various colorful squares that make up the background were the different sizes of chalk that I was toying around with. I had no idea what to create and had nothing to base it off of. The instructor was not satisfied with the cubic background as a standalone piece. It was his idea to add the ‘self portrait’ on top. But as I couldn’t mentally picture a face and could only draw one element at a time (for a goofy looking modge podge of features in a circle and nothing resembling a face). I knew the task wouldn’t be possible. What could I do? I decided to paint the side silhouette of a face. That I could do. No features to figure out how to piece together and no specific subject required. There were turned away faces everywhere I looked! And thus, a complete subjectless artwork was finally made. The one and only.

I discovered my Aphantasia was not exactly a blackout per se. It wasn’t entirely empty in my head when I tried to imagine something. My mental imagery was just severely limited. If I had recently seen something, I could conjure up the memory. But all too soon, the image would fade. I began to realize just how much this hindered my creativity, my memory, and all aspects of every job I applied myself to. The scariest realization for me was that I couldn’t picture my own mother’s face even if I had just seen her the day before. I could bring from memory certain details, but it was more like looking at her in a fogged-up mirror.

This mental blindness is similar to eyesight blindness. There are varying levels of eyesight blindness, not all see absolutely nothing. Some can see outlines, some light and shadow, and some can see blurry details when viewed up close. For me, my mental blindness is like seeing the world only through recent memories or watching the world through a fogged-up mirror.

Now that I understand how my mind works, I know that I must focus heavily on visual stimulation. I take pictures frequently to piece together designs for the houses we work on. I utilize stock images to describe my characters and settings in my fiction novels. And I no longer turn away from my creativity, knowing now that my muse had never left me, she merely waited for me to see her blurry reflection standing over my shoulder in that foggy mirror.

Max Watson

Max Watson

Author. House Flipper. Entrepreneur. Crazy cat lady. Follow me on Twitter @MaxWatsonBooks for the latest updates on my books! I write NF, LitFic, Psych, Poetry, and Shorts.
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