They say opposites attract, and in many ways, my husband of 40 years and I are opposites. He’s extroverted. I’m introverted. He’s easygoing. I’m more tightly wound. But when I learned that I had aphantasia and that he’s not only a visualizer but someone with hyperphantasia, it gave the word “opposites” a whole new meaning.
I came to understand that I couldn’t visualize back in the early 2000s. It wasn’t until 2021 that I learned—from a hypnotherapist, of all people—that this mind-blindness had a name: aphantasia. In my excitement, I sat down with my husband of 38 years (at the time) and asked him to describe his experience when visualizing a red apple. He said that not only could he visualize a red apple, complete with colour, contour, lighting, and shape, but he could “taste” the sweet juice and “feel” the apple’s pulp on his tongue. He could “smell” its sweetness and “hear” the distinct snap-crunch when bitten into.
At that moment, I thought, talk about your opposites attracting… I’m an aphant married to someone with hyperphantasia! Aphantasia and hyperphantasia in marriage became my newfound reality.
I Was Jealous of My Husband’s Hyperphantasia
Now, given it was early on in my aphantasia journey, I didn’t even know the word hyperphantasia yet, but you get the gist. In that moment, I realized that my husband, with whom I had spent the better part of my adult life, was experiencing life in an entirely different way than me—and neither of us realized it. Here he was all peacock-like, struttin’ around sayin’, “Hey, look at me! I can visualize with all five senses, and you can’t!”
He wasn’t doing any of that, of course. But, in the early days of aphant realization, I was jealous of him. Mostly because he could “see” our children’s and grandchildren’s faces any time he wanted. He could almost tangibly reconnect with the feel of our grandsons’ wriggling bodies while roughhousing with them and hear the delighted squeals of our granddaughter being tickled. It was a hard pill to swallow, knowing that his experiences with them went beyond the hear-and-now. He carried with him the ability to cognitively relive any experience in larger-than-life surround sound technicolour while my visual imaginings were relegated to my dreams.
Hyperphantasia and Memory Recall
In my experience, the states of aphantasia and hyperphantasia make for different experiences when it comes to memory recall. My husband has an excellent memory, capable of recalling the smallest details with ease. In contrast, mine is lacking. I often struggle to retrieve even significant events without a prompt. Is this because he has hyperphantasia and I have aphantasia? I don’t know. Science has a long way to go to determine how aphantasia and, by extension, hyperphantasia influences memory. In any case, his memories, as far back as early childhood up to the present day, are rich with vibrant colours, sounds, details, and expression, leaving my meagre recollections in the dust. Still, having excellent recall amplified by hyperphantasia isn’t always a blessing, especially when it comes to recalling childhood trauma.
Recall of Bad Memories—Hyperphantasia Is Not Always a Blessing
Soon after learning about aphantasia and hyperphantasia, my husband and I had a long conversation about what we collectively remember about our childhoods, which were less than ideal. Though we were housed, clothed, and fed, understandably considered privileged for some, we each had our unique trials growing up.
The most difficult part of my husband’s childhood was his relationship—or lack thereof—with his mother. She wasn’t maternal in the traditional sense. His bad memories of her—not that he’s ever shared any good memories of her—seem more painful, accentuated by hyperphantasia. When he described getting the strap for misbehaving, I asked him what, exactly, he remembered. He said that if he let himself, he could imagine the actual sensation and pain of being hit with a belt. He could “smell” his mother’s sickeningly sweet perfume, “hear” her admonishments, and “see” the look on her angry, disappointed face, including the squint of her green eyes.
Mouth agape, all I could say was, “Wow.”
When he asked me what my memories were like of my father in similar situations, I told him that while I remember some of the incidents themselves and my father’s anger, and I knew that I was given the strap, my recollections were more about the fear associated with the events. I remember that I was in pain, but I don’t “feel” the physical pain. I can’t remember if my dad wore aftershave, let alone “smell” it. I know he was angry and disappointed, but I don’t “see” his face. I know his voice was like a growl, but I don’t “hear” it.
We touched on many other negative aspects of our lives beyond childhood: becoming adults, the trials of the early years of marriage, having kids, money issues, and so on. Some of the things he remembers—in great detail—are lost to me.
When it comes to memory recall, I asked my husband what hyperphantasia was like insomuch as, when he remembers something, do all his imagery senses come alive all at once all once? Does he have an on/off switch? He was confused at first, as he’d never taken the time to unpack what his recall experience was like.
As soon as my husband goes into recollection mode, his visual imagery comes online automatically. This is most often followed by auditory imagery. He doesn’t turn these on, per se. They just happen. When prompted with certain memories, good and bad, which I did often while having this discussion, he can turn on aspects of his other senses to enhance his memories. Fascinated, I asked him what would happen when he walked away from our discussion. Would sensory memories linger? Did he intentionally turn them off?
“No,” he said. “They just turn into mist and disappear. Like in the movies, when they show someone dreaming. The dream just fades away into nothing.”
Where Hyperphantasia-Infused Recall Comes in Handy
While hyperphantasia-infused recall may be a burden when it comes to bad memories, it is a blessing when it comes to the good stuff.
The way my husband describes the multisensory aspect of summers at the cottage with his many cousins as a kid, playing at the Scarborough Bluffs on a Sunday after church, and battling it out with his older brothers in street hockey on a crisp winter day is a delight to witness. He vividly remembers—with multiple senses—times when our children were young: reading to them, playing “gymnastics” with them where he’d toss them over his head onto their beds, cutting down the Christmas tree together, and so much more.
While I used to be jealous of his experience, I now simply revel in his recounting of the tales and enjoy the memories from his perspective, knowing that I was there. I remember the love I felt, and through his vivid recollections, I am able to experience the joy and wonder all over again, as if his memories have become a bridge to my own.
Aphantasia and Hyperphantasia in Marriage Can Be Helpful… And Also a Little Annoying
As someone who is bad with navigation, it helps to have someone who recalls landmarks and directions with a high degree of accuracy. I’m not saying that my husband’s ability to remember these things is solely because of his hyperphantasia, but I’m sure it’s a part of it. Maybe there are other hyperphants out there who are terrible with navigation, just like there are aphants out there who are very good at navigation. I’m just not one of them, so having his hyperphant-ness at my disposal is helpful.
My husband also knows, innately, in which direction we are travelling. It’s mind-boggling to me. We were on a hike once on a cloudy day, and we went off-trail. At some point, we were lost. I was completely turned around and a little worried.
My husband stopped, gave it some thought, and, though he couldn’t see it, he pointed and said, “The road is that way, which is north. We head north.”
Sure enough, he was right. We found the trail, and the road was exactly where he said it was. Now, maybe this has more to do with some kind of super-sized spatial awareness rather than hyperphantasia, or maybe he has a giant magnet in his head that points north. Who knows?
Still, I can’t help but get annoyed at his exactness sometimes. Whether it’s shooting down a point I’m trying to make about somewhere we’ve been or seen or eaten or whatever, he tends to give me a quirky look that implies his interpretation is the right one. “Aphantasia, and all,” he’ll say. I mean, I know my memory isn’t great, but I’m not completely devoid of data. In times like these, I remind him that, for the experiences that I do remember, while I don’t remember them with sensory input, I remember how I felt, the laughs we had, the people we were with, that I liked or disliked a meal, etc.
It’s hard to explain the concept of aphantasia to visualizers. It’s even harder to explain how someone with aphantasia actually experiences life—learning, problem-solving, reading, conceptualizing, etc.—to someone who is hyperphantasic. The same holds true in reverse.
For my husband, as I’ve come to understand it, perception (seeing) and imagery are intricately linked. While having to deal with multi-sensory imagery to the degree that he does sounds dizzying to an aphantasic like me, these two states of his reality are harmoniously intertwined.
It’s been more than two years since I learned that our dual-states of aphantasia and hyperphantasia have been coexisting, side by side, for decades. Still, as an aphant married to someone with hyperphantasia, despite occasional envy, I cherish the way my husband effortlessly draws me into his vibrant world of sights and sounds.