Some People Can’t Picture It!

Discovering my husband can't picture things in his mind helped us navigate miscommunications in our relationship.

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Picture This…

How many times have you heard this expression before? How many times have you said it yourself? Well, some people can’t picture it. Literally.

This is a concept that most people (apparently 98%) may find quite far removed from their ordinary thought process. 

A variation in human experience that was first discovered in 1880 by psychologist Sir Francis Galton but wasn’t given a name or studied further in much detail until 2015, when it became aphantasia.

Aphantasia is a literal translation from the Greek word Phantasia, the word Aristotle used to describe the power of imagination. The “a” in a-phantasia denotes its absence

But it’s important not to get too hung up on the semantics or the meanings behind these words.

The name itself is a bit of a misnomer; it’s not a lack of fantasy or imagination per se, but rather a lack of visual imagery. In some cases, it can be used to describe the absence of other internal senses of the imagination.

Navigating Miscommunication in Relationships

I personally had not heard of aphantasia until about two years ago when I discovered my husband has it.

Before this, my husband and I had what I thought were general miscommunication issues. For the longest time, I couldn’t work out where the differences in opinions and thought processes were coming from as they seemed pretty illogical to me, and he is not illogical, so I knew there was something else.

At first, I thought it was me.

I questioned myself and my brain about what, why, and how I couldn’t see it. I am fascinated by how our thought processes impact our lives and actions and make us who we are. I couldn’t leave this one alone.

The main point of our miscommunication issue seemed to me that I read and write fiction, and he did not think it had any relevant place in society. I wanted to know why.

How could someone think this of something I felt was so fundamentally necessary?

It took me many hours over several days to finally ask the right questions before we concluded what was happening.

I explained to my husband that my brain makes mental pictures to accompany the words when I read a book. Or that I can replay movies I have seen in my mind if I watch them enough times.

“You see pictures in your head! That sounds like witchcraft to me. I can’t think of anything more alien.”

And we had it.

We had found the underlying difference in our thought process that could help explain why he thought fiction was pointless.

This was the tip of the iceberg of what was meant to be a simple explanation of why he didn’t see things the way I did.

With some internet research, I found the name: Aphantasia.

That didn’t make it easier. It turned out…

Understanding Differences in Thought Processes

At first, I felt guilty finding this out, of having to explain to someone why they were different, how they were different and try and support how they felt when I couldn’t possibly understand. But it started to make sense. Imagining and picturing the characters and scenes is a big part of enjoying fictional books. Something that is completely lost on him.

We did see the world differently, not just from a personal perspective, but with separate internal realities too. That might sound a bit dramatic, but it was and still is.

My internal experience is possibly not entirely reality when I think about it more.

I had always been so sure of my way of thinking, and the discovery of aphantasia bought into question for me the reliability of a brain that can conjure images, pretend at will and change visual memories.

Could non-aphantasic people be trusted at all?

My husband asked me one question I thought was interesting upon realizing that most people see images in their head:

“So when people are driving, sometimes they aren’t thinking about driving and are imagining other stuff? That’s terrifying”.

And it is, really, when you think about it.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Thought Processes

Changing how I think about our issues around miscommunication and how they may result from different internal realities has helped our relationship.

I didn’t expect him to change his mindset, as he isn’t wrong in how he thinks, but neither am I.

I can imagine a blank void in my mind or what it must be like not to visualize – it’s as close as I can get, but I see the irony.

What I previously saw as a problematic perspective by my standard wasn’t when I saw it from his point of view. That’s where our realities will always be different, and always were, but with a greater understanding now.

I realized that there are many strengths and weaknesses to our unique ways of thinking.

My husband is better at directions and orientation, and his memory is more accurate than mine. He learns quickly, and he is focused. On the downside, he gets frustrated quickly, can’t switch off, and can’t ‘picture’ me if I am not in the room. There are pros and cons on both sides, as there are with any person and way of thinking or navigating your way through life.

While we continue studying memory, thoughts, ideas and who we are as people, we inevitably find variations.  I didn’t realize the implications of those variations until now.

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