What Do You Mean You Can’t Picture a Horse?
I have to admit, when Tom first told me he had aphantasia and couldn’t visualize a horse, I was pretty skeptical.
When I first met Tom in 2016, I had recently graduated from design school in a program (and I kid you not) that is all about imagining possible futures.
“What do you mean you can’t picture a horse?”
I remember asking curiously. To which Tom replied,
“I don’t see an image of a horse in my mind. I don’t have that visual ‘picture-it’ system.”
So began my interrogation:
“Were you born with it? How did you discover this? Can you draw me a horse?”
I asked him to draw me a horse right then and there so that I could be sure.
For the record, Tom can draw a horse. Though his drawing of a horse looked more like an abstract wiener dog than a horse to me, it sure as hell made me laugh!
Down the Rabbit Hole of Aphantasia
The interrogation didn’t end there. I must have brought up the conversation again at least 100 times or more in casual conversations with Tom over the following weeks.
I asked questions about his school experiences, past relationships, loss, etc. A deep curiosity quickly replaced my early skepticism.
How could our inner words be so different? And why is this the first I am hearing about it?
I introduced the idea to family and friends to see if they could visualize things in their mind. My mom, as it turns out, is a hyper-visualizer, and my dad is closer to the aphantasia side of the spectrum. I would ask anyone willing to engage in the conversation in a desperate attempt to piece together this giant mystery to me that is aphantasia.
Like Tom, the conversation would always start with think of a horse.
While my conscious brain was busy exploring how this was possible, my subconscious was busy developing a crush on Tom.
Fast forward. We’ve been dating for over five years now. Pretty cute beginnings, am I right? So, what have I learned dating an aphantasic?
Things I Learned Dating an Aphantasic
Here’s my best attempt at articulating my experiences dating an aphantasic. The lessons I will share are anecdotal and based on my own experiences. They are opinion-based and only somewhat informed by empirical evidence and conversations with other aphantasics.
1. Aphantasics Are Anchored In The Present
Tom lives in the present.
This became obvious in the Winter of 2016 when Tom asked me to go Christmas Tree shopping. It sounded a lot like a “date” to me, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, but he managed to convince me. For context, this was months before we started dating.
Shopping for a Christmas Tree was quite the ordeal.
It was winter in Ontario, Canada, and there was lite snowfall that morning. The day began with an hour-long drive in the countryside to the tree farm. Then a wagon ride through fields of evergreens. Walking up and down the rows of evergreens to find the right tree (I am pretty picky). Then another wagon ride before strapping two giant Christmas trees to the roof of my little Honda Civic and driving back into town.
We made a few stops along the way, late breakfast at Jack’s, our favourite family-style restaurant in Waterloo and a trip to Home Depot to get Christmas lights before finally heading to Tom’s house to set up the first tree.
Did I mention it was quite the ordeal?
By the time we got around to setting up my tree, it was already dinner time. Tom and I had spent nearly a whole day together. We were halfway finished stringing the lights when we realized we didn’t have enough. So back to Home Depot we went!
But…they were sold out.
So we drove to another store, except they didn’t have the “warm” coloured LED lights, only the blue ones. I returned home and replaced the warm lights with blue ones.
When we FINALLY finished stringing the blue lights, I took a step back to capture a mental image of my gigantic Christmas Tree (I lived in a warehouse apartment at the time with SUPER high ceilings, so the tree had to be BIG!).
As I stood back to capture a mental picture, I remember thinking in my inner voice: Something doesn’t look right.
But there was NO WAY I would tell Tom what I thought after we had JUST come from our third trip to the store. So I faked a smile and, in a convincing tone, responded:
“Yeah, it’s great!“
That’s when Tom looked at me and said:
“Nope, you’re not happy. I can tell. Let’s return to the store and get the warm ones.”
My heart sank for a moment. What do you mean you can tell? Remember, we had only just met. Was I really that obvious?
Not only did Tom pick up on what I was thinking, but he also cared enough to see me happy and was willing to go out of his way. Which, of course, I thought was very sweet!
So off we went to get the warm Christmas lights, and the rest is, as they say history. We pretty much started dating after that.
The point of sharing this story,
Tom notices things.
He notices subtleties my mother wouldn’t catch (and she has sharp eyes and ears, let me tell you! I was pretty mischievous growing up.
Tom’s not just highly present with me; it’s everybody. When he is in the company of some of our closest friends, he engages deeply in conversations. Always listens intently and picks up what people say, how they say it, and the intentions behind their words.
On the other hand, I can get a little distracted in my thinking. Tom is always the first one to point it out. He’ll say to me:
“What are you thinking about?“
The funny thing is, I’m not thinking (at least not in the way he does) … I’m imagining!
I can’t help it.
My imagination runs away with me, and I can get easily distracted by words that create images of ideas in my head. Sometimes I find it hard to escape from these images and focus on the present.
Perhaps one of the reasons for Tom’s presentness is his aphantasia. Some distant memory or image of the future doesn’t define his entire reality. His reality is based on the here and now. Coincidently, one of Tom’s favourite books is The Power of Now.
Many scientists studying aphantasia, including Dr. Adam Zeman have hypothesized this could be the case. Because aphantasics are not distracted by visual flashbacks or images of the future, they are more likely to anchor themselves in the present. To be anchored in the present, what a gift.
2. Aphantasics Have Strong Memory For Facts About The World
Tom is fascinated with facts. This may not be true for all aphantasics, but it is true for Tom.
Tom has a fact for everything from places and things to politics, history, philosophical ideas, and even penguins. Yes, I said penguins.
Name the topic, and Tom will likely know some obscure fact about it.
I have to admit when I first started dating Tom I found this both endearing and annoying at the same time. I may have even called him the “king of facts,” half-jokingly, on our first actual date.
But after a few months into our relationship, I noticed his fascination with factual information more clearly when we watched Planet Earth together.
While my mind was preoccupied with the visuals – like the image of the translucent fish with only one eye! – Tom was completely hung up on the facts.
“I can’t believe a quarter of the world’s population of penguins live on this island, and it’s only 5 km wide!”
To which my reply was,
We might as well have been watching two different movies.
I’m not sure if I was so distracted by the image of cute waddling penguins that I missed key information entirely, but you can bet Tom was listening and recording. He was storing the information about Planet Earth somewhere in that beautiful complex brain of his to use later.
After reading up on the experience of other aphantasics, mainly through other blog posts and Reddit pages, some aphantasics make mention of a preference towards non-fiction books over fiction. Of course, whenever you look at one individual case, you have to throw out the averages. Though, I wonder if this is true for most people with aphantasia?
Tom prefers to read nonfiction books, likes movies or TV shows based on true stories, and prefers to listen to live debates where both parties make evidence-based arguments – or at the very least mentions when the basis of their argument is their own opinion and not the facts.
His fascination with finding and uncovering the truth about things runs deep. Deeper than most people I have encountered in my lifetime. Perhaps this has something to do with how the aphantasic brain processes and stores information. It’s tricky to say for certain. We’re not quite sure where aphantasia ends, and personality begins.
However, it could be that not having a mind’s eye forces you to see and interact with the world differently – to rely on alternative and non-sensory modes of thinking like rationality, logic, and reason.
3. Aphantasics Think About the Past And Future Differently
Tom’s relationship with the past and future is different.
When most people recall events from their past, they replay specific moments almost like a movie reel in their mind. Using our imagination, we can relive certain aspects of our past experiences and almost recreate the sights, sounds, and emotion experiences associated with these memories.
Think of a bad breakup with an ex-partner. Can you imagine the moments right before it ended? Can you picture where you were? Hear what was said? Imagine the awful feeling?
I know I can, and if I let my imagination go, I can replay these memories repeatedly, almost like a .gif in my mind. For me, emotional memories are as vivid as the experience itself.
Or how about the last time you felt happy? I mean, REALLY happy. Can you picture it? Can you hear, smell or taste it? Does it make you feel happy re-experiencing these moments in your mind?
When I ask Tom about events from his past, he doesn’t reimagine the experience, but he can recreate the details. It’s almost as if he recalls the events matter-of-factly.
I once asked Tom about his bad break-up, and he started listing key details chronologically. Even more fascinating to me was that there wasn’t much emotional attachment to the memory. That’s not to say there was no emotion.
Tom will be the first to tell you this was a particularly painful part of his past. Still, typically when someone tells you a story of a bad breakup where “pain” is the dominant emotion, it’s as if they are reliving the events while retelling the story—their posture changes. You can hear their voice soften, see the expression on their face wane, or notice them trying to hold back tears as they recount the uncomfortable bits. With Tom, this is not the case. He’s much more stoic about it.
When Tom and I talk about his past, it’s more of an intellectual conversation. He recalls past events quite clearly, especially the more painful ones. Like the memory of his mom passing when he was young, but he doesn’t re-experience these memories in the same way you or I might.
It’s almost as if the emotion associated with these memories are less visceral in some way. Once they’ve been felt, the experience is just gone.
In an online forum for people with aphantasia, someone once said:
Not being able to picture the future [means] you can’t really live in it. The same thing is true about [the] past.Unknown
As someone who can reimagine past events that have happened or imagine events that could happen, this was mind-blowing. I had never thought much about how different our inner worlds could be until now.
Uncovering New Insights into Human Imagination
Dating an aphantasic has helped me understand and appreciate the cognitive diversity of our invisible differences. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how we can have fundamentally different internal experiences with the past, present and future – as a function of our imagination.
It has also led me to explore and learn more about the inner workings of memory, creativity, and learning and to develop new ways of communicating and sharing experiences with others.
There is so much more to discover about aphantasia. Most of which is still unknown to science. But one thing is for sure, studying aphantasia and these invisible differences can unearth some pretty interesting clues about why people see and respond to the world differently.
For the first time in my life, I am beginning to understand how my imagination works and tapping into the powers that be in ways I would have never imagined possible.
And it’s all thanks to my aphantasic boyfriend. xo