Discovering I Have Aphantasia

A clinical therapist with total aphantasia, mental illness, autism, and other neurodiversities shares her perspectives and strategies.
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Like many in the aphantasia community, I first learned about my aphantasia late in life, back in early 2019, when I was about 33 years old. Discovering I have aphantasia was nuanced: I was browsing online forums of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), and I stumbled upon a user who described his experience of aphantasia as it relates to the inability to have sexual fantasies. And a (metaphorical) lightbulb went off for me: I have that too! I have mind’s eye blindness! I have aphantasia!

How My Aphantasic Mind Works 

I didn’t experience grief after discovering I have aphantasia. Mind’s-eye blindness is my natural experience, and I quite enjoy the subtlety of thinking in darkness, the “abstract knowing.” The idea of actual pictures flashing in my imagination seems unnecessary because it is not integral to my way of recalling thoughts, memories, and people I know. With thoughts, silent words in my mind then merge with abstract philosophizing. 

With memories, I remember kinesthetic spaces most, the rooms I’ve walked through, the items in those rooms, and how I felt emotionally in those spaces. With outdoor environments as well, I recall mostly what the weather was like when I walked somewhere, what the sounds were like, what the colors were, and whether I felt physically and emotionally comfortable or uncomfortable and/or dysregulated. The concept of Eastern Feng Shui, the flow of chi in physical spaces, is very vivid and real for me. This then flows into my overall Eastern spiritual beliefs, which I’ve maintained for the last 20 years.

As for recalling a specific person in mind, I recall not their face but rather their personality and the feelings I’ve had when interacting with them and standing in their physical presence. Interestingly, it is quite easy for me to befriend people over the internet through text-based and phone-based communications, even when I don’t have much of a photograph to identify a person’s appearance. The strongest friendships I’ve forged over the last fifteen years have mostly been through the use of social media. Meeting these friends for the first time, even years after online correspondence, only confirms these to be stronger friendships.

Disclosing My Aphantasia and Other Neurodiversities Is Liberating

It has been amusing to tell others of the image-free experience, only to see them scratch their heads and wonder at how that could possibly be. Of course, I explain my reality to them kindly, as much as the conversation allows, and then I smile to reassure them that I’m not a broken or impaired person: my thoughts are equally vivid, just perceived differently. 

Over the years, I’ve found self-disclosure to be a liberating and transparent way of life. Tactful self-disclosure of my mental health struggles and neurodiversity has helped me overcome the barriers that these conditions have caused me. I have schizoaffective disorder, rooted in a history of child abuse I sustained from an early age. I’ve also suffered greatly from debilitating experiences, including depression, anxiety, mania/grandiosity, and non-hallucinatory aspects of psychosis (delusions, paranoia). 

Despite all this, my life made an upward turn in 2014 when I started working in mental health myself. I first completed extensive peer specialist training at Howie the Harp Advocacy Center, which taught me how lived experiences with mental illness can be skillfully harnessed as a strength to help others. Even after earning my master’s degree in social work in 2020, now working as a therapist with clients via telehealth, I still utilize so much of what I learned at Howie in order to best offer empathy while effectively rehabilitating my clients.

Writing as a Personal Strategy for Information Retention

As an image-free thinker, I love to write. It is a huge component of how I retain information. In particular, the kinesthetic, physical act of writing helps me remember things better, compared to if I just look at something; I forget its impression entirely. Also, typing, and writing by hand, seems to serve different functions: typing helps me get ideas out quickly and professionally, and writing by hand helps to access my intuition, process grief, release sadness, express anger, and, most importantly, devise solutions to problems in my life.

While I don’t have visual memories, with much of my life forgotten that others would remember, I do have dozens of journals that contain my various memories in life. I began journaling when I was ten years old.

After discovering I have aphantasia, I used writing as a way to better understand my experience. I first wrote an article for The Establishment in 2019 entitled I Have No Sexual Fantasies Due to Aphantasia, which explored the intersection of my experience of asexuality and aphantasia.

At the time, and still today in 2023, there is virtually no academic study that investigates this topic. (I just typed “aphantasia” and “sexuality” into the CUNY Hunter College academic library’s search engine, and 0 results came up; searching in Google Scholar also yields irrelevant results.)

When researching for the article, the experiences of AVEN members mostly informed my writing. Interestingly, when writing on Facebook aphantasia groups about the possibility of cooccurring asexuality, many aphantasics immediately articulated that this was not their experience. Still today, AVEN members engage in informed and robust discussions on aphantasia, so I highly recommend checking out these forums.

Two years later, in 2021, I wrote another article on aphantasia for Psyche entitled I Have No Mind’s Eye: Let Me Try to Describe It for You. I deconstructed the condition and spoke about various differences I experience. These include the complete inability to visualize in pictures, having image-free dreams, difficulty with reading books (particularly fiction due to the inability to imagine florid pictorial descriptions), lack of visual memory, inability to recall the faces of people I know, inability to derive benefit from guided imagery meditation exercises, and also closed-eye meditation practices in general. 

When writing this article, I only had just learned that aphantasia is a multisensory condition, which opened even more doors for me to understand my experience: I have total aphantasia. Not only are my thoughts image-free, but they are also sound-free, taste-free, smell-free, and touch-free. I also have no dreams, but instead wake up with a silent sentence in my mind, summarizing the plot of a dream I had, with some details on what the scenario looked like, yet which I never saw unfold in any way.

Last year in 2022, I wrote a brief article for The Strad entitled ‘When I Am in Tune, My Body Knows It’: Playing With Multisensory Aphantasia, which described how I play the viola as a professional musician with total aphantasia. Note: many musicians utilize mental practicing with the mind’s eye in order to prepare for performances, oftentimes by visualizing their performance in the mind and also by creating real-sounding music in the mind to prepare how a piece will be played. I am unable to do either of these. In the Strad article, I spoke about my alternative way of understanding music; I kinesthetically experience the vibrations of the instruments.

After earning my master’s degree in social work in 2020, I began to notice additional lifelong struggles not related to mental illness or aphantasia. This includes sensory overload to loud sounds, extreme aversion and fear reactions to certain frequencies of sound, inability to read nonverbal social cues, and difficulty in navigating social environments in the workplace and in my personal life. I sought testing and was diagnosed with autism later that year.

Interestingly, according to a University of Exeter article entitled What Is the Relationship Between Aphantasia, Synesthesia and Autism?, traits of aphantasia and autism overlap, with limited abilities in imagination and social skills. A different article in Cerebral Cortex Communications entitled Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Visual Imagery Vividness Extremes: Aphantasia Versus Hyperphantasia states that aphantasic participants in studies may also spontaneously disclose that they are also autistic.

When first working in telehealth as a therapist, my memory and social capabilities were quite challenged. I had a caseload of 35 clients, and I had to remember salient details of everyone’s experiences in order to do clinical work effectively. At first, it was hard: people spoke, and I didn’t see pictures in my mind to quickly register what their experiences were. 

Yet, offering telehealth therapy work boasts a particular benefit: I can type notes simultaneously while hearing people speak. Thus, details that I might forget are instead channeled through my fingers. I physically type on the keyboard, and the words appear on the screen for my personal notes. The kinesthetic action of typing significantly helps me remember details better, and I also devise therapeutic solutions more proactively. Moreover, the last two years of working as a therapist have helped to improve my memory, even when I don’t type.

Discovering I Have Aphantasia – Final Thoughts 

As a neurodiverse person with an extensive mental illness disability history, I still hold fast to those transformative words that I first heard at Howie the Harp Advocacy Center: “A diagnosis is not a destiny.” Even though I’ve had failures and setbacks related to my diagnoses, I’ve compelled myself to keep moving forward. The process of tactful self-disclosure has helped dispel feelings of shame related to my experiences and prompts me to start problem-solving:

“If I experience a specific challenge related to my neurodiversity or mental illness, what adjustment can I make in order to make this challenge more possible?” 

In the process of devising adaptations and adjustments, I’ve learned more about my uniqueness, my limitations, what works for me, and what doesn’t. I’ve also become increasingly effective in my work while also feeling more confident in my skills. In the way that this works for my various mental health conditions, and with the autistic experience, I am confident that challenges posed by aphantasia and image-free thinking can be addressed in this same way.

Milton, F., Fulford, J., Dance, C., Gaddum, J., Heuerman-Williamson, B., Jones, K., … Zeman, A. (2021). Behavioral and neural signatures of visual imagery vividness extremes: Aphantasia versus hyperphantasia. Cerebral Cortex Communications, 2(2), tgab035. doi:10.1093/texcom/tgab035
Dance, C. J., Jaquiery, M., Eagleman, D. M., Porteous, D., Zeman, A., & Simner, J. (2021). What is the relationship between Aphantasia, Synaesthesia and Autism? Consciousness and Cognition, 89(103087), 103087. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2021.103087