Eclipsing Aphantasia: A Journey of Discovery and Memory from the 1963 Solar Eclipse

In July 1963, Alice Grebanier's observation of a total solar eclipse marked a pivotal moment in her life. This event, merging scientific discovery with profound reflections on memory and emotion, showcases how moments of discovery can eclipse the limitations of memory recall in aphantasia.

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In July 1963, an astronomical event unfolded into an extraordinary adventure for a young observer, marking the beginning of a lifelong journey of curiosity. This story, shared by Alice Grebanier within the Aphantasia Network member community, beautifully intertwines the wonder of scientific discovery with profound reflections on memory without imagery and the intricate dance between emotion, facts, and insight. Her vivid recollection of this event serves as a testament to how moments of discovery can eclipse the limitations of memory recall in aphantasia.

Alice begins her story with anticipation: “With a solar eclipse coming up, I want to share some aspects of my memories of an eclipse that happened in July 1963 when I was 12 years old.” The anticipation of the event was tempered with caution from her parents, who warned her against looking directly at the sun. This caution sparked creativity, leading to an inventive approach for safe viewing. “My father constructed a pinhole camera of sorts from a large shoebox,” she recalls, a simple yet effective solution that piqued her curiosity.

Her initial fascination with the pinhole camera‘s mechanics soon met with reality. “I remember being intrigued and excited about how that was going to work and then disappointed when I realized that the sun, prior to the eclipse, just looked like a small circle of light on the back wall of that box. However, her disappointment swiftly turned to wonder as the eclipse began to take shape. “It became more exciting when a small piece of the edge of the circle started to disappear,” Alice recounts. 

A Lasting Memory of Discovery

The true marvel of the eclipse, however, lay beyond the confines of the shoebox. It was the eclipse’s more subtle effects that left a lasting impression on young Alice: “More exciting yet, when the eclipse was much further along, my mother noticed something odd happening on the ground beneath a dense clump of trees near where we were standing,” Alice explains. The observation of crescent-shaped lights on the ground, mirrored by the eclipse’s progression, revealed nature’s own version of the pinhole camera effect. It was this subtle yet overlooked phenomenon that truly captured her imagination. Alice writes, “I was much more excited by the waning crescents of light on the ground than the single crescent in the cardboard box, both because there were so many of them and because they were larger.” 

This phenomenon sparked a lively family discussion and led to Alice’s “aha” moment, laying the foundation for a lifelong fascination with science. “Later, as the full sun finally reemerged and the ground looked more ordinary, I had the little aha moment that has stuck that day in my memory. I had not understood that patches of light on the ground under dense foliage were made up of single or overlapping images of the sun. I hadn’t thought about it at all before then. At that age, I was just beginning to think that science was interesting,” reflects Alice.

Eclipsing Aphantasia and the Boundaries of Recall

Alice’s reflections delve deeply into the complexities of memory and experience, shedding light on the process of remembering with aphantasia for those of us navigating the world without visualization. She muses, “I don’t know how possible it is for anyone to fully reexperience anything, including their emotions, especially after 60 years. But there has to be something special to make a specific event stick in our long-term memory.” This story vividly demonstrates that memories extend beyond visual snapshots, encompassing a rich blend of emotions, facts, and insights. It underscores the unique ways experiences are stored and recalled, especially when visual imagery is not present.

I believe I remember that day with a fair amount of detail because of the multitude of crescents of light I saw on the ground beneath the trees and the associated excitement of realizing that I then understood something I hadn’t understood before,” Alice reveals, highlighting how moments filled with clarity and discovery can securely anchor themselves in our memory, influencing our perceptions and insights for the future.

More to Memory Than Meets the Mind’s Eye

As our community looks forward to the upcoming solar eclipse, Alice’s recollections remind us that the essence of memory transcends mere visuals. This insight is particularly poignant in light of recent research highlighting the challenges aphantasics might face in vividly recalling past events due to differences in memory processing. Yet, Alice’s narrative beautifully illustrates a deeper truth: there’s more to memory than meets the mind’s eye. Memories, even for aphantasics, are richly layered and meaningful, capable of capturing the essence of our experiences. 

Sometimes when I was walking in a dense forest on a bright day, my eye would fall on patches of light on the ground, and I would think, ‘pinhole images of the sun,’ and remember why I believed that. And so the memory was reinforced over time,” Alice reminisces, illustrating how moments of discovery continue to resonate and enrich our lives.

Alice’s story is a pathway for “eclipsing aphantasia” both by finding beauty and insight in the world around us and holding onto cherished memories, regardless of whether we can re-visualize them or not. She concludes, “That eventually just became a factoid stored somewhere in my brain’s incomprehensible filing system, and the memory evolved into a kind of metaphor, serving as a reference point for what it feels like to suddenly realize something. At times in my life when I’ve had to change my mind about something because of evidence contrary to my expectations, sometimes there’s been a little ping in my mind reflecting that it feels a bit like that first similar experience during a solar eclipse. And maybe that ping serves as a little extra prod telling me that it’s ok to accept a new idea. Aha!

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