Embracing Aphantasia

Aphantasia may be an imagination extreme but it occurs naturally on a marvellous spectrum of human experiences.
embracing aphantasia

Table of Contents

A Beautiful Spectrum of Light

Dusk is a special time for me. I often stand on my balcony to watch the sunset over the horizon of Atlanta’s high rises. The shift in hues reflected in the sky inspires me to slow down and reflect on my surroundings. I’ve noticed a pattern during dusk in this city; it’s different from the spectrum of blue and orange, bringing me nostalgic feelings of “home” in Florida. Instead, the cerulean sky to the east desaturates and lightens into a slice of peach, then deepens into raspberry and finally, a Cabernet spilled on the horizon. The city complements the darkening sky as office windows darken and condos begin to light up the buildings surrounding me in a mosaic.

Acknowledging Aphantasia

The day I acknowledged my personal aphantasia, questions regarding its impact on my identity flooded my mind. I cycled into labelling myself “weird.” I felt alone in my life experience. It’s easy to disconnect from those on the other side of those windows and within their vehicles. However, brief eye contact with these strangers opens windows to their complex inner world of ephemeral emotions, thoughts, and memories. I am pulled back into the real world, and any feeling of loneliness dissipates. I wonder how these inner worlds differ from my own. How many drivers are daydreaming at the stop light below? Have they momentarily transported into a magical world? How does the wafting smell of curry from the nearby restaurant impact pedestrians? Are memories being elicited? Are pertinent emotions incited? How does each unique perception of our shared life reflect within the exclusive landscape of our minds? To this day, I ponder on rhetorical questions about the biopsychosocial nature of “us.”

Since childhood, I’ve been labelled as “different”, a concept that now seems silly. I initially feared the consequences of my aphantasia — I concluded that this world I live in was not designed for people like me. I began to grieve as I felt detached from a human experience that seemed so magical.

In the following weeks, my logical mind delved deep into scientific articles, searching for an imaginary answer to offer me solace. Having studied neuroscience in college, I yearned for figures and metrics to validate my reality. My main query was, “why.” Why does my mind experience reality in blindness? A few days into my research, I found an article by Lajos Brons, “Aphantasia, SDAM, and Episodic Memory”. I sighed in relief.

“This is it. This will explain why I am who I am!”

I became so single-mindedly motivated to interpret it that I put aside my responsibilities and went straight to my local printing center. I truly believed that this article would change my life. It needed to be honoured, printed on the heaviest paper available, spiral bound, and enclosed in a matte cover. I sat in my room, prepared myself to keep an open mind and began reading. A few pages in, Brons addressed the theme of memory. This paralyzed me. I felt scared and unprepared to read the conclusions of how aphantasia had impacted my memory. I left the article under my coffee table, where it sat untouched for seven months. No amount of research articles would provide me with solace if I could not even begin to read them. I was skipping steps.

Accepting Aphantasia

It wasn’t until a cathartic meditation a couple of weeks later inspired me: this was no longer a scientific journey of understanding aphantasia. This was a journey of personal introspection. I shifted my mindset. A blind mind’s eye is not an inability but an asset.

Francis Galton, who first realized visual imagery differences, founded differential psychology to study these individual differences. During Galton’s “Breakfast Study,” he applied differential psychology to aphantasia by observing individual differences in mental imagery through open-ended questions. I began to follow in Galton’s footsteps. I believed that through talking with others, I would begin to understand myself, and only then would I be able to answer my “why” and bring peace to my grief.

My main query at the time was to understand how my lack of mental imagery affected my identity and creativity. To compare my creative identity, I planted a single question to those I encountered, with a single constraint: they must answer instinctively.

If you were an egg, what type of egg would you be?

I ask the reader to pause and answer this rhetorical question. There is no right answer, for the uniqueness of the answer provides insight.

The spectrum of answers enthralled me. Some friends felt like a boiled egg, some like Eggs Benedict. Others resonated with a snake egg, a dragon egg, and a small blue egg with freckle-like spots. I found it beautiful to see that an open-ended question could give me so much insight into the inner workings of my friends. I recognized that there were two ways in which eggs were described: cooked and symbolic. Was it the functional aspect of an egg that inspired a poached egg to come to mind? Was it a physical reflection of the size of an ostrich egg that symbolized feelings of greatness? How could a mystical dragon egg be symbolic of personality? This open-ended question allowed others to express their subconscious programming. How did you interpret the question? How do you see yourself? What personal qualities (physical, function, sensory input) do you see reflected in your egg? Are you hungry?

Personally, I identify as huevos pericos. It’s the nostalgic feeling of having breakfast with my grandparents in Colombia as well as my Colombian identity, that influenced my choice.

A Beautiful Spectrum of Imagination

My question showed me the spectrum of imagination amongst my friends and allowed us to share how we see ourselves and learn from our unique perspectives. Gradually, my label of aphantasia seemed less pertinent to my labelling of “weird,” and I questioned the significance of my aphantasia.

I want to pose another question: what is a salad?

What first comes to mind for me is a mix of raw vegetables, prototypically romaine lettuce, mozzarella cheese, cranberries, and diced tomatoes. However, if I ask myself what my favorite salad is, the answer is a fruit salad, and if I were invited to a picnic, I would bring a potato salad. The thought of defining a salad still makes me uneasy with cognitive dissonance as I recognize that a word whose meaning I believed to know is not precise but instead up to interpretation.

Although, by definition, a word has a single, distinct meaning, we have culturally morphed meaning to best fit our intentions (Oxford Languages). Words are not discovered; they are created. Because of this, no word can ever be entirely precise. For years, I had accepted that labels could define me. However, this new conclusion that words are perceived through their connotation, not their dictation, helped me see the fluidity of my identity. No word could ever encompass who I am. I felt ashamed to have associated “weird” and “different” with my experience with aphantasia. I felt that I had limited my perception of my natural self. This connection between language and thought was described in the mid-20th century by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir, who argued for the theory of linguistic relativity. They looked at how differences in language lead to differences in thought and, thus how we perceive the world. Through language, culture began to morph “reality” away from that which is natural and undefined.

Human beings…are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. …The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the Group.”

Sapir, 1929; in Manlbaum, 1958, p. 162

“We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.”

Whorf, 1940; in Carroll, 1956, pp. 213-4

Natural, Albeit Extreme

I failed to understand “weird” in the context of that, which is natural. Francis Galton, who was also interested in statistical mathematics, saw this difference between what is natural and what is normal. Galton was interested in describing how the wide range of natural phenomena seemed to follow a pattern. In this case, through his development of regression towards the mean, Galton referred to a bell curve as normal, in the sense that it follows an expected result of a majority of subjects found towards the middle, or average of the curve, which has two tails on either side. Normal was never meant to reference the subjects found in the middle of the distribution, but rather, the predictability of variability in human traits. He found that under normal life conditions, the distribution of variation will follow a bell curve (normal distribution). In fact, that which is natural is normal. The mere fact that aphantasia and hyperphantasia exist is validation that variation in mental imagery is normal.

Embracing Aphantasia

Here is where I found my solace. Each unique, weird, different perception of our shared experience becomes a strength when complemented with the perceptions of our opposites. Through open, authentic communication, we can more accurately create a composite that reflects the spectrum of human experience. I am natural, albeit an extreme, and I can see beauty in that. Now, I identify with the extremes that are reflected in the sky while the sun rises and sets. I take time to appreciate the differences in the sky from one day to another. Though I cannot predict what colors will paint the sky come dusk, I can predict that they will be extreme, and beautiful, and despite my aphantasia, they will awaken my emotions.

Brons, L. (2019). aphantasia, SDAM, and episodic memory. Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science, 28(0), 9–32. doi:10.4288/jafpos.28.0_9
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When I read “If you were an egg, what type of egg would you be?” nothing came to mind except the idea of a chicken egg, lying flat on a table, taunting me with its plainness. Then I told myself, “Treat this as a serious question!” and immediately the answer swelled up inside me as though it was there all along and I simply hadn’t bothered to look for it. I am a large Faberge egg, a couple of feet taller than I am, lavishly decorated with colors that I, as a color-blind person, would not be able to see and, as an aphant, certain cannot visualize. On the surface of the egg is a doorway, slightly shorter than I am so that, when I step out of my egg self and contemplate my egg self from my human perspective, I have to stoop a little to walk through. Inside the egg is an infinite space that embraces everything I choose to imagine.

I think it’s glorious that it’s possible to imagine these things so richly without visualizing them at all.