For most of my life, I’ve lived blissfully unaware that I am aphantasic and that I have SDAM (Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory).
I have noticed that people describe themselves as having aphantasia. I don’t feel that way. I am aphantasic. To me, it isn’t an affliction external to who I am. I am aphantasic the same way that I am (was) nearsighted, and quick-witted, and a good athlete (many years ago), and good at math. It is a feature of who I am. Like every feature, it has positive and negative sides.
My Education – A Preference for STEM Subjects
I have always been aware that memory work was not my strong suit. Despite that, I was a very early reader and writer, well beyond my peer group. I did well in school, but I found some subjects far easier than others. The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) came quite naturally, whereas grammar, art, and history were very difficult, either because I had trouble with memory work or because I couldn’t visualize. That said, I never connected the dots on it because it was the way that my brain worked. It was normal for me.
I bragged that I never forgot a face, but it took me well into my 40s before I realized that what I was able to differentiate with great accuracy were voices, not faces. I now joke that I collect voices and accents.
- I can quickly pick up who is doing the voice-over work on a children’s animated movie.
- I can guess the country where a person grew up by their accent, even if they have mixed accents from growing up in different countries.
- With vocal artists that I know, I can always tell who it is, even if I haven’t heard them perform a particular song before.
It’s all just obvious to me.
If I witnessed a crime and the police needed a facial reconstruction done, it would be a nightmare. But I’d be their dream witness if they needed a voice picked out of a crowd. It was the realization that not everyone could do this that led me to the investigation of aphantasia.
I earned a university degree in chemistry, with all of my electives being in physics. Physics was just plain easy because it is a very structured process. Chemistry, while requiring some memory work, was manageable because there is a language and system to chemistry as well, and once you understand it, it becomes easy to read and predict. It seems that even before I was aware of aphantasia or how my brain works, I had oriented my studies around structure. That is what came easy to me. Chaos, on the other hand, is my nemesis.
Learning Languages as an Aphant
I live in Mexico for much of the year. As such, I need to have at least a basic understanding of Spanish. I thought that I would pick it up without trying, but that hasn’t happened. I’ve been using the Duolingo app to study Spanish. Being aphantasic and learning a language in this way has been terrific at demonstrating to me how it is I learn without having an understanding of grammar. Because I am now aware of aphantasia, I can sense how my brain is building structure around the use of Spanish. If I sit down and try to regurgitate how verbs and tenses work in Spanish, I cannot. If I speak a phrase to my Duolingo app without overthinking it, I am invariably correct. My brain seems to be structuring the application of Spanish beyond my awareness. I’d guess that is how I learned English and rudimentary French as well.
One observation is that my pronunciation of Spanish words is mostly bang on. I may not always know the words, but when I say them, they sound to the Spanish listener like they are supposed to. This sometimes causes me issues, however. Before I go into the hardware store, I have to plan out what I am going to say because I am just not that fluent in Spanish yet. I prepare a little soliloquy to ask what I am looking for so that I am ready when I see a clerk. I ask my question, and the clerk invariably thinks that I speak Spanish because I pronounce the words correctly. When the response flies at me at 100 miles an hour, I have to ask them to slow down because my Spanish is poor. They usually laugh and don’t believe me because the words that I have spoken sound so correct. That is aphantasia doing its thing!
I Was Drawn to a Career in STEM
My career found me in STEM businesses where a detailed understanding of industrial processes was essential, and I became successful, at least in part, because of aphantasia and SDAM. My innate proclivities pushed me into the detail that constituted superlative process knowledge. I became known as a problem solver first in the oilfields, then in a variety of industrial processes such as all types of mining processes, water treatment, pulp and paper, and steel making. Others that I worked with would learn a single process from a lifetime of application, but I picked up new technologies quickly, allowing me to blend the STEM from one industry into another, providing innovative solutions where others were unable to. I didn’t understand that aphantasia was assisting me; I was merely playing the hand that I was dealt.
As a business leader, aphantasia was not a handicap. I struggled to remember employee and client names, and this meant that I had to build a little file on everyone containing significant details in my contact information. I reviewed this data before seeing people until they finally stuck in my mind, which does eventually happen. Nobody ever caught on. In fact, being this organized allowed me to appear to have better recall about people than anyone else, an effect that endeared them to me. I genuinely did care to know about them, and my system allowed me to demonstrate this, even with my recall issues.
There is a considerable amount of process and structure needed to run a business, and learning I have aphantasia helped me to see it. This meant that I (or people that came to me for direction) often didn’t need to physically try something out to see if it would or would not work. Because I knew and understood the business patterns, I was able to accurately predict what the outcomes would be. I’m not saying that I never made errors, but I didn’t make them frequently or repeatedly. And once I had made an error and learned from it, it became incorporated into my brain’s corrected master plan for future projects.
Through the Years – How Being Aphantasic and Having SDAM Helped Me
My early life was difficult. I grew up in a home rife with mental illness and alcoholism, where both physical and mental abuse were normalized. Somehow, I managed to skate through it all, and I believe that aphantasia and SDAM were helpful here as well.
My poor memory helped me “forget” much of what went on until I was old enough, and mature enough, to face it head-on. As I entered my mid-30s, the inconsistencies in my structured mind made me ponder the veil over the detail in my past. Once I began asking questions to help me flesh the skeleton out, some memories came back, not as detail, but as place markers on the 3D map of time that was my life. Through conversation with friends and family, I was able to understand why the place markers were there and what their significance was. I don’t know if one ever really gets over trauma, but you can learn to cope with it.
I credit aphantasia and SDAM both for allowing me time to be able to cope with the trauma, as well as helping me build a framework, a structure, that allows me to overcome it.
I have been married to my high school sweetheart for 44 years. In many ways, she is my link to the past for as long as she has known me, which is a long time. Neither of us understood why she had to remind me of things that we had done together, or places we went, or specific family gatherings, etc., before understanding aphantasia and SDAM.
(As I’m writing this, I can’t explain how frustrating it is that every time I want to write the acronym SDAM, I have to look it up. I haven’t been able to make it stick in my head.).
I now have an explanation, but I still live with the reality that I can’t remember the details. Fortunately for me, I have my wife to lean on to fill in the blanks. Although I guess that means I have to be nice to her if I want to retain any memories.
The flip side of not being able to remember any details is that I can watch a movie from a month ago, and it is mostly all new for me. Once I start watching it, I will remember people and scenes, but because I don’t watch a movie with the intent of retaining anything, a lot of it will be a fresh experience for me. This comes in handy when watching Disney movies with the grandkids 30 times.
When I read fiction, it is much the same. I have to read a page or two to be certain that I’ve read the book before, but then I have the joy of getting to re-read great books. When I read technical work or do business reading, or really anything I want to retain, I need to place the knowledge in a framework where the information belongs within the purview of what I am trying to do. In this case, not only do I remember it, but I can remember small details like numbers or formulae with great ease. When I know it, I generally know it better than anyone around me.
I am infamous for my horrible sense of direction, yet it is odd how I can imagine (but not picture) 3D maps of processes or blueprints with great accuracy. I have designed three homes that have been successfully completed because it is easy for me to see the interactions in 3D spatially and with greater resolution.
Yet, put me in a car and ask me to get you somewhere, and the odds of me being able to do it in one go are remote. I have come to realize that all of my navigation revolves around landmarks. Once I have been somewhere, I remember the visual clues without having any overriding sense of where I am. If I always drive to a place the same way, I am fine. Deviation from the known path brings chaos. I once got lost for almost an hour trying to find an oilfield battery because a farmer tore a silo down between visits to the oil battery. I was unaware that I was geolocating myself by using the silo as a visual clue when driving. I ended up driving to a height of land, then climbing onto the roof of my truck with binoculars to spot the battery. I also spotted the demolished silo lying on the ground.
I became a teenager in the early 1970s, years when the creation of some of the Western world’s best music occurred. When it comes to music, I have perfect pitch. While I don’t have formal music training, and I can’t read music, when I hear a note, I can sing it or whistle it perfectly every time. I always remember the notes and the timing of the music perfectly. I hear music very specifically. Every note has a place in my 3D spatial framework of memory. And, like most people, it returns me to a time and place. While I can remember the feelings that time and place held, I, unfortunately, cannot recall the details.
I Am Aphantasic – It Is a Part of Me
I am aphantasic, and at any given moment, I may wish that I had a better sense of direction or be glad that I can map in three dimensions, depending upon what I am doing. It is just who I am. Learning about aphantasia and SDAM has explained some of the why behind the things that I am good and/or bad at, and I do find that useful. But it doesn’t change anything. I will still need to develop systems to help me with the challenges as I have always done, while taking advantage of the strengths that aphantasia brings me.