I Have Aphantasia: My Brain Is Different, and That’s Totally Fine

Many people dread the “what’s the most interesting thing about you” icebreaker question—but not me. I always have the perfect answer, "I have Aphantasia."
i have aphantasia
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Many people shake in fear at the idea of being presented with the dreaded “what’s the most interesting thing about you” icebreaker question at events—but not me. I always have the perfect answer, one with a proven track record for not only being the most interesting thing about me but, most likely, the most interesting answer in the room! It’s my aphantasia brain.

“I have aphantasia,” I say, “ which means I can’t bring up images in my head.” 

BAM! The most interesting thing people have ever heard. I’m not kidding! People find this so interesting that even after fielding many questions clarifying aphantasia, I sometimes use up everyone else’s turns. Aphantasia is so interesting that people want to keep talking about it.

“I Have Aphantasia.” A Conversation Starter

 The questions come from everyone in quick succession.

“Wait! What do you mean?”

“You can’t visualize anything?”

“You can’t hear people’s voices or bring up smells either?”

“Wait! What?!”

“So when you’re reading a novel, you don’t see the entire story playing out in your head like a movie?”

“How do you remember things?!?”

“Ok, but what about when…. “ as they insert example after example of all the things they can’t believe you don’t also experience. 

Sometimes, I’ve even enlightened another aphant in the room who didn’t know that they, too, had aphantasia.

“Oh, hang on… what do you mean? People can LITERALLY see images when someone tells them to picture something in their mind? I don’t think I can do that!  Do I have aphantasia, too?

The reason people are so fascinated that I have aphantasia is that until that moment, they usually hadn’t ever considered that people think differently than they do. It’s like finding out that someone in the room sees blue the way you see red, which would change so much about everything!

My Aphantasia Brain—I’m Programmed Differently, and That’s Okay

We can’t be inside other people’s brains, so it’s not shocking that our assumption would be that most people experience the world the way we do. Realizing that other people not only have different outward experiences in life but also have different ways of processing thoughts, feelings, and sensations can be a very shocking thing to discover. 

Personally, I also find it very comforting. I spent a lot of my life feeling like I wasn’t like everyone else, and that felt like a problem I was meant to solve. When I learned that there were names to describe the differences, I realized that I wasn’t failing at anything, I was literally programmed differently. The way I think and do things are not design flaws or anything to be fixed, any more than a sedan isn’t failing at being a vehicle just because it’s not an SUV. The way I do things isn’t something to be fixed, I’m simply a different model.  

I love telling people about all the ways I’ve discovered my brain (and other people’s brains) are different because it demonstrates something that opens people’s thoughts and understanding beyond their own. 

I have aphantasia which means my brain is different—and that’s great! I’m part of a unique group of people. We aren’t less than because we can’t visualize the way others do; we just process information differently.  

Beyond Normal: Embracing Cognitive Diversity

For some, finding out that their brains think and process differently than other people can feel like a loss. It doesn’t feel fair that others get to experience the world in a way that feels more “normal” and maybe even better. “Why don’t I get to remember my loved ones’ voices or bring their likeness up in my brain? I would really like to do that.” 

In fact, the first times I ever heard aphantasia explained, it was described in an extremely negative way as if everyone with aphantasia had a big hole in their brains where images were supposed to be. 

I chose to believe it was an interesting difference instead of a problem. Instead of feeling crushed that I didn’t have something other people had (though I do think it would be neat to experience), my first thought was that having that many sounds, smells, and images popping into my head all the time sounded like a recipe for overwhelm. In fact, my husband has often mentioned to me that he envies that I can’t relive difficult experiences in the same way he does, and I tend to agree. The fact that I have aphantasia seems like an advantage in this case. 

As someone with ADHD, I have more than one way that I’ve identified my brain is different than other people’s. Just like I sometimes wish I could pull up visuals in my brain, I also wish that I had the ability to stay on task and follow through more easily on things. Having what you’d think of as a “normal” brain sounds really appealing.

As with my aphantasia discovery, learning about my ADHD explained so much about how I operate in the world. It helped me understand the reasons I always struggle to keep up with or measure up to the expectations of life (like cleaning and being on time, starting tasks before it’s time to panic, or getting things done even if I think they’re boring). My diagnosis showed me I wasn’t having the same experiences as everyone else because I wasn’t using the same toolbox. It was hugely liberating. “Why am I trying to measure up to someone I’m standing next to when we’re not actually even in the same universe?”

Over time I’ve come to realize my brain and how it processes things has advantages and benefits, too. It’s just different. I am good at seeing the big picture in life (figuratively, not literally), I’m a great problem solver, I’m great in a crisis, and I have a great imagination, even if it’s not a visual one. 

Embracing Individuality and Appreciating Diverse Minds 

The more we tell people about how different we are without feeling like it’s a problem, the more everyone benefits. When we get an opportunity to answer questions about how our brains differ, we all get to learn more about how diverse the world is. 

I love that I live in a world that isn’t cookie-cutter. I love that I have skills others don’t, and they have skills that I don’t have. I love understanding that I shouldn’t expect others to get things done the same way I would and learning why their methods differ and why they’re effective for them. 

When we accept that we don’t need to follow the one right path for anything, we can be more compassionate, and that extends to everyone, including ourselves. 

The most interesting thing about me isn’t actually that I have aphantasia. It’s that I can articulate and explain to people something that helps them see the world differently. It gives people the opportunity to be more understanding and compassionate, and it helps them have the tools to be more inclusive. 

I don’t need to think and be like everyone else. Everyone else’s way isn’t better. It’s just different. Pretty interesting, right?

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