Maybe You Have SDAM?

Discovering aphantasia and Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) is a roller coaster of emotions. Yet I learned to understand myself and others better.
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Maybe you have SDAM
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Like many others, when discovering aphantasia, I was shocked at first. This started a rollercoaster of emotions in the following days and weeks as I began talking to my partner, family, and friends about this. It ended up being a relief, as certain things started to fall into place, and I learned to understand myself and others better.

But this didn’t explain my poor memory of my past self. This made me delve deeper, and then someone said, “Maybe you have SDAM?

Discovering Aphantasia

A few months ago, I started to seek help for my poor memory and distant feeling from others. I came to realize that everyone ‘sees’ things differently in their mind after a conversation with my psychologist.

It was during one of our regular talks when the psychologist asked: “How do you experience this, did you count sheep to fall asleep as a kid?

I always found this to be a weird concept, and can’t help but think, “what sheep do I count, I can’t see any.

It was then I discovered aphantasia and finally started to have answers to things I have experienced my whole life.

When you think about the idea of counting sheep, it’s not just that some people see vividly, and others (like me) don’t. It’s quite a wide spectrum of experiences.

Some see life-like images, others less clear or more blurry, sketch-like, or even cartoony. Some see color, others black and white. Some see still pictures, others see moving pictures or videos. Some can completely control the imagery experience, and others’ imagery can cause them to lose focus on reality.

When I first discovered that I most likely have aphantasia, I thought it only applied to the visual sense. Not long after, I found out that aphantasia can affect not only visual imagination but people’s auditory imagination, inner monologue, and other senses of imagination.

So wait, when people say they have a song stuck in their head, they are actually hearing the song?

The discovery started to answer questions that I had pondered before when people said things like: “I can still hear my dad say it” or “I can already taste the food when I think about it“.

Much like counting sheep, I thought these sayings were metaphorical because I can still think about the concept of them.

The discovery of my multisensory aphantasia hit me hard at first. On top of already being confronted with being different from most people because I lacked a visual imagination, I felt even more different because I couldn’t hear or taste things in my imagination.

But after some time and connecting with others with shared experiences, I overcame the feeling of missing out and started seeing the benefits of having aphantasia.

3 Benefits of Having Aphantasia

  1. Not being able to see unwanted images.
  2. Not having unwanted sounds or music in my head.
  3. Not having to relive trauma or experience fear when not actually being confronted with it. 

I’ve come to see mental imagery more as a bonus rather than an essential part of being human, as some had described before. Not having imagery senses doesn’t limit me in life; I’m a homeowner with a successful job and an 8-year relationship. I process the same information as everyone else but in a different way. 

Much like anything in life, there are pros and cons. One downside to my inner experience is I struggle to motivate myself at times, as I’m not able to picture the outcome or simulate how I might feel after achieving something. Multisensory aphantasia makes my thought process different from others and creates strengths in certain fields, and weaknesses in others, as it does with other neurodiversities for others.

But perhaps one of the biggest benefits to discovering aphantasia is that I developed a new curiosity and desire to talk to other aphants and non-aphants about how they experience life and how diverse it can really be; how this could affect my life, and that of others, in more ways than we yet realize.

This led me to discover SDAM.

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Photo by Fredy Jacob on Unsplash

Maybe You Have SDAM?

SDAM stands for Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory and is often characterized by a lifelong inability to vividly recollect or re-experience personal past events1.

Similar to our experiences of mental imagery, some people remember events vividly while others have only a vague recollection of the same events.

Some people (like me) cannot re-experience any past experiences.

I first discovered I most likely have SDAM when I was chatting with other aphants in aphantasia-specific communities. I had some serious conversations with someone that seemed to experience life very similar to mine. One day they said, “Maybe you have SDAM?

So I went deeper down the rabbit hole, and things started to make intuitive sense. SDAM seemed to help explain my poor memory and distant feeling from others, the cause of my initial complaint.

For as long as I know, I have struggled with recalling past events. I cannot remember moments I share with someone. I find it difficult to think back to how I got to where I am, what decisions I made and why, and how I felt at the time.

I know certain facts about these events.

For instance, I went fishing with my dad as a kid, but often I cannot recall any specific details. Sometimes I even wonder if it’s a factual memory or placed there by stories people told me or videos I watched, as I feel my past is purely constructed by someone else’s story.

Could my inability to picture or “hear” things in my mind be the cause of my SDAM or vice versa? I wondered.

Mental imagery has been described as having a fundamental role in episodic memory, and some early research shows SDAM overlapping with visual aphantasia, but this overlap is still being investigated.

SDAM and Aphantasia scaled 1
Research into the overlap between aphantasia and SDAM. Carina L. Fan and Brian Levine. The University of Toronto.

Challenges Living With SDAM

SDAM could help explain why I have a hard time making deep connections with other people, as well as maintaining relationships in general.

When a person hasn’t been in my life for any amount of time, I don’t seem to miss them or think about them at all (this creates feelings of guilt), but when I see them again, for me, it just picks up where we left off, as if time isn’t really a factor. But this also makes it easy to form new friendships, as I don’t see the need for prior shared experiences as long as there is a certain connection.

Connecting to people on a deeper level, though, when you forget what you did together, talked about, or felt like when you experienced things together, or even the person completely, can be quite a struggle.

I also grieve differently, if I even grieve at all. After some of my close ones passed away, I hardly ever think about them unless they are mentioned or I see a picture or video of them. Even then, I know certain facts of experiences we shared, but I cannot describe any memory in detail or remember how I felt at the time.

With SDAM, it also seems that I’m prone to make the same mistakes more often, as I’m not able to think back to or in any way re-experience the last time I was in the same or a similar situation. 

Coping Strategies With SDAM

To help manage my SDAM, I have tried writing down some of my experiences, but when I read them again afterward, it feels like someone else wrote them. I cannot confirm that I felt like that, other than simply storing it as a fact in my mind  “I went there and felt x”.

A video blog is even weirder because seeing myself always sparks a strange feeling, same with photos or when I look into the mirror even. I recognize it’s me, but I can’t remember looking like that or how I got to that point, and it often makes me wonder, “who am I?”

Keeping artifacts also does little to help with this for me. I’ll recognize the artifact and can link it to an event or place, but it won’t spark anything more than that.

The only thing that somewhat helps is keeping photos of others around to think about them more often, even if it doesn’t trigger a memory or emotion. It will remind me that this person is in my life, and it does make me more likely to reach out to that person, which helps me maintain the current and future relationship.

Reconciling With SDAM and Aphantasia

Despite my unique challenges, I think that I have a good moral compass and process everything with a more logical approach rather than an emotional one. This lack of emotional response or the ability to emotionally put myself in someone else’s shoes makes me less empathetic but not less sympathetic or understanding, even if I can’t conjure the feeling by reflecting it onto myself or thinking about it. 

Discovering aphantasia and SDAM has come with a roller coaster of emotions. Yet it ended up being a relief, as certain things started to fall into place, and I learned to understand myself and others better. While there are likely many more challenges ahead, I finally have answers to explain my inner experience. I can now seek the right help, coping strategies, and support from a community of like minds.

Can you relate to my experience? Maybe you have SDAM?

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
Watkins, N. W. (2018). (A)phantasia and severely deficient autobiographical memory: Scientific and personal perspectives. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 105, 41–52. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.10.010
Palombo, D. J., Alain, C., Söderlund, H., Khuu, W., & Levine, B. (2015). Severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM) in healthy adults: A new mnemonic syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 72, 105–118. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.04.012
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Total Comments (20)

I live EXACTLY the same things. Total aphantasia and sdam… Impossible to connect because i forget everything. And i have difficulties to talk too because i have not a lot to share. I’m a huge fan of Netflix and stuff like that but i can’t share what i see, what i read, what i know, i can’t give advise,i can’t talk about Travels… I look stupide even if i’m not… i really suffer from that. And i’m frustrated to not visualize because i know it’s a great tool to achieve goal…

Yes, exactly this! I think visualisation is a strong motivational tool.

I also love watching movies and tv shows, and will remember if i liked them or not, but i cannot talk to others about it because i forgot most of it and then people look at me like “did you even watch it?” Only when i’ve watched something a lot of times, i’ll be able to talk along quite well, but could still go wrong in certain details.. same with travels as you mention..

The SDAM discussion is confusing to me. I remember many past events which happened to me. I don’t see them. I have no internal senses of those events, but I remember them.

Depending upon how far into the past they occurred, I remember them more or less distinctly. The past, except, for a few episodes is really quite…dim. I remember some factors better than others.

That leads me to questions whether I have SDAM or not. I’m a total aphant, but I generally have fantastic memory. When I was young I could recall where on a page of any book I had read that a word or phrase was located…and I was reading at the age of two.

But that’s not personal recollections, exactly. So I don’t know. I resonate with some of what you wrote, but some just doesn’t fit me.

Thank you, that matches my experience so it’s good to see something similar.

I do not think I have aphantasia: I’ve always been a daydreamer and can get lost in daydreams sometimes, and that kind of involves picturing things in your mind, yes? They’re not (I’d say obviously, but maybe not so obvious to people with aphantasia) clear vivid images as if I were actually looking at a scene (it’s not like it replaces my vision or anything), but enough that I can recognize what I’m thinking about.

HOWEVER, I was reading the descriptions of SDAM on this site and elsewhere, and I think this is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to my therapist and countless other doctors and professionals for years! I have what I call “Swiss cheese memory.” I’m somewhat attention deficit and can often forget things in the short term, but my long term memory is like a few faded photographs or extremely short silent videos. I can recount my life history (what I call “the litany”) and can put some of these pieces on the time line (though they’re often out of order) and have some recollection of some events, but most of it is lost in inky blackness.

I know this is unusual, but I’ve had a hard time explaining it to anyone. (My late wife said she had the ability to replay moments of her life back like watching a movie, which was completely foreign to me.) It’s VERY frustrating. Maybe it’s SDAM. I know I already have autism and ADD; maybe it’s related?

My discovery of aphantasia has been typical, later on in age. I’ve become aware within the last year, but my self-diagnosis has felt lacking. I came across SDAM only today. And the emotional click is relieving. Omg “Swiss cheese memory” is something I am going to refer to from this point on. Thank you for naming that.

i can certainly relate to the content of this post, but what you say and especially the comments make me feel that we are overicing the cake. We do not have “unique problems”. it should not matter that other people can visualize any more than it should matter that some people are born rich and we were not. That is life.
in a lot of the posts on Aphantasia (but not all) I see envy, self-pity and self-induced trauma. It is not cancer. It is not being born in a third world county without running water, health care or the certainty of being able to eat each day.
No employer ever refused to hire me because i was not a visualizer. no girlfriend refused to date me for that reason. no neighbour put a sign out “No Aphants”.
It is not a disability. there is no obvious need to be able to visualize even in the arts. In fact, it could even be seen as an evolutionary step. a number of my friends have said that they envy the calm and the lack of Ego that can be implicit in Aphantasia. Mind you, I move in circles where materialism is not valued and egoism is seen as negative.

I relate to this so much. I’m not totally without memories, but as one comment said, I don’t remember my birthdays when I was a kid, Christmas memories are vague and I am not sure if they are real. I have a better memory of my kids birthdays, but still don’t remember a lot. My kids will talk about something that happened in their childhood, and I simply don’t remember it. It has always bothered me that others remember more about my life than I do. When I found about about aphantasia I knew immediately I have it, and now I’m feeling the same about SDAM. I feel that both things have had a major impact on the relationships in my life.

I still struggle with the fact that other people can visualize things in their heads. I am an avid reader, I never got upset about who they cast in the movie because I didn’t have a picture in my head already. But I feel like I miss part of the enjoyment of reading. I also wanted to be an artist in my teen years. I was very good at looking at something and drawing it, sculpture, etc. But ask me to draw something from memory and I can’t do it.

I guess I’m just not at the acceptance stage yet, I’m still upset about it.

This was a great article and really hit home. I, like most anyone on this page, was floored when I discovered aphantasia and that the sheep weren’t just a metaphor. 

I deeply struggle with remembering past personal life events (not so with facts). When I try to remember the past it’s as if I am only able to recall something from a picture i’ve seen. I wonder if I’m remembering the event itself or just the picture in the end. 

What I can remember I do in single moments of an event or trip, again almost like a still photo. No emotions…just the environment in the moment. 

Very similar on the empathy portion, I try to be logical and fair but sometimes come off as cold or heartless. 

Anyways, thank you for the article! This makes me feel a bit less like I’m losing my mind/memory and that there’s just something “wrong” with me. 

Thank you for this very helpful article! And I appreciate the comments everyone has left.

It is all so relatable to me. I cannot remember any of my birthdays, vacations, or graduations (or those of other people in my life). But if there was a picture taken of me at an event, that’s how I know I was there. If I was smiling in the picture, I conclude that I must have either been happy or was pretending to be happy – I never know what my emotions actually were at the time of the picture. 

Vulnerability alert: To be honest, SDAM has been the primary source of my depression due to its disruption of a coherent/consistent sense of self and its effect on my friendships. And then there is the fact that I remember nothing of the plots and characters of books and movies that I know I love. I hope all of you are finding ways to cope with anything about SDAM that may be affecting you negatively. Sometimes I am helped by simply stopping the attempt to remember my past and instead focusing on a subject that I enjoy, like biology or art, and in this I find a measure of relief. I think it’s great to invest in the things you are passionate about when you are struggling with a sense of disconnection between your current and past self. However, this is just my own approach that *sometimes* works for me. I’d be glad to hear any suggestions from others as to how you find meaning in your life with SDAM! (To be fair, I am sure not everyone with SDAM has this difficulty)

Best,

Kevin

Hello Maarten

Thank you. I guess that being different, somehow, gives one a better understanding that we are all so very different from one another.

For me, when I met my future wife, it literally took me a week to remember her name, repeating it over and over again, on the half hour drive home, after we were together. Is that SDAM? That was over 50 years ago and I could never see her or anyone else’s face or any experience that I have ever had for a moment after the experience. She has passed now and I still am not able to remember a single moment of our life together. Pictures do confirm that we did have  a life together.

I remember some traumatic moments, not from any sort of feeling, but just that they happened, and the fact that it was not nice.

I do remember having experiences and I do remember their consequences, but not in any way that it seems that most others do. Did that affect my life? I guess, but how would I know, I just lived my life.

To remember how to punctuate a sentence, I could not. But, I can write a sentence. Obviously, I was not applying myself, with the consequence that I always failed any test using rules. Things must be logical for me to comprehend.

I could never be an engineer but I can quickly tell you when something will not work. And, for me it is easy to build systems because there are no written rules, for me. I can and have developed systems and processes that were, at the time, thought to be impossible.

If something is logical I can sell it. And, people have often said, “sign the deal, he knows what he is talking about.”

Just add me to your list of oddities.

 

 

 

Thanks for this well written article. I have a degree of aphantasia and quite severe SDAM. My personal history memories are mostly remembering the fact of doing something or being somewhere rather than the experience of it. I have some visual memories but they are just very faint still images that distort and then disappear after a second or so. I cling onto these precious little glimpses but they tend to get lost. People sometimes think that if I don’t remember an event then that means it wasn’t important to me, which isn’t true at all.

Thanks for reading the article and the replies. I’m happy if it helped some of you understand yourselves better. It’s nice to know that we are not alone out there and can share this with others!

Thank you Maarten…  WOW!  This could be the missing link that fills in the gaps that cannot be explained by total aphantasia!  
My memory is dreadful – names, places, events, even memories of loved ones and friends – all are lost in the mists until an outside-source triggers them.  I am definitely going to have to research this.

What you have written in  this article  mirrors exactly my own experiences . It was a great relief at age 71 to discover that I wasn’t an emotionless human being, but someone with Aphantasia and SDAM. It helped me and my family to understand who I am , and WHY I am who I am. It also helps a lot to know that I am not alone in this, but that many others have had the same experience.

I have been struggling with just the same issues. I’ve always felt so off because as soon as someone leaves it’s like they are gone from my memory completely. I don’t have one single memory of my father who died when I was 12 and I feel like there’s something missing in my life – my past. It makes me feel so depressed though to be this way – with aphantasia and SDAM. I feel like there is no richness in my life, no color or joy because there’s never anything to hold onto. Big moments in my life that other people always say you’ll never forget, I forget, like the birth of my children or my wedding. How do others cope with this going through life with no backwards connection?

Wow! Learning about aphantasia has been so huge for me,  but this made everything click. I’ve always felt so guilty for not being able to connect with others over memories. It feels like when people leave the room they are just completely gone for me but when I see them again it’s just new and okay. I’ve always felt disconnected when others talk about hearing a song on their head or tasting something they aren’t eating. It always felt conceptual only. This article makes me feel understood. Thank you

 

So, I’m not the only one then! Since discovering that I have aphantasia (aphantasic?) I have been on a voyage of discovery & the link to this article dropping in my email inbox is almost ironic as I was discussing my lack of autobiographical recall with some work colleagues just the other day. Whilst reading this article as I ate my breakfast this morning, I looked at my fridge which is adorned with magnets I have bought from places I have visited all over the world. I realised that for the most part, I wouldn’t even be able to remember the shop / place where I bought each one much less recall the ‘emotional’ memory of buying them.