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.
Maybe you have SDAM
Photo by Rolands Zilvinskis on Unsplash

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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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