Memories Without Imagery—Remembering Outside the Lines

People with aphantasia may struggle with memory recall. This may be because our memories are image-free. But, just because we can't see our memories, does that mean we don't have them? The ability to visualize is not a prerequisite for remembering rich experiences.
Memories without imagery
Photo by Kirk Cameron on Unsplash

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Although the events below happened decades ago, they are seared into my memory—but not in pictures. I have no mind’s eye, so my memories are without imagery.

Some people would claim that my memories of this day are impossible without a visual component. How, then, do I remember this day as well as I do? 

Memories Without Imagery—Confusing to Some, Reality for Those With Aphantasia

For over forty years, I was an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. One day, thirty years ago, I was waiting backstage at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds before interpreting an outdoor concert for deaf audience members. The stands at this first of several performances held over 7,000 fans (my two young daughters among them), who were buzzing with excitement. So was I—mixed with some typical nerves. There were even television cameras out front. Wouldn’t it be fun to be on TV? I thought.

Shortly before showtime, I got my first look at the headliner as he emerged from a white van behind the stage. There stood Barney the Purple Dinosaur from the children’s television program. I did a double-take at my outfit and was mortified by our likeness. How could I have misjudged the color when I got dressed? I was wearing precisely the same shade as the star of the show! We looked like twins! Dear God, I thought, please don’t let me be on the 6 o’clock news.

Although I cannot visualize anything from that event, I recall many details and emotions from the next many hours.

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I am among an estimated 1-4% of people with aphantasia. I possess no inner eye and never have. While some non-visualizers can imagine some or all of the other four senses, I am a multisensory aphantasic. I cannot imagine with any of the five primary senses in my mind. Not the sound of a laughing baby, the taste of a lemon, the feeling of sand between my toes, nor the smell of my favorite lavender. 

People frequently ask me, “How can you remember anything if you can’t visualize?” They think it is impossible to have memories without imagery. According to this line of thought, I would not be able to recognize a familiar song when I heard it on the radio just because I do not have a mental image of some sort.

One friend was more specific: “Does that mean every time you open the refrigerator, you are surprised at what’s inside?” No, I am not. I am not a passive onlooker of its contents.  Many times a day, I meaningfully engage with my fridge with all five senses and more. Each interaction adds to my conceptual map of what is inside. Even considering my memories without imagery, one can extrapolate how I remember where things are kept elsewhere in the kitchen and throughout my home, as well as how I interact with the world.

Another typical question: “Can you at least picture your daughters’ faces?” You might as well ask me to see them in my feet. I can still conceptualize what they look like and recognize them when I see them, though. I believe I tap into other senses that build a visual concept of what people or scenes look like. 

I think of Daniel Kish, who is blind and can echolocate.  He clicks with his tongue and listens for the sounds that bounce back.  He does this well enough to recognize obstacles and ride around them with his bicycle! He uses a non-visual sense to conceptualize the visual world around him. 

What other senses might inform my sense of how things look? I can guess at some of them, but that requires a longer discussion.

Visualizing is not a prerequisite for remembering visual experiences. Lacking a mind’s eye, I might not recall all the visual details that some visualizers do. Nevertheless, I sometimes remember more than they do. Keep in mind that what visualizers can recall with their inner eye varies as well; they don’t all possess the same degree of detail. We don’t all place an equal amount of focus on the same things, either. Naturally, our focus affects what we remember.

What I Focus on Affects My Memories

I do not usually recall as many details of my past as I do in my Barney story. For example, if I try to recall the title and plot of a movie I saw last week, I might be at a loss. Many people who have aphantasia report having poor autobiographical memories.  I generally place myself in that camp, but obviously, there are times I can remember quite a lot without imagery or even photographs. Each person’s experiences with and reactions to aphantasia are unique.

My memories are a bit like coloring outside the lines in a coloring book. The outlines may be there (if only faintly), but they are partly or completely obscured by scribbling, which can make the defining borders difficult to make out.

I have heard of another way to conceptualize image-free thinking: Think of a TV with the picture on the fritz.  In my case, the sound is also out of order. The program is still running in the background, though, so metadata continues to be transmitted in some form.

I chose to share my Barney recollections as a best-case example of one of my most notable memories. What are some factors that played into my relatively good recall of what happened that day?

  • I have photos of and have talked about that day many times.  However, I remembered details before my snapshots were all developed the following month.
  • All of my senses were activated. My brain and body were mindfully engaged, especially as I interpreted. My emotions were high.
  • The white van made an impression because I watched Barney lying on his tummy, scooching awkwardly out of the back door, bottom first. It made me chuckle. Humor and emotions are memory lubricants.
  • I saw the show several times and from different angles—from both the stage and also from the stands when team interpreters took turns onstage. The entire event lasted perhaps five hours. More input, more memory.
  • We interpreters and our children had photos taken with Barney after his last performance. Seeing, hearing, and feeling everyone’s excitement firmly planted this memory in my mind.
  • Since I worried about it all day, the feeling of relief that I was not in any footage on that evening’s news stuck with me.

Each of these added to the metadata streaming behind the scenes on my metaphorical TV.

On the other hand, here are some things outside my recollections:

  • Without referring to a picture, I cannot describe Barney. I am confident that I could at least pick out his silhouette in a lineup of cartoon character outlines, though.
  • When I got dressed that morning, I had thought he was Crayola crayon purple. My image-free thinking couldn’t “see” any color. An internet search now tells me Barney was originally dark purple but changed to a lighter purple/magenta. No wonder I did not realize my outfit would match him and embarrass me.
  • Even though this seemed important at the time, I cannot tell you how many TV cameras there were or what they looked like.
  • What did we do between performances?
  • Was it hot? Sunny or overcast?

Even with these gaps, I have a clear enough outline to tell the tale without relying on pictures from my camera. It was, after all, not just a visual experience.

Remembering This Day With All My Senses

I savor thinking about my Barney gig. Would being able to visualize the forgotten details sweeten my memories? No. What difference would remembering the weather or what we did between performances make to my overall memory?

The most moving anecdote from that day was not captured on film. A woman and her daughter, maybe five years old, approached me as I waited by the stage before the last show. I believe they picked me out because I looked like Barney. The little girl, wearing a Barney t-shirt like thousands of other children there, was sitting in a wheelchair. The daylong affair was a fundraiser for a local children’s hospital, and I could not help but wonder if she had been a patient. This thought heightened my emotions. 

Her mother handed me a pen and a photo of the lovable dinosaur and asked, “Could you get Barney’s autograph for my daughter?” 

I remember my eyes welling up. I knew I could not ask Barney because he was in an air-conditioned building somewhere between performances. In that costume, he couldn’t hold a pen anyway. So, I committed an act of empathy. I went backstage and forged his signature. I can still tear up as I think about returning the autograph to the little girl and hearing her mother’s emotional “thank you.”

This episode led to kinder thoughts about my attire. My clothing choice had served a sweet purpose.

I learned on that evening’s news that Barney had entertained 37,000 people that day, and $100,000 was raised for the hospital. Those numbers became part of my memories, too.

I experienced this day with all of my senses, with my whole being. I was totally present through it all. What need do I have for a mind’s eye? Even without looking at photographs and despite having memories without imagery of any kind, how could I forget such a day?

Merlin Monzel Pitshaporn Leelaarporn Teresa Lutz Johannes Schultz Sascha Brunheim Martin Reuter Cornelia McCormick 2024 Hippocampal-occipital connectivity reflects autobiographical memory deficits in aphantasia eLife13:RP94916
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