A Serendipitous Discovery on Twitter
About a month ago, I was wandering on Twitter, trying to convince myself that I’m not addicted to social media whatsoever, that I’m totally in control and, above all, that what I’m doing is not wasting my time or attention.
I was far from suspecting that my compulsive scrolling habit would make me discover something so huge about my understanding of myself. And maybe of the world. At least, about how I see it. It was a Rosetta stone-like discovery.
That day, or that night, I can’t recall. Time flies in a particular way lately. That’s when I came across a strange tweet written by some Andy Matuschak.
That tweet was so strange.
(Possibly foolish) question for aphantasics: is visiting traditionally “beautiful” places less rewarding to you than it seems to be for others, since those places don’t produce vivid visual memories to enjoy afterwards?
— Andy Matuschak (@andy_matuschak) July 30, 2020
I’ve never heard such a thing as aphantasics before, and as I read the comments on that tweet, it kept ringing some bell, and it highly piqued my interest, so I spontaneously commented:
When I read a novel, I once said to my wife I’m pretty sure I don’t picture it like everyone. In fact, I don’t *really* picture, it’s more a sensation, abstract. I can’t even explain it correctly & I tried
I’m discovering that word: aphantasic. Not sure though, it rings a bell
— Mose Njo ✍️ (@mosenjo) July 30, 2020
After that, I frantically googled the keyword aphantasia. And I began to recognize myself in it. Like totally. Without any doubt. And it’s… strange. It’s a strange feeling. Such a strange feeling. Somehow, knowing that it is actually something is a relief—but also troubling.
I was starting to ask myself how I actually imagined things. And how on Earth the verb imagine could be the accurate verb to describe how I imagine things since to imagine is, as Google kindly informed me, to form a mental image or a concept.
I can’t imagine? I thought to myself.
That makes it sound more troubling.
I’m aware that I keep using the word troubling. That’s because it is, and it still is. Deep inside, I always knew that I was not like most people, that I think differently (not differently like Steve Jobs approves), but actually different. I didn’t have a clue I was that different. Well, somehow, I did, but discovering that I’m aphantasic helped put it into words.
Being aware that people actually see in their minds as I see with my eyes, it’s astonishing. I would say it would be scandalous if I weren’t into stoicism and if I didn’t know the Serenity Prayer that says:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can.
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Not only can people see, but you won’t believe it (actually, the non-aphantasics of you will), people can also smell and taste and even listen pretty accurately to some music inside their minds! I can innerly listen but not pretty accurately. Though I can’t innerly smell or taste.
My mind was blown when I discovered that every time my wife told me that I shouldn’t have told her about that particular dish because she, and I quote, had it on her tongue, it was literally there. Literally there, on her tongue. It’s as if she could taste it!
All this time, I thought it was just a figure of speech!
My Inner TV is Blank
So I’ve discovered that people, most of them, could do that. I was like: how magical their minds are and how clueless I am in front of those mesmerizing abilities.
I’ve tried to explain to my wife (and myself) what aphantasia is, and at some point, I told her that it could be comparable to a TV. She sees what’s on the screen. My inner TV is blank.
I see, or more likely, I feel it from behind the screen, inside the box. On the invisible hardware integrated circuit thing part.
Then, she looked at me. Puzzled. Pulling a face. Like I was speaking some lost tongue, I alone can understand. Just barely.
So, to get out of my embarrassment, it came to my mind that she liked the movie The Matrix—especially the first opus.
In that movie, at the very end, Neo gets a magnificent upgrade and sees the world differently. He sees that all green. It’s all dark, but many what-looks-like-green-binary-things make sense of it like he can see the root code of life itself.
I told my wife that it’s the closest thing I can come up with for her to see how I see inside (or not see, well, you get the picture).
She told me that she somehow now has some references. Then, she frowned and said: ‘That’s not so great, you know, I mean, how Neo sees the world!’
I was about to disagree, to object scandalously, but, well, she’s right. I doubt I or anyone will be that pleased to see this whole The Matrix movie like that, all dark with these green abstract things. It won’t be that great to watch, to say the least. Though that’s how I see things inside my head, it’s all dark, and above all, there are no green things. But I can make sense of the information.
Then, I remembered she’s proudly yet discreetly Christian and likes Buddhism concepts.
Funny thing, and somehow intriguing, this Buddhist concept says the whole world is just an illusion.
So, I pointed at the TV screen again. And I said, maybe, what they mean by that is that the world is like what we see while watching. We know that it is not real, that it is just a projection, that it only works because it’s been superbly well-thought and engineered. That the right combination of the invisible hardware integrated circuit thing part enabled us to see it through the screen, and that somehow — and I looked intensely at her — you innerly see things like on that TV, and I innerly see things like inside that TV through the hardware. It’s all dark, but the information is there.
I’m able to make sense out of total darkness.
She began to understand the TV analogy, then asked how it relates to Buddhism.
Aphantasia, Perception, and the Illusion of Reality
The illusion the Buddhists are referring to, I said. Then, I quickly add, well, maybe. A big big big maybe. And I was trying to appear as humble as possible while saying: maybe, aphantasics see the real world while non-aphantasics see the illusion.
I think at that point, I lost her a bit. So I took a deep breath and tried to explain what I meant by that.
By the illusion, I mean, there’s this theory – amusing and intriguing – I have to admit, that says we probably live in a hologram. We think it is real from our perspectives, it is real, but according to scientists Niayesh Afshordi, Claudio Corianò, Luigi Delle Rose, Elizabeth Gould, and Kostas Skenderis, there’s a possibility this reality of ours is a hologram, which can also be thought as a projection or an illusion.
I have to admit. I obviously can’t fully understand their research. Yet I understand that even if it’s an illusion, from our perspective, it’s real, and that’s precisely my point. If what we see with our eyes is an illusion, there must be some source – the reality from which this illusion originates. That source could be a pure abstraction; if it’s pure abstraction, that’s how we, aphatansics, see things. Of course, again, we don’t actually see it as non-aphantasics see in their minds, but we can grasp the same information. It’s basically the same thing. More or less.
Then I had that smile. The stupidest smile ever. Even now, I have to admit it still makes me foolishly smile.
Immediately, to change the subject abruptly, I reminded her of when I told her I didn’t fantasize erotically. I said that’s why. Because I’m aphantasic. I’m too pudique to tell more about that, it is neither the time nor the place, but I suspect other people who happened to hear me saying that do not really believe me like there are such people who don’t erotically fantasize. Especially a dude. Especially me. Well, actually, I don’t. Or, I do but differently. It’s more, let’s say, a feeling. Unseen flashes. A dark world that happens to make sense. (The Matrix, remember?). Like the infamous Schödinger’s Cat, I do and don’t. At the same time. Sort of.
A Brief Introduction
Oh, by the way, I should have introduced myself earlier (I’m far more comfortable talking about ideas rather than myself), but I define myself as a hypercreative being. To put it simply, I don’t experience writer’s block. To me, writer’s block is a mysterious case. I’m always creating, like always, one way or another. And I’m starting to wonder if it somehow relates to me being aphantasic. Now that I’m sure that I’m definitely wired differently. I’m starting to consider that it’s worth digging. That someone, somewhere, should take a closer look at this hypothesis.
I’m humbly known, where I am, here in Madagascar (the island, not the movie), as a sci-fi bilingual writer and as a conceptual artist. I’ve been published in France in a sci-fi anthology called Europunk. I think I’m the first French-speaking African to be ever published in a French-speaking sci-fi anthology. It pleased me so much. I’ve also written the first-ever sci-fi novel in my other mother tongue, Malagasy. It’s always a strange feeling when readers tell me about how they literally see the worlds I’m describing and how they find it magnificent and how they so want it to be made as a movie one day.
While I create. Worlds. While I write. I see things differently. So differently, I doubt I can one day describe it accurately. I feel things more than I innerly see things. But it pleases me to be aware of how people are seeing what I create through mostly darkness and meaningful unseen lights inside my particular aphantasic mind.
My Personal Journey of Discovery and Self-Acceptance
That’s a strange feeling. Strange, wonderment, and unfathomable feeling. A lingering wonderment. Being aware of aphantasia.
Being aware that I’m not able to see things in my mind just like most people do, still being able to make people see whole universes inside their minds, I can’t say it doesn’t make me proud of myself. I guess a devout would say it’s a miracle. I guess it could be closer to what blind composers like Ray Charles feel. He can’t see, but he can make people feel and envision what he creates inside their minds.
Superpower is a trendy word lately. I will use that word if I encounter a kid who struggles with aphantasia. And I would use that word to myself if I happen to be sad for not being able to see things in my head someday.
It is no surprise that I really like abstract things. My inner world is all abstractions. And I like it that way. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to innerly see. But I prefer to take it as a difference. Even an advantage. Not in the superior sense of the word. But if I don’t do that, I mean, if I don’t see my difference as an advantage, it would make me sad. And I don’t want to be sad for something I or anyone else, as far as I know, can’t change.
Discovering that Ed Catmull is aphantasic was a wow moment for me. I felt so proud to be part of something a person I admire so much is part of.
And discovering this Aphantasia Network is something so meaningful to me. Like a turning point, a milestone, a life-changing event (and I’m barely exaggerating). Now, I feel less alone. Knowing that I was different. Not being able to state it, to name it and not having someone to talk about and being able to understand this difference.
But now, I know that I’m not alone. And it makes me innerly smile. Not that I can see that smile. But I know that I smile. That I actually smile. Which is the same if you think about it. Somehow, it makes me think of what William Shakespeare magnificently wrote:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name, would smell as sweet.”
Maybe the name is an illusion I don’t see. But I can see the world in a way that I can capture its essence, its intrinsic nature, and who knows, maybe what I lost in sight, I gain in depth.
That’s how I choose to believe it.