While the term ‘aphantasia’ refers to mental imagery, I, like many others, experience no internal images, sounds, smells or tastes. My partner, who I would describe as having hyperphantasia, experiences, in his words, “a constant flow of images, sounds, smells and taste.” If I am talking about an apple, he will see the apple, smell the apple, taste the apple, and feel the textures and weight of the apple! This contrast is our first to note in exploring aphantasia, neurodiversity, and healing.
Aphantasia – Thinking About It as a Spectrum
How my partner and I experience imagery displays two, very opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to visualisation and other internal modalities. (More on modalities later). We may refer to this as a neurodiversity. These polar differences have, of course, been a great source of curiosity, misunderstanding and humour between us. It is also safe to say that understanding these differences has created a depth of understanding of each other that we would not have had without being curious about how we each work.
A challenge that I’ve noted as a factor for many people with aphantasia is the sense of feeling misunderstood by those around us, particularly in therapy, where it is important to have trust, understanding and rapport with our practitioner. In my experience, curiosity holds a lot of weight in achieving this.
‘Modalities’ in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) refers to our internal representations.
As a practitioner, the acknowledgement of these modalities is one way that allows us to better understand our client’s model of the world—the way that they experience it. Our modalities can also influence the way that we communicate and influence our choice of friends, hobbies, careers, and methods of learning.
The four main modalities through which humans experience the world are:
- visual (seeing)
- auditory (hearing)
- kinaesthetic (feeling)
- internal dialogue
Two additional modalities are:
- olfactory (smell)
- gustatory (taste)
An individual will tend to have one ‘main’ modality, although some people can experience more than one modality as their preference.
For example, someone who is predominantly visual may choose architecture or art as a career. Someone who is predominantly auditory may enjoy playing instruments and listening to music. They may use phrases such as, “Yes, that rings a bell,” or, “I resonate with you.” There are various indicators that a practitioner may use in order to ascertain which modalities a client prefers. Body language, tone of voice, breathing, attention, skills, eye movement, and language are just some of the suggestive signs.
It is important to remember that one singular indicator is not enough to accurately conclude the preferred modality/modalities for an individual, as many other factors can contribute to how we speak, breathe, move etc.
For example, if our best friend, partner, or parent is constantly using auditory language, we are likely to begin to use some of these phrases. Similarly, we could not conclude from a client’s choice of career that this implies a certain modality, as perhaps they have been encouraged towards a particular career path by their parents or guardians. Incidentally, I have aphantasia and once pursued a 10-year career in architecture and structural engineering! Whilst I initially chose a career that may be deemed “visual”, as a person with aphantasia, I am not.
An Exploration Into Modalities
During my studies to become a practitioner, modalities became a huge part of my exploration as someone with aphantasia. How was I to learn to understand my clients through the way that they experience the world (their modalities) when I do not have these internal experiences? My course director encouraged me to find my own ‘map,’ a way to navigate and understand, and so explorations into aphantasia, neurodiversity, and healing began.
I began by gathering a group of family and friends and asking them one by one, on their own and using the same language for each individual, to imagine an apple. I found that some friends did this with their eyes open, describing a ‘layer’ of an image on top of what they were seeing with their eyes, and others could only visualise if their eyes were closed. I also found that some people saw the apple in black and white, others in colour. There were differences between whether the apple was in 2D or 3D, moving or still, near or far, intricately detailed or vague and simple. Some people actively held out their hands around an apple shape as they described the texture and weight.
As I was hoping to identify patterns and common traits between them, the outcome initially left me even more bewildered. As we came together to share each other’s experiences of ‘an apple,’ it turned out that almost everyone in the group was equally bewildered.
Most of the group expressed that they did not realise how vastly different other people experienced visualisation and had assumed that the experience would be the same as theirs. We went on to establish that some didn’t think in words or did not have an audible inner dialogue, while others only ‘thought’ in images or sensations.
Have you ever heard somebody say, “it’s hard to put into words,” and wondered why they didn’t just speak the words that they were thinking? Maybe you have, or maybe you haven’t, depending on your own inner experience. (Note that these varieties of experience do have other contributing factors that are separate from the purpose of today’s subject).
This was a fantastic learning point. For those with aphantasia, it is a common experience to share with others that they do not visualise and to receive a response that leaves them feeling misunderstood, such as:
“Yes, you do visualise, because otherwise, how do you enjoy reading a book? You just haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, so you don’t feel very visual, but you must see something in some way, otherwise how do you know where you live, or who your family are?”
The exploration detailed above was the very first time that I had accidentally demonstrated the vast difference between individuals’ internal experiences. So much so that there was some real understanding in how different an aphant’s experience can be. Even for those who do visualise, the experience was wildly different from person to person.
An extensive curiosity-filled discussion continued between the participants of this exploration about how they learn, remember, work and play—and aphantasia was no longer something that was shrugged off or dismissed.
Healing, With Aphantasia
There are many principles that an effective practitioner will follow, some of which are particularly important when working with someone with aphantasia, including:
Of significance to note here is that most of us assume what is happening for others based on our own experiences. This is an entirely natural process that we form for efficiency—imagine that you knew exactly how each and every person functioned, with the intricacies and complexity of what that means for every aspect of their world. If you managed it, you’d be unlikely to have the mental-capacity to brush your own teeth in the morning!
Being a practitioner with aphantasia, it would make sense to assume that I ‘just know’ what a client with aphantasia’s inner experience is. While I have an informed idea of what the possibilities may be, for me, the art of truly understanding any client is curiosity. I never assume that a client with aphantasia’s inner experience is the same as mine—that’s just not going to be the case. If you’ve been part of any aphantasia-based community, like the Aphantasia Network, you’ll likely know that there are vast differences between the internal experiences of those with aphantasia too.
2. & 3. Validation and Trust
Following work with many therapists over the years as a client, and being in the self-development stages of my training, I was ready to work through an issue for which I wanted to engage in hypnotherapy. I sensed that I needed my conscious mind to ‘get out of the way’ in order to heal the core issue.
I phoned a hypnotherapist that had been recommended to me and explained that I had aphantasia and therefore would find visual language jarring, and as a result, find it difficult to enter a hypnotic state. The hypnotherapist was cautious, yet open-minded about this, and agreed to work with me.
While my sessions were not the ideal experience, I appreciated the effort that had been put into trying to understand how best to work with me, and, even more so, I appreciated the trust given to me that my experience was as I said it was—and not just me misunderstanding myself.
Here we have the next two ingredients for working effectively with someone who has aphantasia (and indeed someone who doesn’t)—validate their experience, and trust their experience. There is something deeply healing in itself when we feel seen and trusted.
The fourth ingredient is using a client’s language, or ‘Clean Language’. The language used by a practitioner when working with clients with aphantasia has an immense impact on how effective working together can be. Using a client’s language helps to build rapport, resulting in their ability to ‘go deeper’. It also aids a client to remain focused on what they are sharing and enables them to explore their world more deeply because the practitioner is able to hold what the client is exploring with them.
For some clients, saying something like, ”Do you see it that way too?” is enough to pollute their experience (note that I often use the word experience, in place of visual language). Furthermore, focusing on language used by a client helps a practitioner to understand and enter the client’s model of their world, enabling the practitioner to ask more effective questions and learn more accurately about the intricacies of an issue as it is experienced.
The final ingredient for effectively working with clients with aphantasia is flexibility. The more tools and techniques that a practitioner has, the more effectively they can work—and the more influence they can have. For example, therapeutic coaches use a flexible tool kit that includes timeline therapy, inner child work, parts work, neurological levels, EFT, hypnosis, meditation, coaching, and more. Each of these tools and techniques is utilised very specifically based on a client’s way of working, their experiences, where they are in their journey and what they need at any given time—allowing the practitioner to work with a wide range of people with a wide range of issues, as opposed to using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Final Thoughts on Aphantasia, Neurodiversity, and Healing
In conclusion, having explored aphantasia, neurodiversity, and healing, we can see that those with aphantasia do experience a distinct difference in internal experience, from which challenges can arise in both feeling understood and understanding others. These challenges can be softened with exploration and curiosity about ourselves and others. Opening up discussion around these differences can begin to bridge the gap in understanding. In terms of healing, seeking support from professionals who have a specialised interest in neurodiversities, and perhaps even personal experience with aphantasia can be a valuable path to take.
For more information relating to modalities, NLP, and clean language, please see the items listed:
Andreas, C., & Andreas, S. (1987). Change Your Mind–and Keep the Change: Advanced NLP Submodalities Interventions. Real People Press.
Ashby, W. R. (2015). An Introduction to Cybernetics. Martino Publishing.
Bandler, R., & MacDonald, W. (1989). An Insider’s Guide to Submodalities. Meta Publications US.
Sullivan, W., & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Crown House Publishing LLC.
Whitmore, J. (2017). Coaching for Performance Fifth Edition: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership UPDATED 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Mobius.