Think of a Horse.
Does an image of a horse come to mind? Which image best describes your inner experience 1-6?
Most people can create a mental image of a horse in their mind. A visual representation of what the horse looks like, what it’s doing and the scenery around it.
I don’t have that visual “picture it” system. Not for thoughts, memories, or images of the future.
It’s called aphantasia.
I Know What a Horse Looks Like, But I Don’t Picture One
When you ask me to think of a horse, I know that I’m thinking about it.
My concept of a horse is processed with language and internal dialogue. I can tell you that horses are mammals with four legs, yay tall, can be these colours, etc., but it’s the idea of the horse that’s important, not the details.
For me and most people with aphantasia, it’s only that internal dialogue. It’s either running quietly in my mind or being used to communicate with someone else. And if all my conscious thoughts are in sentences, there’s logistically no time for me to think about those details. It’s not worth processing; it’s ineffective unless the details are related to the specific task.
This is one of the great strengths of aphantasia. More on strengths soon.
If you were to ask me: “What does your girlfriend look like?”
I could describe her main features and provide you with some broad strokes of information about what she looks like (she has blond hair, blue eyes, etc.), but I don’t see her in my mind, so the finer details are difficult.
Those sketch artist drawings the police create in movies always confused me…
Now, there’s a reason I like asking people (literally thousands of people… it’s kind of my thing) to think of a horse when describing aphantasia.
Everyone’s Mental Image of a Horse is Different
If you ask ten people to think of a horse, you will probably get ten different answers.
Someone might imagine a chestnut horse with a brown coat and someone else a grey horse. In one scenario, the horse could eat grass and jump over fences in another. That’s because mental images are entirely based on personal experiences and past memories – if you had a white horse growing up, that’s likely what you’ll picture.
Just imagine (language gets tricky here) the implications of conversation between people being influenced by different visual images. How often are people on different pages because of this visualization process without even realizing it?
If our visualizations are so different just from the simple idea of a horse, how different do they become when ideas become more abstract? This fascinates me and is something I’ll be writing more about.
Here I find people struggling to imagine what it’s like to have aphantasia. Literally. Trying to imagine what it’s like, not to picture things. The thing is, there’s no way to do it.
You can’t imagine what it’s like not to “image-ine.”
It’s an oxymoron!
Visual imagination is the default state for most people.
They visualize all the time, all day long, without ever realizing they’re doing it (or at least taking it for granted). It’s probably impossible for those with more vivid imaginations to turn off that imaginative ability.
It’s worth mentioning everyone’s experience around thoughts or memories is different. My experience might not be like that of everyone with aphantasia.
It’s Not Just The Visual System That’s Impacted
It’s all sensory experience in my imagination.
For example, when you think of a horse, can you smell the barnyard hay or manure? I am almost glad I cannot do that!
Let’s say you’re at a restaurant and see something on the menu you enjoy. Most people can smell or taste it. No doubt this helps (or hinders?) decision-making at the restaurant!
I can, based on logic, tell you what food I’ve liked in the past and base my choices on that logic. I use the memory of like/dislike to decide what to order, but I don’t imagine how something looks, tastes, smells, etc.
Or if you take a few seconds to think of your favourite song, phantastics, those with the ability to imagine senses can hear the song playing in their mind.
Go ahead, give it a try! Can you hear that?
Someone could ask me: “How does the tune of ‘We Are the Champions’ by Queen go again?
I could (maybe) hum to the rhythm of the main chorus, but that’s about it. I don’t hear anything. And yet, if that song were to come onto the radio, I would know every word.
I can recall the song when it is playing, but I cannot “sing” it in my head.
Are there famous sayings you remember hearing from your parents? My dad, who inherited from his dad, always said: “Do as I say, not as I do” (talk about lead by example…).
I remember those words but can only rehearse them in my voice. I can’t hear them in his voice or memory as many would.
Imagination is a Spectrum
The new science has uncovered that an individual’s sensory imagination varies widely.
Some people can create very vivid mental images in their minds, whereas some can only conjure up vague ones. Some people can create an entire multi-sensory experience in their mind with smells, tastes, feelings, and everything (known as hyperphantasia). In contrast, others may only have slight variations of the different senses or only dim flashes of mental images.
Some will experience aphantasia in all the senses or what is commonly known as multisensory or total aphantasia.
It seems imagination is a spectrum.
So when I said to think of a horse, what did you see? Hear? Sense? Were you able to create a mental image in your mind?
If not, then you might be aphantasic in all senses like me.
A Global Network of Image-Free Thinkers
There are so many aspects of aphantasia to cover in one post. Things like dreams (yes, I dream without images!), relationships, memories, emotions, etc. I’d love to hear what you’re most interested in exploring!
Whether you’re aphantasic, phantastic or hyperphantasic, welcome to the Aphantasia Network! A place to discover and learn about aphantasia and explore the extremes of human imagination.
Together, let’s discover how our minds really work!