As children, we respond intuitively to situations and as we develop we are taught other rules and responses, meaning instinct increasingly takes a back seat. Intellect takes over in order to adopt coping mechanisms. Some scientists argue that our brains have two distinct sides, and often opposing dispositions, each responsible for different functions and therefore different approaches to how we see and do things. It has been suggested that if we are right-handed, we have a tendency towards a left-brained response; if left-handed then a right-brain response. Certainly, this school of thought accords with my own experiences.
One of my conceptual art projects researched the unconscious and conscious mind. I distinctly remember talking to my friend in tears of frustration one day feeling there was a huge piece of the puzzle that I could not see and without it, I could not grasp the picture. If I had known then that I was aphantasic it would have made so much sense. During my BA my research led me to create conceptual art relating to the brain, the unconscious mind and sleep. As part of this research, I underwent an EEG (brain scan). Looking back at that time it was as though I was trying to get inside my unconscious head.
I am left-handed, (as with roughly 10% of the population); my natural disposition is intuitive, playful and imaginative. I have forced myself to be much more left-brained in my responses particularly with regard to marshalling and retaining information in order to cope with situations, especially schooling and working environments. My techniques have enabled me to cope well over the years but this has been at the expense of inhibiting my more intuitive self.
I recognize two distinct identities within myself and even have different names for them; the ordered, professional, self-conscious one is called Louise; the creative, free-spirited, uncritical one Rachel. One of the main motivations for taking time away from my professional health care work and embarking on the unknown journey into artistic expression was the need to create a better balance between these two.
I struggled during my fine art degree because I felt the course wanted concepts based on visualization. I was unable to visualize or create satisfying representational art and this caused me internal stress. I bypassed this problem by focusing on the creation of conceptual art. All these methods entailed working from the outside inwards; having a concept and then finding things to present and illustrate it.
Discovery of my Aphantasia
I started my MFA last year and within the first few weeks, I found myself even more frustrated and distressed because the sense of ‘wrongness’ that I had all along was now even stronger. During my previous research on sleep and the unconscious mind, I had corresponded with Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter College and came across aphantasia for the first time. I realized that this previously unknown condition exactly mirrored my own experiences but even then I did not make the connection between that and my frustrations with my art practice.
This connection suddenly hit me during those initial turbulent weeks of my MFA. Very early one morning when I was unable to sleep and went down to my home studio in the dark, I started manipulating some clay without bothering to put on a light – without my glasses – and unable to see what I was doing. I was almost overwhelmed by the desperate need to produce something tangible but I didn’t know how to channel it. When it became light and I could see the form that I had been working on, I was astonished at how it looked and where it had come from. I felt an enormous sense of relief and release.
It was at this point that the penny dropped and I realized that my aphantasia was a significant factor in my frustration and inability up to then to express myself. I had suddenly found a simple and uncomplicated instinctive method of expression. Up until very recently, it was assumed that everybody visualized in the same way. The debate centred around how we interpret what we see. Professor Zeman’s research suggests that our capacity to visualize is fundamental to what we do with certain information, visualization being rather like an internal monologue of pictures instead of words.
“the lack of conscious imagery has multiple implications for artistic practice but none … for the creativity or imaginativeness of the artist. It seems that aphantasia instead can have a more ‘holistic’ effect, influencing one’s self-perception as much as the decisions one makes about how to work. For example, having no ‘plan’ as such you just start making marks and see where they lead …” He goes on to discuss “the diversity of hidden routes to creation”.
Professor Adam Zeman
Generally speaking, to produce a piece of artwork there are three stages involved: stage A – the intention to produce something, some emotion or concept; stage B – consideration of how to formulate the idea or concept, either on paper or in some internal visualizing way/preplanning; stage C – making the piece of work. An artist with aphantasia produces work without the stage of advanced planning or the inner mind’s eye. The process is therefore going straight from A-C rather than A-B-C. This is a fundamentally different journey from one made by an artist who plans his/her work in advance, and during the making process, continually assesses their ‘mental picture’.