3 things I learned dating an aphantasic

It's hard to imagine what it's like not to imagine

I have to admit, when Tom first told me he had aphantasia and couldn’t imagine a horse, I was quite skeptical.

When I first met Tom back in 2016, I had just recently graduated from design school in a program (and I kid you not) that is all about imagining possible futures.

What do you mean you can’t imagine a horse?”

I remember asking, curiously. To which Tom replied,

I don’t see an image of a horse in my mind. I don’t have that visual ‘picture-it’ system”

So began my interrogation:

What about past memories, can you see those? Future images? Were you born with it? How did you discover this? Can you draw a horse?”

I remember asking him to draw me a horse right then and there, just so I could be sure.

For the record, Tom can draw a horse. Though his drawing of a horse looked more like an abstract wiener dog than a horse if you ask me, it sure as hell made me laugh!

The interrogation didn’t end there. I must have brought up the conversation again 100 times or more in casual conversations with Tom over the weeks that followed.

I asked him questions about his experiences in school, with past relationships, with loss, and so much more. I was deeply curious.

I even introduced the idea to family and friends to see if they could imagine things in their mind. I would ask anyone willing to engage in the conversation, in a desperate attempt to piece together this giant mystery that is aphantasia.

Like Tom, the conversation would always start with: Think of a Horse.

While my conscious brain was busy exploring how this was possible, my subconscious was busy developing a crush on Tom.

Fast forward.

We’ve been dating for two years now.

Pretty cute beginnings, am I right?

So, what have I learned in the last two years since dating an aphantasic? Here’s my best attempt at articulating my discoveries and experiences so far.

Keep in mind the lessons I’m about to share about from dating an aphantastic are entirely anecdotal and based on my own experience. They are opinion-based and only somewhat backed by empirical evidence.

1. Aphantasics live in the present

Tom lives in the present. This became blatantly obvious to me Winter 2016, when Tom asked me to go Christmas Tree shopping with him. It sounded a lot like a “date” to me and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, but he managed to convince me. For context, this was weeks before we were actually dating.

Shopping for a Christmas Tree ended up being quite the ordeal. The day started at 10 am with a 1.5-hour-long drive to the tree farm followed by a wagon ride through fields of evergreens. Then, of course, walking up and down the rows to find the right tree (I am quite picky). Followed by another wagon ride before strapping two giant Christmas trees to the roof of my little Honda Civic and driving the 1.5 hours back.  We made a few stops along the way, including a trip to Home Depot to buy Christmas lights, and then heading to Tom’s house to set up his tree.

Told you, it was quite the ordeal.

By the time we got around to setting up my tree in my apartment, it was 7 pm. Tom and I had spent nearly a full day together.

When we were halfway finished stringing the lights on my tree we realized, that we didn’t have enough Christmas lights. Back to Home Depot we went!

But…they were sold out.

So we drove to Walmart, but they didn’t have the “warm” coloured LED lights only the blue ones so we bought those instead. Returned home and replaced the warm ones already on my Christmas tree with the blue ones.

When we FINALLY finished stringing the blue lights, I took a step back to capture a mental image of my gigantic Christmas Tree (I lived in a warehouse apartment at the time with SUPER high ceilings so the tree had to be BIG!).

As I stood back to capture the moment, I remember thinking to myself: Something doesn’t look right.

But there was NO WAY I was going to tell Tom what I was thinking after we had JUST come from our third trip to the store.

So I faked a smile and in a convincing tone responded:

Yeah, it’s great!”

Tom looked at me. Stared me straight in the eyes and said:

Nope, you’re not happy. I can tell. Let’s go back to the sotre and get you the warm ones.”

My heart sank for a moment. What do you mean you can just tell? Was I really THAT obvious?

I didn’t know Tom very well at this point, remember and yet, he already managed to figure me out. He also cared enough to see me happy and was willing to go out of his way. Which of course I thought was very sweet.

So off we went to get the warm Christmas lights, and the rest is as they say, history. We pretty much started dating after that.

The point in sharing this story,

Tom notices things. 

He notices subtleties my own mother wouldn’t catch (and she’s got sharp eyes and ears, let me tell you!)

Tom’s not just extremely present with me, it’s everybody. When he is in the company of our friends, he is so focused and engaged in conversations. He can read between the lines and just tell how someone is feeling by the tone of voice, the types of expressions or hand gestures they make, or even how they respond in a given situation.

How can I be so certain, you might ask?

I can get, well… a little distracted in my thinking. Tom is always the first one to point it out. He’ll say to me:

What you thinking about?”

The funny thing is, I’m not actually thinking about anything… I’m imagining!

I can’t help it. My imagination runs away with me, and I get easily distracted by images of some distant future or memories from my past. Sometimes I can find it hard to escape from these images…and just focus on the present.

The only explanation I can rationalize for his attention to detail and the subtleties of human emotion is that Tom lives in the present. His entire reality isn’t defined by some distant past memory or thought about the future, it’s entirely based on the here and now.

Actually, many scientists studying aphantasia, have hypothesized that this might be the case. Aphantasics are not distracted by visual flashbacks or images of the future, and therefore, more likely to be anchored in the present.

Makes intuitive sense, right?

This insight blew my mind. To be anchored in the present, what a gift.

2. Aphantasics are fascinated with facts

Tom is fascinated with facts. This may not be the case for all aphantasics, but it sure as h*ll is true for Tom.

Tom has a fact for everything from places and things, to politics, history, philosophical ideas, and even penguins. Yes, I said penguins.

Name the topic, Tom is likely to know some obscure fact about it.

I have to admit, when I first started dating Tom, I found this both endearing and annoying at the same time. I think I may have even called him the king of facts, half-jokingly on our first real date.

But after a few months into our relationship, I noticed his fascination with factual information more clearly when we watched Planet Earth together.

While my mind was preoccupied with the visuals – like the image of the translucent fish with only one eye! – Tom was completely hung up on the facts.

I can’t believe a quarter of the world’s population of penguins live on this island and it’s only 5 km wide!”

To which my reply was,

Come again?”

We might as well of been watching two different movies!

I’m not sure if I was so distracted by the image of cute waddling penguins that I missed key information entirely or just wasn’t paying as close attention, but you can bet, Tom was listening and recording. The information about Planet Earth he found fascinating; he was storing it somewhere in that beautiful complex brain of his to use at a later date.

After reading up on the experience of other aphantasics, mainly through blog posts and Reddit pages, other aphantasics make mention of a preference towards non-fiction books over fiction. This is also the case with Tom.

Tom prefers to read nonfiction books, likes movies or TV shows based on true stories, and prefers to listen to live debates where both parties make evidence-based arguments – or at the very least make mention to when the basis of their argument is their own personal opinion, and not the facts.

His fascination with finding and uncovering the truth about things, runs deep. Deeper than most people I have encountered in my lifetime.

Perhaps this has something to do with how the brain of an aphantasic operates? It’s tricky to say for sure, we’re not quite sure where aphantasia ends and personality begins.

It could be, however, that not having a mind’s eye does (in fact) force you to see and interact with the world differently – to rely on alternative modes of thinking like rationality, logic, and reason.

More research is certainly needed, so I’ll stop there. Perhaps one day a researcher might pick it up and validate (or invalidate) this hypothesis.

3. Aphantasics think about the past and future, differently

Tom’s relationship to the past and future is…well… different.

When most people recall events from their past, they can replay specific events almost like a movie reel in their mind. Using our imagination, we can re-live certain aspects of our past experience – re-create certain sights, sounds, and even the emotions associated with these memories.

Think of a bad break up with an ex-partner. So you remember the moments right before it ended? Where you were? What was said? How it felt?

I know I do.

For me, this memory is as vivid as the actual experience itself.

Or how about the last time you felt happy? I mean, REALLY happy. Can you recall what you were doing? Who you were with? Does it make you feel happy just thinking about it? 

When I ask Tom about events in his past, he doesn’t reimagine this experience in the same way. It’s almost as if he recalls the event ‘matter-of-factly.’

I once asked Tom about his bad break-up and he started listing key details that took place chronologically. What was even more fascinating to me, was there was almost no emotional attachment associated with the memory.

That’s not to say there was no emotion whatsoever.

Tom will be the first to tell you this was a particularly painful part of his past, but typically when someone tells you a story of a bad breakup where “pain” is the dominant emotion, it’s as if they are reliving the events while retelling the story.

You can hear the tone of their voice soften, see the expression on their face wane, or notice their body language change as they recount the uncomfortable bits.

With Tom, this is not the case.

When Tom and I talk about his past, it’s much more of an intellectual conversation. He recalls past events quite clearly, especially the more painful ones – like the memory of his mom passing when he was young – but he doesn’t re-experience these memories in the same way you or I might.

It’s almost as if the emotion associated with these memories are less visceral in some way. That is, once they’ve been felt the experience is just gone?

In an online forum for people with aphantasia, someone once said:

Not being able to picture the future [means] you can’t really live in it. The same thing about [the] past.”

As someone who can re-imagine past events that have happened or imagine events that could happen and in effect, “live in it,” this was mind-blowing.

I had never really given much thought to just how different our inner worlds could be until now.

The fact that we can have fundamentally different experiences with the past, present and future – as a function of our imaginations – is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

There is so much more to learn and discover about aphantasia. Most of which is still unknown to science. But one thing is for sure, studying aphantasia can unearth some pretty interesting clues about why people see and respond to the word differently.

For the first time in my life, I am beginning to understand how my own imagination works, and tapping into the powers that be in ways I would have never imagined possible.

And it’s all thanks to my aphantasic boyfriend. xo

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