I have to admit, when Tom first told me he had aphantasia and couldn’t visualize 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 picture 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:
“Were you born with it? How did you discover this? Can you draw me a horse?”
I asked 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, and 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 visualize 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.
We’ve been dating for over four 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 are entirely anecdotal and based on my own personal experiences. They are opinion-based and only somewhat informed by empirical evidence and conversations with other aphantasics.
1. Aphantasics are anchored 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. 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 months before we actually started dating.
Shopping for a Christmas Tree ended up being quite the ordeal. It was winter, and there was lite snowfall that morning. The day started with a 1.5-hour drive to the tree farm. Then a wagon ride through fields of evergreens. Of course, walking up and down the rows of evergreens 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 get Christmas lights, and then finally heading to Tom’s house to set up the first tree.
Did I mention it was quite the ordeal?
By the time we got around to setting up my tree, it was already dinner time. Tom and I had spent nearly a full day together. We were halfway finished stringing lights when we realized we didn’t have enough. So back to Home Depot we went!
But…they were sold out.
So we drove to another store, except they didn’t have the “warm” coloured LED lights only the blue ones. Returned home and replaced the warm lights 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 in my inner voice: 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!”
That’s when Tom looked at me and said:
“Nope, you’re not happy. I can tell. Let’s go back to the store and get you the warm ones.”
My heart sank for a moment. What do you mean you can just tell? Remember we had only just met. Was I really that obvious?
Not only did Tom pick up on what I was thinking, but 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! I was quite mischievous growing up.)
Tom’s not just extremely present with me, it’s everybody. When he is in the company of our team at the network or some of our closest friends, he is so engaged in conversations. Always listening intently, and picking up not only what people say but how they say it, and picking up on the intentions behind their words.
Me on the other hand, 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 are you thinking about?”
The funny thing is, I’m not actually thinking (at least not in the way he does) … I’m imagining!
I can’t help it. My imagination runs away with me, and I can get easily distracted by creating images of ideas in my head. Sometimes I can find it hard to escape from these images and just focus on the present.
Perhaps one of the reasons for Tom’s presentness is his aphantasia. His entire reality isn’t defined by some distant past memory or image of the future, it’s entirely based on the here and now. Coincidently, one of Tom’s favourite books is The Power of Now.
Many scientists studying aphantasia, including Dr. Adam Zeman have speculated this could be the case. Because aphantasics are not distracted by visual flashbacks or images of the future, they are more likely to be anchored in the present.
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-e-double hockey sticks 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,
We might as well have 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. Even though whenever you look at one individual case, you have to throw out the averages, I do wonder if this is true for most people with aphantasia?
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 aphantasic brain processes information? It’s tricky to say for certain, we’re not quite sure where aphantasia ends and personality begins.
It could be, however, that not having a mind’s eye forces 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 replay specific flashback moments almost like a movie reel in their mind. Using our imagination, we can relive certain aspects of our past experiences and almost recreate the different sights, sounds, and emotions associated with these past memories.
Think of a bad break up with an ex-partner. Can you imagine the moments right before it ended? Can you picture where you were? Hear what was said? Imagine the awful feeling?
I know I can, and if I let my imagination go, can replay these memories over and over again almost like a .gif in my mind.
For me, emotional memories are as vivid as the actual experience itself.
Or how about the last time you felt happy? I mean, REALLY happy. Can you picture it? Can you hear, smell or taste it? Does it make you feel happy re-experiencing it in your mind?
When I ask Tom about events from his past, he doesn’t reimagine the experience but he can recreate the details. It’s almost as if he’s recalling ‘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 wasn’t a lot of emotional attachment to the memory.
That’s not to say there was no emotion.
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. Their posture changes.
You can hear the tone of their voice soften, see the expression on their face wane, or notice them trying to hold back tears as they recount the uncomfortable bits.
With Tom, this is not the case. He’s much more stoic about it.
When Tom and I talk about his past, it’s 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 is true about [the] past.”
As someone who can reimagine past events that have happened or imagine events that could happen, this was mind-blowing to say the least.
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 discover about aphantasia. Most of which is still unknown to science. But one thing is for sure, studying aphantasia and these invisible differences can unearth some pretty interesting clues about why people see and respond to the world, 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