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, I 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.
Followed by a whole host of other questions:
How do you know for sure? Were you born with it? How did you discover it? Can you draw a horse?
I recall asking him to sketch me a horse right then and there, so I could be sure he could.
For the record, Tom can draw a horse. His drawing looked more like a wiener dog than a horse to me, but it sure as hell made me laugh!
The interrogation did not end there. I must have brought up aphantasia 100x 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 like me imagine things in their mind. I would ask anyone and everyone who was willing to engage, in an 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 it were possible not to imagine a horse, my subconscious was busy developing a crush on Tom.
We’ve been dating for two years.
Pretty cute beginnings, am I right?
So, what have I learned in the last two years dating an aphantasic? Here’s my best attempt at articulating my discoveries and experiences so far.
[Caution: the lessons learned from dating an aphantastic are entirely anecdotal, they are largely opinion-based and are 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 he 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.
Shopping for a Christmas Tree ended up being quite the ordeal; beginning with a 1.5 hour drive to the tree farm at 10 am, a wagon ride through fields of evergreens, walking up and down rows to find the right one (I was quite picky), another wagon ride, strapping two Christmas trees to the roof of my little Honda Civic, driving 1.5 hours back to Waterloo, stopping for lunch and 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.
We were halfway finished stringing the lights when we realized we didn’t have enough 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 the 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 Christmas Tree and 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!
It was then he looked me straight in the eye and said:
No, you’re not happy. I can tell. Let’s get you the warm ones.
I remember, in that moment, feeling caught off guard. What do you mean you can just tell?
I didn’t know Tom very well at this point, but he already managed to figure me out, and cared enough to see me happy. Which of course I thought was very sweet.
So off we went to get the warm ones, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Since then, I can recall countless times where Tom’s been observant and aware of my emotion, even at times when I try my darndest to shelter them (I can be quite stubborn at times).
Tom notices things, my own mother wouldn’t catch!
But he’s not just present with me, it’s everybody. When he is in the company of our friends, he is focused and engaged in conversations and how people are feeling. He can read between the lines and just tell by their tone of voice, the types of expressions or gestures they make, or even how they respond in a given situation almost exactly how they are feeling.
How can I be certain, you might ask?
Because he always knows the right thing to say, at exactly the right moment you need to hear it. Trust me, I’ve gotten an earful.
Not going to lie, sometimes it can be quite irritating. Especially when he calls me out for being a bit, well…irrational in my thinking. I can’t help it. My imagination can sometimes run away with me, with distant thoughts and images of the future. Sometimes I find it hard to escape from these fantasies…
The only explanation I can rationalize for his attention to the subtleties of human experience is that he lives in the present. His 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 speculated that this might be the case; aphantasics are not distracted by visual flashbacks or mental images of the future; They are anchored in the present.
This insight blew my mind. To be anchored in the present, what a gift.
2. Aphantasics are fascinated with the truth
Tom is fascinated with the truth. This may not the case for all aphantasics but it is definitely true for Tom, and some other aphantasics I have read about.
For starters, Tom loves facts. He 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’s 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,
I am 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 factual information he found fascinating; storing it somewhere in that beautiful complex brain of his to use at a later date.
Upon reading up on the experience of other aphantasics, mainly through blog posts and Reddit pages, other aphants make mention to a preference towards nonfiction 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 sound arguments that are grounded in scientific evidence, or at least make mention to when the foundation for their argument is based on their own personal opinion.
His fascination with seeking the truth 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 could be that not having a mind’s eye and the ability to conjure up mental images forces you to rely on alternative modes of thinking like rationality, logic, and reason?
More research is definitely needed to explore this phenomena in greater depths, but that’s my working hypothesis from my encounters so far.
3. Aphantasics have a different relationship to the past and future
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 the experience – the sights, sounds, and even recreate emotions associated with these memories.
Think of a bad break up with an ex-partner; do you remember the moments right before it ended? Where you were? What was said? How it felt?
I know I do.
Or how about the last time you felt happy? Can you recall what you were doing? Who you were with? Does it make you feel happy just thinking about it? Does an image come to mind?
When I ask Tom about events in his past, he doesn’t reimagine this experience. He simply tells you what happened matter of factly.
I once asked him about his bad break-up and he started listing key events that took place chronologically. What was more interesting, there was almost no emotional attachment associated with the memory.
That’s not to say there was no emotion whatsoever. Tom will 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 they are retelling the story; you can hear the tone of their voice soften, see the expression of pain on their face, or notice their body language change as they recount the uncomfortable parts of the story.
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 these events and things from his past quite clearly, especially the more painful ones – like his mom passing when he was very young- but he doesn’t re-experience these memories in the same way you or I might when he tells his story. It’s almost as if the emotions associated with these memories are less visceral in some ways. That is, once they’ve been felt the experience is gone.
In an online forum for people who experience 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 with the capability to reimagine events that have happened or could happen and “live” in it, I had never really given much thought to how this reality might be different for someone else until now.
The fact that people can have fundamentally different orientations with the past, present and future – as a function of their ability or inability to imagine sensory experiences in their mind- is something I am still trying to wrap my head around.
Evidently, there is so much more to learn about aphantasia, most of which is still unknown to science at present. 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 really works, and beginning to tap into the powers that be in ways I would have never imagined were possible.
And it’s all thanks to my aphantasic boyfriend.