Ten years ago I suddenly lost my excellent ability to visualize


From one night to the next in 2012, at age 57, I realized I’d lost my ability to visualize when the visualization technique I’d always used to drift to sleep (watching my feet descending stairs) was impossible because I only saw a blank, dark screen.

I was not and am not sure why it happened, and no neurologist, MRI, therapist, family doctor, or book I sought answers from had any ideas for the first couple of years. I do remember once having an intense experience I thought was related to migraine at the time, but I can’t say with certainty if it happened the day before or at some other point. I was talking to a friend in a store when my vision alarmingly narrowed to a tunnel and darkened, and there was a whooshing sound in my ears. I tried to act like nothing had happened, and I don’t think my friend noticed anything because she didn’t react, and things soon returned to normal. 

After the blank screen became reality, I entirely stopped remembering my dreams for the first time in my life. I started nearly getting into accidents on the highway because my peripheral vision had narrowed, especially on the left, and I didn’t detect vehicles in the left lane that were coming up on me. I nearly ran into a kid on a bike who was coming from the left while I was approaching a stop sign and looking out for traffic. I became very fidgety, couldn’t sit through a dinner with friends without jumping up many times, couldn’t stop interrupting. ADHD? Though I was never great at learning dance-step “combinations” (in tap, belly dancing, etc., classes) I gave up this lifelong exercise because I couldn’t remember left-right-back-front sequences any longer.

My behavioral optometrist had had experience treating people with stroke, and said I exhibited some behaviors that made her think I’d had one, though an MRI hadn’t shown anything. (The neurologist that ordered the MRI did not even understand the concept of visualization or mind’s eye — I suspect he was a complete aphantasic, and this was in 2013, two years before the work at U of Exeter UK began identifying and naming mind’s-eye blindness, but still. He was incurious.) The B.O. recommended a 10-session therapy, including arranging square/diamond/triangle tiles into various configurations and then trying to recreate them from memory, trying to copy words or symbols oriented “straight up, on right side, upside down, on left side,” and other practices. Initially, I cried when I couldn’t look at two tile shapes and immediately recreate them without peeking, but I got more skilled. 

Cranio-sacral therapy helped open up my peripheral vision again so I am no longer such a hazard to myself and others. I have lost huge chunks of memories (“Don’t you remember?” people ask me. Nope.), can’t reliably find my way to places I’ve driven to a million times, and feel diminished. I am more sensitive to loud music, bright lights, and “ear worms” (snatches of songs that get stuck in my head, feel like an assault, and wake me up at night). I can sometimes remember my dreams now, and realize that I describe stuff to myself in my head in order to remember, say, where I left my book, since I can no longer “see” it in my memory.

I was elated to find out recently that there was a name for what happened to me, and that aphantasia is being studied. I know that sometimes it’s innate, and sometimes acquired. I am hoping that someone figures out why people like me lose our abilities that were once quite vivid, and that a therapy could be developed to get them back.

This discussion group is so interesting to me because it’s helped me realize that some things I chide myself for as faults (getting lost, not remembering important things people tell me about themselves) are maybe related to aphantasia.  I would love to read more from people who lost their mind’s sight.

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I’m so sorry you lost your ability to visualise, it must have been so disorientating.  I just want to say, I discovered 3 days ago that I am 100% visual aphasic. Your post above put so much in to perspective – like my dad can return to a place he was DRIVEN to at 3 years old, and I still go the wrong way to a friend’s place, despite driving myself there 100 times. Hang in there, your brain will accommodate, I’m sure. Just make sure you are gentle with yourself. 

R, you are so kind! I really appreciate your encouraging words. It never occurred to me to put it the way you did, but disorientation is EXACTLY what it’s like to have had a mind’s eye and to lose it. I thought it was just the visualization I lost, but it was more, including memories, abilities, and understanding on many levels.

I hope that finally knowing you have aphantasia will give you precious and plentiful “aha” moments that explain why things you do might be different from the way others do it.  May this process of discovery reveal your superpowers to you!

I lost my visualization in 5th grade. Used to dream in series over many nights like a continuous TV series. Had several endings where I almost died, but woke up instead. Then black nothingness. Haven’t visualized anything since. At 60 just started to recover some ability to visualize but it’s usually blurry and hard work.

Larry, wow, what a dramatic loss you experienced, so young. You must have been terribly confused about what happened. It’s fascinating that your visualization has come back a tiny bit. I think something similar may be happening to me: sometimes I can almost perceive a faint, ghostly image that, for some reason, seems as though it’s in the back of my brain or skull. It’s like figures at the back of a darkened theater that you can’t really see but know they’re there. This is occasional, not a progression toward clearer inner vision, as far as I can tell. Anyway, I do hope that you are able to “see” more and more. To me it’s super hopeful that, even after so many decades, a change is happening in your remarkable brain!  Thanks for your comment, and best wishes.

Wow, it must be really tough to go through such a dramatic change.  You’re absolutely right though that learning about aphantasia leads to a lot of the aha moments that make so much of it connect. I highly recommend this recently posted video/webinar.  I really appreciated that he talked about overlapping symptoms/experiences, including what they call autobiographical amnesia.  My jaw practically dropped because I didn’t know before then that my horrible memory was related.  The joke in my marriage is when my husband says “don’t you remember…”, I respond “that sounds like a great story, you should tell it to me.”  It really is kind of crazy.  In another article I read that it can make us more resilient to trauma and loss though, so sometimes it’s a plus.

Lou, thanks for tipping me off to the video of Dr. Zeman’s talk! I found it interesting that many people who’ve lost their mind’s sight realized it when they could no longer lull themselves to sleep with imagery, as happened to me.

I take it you are a lifelong aphantasic? Yes, learning about “autobiographical amnesia” is one of the most reassuring things I’ve read about aphantasia’s effects. I love how you respond to your husband’s “Remember?” questions with humor. A sense of humor is definitely a gift for which I am supremely grateful: it helps me through a lot. 

Do you think you are more resilient to trauma and loss than other people you know? Maybe it’s because my highly empathic nature was formed before I lost my visualization, but I definitely feel my own and others’ trauma keenly. I’m still searching for something positive about losing an ability I used to have, but I can say with conviction that receiving such warm and supportive messages from people like you on this site has been very comforting. Thank you, Lou!