I always find this question so interesting.
For most of my life, I didn’t realize that others were actually visualizing their thoughts and memories… I thought it was more as a figure of speech than a literal description of how people were thinking. I had such a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that visual representations were being created in someone’s “mind’s eye”. I still do, to be honest. How do you understand something that requires it’s experience? It’s almost like trying to explain the colour purple to someone who only sees in black and white… good luck!
It was my second year in college when my girlfriend (at the time) opened my eyes. We were talking about a mutual friend we’d just seen, and how she was wearing the same thing she was the last time we saw her a year prior. I was amazed she could remember that kind of detail… “How do you remember what she was wearing a year ago??” I asked. “Well, I can just see her in my mind”… WHAT?!
I then spent years obsessively asking everyone who’d listen about their imagination experience. Helplessly searching for “learn to visualize” or “no mind’s eye” on google only led me to sadness… how can I be missing what seems to be a vital part of the human experience? To relive memories in my mind… see the people, places, and events that meant the most to me? To “picture” what it might be like to visit a destination or “imagine” a success. All the writing I found talked about the benefits of visualizing… even today, a google search shows that it’s still heavily weighted this way.
This was years before Aphantasia was coined by Adam Zemen at Exitor. Many discussions have taken place since then and I’ve come a long way in my understanding of Aphantasia’s Strengths. I’ll be writing about those thoughts in the coming weeks and months.
How did you first discover your Blind Mind?
Hi there, firstly, a great looking website and some good looking swag, I hope you ship to the UK!
I first found conclusively that I had aphantasia in 2015. I had known I had something for a few years before that, but did not know what. Whenever I had some spare time (like today!) I used to hit google and try and find what it was, but the results always leaned towards ‘face blindness’, but I knew that wasn’t what I had because when I saw someone I recognised them, it was only when I couldn’t see them that the problems occured. How many times have I lost my wife in the aisles of a supermarket and gone looking down for her only to realise I had no idea what she was wearing.
I only put a name to it when I found an article from someone big in the tech industry (Amazon or Google or Facebook? I can’t remember now), I was so happy reading the article thinking Oh wow, this is me! Then soon after, as I wrote in my introduction on this site, I found that my daughter has it too.
Since then I have found two friends who may have aphantasia too, but they showed no interest more than ‘yeah, same here’ when I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture their wife or children.
I find the whole subject really interesting and would love to explore it more. I have done two questionaires for university studies, one here in the UK and one in US, but never heard anything much back, seemed like they just wanted to collect data, not discuss it. I am so interested in what differences it creates between us and visulisers!
I am 82 years old but just learned two weeks ago there was a name for my inability to visualize the characters or scenes in the novels I read, to arrange furniture in a room without graph paper and a tape measure, to do simple math in my head. I graduated top of my class from a major university and even though many of my generation run from using a smart phone, I love technology and would be lost without my MacBook. I’m sure this has helped me compensate and succeed in areas that I might have stumbled in because of my lack of sensory skills.
It was my inquisitive nature that led me to Google “Lack of ability to visualize” and I was shocked to find others have the same issues. I have been aware that I struggled to visualize while reading as a child. I also remember that when my mother told me to try counting sheep, I just lay there seeing how high I could count which I’m sure kept be alert more than it made me drowsy. As I have been looking for more sources of information I was surprised to see questions in the Exeter survey regarding other senses. I have always known I had extremely poor taste and smell ability (I can’t tell sweet from sour, or ginger from cilantro); I have NEVER had a melody stuck in my head, and although I do have a fair ability to recognize faces I could never adequately describe a relative to someone else – I would describe their personality not their features. I just two days ago sent a text to my adult children and grandchildren telling them what I have learned about myself – but evidently I didn’t pass it on to any of them.
I think it was a slow realization but never enough to actually ask others if and how they visualize. I used to experience frustration during situations of guided meditations – "imagine you are ..(at the beach).. you feel the.( warm breeze)… listen to the..(water lapping).." To me, this was all just irritating prattle that stopped me from simply relaxing. Counting sheep was literally counting in my head. No sheep were remotely involved. I had heard of photographic memory. I supposed that some people had the ability to visualize something they had seen previously. That it would appear like a photograph. Not a moving picture. I thought this was rare. But the real Ah ha! moment – when I realized that I was not able to do what others could – was when I was talking to a friend about my difficulty with accurate spelling. She said, Oh I just imagine the word and spell what I see, she said. She had eyes open as she looked at this word in front of her. I was floored. With her eyes open? I can’t even bring images to mind with my eyes closed. There is nothing there. Her turn to be incredulous. She asked me to imagine my daughter (everyone can imagine a loved one, surely) Nope. Nothing. Then she asked if I dreamed? Yes, I suppose but I rarely remember when I do, And I certainly cannot review dreams in my mind. I have a vague notion that I have dreamt. Nothing more. When I try to remember what it was, it’s gone before I can form a thought. I have always had difficulty with sleep. Is this connected in any way, I wonder?
Anyway, that was in the early 2000s. After that, I became curious and began asking people how they visualized. Most people didn’t even get what I was asking them. Imagine being asked how you breathe or chew your food. I perused the internet, there was the odd forum that discussed inner blindness.
In 2015, probably around the time the term Aphantasia was coined, I had returned to university to do a certificate in psychology. Naturally, any model that described the learning process involved visualization. I asked three different profs, what about those who can’t visualize? They were stumped. They had never heard of such a thing (this surprises me because surely the learning process of people who are congenitally blind has been studied?) Nevertheless, I could find no satisfactory answers until I read about Adam Zeman’s study.
Reviewing my life through this new lens (ironically, my metaphors often evoke seeing in the mind, but for me they are just that, metaphors) I can better understand certain difficulties I have faced. It is only more recently, however, that I have come to realize that it is a broad spectrum thing with me – I cannot recreate any of the senses with my mind. The most incredible revelation for me was when I found out that most people can visualize with their eyes open. Even while looking straight at me!
On occasion, I have caught myself "seeing" an image in my mind. This can only happen in the dark and is a rare occurrence. Moreover, it is always fleeting and never at will. Alsom images are never something specifically familiar (for example, a person or scene I am familiar with) Once, while lying in the dark, I saw kittens. My heart raced, I was even excited!: I am really seeing kittens! Poof. The image was gone. This has led me to believe that it is a retrieval problem. Images may be formed but I cannot access them. A kind of anomic aphasia but for images. But I also suspect, if inner images are never used, they must surely fade. My daughter is the opposite. She has a vivid inner world. She can go on at length (like a good half hour!), telling me about a dream she had. I asked her if she saw it again while she was describing it. Of course, she said.
I discovered that I was an aphant days ago by accident when I watched a Youtube video about Aphantism. I was actually half-listening to the vlogger’s explanation until she mentioned about reading books.
I am a bookworm but the way she explained her sides on reading hit me hard – I can’t visualize anything while reading. Maybe this explains why lengthy descriptions bore me, and why I’m good at remembering the characters, the landmarks and the story plot but not the experience like how pretty the protagonist was or how beautiful the Kingdom X was. And as a writer, it was easier for me to write dialogues ‘coz I know what to react on certain situations. But to describe my character’s feelings and their surroundings? Boy it was hard.
I am so glad that there are lots of Aphantasia articles online that answers my memory retention concerns. No wonder why I couldn’t picture-out things on my head every time I draw, or even if I have a reference image, I still need to dig some additional references because I can’t visualize what I really want to draw.
I always believed that what I saw in my MIND (Black emptiness} was what all people saw. I thought they just exaggerated what they saw and that they had really good memories for the small detail.
I was always very poor in art class because it was always "Draw something" never "draw this or that" or "Draw this object". Again I thought it was a lacking that I had.
When in Primary School, aged 4 or 5, the teachers told my mother that at the age of 7 I would need to go to a school for Special Needs because I just wasn’t learning anything. At age 5 or 6 when we began to be taught NUMBERS I , within 6 months, went from being the class fool to being top of the class.
I successfully went on to do a BSc. in Mathematics and Computing.
BUT it wasn’t until recently, while listening to the radio that I heard a discussion about Aphantasia and then it all fell into place, for 57 years I thought I was different, lacking a good memory. People said I didn’t care about things and that was why I didn’t remember the details. NOW I can hold my head up because I know it isn’t me.
I’m delighted to have found this website. I can’t remember the fist time I realized that my inner experience was so different from everyone else’s. I have a number of memories that stand out, but I couldn’t tell you which was the first one. But I do recall that I immediately started surveying my family members and I am the only one who can’t actually see an apple when someone says "picture an apple." I felt sad and kind of ripped off about that. I sure as heck was surprised! It might have been when my partner said that she could remember things by picturing the book she read it in and just reading it off. And she can spell aloud quickly because she can picture the word and just read off the letters. Really?!?!?! Then she started asking me about my experience and it was really hard to talk about. How do I remember things? Most puzzling is that I have a really good sense of direction and she doesn’t. I can "picture" what’s on a certain street corner and find my way back there, but I don’t see anything. I can best say that it’s kinesthetic and descriptive. If I try to picture an apple I may draw it in the blackness behind my closed eyes, and I’ll think of the shape and colour of a delicious apple (one I don’t particularly like), or a granny smith apple (which was my favourite at one time, but is not too acidic for me), but I don’t see anything. I’m just sort of flipping through memories of apples.
I like doing visualizations. Sometimes really interesting ideas come. I can have an experience of what’s being described. I can think about the sound of the water, and the sunshine on my face and I can generate, in the present, something of the feeling I have had in the past in the sunshine by water. Once I had such a powerful experience / idea come up in a guided visualization that I immediately wanted to draw what I "saw" because I wanted to really see it.
I can get emotionally involved in a story and have an experience of the story, even if I’ve never had that experience before. I can be "moved" by it, but I don’t see anything.
Now, in just my short exposure to this website which isn’t much beyond scanning one article and looking at this thread, I’ve had a new realization. It extends to sound. But unlike some of the other folks, I do regularly get a tune stuck in my head. But I sing. I love to sing. So the tune I get stuck in my head is always in my own voice, even though I’m not actually making noise. I have a friend who can write harmonies and she says she can just hear harmonies in her head. I thought she was just a weird anomaly. Wow, you must be like Beethoven or something. Some weird freak of nature. But just now I figured out, it’s my aphantasia.
I write songs, but I have to do it. I just now tried to make up a tune in my head…. absolutely can’t do it. Who knew? And frankly it’s a bit disturbing. I guess it’s only sad to me because now I know that others can. Bummer! Somehow it was easier believing that those who could were outliers with unusual abilities rather than thinking that I have an unusual deficit. Wow. What lessons can I draw from that?!? Comparisons are odious!
Interestingly I do sometimes have vivid dreams in my sleep. And occasionally, in the early stages of sleep where I still think I am awake, I am aware of seeing images. Even in those guided visualizations, if I am approaching a meditative state, I may get a flash of something like I would experience in a dream. More often I get a "vivid idea" of something that is almost a picture… more like an impression.
I do wonder if my aphantasia is protective in my line of work. I am a psychotherapist. I have heard some stories that are quite ghastly; "unimaginable" cruelty. And some do haunt me a bit. How much harder it must be to push such memories away if they come with the full spectrum of sensations. When I think of this, I am tremendously grateful for my "deficit."
Thanks for putting website together.
I was starting training in NLP, a therapy technique that uses a LOT of visualisation. I ended up having a conversation with the trainer which blew my mind as I realised that other people could "see" things in their minds. This was in the mid-1980’s long before there was a name for it.
I’ve written about this in length many times, so I’ll try to keep it to the highlights here.
Around 2008-2009 I had a sudden thought in relation to something I was reading or watching. I don’t know what it was, because similar to many other aphantasiacs, I have limited autobiographical memory and hadn’t yet learned to start documenting this crap. 🙂 But what occurred to me at first was roughly, "I wonder if people who can paint, draw, sculpt, etc. have a unique ability to see things in their mind, in a way that makes it easier to create this art." Obviously the unknown unknown got me here, and I was asking the wrong question. Eventually, after talking to my sister and her artist friend, I started to realize maybe the issue was broader than that. So, I stared asking other family members about their ability to visualize, and eventually it clicked. I determined from the start that A: the degree to which people can visualize is on a spectrum, but most people are on the full-visualization side, and B: I was way the hell on the other side of that spectrum.
I did start feeding things into search engines at this time, but as I’ve mentioned before, it was very hard for people with an awareness of this condition to even connect to each other back then, when we had no precise search terms to use. I wrote an article called "Dreaming in Emotions" in 2009, which I posted on my blog of the time (it’s been down for several years), that sorta tried to connect the dots. And based on the traffic and comments it got, at least a few dozen people got their first glimpse of the eventually aphantasia community through that article. And there were attempts on that forum, by me and regular visitors, to find an actual name for the condition, with our best guess being a form of Visual Agnosia.
But what was most interesting in that small and briefly-organized group, was the comments about ‘the lie’ we’d all told ourselves for years, to explain the visual representations of visual representation. What I mean is, thinking that the dream sequences in movies or TV shows were just the best effort to visually represent what dreams are like, because how else can you show the vague non-visual experience that is dreaming. Also the unconscious mental process that leads you think that the terms, "mind’s eye," "picture it in your mind" or "visualize" are effectively just metaphors used to describe imagination, regardless of the fact that (for us at least) imagination has no eye or visual component at all. It’s remarkable the number of excuses some of our brains created, for why our own experiences with internal sensory data are so different from the norm.
I was born in Utrecht,the Netherlands, in 1951. With keeness to learn and ability I skipped year one at primary school. In year 5 at primary school the headmaster (Mr v d Bent), who was teaching our class, told my parents that I probably was dyslexic. At the time that was called “word blind” in Dutch. So for a while my parents sent me to a speech pathologist (Mevr v d Hurk). My parents thought it was a waste of time and referred to my dislexia ever since as “lazy with words”. To improve reading skills I read sections from my favourite archaeology book at the time (Goden, Graven en Geleerden) to my parents. Reading aloud is still a struggle and I could not read out the text of this documents without major mistakes or swapping words around.
In 1980 I moved to Australia and got married in 1986. Knowing my dyslexia story my wife saw in the early 2000s in a newspaper that one could be tested for free for dyslexia at a technical college, they started running courses for management of dyslexia. Which I did and during the conversation the assessor-lecturer asked me if I could visualise. When I told her that I could not visualise anything, she told me that it was not unusual for dyslexic people to have this condition. She told me the brain is just wired differently so we process information differently. This was an eye opener when being in my early 50s.
My dyslexia is not that bad. I have a BSc in Geology and a Grad Dip in Geographic Information Systems. I always like to read and study, but find it difficult to concentrate. Remembering items verbatim I find nearly impossible. This includes remembering the exact words/sentence of what someone just said to me. I do not know any verse of any song by heart and do not like poetry. I think because of that I treat songs performed just as the output of a musical instrument. My mother has told me that she regularly asked me if I learned any songs at kindy and I said “no”. Then when she raised the issue with the teacher who in turn told her that they did quite a bit of singing. At times I still swap letters around when writing, full well knowing how to spell the word. Proof reading is also not my strong point, which can be a problem when working. In general my writing skills are not that good, both in Dutch and English. Writing letters/reports takes me probably three times as long as the ‘average’. In primary school we had regularly write essays based on a topic written on the blackboard by the teacher. I remember one occasion, there may have been more, were I could not think about anything to write and handed in a blank sheet. Now with hindsight was this because I could not visualise and so un-imagine the topic? Even though my language skills are not the best I like linguistic knowledge, like trying to decipher a french newspaper with my highschool French knowledge and a dictionary. Currently doing a unit Spanish at uni and I am struggling. I continue because I would like to understand academic papers in Spanish. Occasionally when dreaming I have involuntary images appear, never very sophisticated and always in black&white with . In my early teens I had a recurring dream, as far as I can remember, a “Tron” movie like scenario of chasing/being chased along a grid like patterns.
Having said all this I believe that I am very spatial. I always have been able to read maps from a young age, an essential skill as a geologist. Also good in facial recognition. At my final highschool exam I had 90% for my Stereometry (3D geometry) subject. I have good spatial problem solving skills, for example when doing some handy man work. I am not a watchmaker with fine motor-skills, but what we call here in Australia a “bush-mechanic” someone who can solve problems to get things going. In addition I believe that I am pretty good in some esoteric abstract thinking.
A little less than a year ago, I saw a youtube video describing aphantasia, and realized it sounded very familiar to me, so I started researching it a bit more and soon discovered a test to see if you had it, and realized that it wasn’t normal to not be able to visualize anything at all.
Looking back, I realize I should have figured out it was unusual long ago, since there were so many instances of me not being able to visualize things most people expected me to be able to see clearly in my mind. For example, I was always confused by the concept of counting sheep to go to sleep, because how are you supposed to count something you can’t see and don’t have names for (since I can count, say, countries in Europe, because they have names that I can use to differentiate between them, even if I’m not looking at a map of Europe, but counting theoretical sheep doesn’t work the same way). I also remember one time in about 3rd grade, we were doing math. I have a tendency to stare off into space while doing mental math, so basically what it looked like to anyone that couldn’t "hear" that silent voice in my head doing the math and figuring it out was a little third grader staring off into space and suddenly knowing the right answer to each problem, so my classmate’s assumption was somewhat reasonable, looking back. See, what my classmate asked me was "Do you just see the right answers floating on a cloud while you daydream, or something?" I was, of course, confused because how could I see a cloud at all, we were inside, plus, I wasn’t daydreaming, I was figuring oit the math problem, and how do people daydream anyway???! I didn’t say any of that, and instead just said "no…?" while giving him a confused look, but I looked around expecting my other classmates to be as confused as I was, and was surprised to see that most of them looked more confused at my confusion than at my classmates question.
I’ve never been able to ‘see’. I always thought people claiming to be able to ‘see’ were just a bit self-deluded – a bit like those lost souls who believe in ghosts or auras or homoeopathy. To be honest I’m still not convinced that people can really ‘see’ people or places or objects. But maybe that’s because I have no idea what that sensation would be like.
Not being able to ‘see’ can be awkward. I generally can’t describe what people look like unless I recall specific details. I know my oldest friend, who I’ve known since Form 1 in 1973, has blue eyes, but only because they are so often commented on on Facebook. It is a piece of data, not a sensory experience. I know that my wife, who I’ve known since university has silver grey hair, but I can’t describe the shape or size of her eyes. Some time in the next couple of decades, my octogenarian parents are likely to die; will I be able to grieve properly when I can’t recall their faces? In twenty years time, will my inability to describe people, places, objects be confused with dementia? I have no problems in recognising people, places, objects; I just can’t describe them unless they are in front of me.
My inability to ‘see’ hasn’t caused any general difficulties in education. In my last year of high school I mostly studied University level subjects and obtained very high SAT scores, while back home, my scores were high enough that I was admitted to med school (although anatomy drawing was something I could never manage from memory alone).
I wonder if my interest in photography is related to my inability to ‘see’. By capturing images, I can then recall them later (on a screen).
I also wonder if this is related to my lack of dreams. I cannot remember experiencing a dream since I was in primary school, and even that isn’t convincing. I am suspicious that I invented that memory as a cover – possibly when a teacher asked us to write about a dream we’d had.
So how did I first discover that I’m aphantasic? I guess I accepted that most people are phantasic, i.e., that most people aren’t completely deluded when they claim to ‘see’ stuff, a few years ago. I’ve since tried various exercises to try to develop my missing mind’s eye, but without success. I suppose because I have no reference point, I don’t even understand how some of the exercises are meant to work, so no surprise when I don’t succeed.
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