Discovering the Extremes Opens a Whole New World

Discovering the extremes opens a whole new world

A whole new World

a new fantastic point of view

no one to tell us no

or where to go

or say we’re only dreaming.

Un Mundo ideal

que nunca pude imaginar

donde ya comprendí, que junto a tí

el mundo es un lugar para soñar.

I remember watching Aladdin for the first time back in 1992, I must have been ten years old. It became my favorite childhood movie and I would daydream that I was Jasmine. In my dream, I had a pet-tiger named Rajah and I flew around on a magic carpet. Little did I know back then that what I understood as daydreaming was very different from my friend’s imaginative experience, yet we both were fantasizing about the same things. 

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When I dreamed about being Jasmine, I did not see myself in my mind’s eye dressed as Jasmine. I was not playing with Abu, nor was I flying on a magic carpet. I could not hear Rajah roaring, nor could I hear “A Whole New World” playing in my head. My daydreams were more like stories I told myself expressed through concepts and lyrics instead of images and sounds.

It is not just my daydreams; the thoughts in my mind are without images, sounds, or any other sensory experience like smells and taste. I cannot even begin to imagine what tasting warm, freshly-baked bread in your mind must be like, yet I know what warm freshly baked bread smells and tastes like.

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Almost 30 years later and I am still daydreaming. Not about becoming Jasmine of course, but about buying my own house, a promotion at work, about the next time I will travel, about going scuba diving, about advancing my yoga practise, about going on a photography safari…

You might say, I’m a dreamer.

Photographing everything I want to remember is a habit of mine. I have a constant fear of forgetting. I solve this by hoarding memories in a portable drive. I have a hard time trying to put myself back in a memory. I can remember the feeling I experienced, the words that describe the moment, and I can recall my surroundings, but I cannot see, hear nor smell these memories. I am not reliving them in my mind. Photos fix this for me, giving me peace of mind and relieving this fear of forgetting. Another technique I use is to have a conversation with whom I lived the experience, that jogs my memory and helps me remember the experience.

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Writing is my second passion. I have never taken it very seriously, just scribbling random thoughts whenever the muse decides to visit. I use writing as a tool to help express my feelings. I took a leap and I started writing a book in Autumn of 2014. That was my first attempt of writing as an amateur author and I hopelessly failed. I got writer’s block, quite literally, nothing crossed my mind, just darkness, no images, no words, no thoughts, no smells, no tastes, nothingness. I decided to put my writing journey on hold for the time being.

I first came across the term Aphantasia in February 2017 and it threw me through a waterspout (I like the description of the feeling like this, I love scuba). All my life, I assumed no one could actually see anything when they closed their eyes, just the same blackness that I see. But I could not have been more wrong. I have since learned there is a diverse spectrum of thought processes across human experiences.

That same February, I contacted Prof. Zeman and my world turned upside down, I could not unsee what I saw and yet I had never seen at all! Discovering the extremes, aphantasia and hyperphantasia, quite literally opened up a whole new world for me.

I perceived having aphantasia as a big disadvantage at first. The more I ruminated on it and digested what it meant practically and the more I tried to understand what might be going on in a mind of a person who can visualise, the more I could only see the advantages with having aphantasia.

It is true that it takes me longer to memorise by heart, but I am really good at summarising. I generally fall asleep pretty quickly, I am very aware of my surroundings, and I notice things that for others go unnoticed. I give 100% of my attention to conversations as I do not get distracted with images or sounds that go on in my head. I normally live in the present moment. I approach grievance with a different lens compared to others, perhaps for shorter periods. Having said that, this does not mean I do not hurt, I definitely do but I do not keep on seeing haunting images in my mind.

In 2019, I was fortunate to attend the first Extreme Imagination Conference in Exeter. Confirmed speakers included Prof. Adam Zeman, Prof. Joel Pearson, Prof. Emily Holmes, Ed Catmull, plus many talks by the artists and curators of the associated exhibition ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the Mind’s Eye’.

Attending the Extreme Imagination Conference was revealing. Being in the same room with other people who have aphantasia and realising that among them were artists who painted and sculpted, writers, journalists, scientists, and so many brilliant people, who are the same as me, unable to visualise, yet they had achieved great things. The sense of community and sharing similar experiences made me feel I was not alone.

The writing workshop in particular drew my attention. The journalist Dustin Grinnell shared many personal experiences, writing tips for aphantasiacs and it motivated me to undertake the project of writing the book that I put on hold a few years ago. If you would like more information about the workshop, click here.

Aphantasic author, Dustin Grinnell, leads a Writing with Aphantasia Workshop at the Extreme Imagination Conference 2019
Dustin leading a creative writing workshop at the Extreme Imagination
conference at Exeter University in 2019.

Aphantasiacs and hyperphantasiacs may use different approaches to solve the same problems, it does not mean one is better than the other. Attending the conference gave me the reassurance that having aphantasia is not a condition nor an illness, it is just a different way of thinking. Dustin’s workshop boosted my confidence and reassured me that despite not being able to visualise in my mind’s eye, I can be quite creative and imaginative. The best example is this extract of the book that I am currently writing:

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Silence. Wrecked by the sound of the frantic water flowing over the fountain. Isabela was sitting on the bench at St. James´s Park, lost in her own thoughts.

Her eyes were closed, however, thanks to her awareness she could locate everything around her; the lake just opposite, on the left the path which would lead to Buckingham Palace and on her right the Horse Guards Road. She just was mindful as if all what was happening around her was there and at the same time, she was not seeing it.

At the back, she could feel all that was happening. She could hear the leaves falling from the trees to the lawn almost inaudibly, the early squirrel looking for breakfast…

As she opened her eyes again, a lady walking her dog passed her by. The beagle seemed happy, his tail moved side to side. Would it be possible for dogs to visualise? That will be interesting to know. When the lady was closer to Isabela, the dog took a sudden run toward her and pulled the lady closer to her. The puppy licked Isabela’s legs. The lady mumbled “sorry” and held tighter the dog’s lead and walked away. A smell struck Isabela; it was her mum’s perfume. This lady used the same floral perfume her mother used to wear. Her heart tightened and sadness overwhelmed her whole body, she missed her. The lady drew away and the further she walked the more the aroma faded away. She would have loved to still smell that intoxicating fragrance for slightly longer. Gone…

That was her moment, her precious moment of solitude, an instant to listen to her inner voice and put in order her thoughts. And yet she could not hear them inside of her.

Running all the way from Green Park to St. James´s used to clear her mind and pacify her soul. However, that particular morning, she was tense, striking news came to light and she had to digest them. Who would have told? Mid-thirties and she came to know herself better. Would she have reacted or behaved in a different way at certain situations in her past life? Looking back, she ruminated. Many thoughts popped into her mind, one after the other one. Her perception of the world flipped. She assumed everybody had the same level of awareness. She presumed wrongly, not everybody lived their everyday life the same way she did herself. One thought after the other, another thought came in. She tried to put them in order, but it was too difficult for her, how do you take control of something that is in your mind or is it not? her psychologist told her to imagine the thoughts and put them on a cloud. Let that cloud slip it away…, but how? Clearly, Isabela needed another method. That’s it! she will write each thought on one sheet at a time on her notebook, each page will represent a cloud. That will do.

The sound of the water fountain brought her a beautiful memory… her first dive.

What Isabela saw in her mind’s eye, while she was thinking of the first time, she went scuba diving:

CHAPTER 1: THOUGHT I – First dive

Dark clouds loomed on the horizon; rain threatening. The throbbing energy of the speedboat, heading towards those clouds, frightened Isabela. All of a sudden, she was not sure if she was ready for her first scuba dive. Joe, the instructor realised Isabela had gone quiet and he snaked his way through the tanks and weights, and sat next to her…

I have learnt a lot since I came to know about aphantasia in 2017 and attended the Extreme Imagination Conference in 2019. Now I am helping to organize the next Extreme Imagination 2021 Conference to help raise awareness on the diversity of our thought processes, aphantasia, hyperphantasia and everything in-between.

Discovering the extremes opens a whole new world, with many new and fantastic points of view. There’s no one to tell us “no”, or where we’re capable of going. Nothing to keep us from dreaming because we do dream, just differently.

Discovering the Extremes Opens a Whole New World

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