How many times have you heard a sentence start with ‘Imagine that…?’ How many times have you said it yourself? Well, some people can’t actually imagine it. Literally.
This is a concept that most people (apparently 98%) may find quite far removed from their ordinary thought process.
A variation in human experience that was first ‘discovered’ in 1880 by psychologist Sir Francis Galton, but wasn’t given a name or studied further in much detail until 2015, when it became Aphantasia.
Aphantasia is a literal translation from the Greek word Phantasia, the word Aristotle used to describe imagination; except in this case “a” stands for lack of.
It’s important not to get too hung up on the semantics, or the meanings behind these words.
The name itself is a bit of a misnomer; it’s not a lack of fantasy or imagination per se, but rather a lack of visual imagery.
I personally had not heard of aphantasia until about 2 years ago, when I discovered my husband has it. Before this, we had what I thought were general mis-communication issues. For the longest time, I couldn’t work out where the differences in opinions and thought processes were coming from as they seemed quite illogical to me, and he is not illogical, so I knew there was something else. At first, I thought it was me, I questioned myself and my brain about what and why and I couldn’t see it. I am fascinated by thought processes and how they impact our lives and actions and make us who we are, so wouldn’t leave this one alone.
The main point of the issue seemed to be for me, the fact that I read and write fiction, and him not thinking it had any relevant place in society. I wanted to know why. How could someone think this of something I felt was so fundamentally necessary? It took many hours over a number of days for me to finally ask the right questions (trying not to make him feel like a test subject) before we came to the conclusion of what was going on. I put forward the concept he had not considered or realised. I explained that when I read a book, my brain makes pictures up to accompany the words. Or that I can replay movies I have seen if replayed enough times.
“You see pictures in your head! That sounds like witchcraft to me. I can’t think of anything more alien”
And we had it. We had found the difference that explained why he thought fiction was pointless. But that was the tip of the iceberg really of what was meant to be a simple explanation of why he didn’t see things the way I did. With a little bit of internet research, I found the name. Aphantasia. That didn’t make it easier it turned out. I felt guilty finding this out, of having to explain to someone why they were different, how they were different and try and support how they were feeling, when I couldn’t possibly understand. But it started to make sense. Enjoyment from fictional books that required you to imagine and picture the scene is completely lost on him.
We did see the world differently, not just from a personal perspective, but with separate realities too. That might sound a bit dramatic, but it was and still is. Mine possibly not even entirely reality when I gave it more thought. I had always been so sure of my way of thinking, it bought into question for me, the reliability of a brain that can conjure images, pretend at will and change visual memories. Could non-aphantasiac people be trusted at all? My husband asked me one question when I confirmed it is believed most people ‘see images’ in their head. “So when people are driving, sometimes they aren’t thinking about driving and are imagining other stuff? That’s terrifying”.
And it is really.
By changing the way I think about things has helped. I didn’t expect him to, as he isn’t wrong in the way he thinks, but neither am I. But I can imagine what it’s like to not imagine – it’s as close as I can get but I see the irony. What I previously saw as difficult behaviour by my standard, wasn’t when I saw it from his standard. That’s where our realities will always be different, and always were, but with a new twist now.
He is better at directions and orientation, his memory is more accurate than mine, he learns quickly, he is focused. But on the downside, he gets frustrated easily, he can’t switch off, he can’t ‘picture’ me if I am not in the room. There are pros and cons on both sides, as there is with any person and way of thinking or navigating your way through life.
But while we as a species continue to study memory, thought, ideas and who we are as people, it was inevitable to me we would find variations. I just didn’t realize what societal implications those variations would have, on both sides. There is a much broader issue here compared to what I first believed.