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Memoirs of a scientist with aphantasia

Thoughts – always verbal and in story form

Two deeply personal and life affirming events have occurred within the last two years. The first is that I retired after working nearly 30 years as a research scientist at a large, international pharmaceutical company developing new and innovative medicines that change lives and at times, make life possible. The second took place more recently during a mediation class and has proven to be just as meaningful and possibly more profound than the first. These two, seemingly unrelated, events have changed my life in new and exciting ways. I now have the time and knowledge to reflect on how together they have played such a large role in shaping my life and molding me into the person I am today.

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When the meditation instructor calmly and soothingly begins the guided imagery exercise, he casually mentions that some people find this exercise frustrating because they cannot form images in their minds and not to worry because this is completely normal.

Wait – –  what, I think as my mind goes into overdrive. Did he just say that some people can’t form images in their minds and that this is completely normal? And not to worry – not to worry! He has no idea how much I have worried about this my entire life. And then slowly – very slowly, I begin to calm down and am overcome with a wave of memoires – – 

As a child I had difficulty soothing myself and relaxing before I fell asleep. When I closed my eyes everything was black, and I was unable to conjure up any images that were soothing, i.e., the faces of my parents, brother, pets or even a comforting landscape. To make matters worse, I couldn’t hear music nor recall smells or a gentle touch in my mind. Regardless of where I was, I felt isolated and alone when I closed my eyes especially in those quiet, dark moments before sleep arrived. Sleep, however, brought with it vivid, colorful and almost always beautiful and serene dreams.

Over time, I learned to tell myself stories before I fell asleep. The more detailed and vibrant the stories, the sooner I would enter that liminal, comforting space just prior to sleep. My stories were frequently about the happiest or most memorial moments of the day, usually taking place in nature, and would include: descriptions of colorful, beautiful flowers; sounds of birds calling to each other first thing in the morning; smells of newly mown hey or freshly cut grass; and the touch of a gentle breeze upon my face.

During these early years, I also was extremely frustrated by my inability to drawl or paint like other kids my age. I could create only simple lines or the most basic shapes that had absolutely no relationship to anything real or imagined. These feeling of frustration were only heightened by my love of color. I was amazed by the sheer variety of pigments available in a box of crayons, a pack of magic markers, or a set of paints. But unfortunately, I was never able to translate this vast array of color into anything of beauty using even the most sophisticated art materials. Luckily, my frustration would finally end one day when my father introduced me to a game called “Magic Formula”.

The game consisted of mixing together items found in the pantry and refrigerator of our family’s kitchen. I was fascinated with the myriad of things that could be created. The colors were beautiful; the smells unusual; and the foaming of vinegar plus baking soda was always exciting even after making this mixture many, many times. Finally, I was able to create things of beauty. As I continued to play this game during the following years, my equipment and laboratory became more sophisticated. The counter space next to the sink was covered with newspaper to create a laboratory bench; while, the kitchen table served as a desk. Medicine bottles with rubber bulb droppers and measuring cups were transformed into pipettes and beakers. Sugar, salt, baking soda, flour, food coloring, milk, water, and vinegar became exotic, experimental reagents. I knew the combinations were endless and in my young girl’s mind, the mixtures became medicines, perfumes, and potions with miraculous powers. I felt like an alchemist transforming simple, humble materials into priceless, astonishing creations.

Without fail, these would be the stories I told myself at bedtime. Although I could not see, smell or feel the results in my mind, I learned to memorize the order in which the ingredients were added, the color and smell of the ensuing products, and the often unusual and exciting textures that were formed. Over time, I realized that I was able to store in my mind and then recall with exact precision the intricate details of the most complicated Magic Formulas.

My modest kitchen laboratory was soon replaced by the simple biology/chemistry laboratory located in the basement of the solitary brick-building at my rural school. Eventually, I had the honor and pleasure of studying and experimenting in more sophisticated laboratories found in large universities and medical schools, and finally in a beautiful well-equipped laboratory nestled on the large campus of a leading pharmaceutical company.

Throughout my entire scientific journey, I reviewed the results from that day’s experiments in my mind just before sleep – always verbally and in story form. I was never been able to see, smell, hear or feel any of these details in my mind’s eye. I believe this bedtime ritual, started as a child, allowed me to remember and recite nearly everything in exquisite detail when needed and contributed greatly to my success as a scientist.

“Now gently bring energy back into your body and when you are ready slowly open your eyes”, the meditation teacher recites soothingly. I startle realizing that the guided mediation is over and become aware that I drifted off into my own memories and reflections and know, without a doubt, that this inner journey was tremendously insightful.

When the class is over and I have access to my laptop, I immediately perform a simple, quick search on the internet. And there is – the definition for aphantasia. I am overcome with relief and gratitude realizing that what I once considered a flaw is really a gift. I smile secretly to myself, lift my head toward the heavens and say a quiet “thank you”.

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