Stumbling Upon Aphantasia
By coincidence, I discovered I’m missing what people call the “mind’s eye.” One day YouTube recommended a video about aphantasia. That’s how it began.
I had never heard of aphantasia before, but what artist AmyRightMeow in the video described seemed oddly familiar to me. Just like her, I couldn’t form images in my head. Up to this day, I thought it was completely normal. I believed everyone’s thoughts were formless and colourless.
I never told anyone about it. I felt a mix of disbelief and shame. Was I so different from others? How could I ever explain it? Would they even believe me? Or am I simply overthinking things and I don’t actually have aphantasia or do I?
For the next year, I completely forgot about it. I didn’t see any more videos or read any more articles about the topic. Then one day I met up with a friend and we began catching up on each other’s lives. Our conversation went along well until he asked me to imagine a situation. Not think about the situation but actually visualize the scenario!
That’s when it dawned on me: I was different. The ability to create images in your mind existed. And I didn’t have it.
He was the first person I told I have aphantasia. He had never heard of it before and it confused him.
I desperately wanted to explain what it’s like for me to think, but I couldn’t find the words. Was there even any explanation for this at all?
That question didn’t leave me alone so I started researching the topic. I once again learned that the inability to visualize in your mind is called aphantasia. I read articles about how other people described what it’s like missing these images.
A few weeks later I heard someone make a joke about Schrödinger’s cat. An idea began to form.
First of all, I want to give you a short explanation of Schrödinger’s cat. It’s a thought experiment. A very simplified version would be:
A cat and a radioactive substance are placed inside a locked steel box. The substance has a 50% chance of killing the cat within the next hour. This means we have no way of knowing whether the cat survived or died until we open the box. Until that happens, the cat is (in a sense) both dead and alive. Only by observing the cat can we confirm the current state. Meaning, so long as we don’t observe it, the cat is (in effect) both dead and alive at the same time.
Schrödinger’s thought experiment is very complex and difficult to understand, but the main point is that a quantum system can be in multiple states at the same time, just like the cat in the box.
If you wish to learn more about Schrödinger’s cat, here’s a video that explores this concept in greater depth.
This thought experiment always fascinated me. When I started thinking about Schrödinger’s box, I started to see similarities with my own experience of memories.
Let’s use the example of my mother.
Since I cannot produce a clear image of my mother inside my head, I am unsure about the exact characteristics of her face; The shape of her nose, the shade of her eye colour, the look of the glasses she is always wearing, etc.
Just like Schrödinger’s cat that is both alive at the same time, memories of my mother exist inside my head… and they do not.
In a sense, the “image” of my mother, the collection of information about her appearance that I have without actually visualizing her in my mind, could be thought of as memories inside Schrödinger’s box.
When I see my mother, the box opens. I confirm the state of what’s inside the box: My knowledge about how my mother looks. I notice differences in her hairstyle, clothing, and accessories. I replace the old information on her appearance with the new one I just gathered.
Then I look away and the image of her quickly vanishes. I no longer observe her, so I cannot confirm the current state of the information inside the box.
It’s as though my memories are sealed inside my own version of Schrödinger’s box.