In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch wisely tells Scout that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk about in them’. This advice is some of the wisest I have ever read but as an aphantasic I would suggest that you also don’t really know people until you have tried to understand how they think too.
I was blissfully unaware that I was aphantasic for the first 27 years of my life. The thing about our minds is they are entirely private to us and we cannot have any real appreciation of the mechanics of someone else’s thoughts: do they think in colour, in video, in sound, in words?
I suspect most people’s default position is that what happens in their mind is pretty much what happens in everyone’s mind. Well, I’m aphantasic and I can promise you it’s not.
Imagine your bedroom. Does an image pop up somewhere in your mind’s eye that shows you the colour of your bedding and the configuration of the furniture? Can you see the changing of the light behind the curtains as night falls? Can you open the wardrobe in your mind and see the clothes hanging there?
I see absolutely nothing except the world in front of me.
I do not know what it is to visualise and I have never been able to mentally conjure an image up in my mind. This is not to say I do not know what my bedroom looks like; as I write this in my office I know what the duvet cover is like back home, I have a keen awareness of how the light slants across the mirror, I have a strong sense of the jumble of clothes in the wardrobe.
It’s just that those impressions are not in any way visual – not even for a fleeting second. The only time my brain can ‘see’ imaginary images is when I sleep and dream. In my conscious world I only see what it is in the world around me or the back of my eyelids if I shut my eyes to think hard.
When I tell people this the general response is complete disbelief and often a suspicion that I must be lying. How on earth can I think if I can’t visualise?
Well, I can definitely think.
I have a Masters degree in History; I finished law school; I teach English Literature, English Language, Psychology and Law. It’s just that none of my thoughts or thinking processes are ever visual. Strangely, creative writing is also something I can do: I can create my own imaginary worlds and characters whilst having no mind’s eye. Literature is my deepest love and I am lucky to have read thousands and thousands of books in my life but not once have I ever ‘seen’ the main character nor been able to visualise the scenes described. I feel the emotions and live in that world but all I ever see are the words on the page.
Is this a problem for me? Well, no, not in the least.
I can’t visualise and my mind appears to have adapted as I have a good sense of direction and can find my way across unfamiliar cities easily (the usual response of non-aphantasics to me is a belief I must be constantly geographically lost). When I did yoga I used to fall asleep during the deep relaxation as I couldn’t visualise so I got comfy and had a nap on my mat. I never get upset by the casting of main characters in films of books because they can’t look wrong to me as they never had a face in the first place. I do struggle with remembering names of students that I teach as I don’t have a library of their faces that I can access. I think I also have other allied issues: I was a very later talker and had to have speech therapy. Learning to tell the time was very problematic.
Beyond that I think aphantasia is a blessing as it’s an endless fascination to talk to my students and explain the peculiarity of my mind compared to theirs. Most people are flabbergasted and fascinated but every so often there will be the young person who looks flummoxed and says something along the lines of ‘you can’t see things in your mind’ and I welcome them to the world of aphantasia.
How does this affect me as a teacher? It makes me very conscious that there isn’t a way to teach students to learn that will work for all.
Many teachers tell students to create mindmaps to learn the relationship between concepts. I have to say that mindmaps are entirely hopeless for people who can’t access them in their mind’s eye.
One size does not fit all in education, like in all walks of life.
I also talk through the limitations I have so students understand that their teacher can have a fairly momentous mental restriction but which has not held them back academically in any way.
Understanding that success is possible and that you have to be resilient and adapt is hugely important to all students.
Finally, it gives me the chance to emulate Atticus Finch and give my pupils a chance to metaphorically walk around in someone else’s mind, if only for a few minutes.
It’s a very liberating experience.