A so strange tweet
About a month ago, I was wandering on Twitter, trying to convince myself that I’m not addicted to social media whatsoever, that I’m totally in control and, above all, that what I’m doing is not wasting my time nor my attention. I was far from suspecting that my compulsive scrolling habit would make me discover something so huge about my understanding of myself. And maybe of the world. At least, about how I see it. It was a Rosetta stone-like discovery.
That day, or that night, I can’t recall, time flies in a particular way lately, and it is unclear if the calendar would become a thing again like it used to be. Well, that whatever, I came across a strange tweet written by some Andy Matuschak who happens to be followed by myself probably because of an article he wrote that I particularly appreciate.
That tweet was so strange.
(Possibly foolish) question for aphantasics: is visiting traditionally “beautiful” places less rewarding to you than it seems to be for others, since those places don’t produce vivid visual memories to enjoy afterwards?— Andy Matuschak (@andy_matuschak) July 30, 2020
I’ve never heard such a thing as aphantasics before and as I read the comments on that tweet, it kept ringing some bell, and it highly piqued my interest, so I spontaneously commented:
When I read a novel, I once said to my wife I'm pretty sure I don't picture it like everyone. In fact, I don't *really* picture, it's more a sensation, abstract. I can't even explain it correctly & I tried— Mose Njo ✍️ (@mosenjo) July 30, 2020
I'm discovering that word: aphantasic. Not sure though, it rings a bell
How I tried to explain to my wife how I see things inside me, pointing at our old TV
After that, I frantically googled the keyword aphantasia. And I began to recognize myself in it. Like totally. Without any doubt. And it’s… strange. It’s a strange feeling. Such a strange feeling. Somehow, knowing that it is actually something is a relief. Yet, it’s also troubling.
I was starting to ask myself how I actually imagine things. And how on Earth the verb imagine could be the accurate verb to describe how I imagine things, since to imagine is, as Google kindly informed me, to form a mental image or a concept. I can’t imagine? That makes it more troubling.
I’m aware that I keep using that word troubling. That’s because it is and it still is. Deep inside, I always knew that I was not like most people, that I think different (not differently, Steve Jobs approves), but I didn’t have a clue I was that different. Well, somehow I did but discovering that I’m aphantasic is not the lightest thing to process.
Being aware that people actually see in their minds as I see with my eyes, it’s astonishing. I would say it is scandalous if I weren’t into stoicism and if I didn’t know the Serenity Prayer that says:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can.
And wisdom to know the difference.”
And not only they can see but, you won’t believe it (actually, the non-aphantasics of you will) they can also smell and taste, even listen pretty accurately to some music inside their minds. I can innerly listen but not pretty accurately. Though I can’t innerly smell or taste. My mind was blown when I discovered that every time my wife was telling me that I shouldn’t have told her about that particular dish because she, and I quote, had it on her tongue, it was literally there. Literally there, on her tongue. Like she could taste it. All this time, I thought it was just a figure of speech! It wasn’t. So I’ve discovered that people, most of them, could do that. I was like: how magical their minds are and how clueless I am in front of those mesmerizing abilities. I have to admit that I was tempted to use the word disability to describe my state… but I didn’t. And I never will.
I’ve tried to explain to my wife (and myself) what this aphantasia thing is and at some point, I told her that it can be comparable to a TV. She sees what’s on the screen, I see or more likely I kind of feel it from behind the screen, inside the box. On the invisible hardware integrated circuit thing part. Then, she looked at me. Puzzled. Pulling a face. Like I was speaking some lost tongue I alone can understand. Barely.
The Matrix, Buddhism and erotic fantasy
So, to get out my embarrassment, it came to my mind that she liked the movie The Matrix. Especially the first opus.
In that movie, at the very end, Neo got a magnificent upgrade and sees the world differently. He sees that all-green. It’s all dark but many what-looks-like-green-binary-things make sense of it. Like he is able to see the root code of life itself.
I told my wife that it’s the closest thing I can come up with for her to see how I see inside (or not see, well, you get the picture, no pun intended). Well, she told me that she somehow now has some references. Nevertheless, I got a sense that she didn’t really get it, she tried, but she didn’t get it, though I like to think that from then she had some clue. Then, she frowned and said: ‘That’s not so great, you know, I mean, how Neo sees the world!’ I was about to scandalously disagree, to object, but, well, she’s right, I doubt I or anyone will be that pleased to see this whole The Matrix movie like that, all dark with these green abstract things, it won’t be that great to watch, to say the least. Though that’s how I see things inside my head, it’s all dark, and above all, there are no green things. But I can make sense of it.
Then, I remembered though she’s proudly but discreetly Christian, she also likes Buddhism concepts.
Funny thing, and somehow intriguing, there’s that Buddhist concept that says the whole world is just an illusion. So, I pointed at the TV screen again. And I said, maybe, what they mean by that is that the world is like that thing we see while we watch TV. We know that it is not real, that it is just a projection, that it only works because it’s been superbly well-thought and engineered, that the right combination of the invisible hardware integrated circuit thing part enabled us to see it through the screen, and that somehow — and I looked intensely at her — you innerly see things like on that TV and I innerly see things like inside that TV through the hardware thing. It’s all dark but the information is there. I’m able to make sense out of that not total darkness.
She began to understand the TV analogy but then she asked how is that related to that Buddhism thing.
The illusion the Buddhists are referring to, I said. Then, I quickly add, well, maybe. A big big big maybe. And I was trying to appear as humble as I could be while I said: maybe, aphantasics see the real world while the non-aphantasics see the illusion.
I think at that point, I lost her a bit. So I took a deep breath and tried to explain what I meant by that.
By the illusion, I mean, there’s this theory – amusing and intriguing – I have to admit, that says we probably live in a hologram. We think it is real, from our perspectives, it is real, but according to scientists Niayesh Afshordi, Claudio Corianò, Luigi Delle Rose, Elizabeth Gould, and Kostas Skenderis, there’s a possibility this reality of ours is a hologram, which can be also thought as a projection or an illusion.
Well, I have to admit, I don’t and I can’t really understand their research, obviously. And I understand that even if it’s an illusion, from our perspectives, it’s real, and that’s exactly my point. If what we see with our eyes is an illusion, somewhere, somehow, there must be some source – the reality from which this illusion originates from – and that source could be a pure abstraction, and if it’s pure abstraction, that’s how we, aphatansics, see things. Of course, again, we don’t actually see it, as non-aphantasics see, but we can grasp the same information, it’s basically the same thing. More or less.
Then I had that smile. The stupidest smile ever. Even now, I have to admit it still makes me foolishly smile.
Immediately, to abruptly try to change the subject, I reminded her the time I told her that I didn’t fantasize, erotically. I said that’s why. Because I’m aphantasic. I’m too pudique to tell more about that, it is neither the time nor the place, but I suspect other people who happened to hear me saying that to not really believe me. Like there are such people who don’t erotically fantasize. Especially a dude. Especially me. Well, actually, I don’t. Or, I do but differently. It’s more, let’s say, a feeling. Unseen flashes. A dark world that happens to make sense. (The Matrix, remember?). Like the infamous Schödinger’s cat, I do and I don’t. At the same time. Sort of.
Oh, by the way, I should have introduced myself earlier (I’m far more comfortable talking about ideas rather than myself) but I define myself as a hypercreative being, to put it simply, for example, I don’t experience writer blocks. To me, writer blocks are a mysterious case. I’m always creating, like always, one way or another. And I’m starting to wonder if somehow it is related to me being aphantasic. Now that I’m sure that I’m definitely wired differently. I’m starting to consider that it’s worth digging. That someone, somewhere, should take a closer look at this hypothesis.
I’m humbly known, where I am, here in Madagascar (the island not the movie) as a sci-fi bilingual writer and as a conceptual artist. I’ve been published in France in a sci-fi anthology called Europunk. I think I’m the first French-speaking African to be ever published in a French-speaking sci-fi anthology. It pleased me so much. I’ve also written the first-ever sci-fi novel in my other mother tongue, Malagasy. It’s always a strange feeling when readers tell me about how they literally see the worlds I’m describing and how they find it magnificent and how they so want it to be made as a movie one day.
While I create. Worlds. While I write. I see things differently. So differently I doubt I can one day describe it accurately. I feel things more than I innerly see things. But it pleases me to be aware of how people are seeing what I create through mostly darkness and meaningful unseen lights inside my particular aphantasic mind.
That’s a strange feeling. Strange, wonderment, and unfathomable feeling. A lingering wonderment. Being aware of aphantasia. Being aware that I’m not able to see things in my mind just like most people do, still, being able to make people see whole universes inside their minds, I can’t say it doesn’t make me proud of myself. I guess a devout would say it’s a miracle, I guess it could be closer to what blind composers like Ray Charles feel. He can’t see but he can make people feel and envision what he creates inside their minds. Superpower is a trendy word lately. I would definitely use that word if I come across a kid who’ happens to struggle through aphantasia. And I would definitely use that word to myself if I happen to be sad for not being able to see concrete things in my head for some reason someday.
It is no surprise, I think, that I really like abstract things. My inner world is all abstractions. And I like it that way. Sometimes I wonder how it’s like to innerly see. But I prefer to take it as a difference. Even an advantage. Not in the superior sense of the word. I guess if I don’t do that, I mean if I don’t see that difference as an advantage, it would make me sad. And I don’t want to be sad for something I or anyone else, as far as I know, can’t change.
Discovering that Ed Catmull is aphantasic was a wow moment for me. I felt so proud to be part of something a person I admire so much is part of.
And discovering this Aphantasia Network is something so meaningful to me. Like a turning point, a milestone, a life-changing event (and I’m barely exaggerating). Now, I feel less alone. Because, ultimately, I always felt alone. Knowing that I was different. Not being able to state it, to name it. Not having someone to talk about and being able to understand this difference. It’s quite a lonely field.
But now, I know that I’m not alone anymore. And it makes me innerly smile. Not that I can see that smile. But I know that I smile. That I actually smile. Which is the same, if you think about it. Somehow, it makes me think of what William Shakespeare magnificently wrote:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
Maybe the name is the illusion I don’t see. But I can smell the world in a way that I can capture its essence, its intrinsic nature, and who knows, maybe what I lost in sight, I gain in depth.
That’s how I choose to believe it.