Think of a Horse: How I’ve Learned to Describe Aphantasia

Tom Ebeyer

How do you describe aphantasia to people who just don't get it?

This is a question I often get asked by fellow aphantasics. I've landed on the example of a horse, and that has stuck.

Here's a modified version that hopefully helps us all understand.

Think of a horse. 

 

No, really. Close your eyes and think of a horse. Pay attention to the details.

What happened when you thought of that horse?

What colour was it?
Where was it? Was there a backdrop?
What was it doing?


Most people, when asked to think of a horse, create a mental image in their mind; they create a visual representation of what the horse looks like, what it’s doing and the scenery around it. 

Some people can even hear the horse neighing or smell the barnyard hay in their mind.

 

I can’t do that. 

 

I don’t have that visual “picture it” system; I can’t picture anything. Not thoughts, not memories, not anything.

But it’s not just visual; it’s all sensory recall.

For example, let’s say you’re at a restaurant and you see something on the menu you enjoy. Most people can picture themselves taking the first bite and develop “cravings” in their mind. They can smell or taste the food.

No doubt this helps (or hinders?) decision making at the restaurant!

I can based on logic, tell you what food I’ve liked in the past and base my choices on that logic. I use that memory of like/dislike to decide what to order, but I don’t imagine how something looks, tastes, smells, etc.

Or if you take a few seconds to think of your favourite song; Phantastics, those with the ability to imagine, can hear the song playing in their mind.

Go ahead, give it a try! What’s your favourite song?

Do you hear anything?

Someone could ask me: “How does the tune of ‘We Are the Champions’ by Queen go again?

I could (maybe) hum to the rhythm of the main chorus, but that’s about it. I don’t hear anything.  And yet, if that song were to come onto the radio, I know every word. And I mean, EVERY word.

I can recall the song when it is playing, but I cannot “sing” the song in my head.

Are there “famous sayings” you remember hearing from your parents? My dad, who inherited from his dad, always said: “do as I say, not as I do” (talk about lead by example…).

I remember those words but can only rehearse them in my voice. I can’t hear them in his voice or memory like many would.

So, when someone asks me to think of a horse, I just know that I’m thinking about it. It’s processed with language and internal dialogue. I can tell you that horses are mammals with 4 legs, yay tall, can be these colours, etc, but it’s the idea of the horse that’s important, not the details.

For me and most aphantasics, it’s only that internal dialogue. It’s either running quietly in my mind or being used to communicate to someone else. And if all my conscious thoughts are in sentences, there’s logistically no time for me to think about details. It’s not effective unless the details are the specific task at hand. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. Speaking those words in dialogue would take over 6 minutes for a fast speaking professional.

This is one of the great strengths of aphantasia. More on strengths soon.

If you were to ask me: “What does your girlfriend look like?”

I could describe her main features, provide you with some broad stokes information about what she looks like (she has blond hair, blue eyes, etc), but I don’t see her in my mind, so the finer details are difficult.

Those sketch artist drawings people create always confused me…

Now, there’s a reason I like asking people (literally thousands of people… it’s kind of a thing) to think a horse.

If you ask 10 people to think of a horse, you will probably get 10 different answers.

Someone might imagine a chestnut horse with a brown coat and someone else might imagine a blond horse with a light tan coat. In one scenario the horse could be eating grass and jumping over fences in another. Somebody might smell hay, while another manure… Gross. I am almost glad I cannot do that.

Everyone’s image of a horse is different.

That’s because these mental images are entirely based on personal experiences and past memories – if you had a white horse growing up, that’s what you’ll picture.

Just imagine (language gets tricky here) the implications of conversation between people being influenced by different visual images. How many times are people on different pages because of this visualization process, without realizing it?

If our visualizations are so different just on the simple idea of a horse, how different do they become when ideas become more abstract? This fascinates me and is something I’ll be writing more about.

Here I find people struggling to imagine what it’s like to have aphantasia. Literally. Trying to imagine what it’s like, not to imagine. The thing is, there’s no way to do it. You simply can’t imagine what it’s like not to imagine.

It’s an oxymoron!

Imagination is the default state for most people. They do it all the time, all day long, without ever realizing they’re doing it (or at least, taking it for granted). It’s probably impossible to turn off that imaginative ability for those who strongly have it.

It’s worth mentioning that everyone’s sensory experience around thoughts or memories is different. My experience might not be like that of everyone with aphantasia.

What the new science has uncovered, is that an individual’s ability to imagine also varies widely. Some people can create very vivid images in their minds, whereas some can only conjure up vague ones. Some people can create an entire multi-sensory experience in their mind with smells and tastes and feelings and everything (this is known as hyperphantasia), whereas others may only have slight variations of these senses.

It seems imagination is a spectrum.

So when I said to think of a horse, what did see? Were you able to create a mental image in your mind? 

If not, then you might just be aphantasic like me.

Take the VVIQ quiz here (great starting point to your own discovery).

There are so many aspects of aphantasia to cover in one post. Things like dreams (yes, I dream without images!), relationships, memories, emotions, etc. I’d love to hear what you’re most interested in exploring!

Leave a comment below and let me know what you want to read about. You can also head over to the community page and ask questions to the network.

Whether you are aphantasic or phantastic, join the Aphantasia Network.

Together, let’s explore #AphantasiaLife. 

Tom Ebeyer

Tom Ebeyer

Aphantastic. Community Moderator. Exploring life with a blind mind.
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