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Describing Aphantasia

How do you describe aphantasia? Simple. Think of a horse.

Think of a horse.

Does an image of a horse come to mind? Which image best describes your experience 1-6?

Most people can create some sort of mental image of a horse in their mind. They can create a visual representation of what the horse looks like, what it’s doing and the scenery around it.

I can’t do that. 

Not for thoughts, memories, or images of the future. 

I don’t have that visual “picture it” system.

It’s not just the visual system.

It’s not just my visual system that’s impacted, it’s all sensory experience.

For example, let’s say you’re at a restaurant and you see something on the menu you enjoy. Most people can smell or taste it. 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 the memory of like/dislike to decide what to order, but I don’t imagine how something looks, tastes, smells like, 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! Can you hear that?

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.

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.

I just know what a horse looks like.

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 those details. It’s not worth processing; it’s not effective unless the details are related to the specific task at hand.

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 the police create in movies always confused me…

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

Everyone’s image of a horse is different.

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 a grey horse. In one scenario the horse could be eating grass and jumping over fences in another. Somebody might smell hay, while another manure… I am almost glad I cannot do that.

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.

New Visualizer Tool

Use the sliders to create a representation of your mental image. Share your creation on social media!

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 with hyper-vivid imaginations.

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

Imagination is a spectrum

What the new science has uncovered is that an individual’s sensory imagination varies widely. 

Some people can create very vivid mental 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). 

In contrast, others may only have slight variations of the different senses, or only dim flashes of mental images.

Some will experience aphantasia in all the senses or what is commonly known as multi-sensory, or total aphantasia.

It seems imagination is a spectrum

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

If not, then you might be aphantasic in all senses like me.

Can you imagine in sounds, smells, movement?


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A network of image-free thinkers 

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 read articles from our community contributors or head over to the discussions page and ask questions to the network.

Whether you are aphantasic, phantastic or hyperphantasic, welcome to the Aphantasia Network! A place to discover and learn about aphantasia, and explore the extremes of human imagination.

Together, let’s discover how our minds really work.

You can learn more about Tom’s discovery story with aphantasia on CBC Radio.

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