Understanding the Nuances of My Aphantasia

Do I, or don't I, have aphantasia?

The Thinker Statue, pondering the nuances of aphantasia and the spectrum of visual imagery.

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Do I have aphantasia?

Answering that seemingly simple question can be very confusing. Understanding aphantasia is a journey of self-discovery. Here’s a little more about mine.

I first learned the term aphantasia a few months ago. I was participating in a hypnotherapy session where I was asked to visualize. Frustrated – as this wasn’t my first time being asked to visualize – I told the practitioner that I couldn’t.

To my surprise, I wasn’t her first client who couldn’t visualize. She told me, casually, that I might have aphantasia. This discovery rocked my world. Firstly, because my inability to visualize had an actual name! Secondly, people can picture things in their mind’s eye as though they are literally seeing them? I still find this hard to believe! 

My investigation into aphantasia led me to many varying resources, the clearest and most informative being the Aphantasia Network, for whom I now write. However, clear as I thought I was on aphantasia, I misunderstood/misinterpreted three key pieces of information.

Three things that helped me understand aphantasia

  1. Eyes-Closed vs. Eyes Open – Initially, I associated visualizing with being instructed to close my eyes and visualize. I assumed that aphantasia referred to visualizing with eyes closed. In fact, aphantasia encapsulates the act of visualization, or “picturing”, in any capacity – eyes closed or open.
  2. Seeing With Your Eyes vs. Your Mind’s Eye – The most basic definition of the word “see” is to perceive with the eyes. When I learned that people could “see” what they were asked to visualize/picture in their mind, I took this quite literally. In fact, it’s a more of an abstract definition of the word see, to perceive with the mind’s eye. Visualization functions like a weak form of visual perception. Hence the term, seeing with the mind’s eye.
  3. Visualization and Memory – I assumed that visual imagery associated with memories was outside the scope of aphantasia. Why? Because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that the fleeting, ultra-vague, grainy, gauzy, barely-there, no colour, light pencil-sketch-on-white-paper, non-dimensional image I can sometimes conjure is actually visualization. Even then, this only pertains to very abstract things like structures (my childhood home, for instance). Never faces. Rarely, living things like animals and plants. Picture the beach or a rainbow? Forget it!
how do i know if i have aphantasia?
Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Reflecting on the VVIQ Test

The VVIQ is a self-report measure of the clarity and liveliness of visual imagery, or your ability to visualize. When I first took the VVIQ (Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz) on the aphantasia.com site, I scored myself as a “1” for all questions and so, was deemed “likely aphantasic.”

The VVIQ is made up of 4 scenarios, each with 4 questions. The rating scale is as follows:

  1. No image at all, I only “know” I am thinking of the object
  2. Dim and vague image
  3. Moderately realistic and vivid
  4. Realistic and reasonably vivid
  5. Perfectly realistic, as vivid as real seeing

At first, I thought my barely-there perceptions were: I only “know” I am thinking of the object.

After many (many) conversations with my eldest daughter – who kept challenging me on my use of the words “see” and “literally” – had me rethink my whole perspective.

I have since retaken the VVIQ, and provide some reflections on the experience below.

Scenario 1 – Friend or Relative: The first section in the VVIQ asks the participant to “Think of some relative or friend.” No can do. Scored 1 on all 4 questions in this section.

Scenario 2 – Sunrise: Section two begins by asking the participant to “Visualize a rising sun.” I remembered a morning at the cottage when I was up early enough to experience the sunrise (utilizing memory association to attempt to visualize). I perceived the image for a nanosecond. So fleeting. Barely there, then gone. I generously scored myself as a 2 – Dim and vague image. Perhaps, in addition to ‘vividness’, future psychometrics will measure other aspects of imagery, like imagery duration, accuracy, and the degree of voluntary control. I scored 1 on each of the remaining 3 questions as they built on the imagery obtained in the prior question.

Scenario 3 – Storefront: Section three asks the participant to “Think of the front of a shop which you often go to.” Okay, now we’re cookin’. Abstracts. Maybe I’ll have some luck with this section. The first question asks to picture the shop from across the street. This is key – across the street. I could not. I scored a 1. Questions two and three asked about colours, shapes, and details. Scored a 1 on both. I debated how to answer question four. “You enter the shop and go to the counter. The counter assistant serves you. Money changes hands.” Though fleeting and extremely gauzy (see laboured description in C. above –😏) I scored myself a 2 because I could sort of perceive the counter, but nothing else.

Scenario 4 – Country Scene: The last section asks to “Think of a country scene which involves trees, mountains and a lake.” Oh, oh. This isn’t going to be pretty. Question one asks to picture the contours of the landscape. The word “contours” is key here. Remembering the cottage again, I was sort of able to picture the contours of the surrounding landscape. Fleeting, then gone. Scored a 2 – Dim and vague image. The next two questions pertained again to colour and shape. Scored a 1 on both. The last question started with, “A strong wind blows…”. I knew I was out before I read the whole question. Scored a 1.

Finally, I clicked the button to (re)calculate my results. Not surprising – I’m likely aphantasic.

"I can better appreciate that one’s ability to visualize is highly subjective depending on how one interprets the terminology."

Defining aphantasia and hypophantasia

The term aphantasia is still being classified. Some professionals in the field classify aphantasia as the complete lack of visual imagery, while others classify aphantasia as more of a spectrum, spanning from complete absence to low-level imagery abilities. The ability to picture vague and fleeting images is called hypophantasia, on the low end of the overall imagery spectrum. The high-end of the spectrum is referred to as hyperphantasia. Hence, why this whole field of study is so important. Better research. Better understanding. Better tools. Better strategies.

"φαντασία, phantasia, is the classical Greek term for imagination, defined by Aristotle as the ‘faculty/power by which a phantasma [image or mental representation] is presented to us’ (Aristotle, 322BCE). We propose the use of the term ‘aphantasia’ to refer to a condition of reduced or absent voluntary imagery. Terms used previously in related contexts include ‘defective revisualisation’ (Botez, Olivier, Vezina, Botez, & Kaufman, 1985) and ‘visual irreminiscence’ (Nielsen, 1946)."

"The ability to visualize has extreme variations, ranging from completely absent (aphantasia) to photo-like (hyperphantasia)."

Do I, or don't I, have aphantasia?

So, do I, or don’t I have aphantasia? What have I learned from this exercise of revisiting the meaning of aphantasia and all its nuances? 

I identify more with being aphantasic (rather than hypophantasic) because of how utterly distressing it is to conjure even the most rudimentary image. Simply retaking the VVIQ was a real chore. Having to try – again – to picture/imagine/visualize certain scenes and details triggered the frustration I feel around my aphantasia.

I could not (and still cannot) conceive of the fact that most people can picture images in their minds, and that for them, depending on the level of detail, it’s like seeing an actual picture. I thought the word see – in reference to how they describe their experience with visualizing – meant that they could literally see the image. For the majority, the word see means perceive. Not literal. Although, for hyperphantasics, I’m told the experience is just that – like actually seeing.

In the end, I can better appreciate that one’s ability to visualize is highly subjective depending on how one interprets the terminology, the VVIQ questions, the vernacular used, etc., and how one identifies with their own individual capabilities and experience.

How have you come to understand aphantasia?

Understanding the Nuances of My Aphantasia

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