By Steve Galea
This weekend Jenn and I were having a conversation about how the mind works (I think she was, once again, trying to figure out how mine does). Somewhere in the conversation, she mentioned that when she closes her eyes and thinks of something, she sees an actual image of it in her mind’s eye. I had no idea what she was talking about. Then, after further questioning, she also noted that when she daydreams, she also sees images of the subject and even little movies in her head.
“That’s weird,” I said.
“That’s what most people see. You don’t?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I replied.
After a few more questions and some Internet research we determined that I seem to have what is called aphantasia – which literally mean “no imagination.” Essentially, people with this condition cannot visualize images in their mind.
It affects around 1 per cent of the population apparently.
For instance, when most close their eyes and imagine a tree, a mental image of a tree appears in their mind’s eye. For people with aphantasia, there is no image in their mind’s eye at all, only blackness.
The truth is I always assumed your “mind’s eye” was simply a phrase and that daydreaming and imagining, just meant you closed your eyes and thought of words to describe the thing you were daydreaming or imagining. I had no idea visual imagery had anything to do with these things.
I won’t lie to you.
I feel a little ripped off.
I mean, most people can replay pleasant images in their mind’s eye and enjoy them. Not me – my mind’s eye is blind. When I close my eyes and try to recall or imagine faces, places or things, I only see darkness.
It’s not like I can’t remember things. It just means I remember the words, facts, and impressions associated with the memory.
At first, I thought Jenn was pranking me. But then I realized going to the trouble to set up all those websites that perfectly describe how my mind works was not her style.
This also explains a lot. You see I have never been good at recognizing the faces of people that I don’t routinely see. And my sense of direction is so bad that it forced me long ago to become very good with GPS and compass. These are two common traits of people with aphantasia.
All this time I just thought I was really good at imagining dark nights.
Honestly, it’s a little alarming to realize that my way of recalling experiences is so different than what is normal.
On the plus side, apparently people with aphantasia are immune from having disturbing flashbacks. And when we remember days, rather than having actual images come to mind, we remember a listing of facts about the day. Also, if I saw you do something highly embarrassing once, don’t worry, the mental image is gone.
On the down side, I cannot visualize the faces of friends or of loved ones who have passed. To remember what my father looks like, I need to see a photo.
After we figured this out, Jenn asked me an interesting question.
“You are 61,” she said. “How are you only just discovering this now?”
Well, I suppose it was just hard for me to imagine.