Aphantasia And Trauma

There’s a discussion between Stefano Montali and neuroscientist Joel Pearson about aphantasia and creativity for a Scientific American podcast, and I wanted to get into what it says about memory, and what it says about trauma.

Montali: Living without mental imagery might seem like a disadvantage, but Pearson says there are benefits as well—especially in terms of those living with anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Pearson: All the data we have so far suggests that the more vivid your imagery is, the more prone you are to develop PTSD after a trauma. So there’s a couple of things already pointing to the fact that things around anxiety are going to be different and less so without imagery.

Montali: But what about good memories? Do they stick around? Pearson says yes, just in a different way.

Pearson: So that can take on a number of different semantics, ideas, concepts, spatial locations, emotions and sometimes different senses. […] So while people’s lifelong memories have less details if they have aphantasia, they’re still there. It’s not catastrophic. Their memories aren’t lost. They just take on a different format.

Back in 2021, I wondered about the experience of trauma absent memory, by which I meant the absence of vivid recollection. I didn’t bring it up in that post (oddly, it seems to me) but by that time I’d discovered that I was aphantasic, and read some suggestions that it plays a role in my severely-deficient autobiographical memory.

It’s important, that last bit, because it’s not like I have no memories. It’s that I cannot summon vivid recollections. My memories do contain an awareness and understanding of “ideas, concepts, spatial locations”. I do know what happened in this or that past experience, but there’s no visual, and little fine detail. I’ll recall what I did, or what other people did, but it’s more like I can conceive the event rather than picture it. Certainly, though, I cannot actively summon their emotional experience.

(I’ve written also about memory, trauma, and “the foreshortened future”; and about perception, memory, and “the mind’s eye”; all of which is relevant here.)

The reason I was interested in this idea of how trauma works absent vivid recollection is because I do think that in many ways being autistic in a world that makes few compromises for neurodivergent brains at the very least is akin to a kind of chronic stress. I never wanted to reach into the language of trauma because so much of high-level/PTSD-type such include vivid recollections of the traumatizing events and invoking the term felt like a kind of appropriation.

Since I don’t have a “mind’s eye”, I don’t experience vivid recollections, let alone outright flashbacks, but much of other trauma-related language made sense to me. In the end, I discovered that while I was diagnosed in the aftermath of my failed Vocational Rehabilitation job placement with acute adjustment disorder there also exists a diagnosis of persistent or chronic adjustment disorder, essentially defined as lasting for as long as the stressor persists.

I do feel that this effectively matches my “autistic in an undercompromising world” experience. Barring a sea change in social construction and cultural norms, there’s no escaping that stressor. It’s mostly something of a non-starter, getting that official diagnosis, although my therapist and I use it as a kind of shorthand on the regular because we find it fundamentally apt.

Whether or not I’d be seen to reach clinical levels of PTSD’s other features, then, Pearson’s take on PTSD without mental imagery rings true to me. I’m mostly satisfied with self-identifying as experiencing chronic adjustment disorder so as not to muddy the waters on PTSD.

That said, I could see myself making use of Pearson here should I need to explain that trauma-like responses are possible even absent vivid recollection.

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