I’m not sure if it’s seasonal or somehow otherwise cyclical but suddenly in recent days I once again was running into talk of aphantasia everywhere I turned. I’d first discovered the condition in early 2020 (the post isn’t here yet), likely on MetaFilter, and shortly thereafter the corollary severely deficient autobiographical memory as well.
If you’re new to aphantasia, Marco Giancotti’s exploration of it for Nautilus this month is a good place to start. Aphantasiac himself, Giancotti gives something of the broad sweep along with the latest bits of knowledge.
Then, some time in 2021 (not coincidentally, I forget exactly where or when) I read about aphantasia for the first time, and it hit me hard: When people say “picture this scene in your head,” they aren’t speaking metaphorically! People can actually invoke shapes and colors in their minds. The shock of this realization was followed by a piecing together of many of those little idiosyncrasies of mine into a single, coherent phenomenon that fit with the scientific description of the condition. By the time my formal diagnosis came, I was already quite sure I was aphantasic.
Jay Springett wrote about forgetting he’d nearly died when in his late teens, suggesting that “[m]aybe it’s because I think about it as stuff thats happened to me, rather than things I’ve experienced“.
SDAM (Severely deficient autobiographical memory) is a lifelong inability to vividly recollect or re-experience personal past events. It often goes hand in hand with people like me who have Aphantasia. My not-having-any-sort-of-visual-imagination results in an “inability to vividly recollect personally experienced events from a first-person perspective” as memories.
This is an interesting way to think about it. For my part, I describe my SDAM in part by explaining that I can conceive the events of my life, just as I can conceive the layout of a room I’ve been in, but I can’t perceive the events, per se. Memory for me is an intellectual not experiential thing.
My own experience is similar. Past episodes of my life—when I can recall them at all—feel distant and non-sensory. SDAM is a new discovery, still unknown to most practicing psychiatrists, so people like me have to rely on self-diagnosis for the time being. But the symptoms described by the researchers match with what I’ve always taken for granted. I would describe my recollections as summaries of key facts rather than first-person “mind movies.”
Austin Kleon wrote about people discovering aphantasia, among them writer John Green and his own wife.
Overall, I find it really interesting how resistant some people seem to be to the idea that our brains aren’t uniform, that there’s an endless variety of thinking and seeing and being and feeling. For me, I love learning how other brains work, because I not only find something I can take away for my own brain, my world expands, and something I thought was simple, like imagination, becomes richer and more complex.
He’s right that it’s interesting, but as I said in late 2020, “I try not to think about it too much because it hurts to try to imagine any other way of experiencing the world”. It’s better for me now than it was then, but sometimes it still causes something akin to an existential spasm.
I share this trait with many people. Occasional reports of people claiming to be without a “mind’s eye” go back to the 1800s, with several cases briefly mentioned in the scientific literature throughout the 20th century. Yet these cases were ignored by the broader scientific community, relegated to the fringes of the field as outliers or misunderstandings.
Bobbie Johnson wrote about exactly that—the term “the mind’s eye”—and whether or not such normative terminology hinders communication.
Oliver Burkeman asked a good question recently is this about how we talk about what we “see” or is it what we see? It’s something I wonder, and certainly something I hear from people with some visual ability whenever the subject is discussed. But as somebody pretty far to one end of the spectrum, I suspect that—while the edges of these things are not rock solid, and some people may be confusing their ability to “see” with their ability to “perceive”—there is a true and genuine lack of visual perception for many of us. We aren’t describing the same thing with different language: there is a wide range of capability here.
That we’re capable at all of carrying on sensible or productive conversations at all when some of us mean things literally and others of us mean it only metaphorically is sort of a wonder.
And as this additional diversity comes into focus, it is easier for us to marvel at the paradox of human cooperation. What would seem like fundamental differences in the way we think—some with pictures, others without—do not lead to fundamental barriers in the way we talk to, connect with, and love each other. We are able to form societies and, through struggle and errors, build thriving communities despite these cognitive differences, and maybe because of them.
Erin Bulluss, Ph.D., and Abby Sesterka wrote about things everyone should understand about neurodiversity, and this isn’t about aphantasia and SDAM but it’s also not not about them.
Neurodiversity is simply a way of stating that there are infinite variations in minds across humankind. It does not exclude any minds, or seek to describe any minds as superior or inferior to others. Neurodiversity is most commonly discussed in reference to more readily recognised neurotypes, such as autism and ADHD. This may simply be because these communities were early to adopt the concept and take a leading role in developing the broader neurodiversity movement.
My autism diagnosis came in 2016, and my exposure to neurodiversity probably a couple years later. But it wasn’t until later in 2020 that I’d felt that I truly understood and appreciated neurodiversity—and it was aphantasia more than my autism diagnosis that did it.
It’s tough to communicate to some people precisely how your autistic brain functions differently, when it’s so distressingly easy for normative conceptions of things to read executive dysfunction as laziness. When people discover that they don’t mean the same thing by “picture an apple”, though, it makes neurodiversity very easy to see.
No matter what your own particular mind’s eye might be like.