Whenever I now see someone creative quoted as referring to their mind’s eye, I just want to know if they mean it literally or figuratively: do they truly see, or are they aphantasic.
Today during one of my intermittent checks of the web for psychoconsultants who are (1) local enough, (2) covered by my insurance, and (3) potentially applicable to a midlife-diagnosed adult autistic with Opinions About Autism And Psychotherapy, I found a place that’s a fifteen-minute bus ride away. Only one of the relevant people on staff currently is taking new clients; I sent an intake inquiry. I forgot to save a copy of what I sent them via their online form, otherwise I’d include it here. I don’t suppose browsers somewhere temporarily save web forms you’ve submitted?
I’ve almost unquestionably had a noticeable cognitive decline in the past two decades, I think.
Looking at photos I’ve posted recently, I’m now starting to wonder if my not ever having developed a single, driving aesthetic is due at least in part to the aphantasia. I should google for stuff on art by aphantasics.
Facile dig at Swatch notwithstanding the actual important thing in that “forked memes” piece is its link to this Julie Beck article for The Atlantic from three years ago which further cements the case for me.
Say that you are imagining your future wedding (if you’ve never gotten married before). You probably see it as a scene—at a church, or on the beach, or under a wooded canopy in a forest with the bridal party all wearing elf ears. There are flowers, or twinkling lights, or mason jars everywhere. You can envision the guests, how they might look, what your soon-to-be spouse is wearing, what look they have on their face. All of these details come from your memory—of weddings you’ve been to before, as well as weddings you’ve seen depicted in pop culture, or in photo albums. The scene also relies on your memory of your friends and family.
“When somebody’s preparing for a date with someone they’ve never been on a date with before, or a job interview—these situations where we don’t have past experience, that’s where we think this ability to imagine the future really matters,” says Karl Szpunar, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. People “can take bits and pieces, like who’s going to be there, where it’s going to be, and try to put all that together into a novel simulation of events.”
I’m still waiting for someone to tell me if there’s a link between aphantasia and autobiographical memory deficits, but it’s pretty damned clear to me at this point that said deficits indeed likely must be prospective in addition to retrospective. Most recently I specifically was talking about this idea of simulating futures being something I simply cannot do, any more than I can relive the past.
You have a mental map of the space; you can “hear” what’s being said and “smell” smells and “taste” flavors; you can feel your emotions from that moment anew. Similarly, when you imagine something you might experience in the future, you are essentially “pre-living” that scene.
That’s not how my brain works. That’s not how any of my brain works. What’s especially fascinating to me is that fMRI studies indicate that areas of the brain which handle “processing personal information, spatial navigation, and sensory information” are implicated in both retrospective and prospective memory. These things, especially spatial and sensory issues, clearly are relevant also to my undiagnosed dyspraxia and my diagnosed autism.
(I’m actually really very interested in someone studying how deficiencies in sense memory on the one hand and sensory sensitivities on the other hand might correlate or confound each other.)
There’s no doubt. Whether or not there’s a confirmed correlation between aphantasia and autobiographical memory deficiencies (which, there has to be), these conditions unquestionably impact my ability to “pre-live” possible futures, which in turn impacts what I can and cannot do in the present, and the degrees to which I can or cannot do them.
Whenever I wonder why I am still subscribed to Whitney Fishburn’s newsletter (started to create “herd immunity to anxiety and depression”), something like this comes along. (I’m not even going to get into the thrust of this edition, which sensationally conflates COVID-19 and mysterious elephant deaths.)
And yet, evidence continues to mount that whatever our differences from animals, our emotional lives do not fall within that differential. And if all sentient beings are capable of feeling, then aren’t they capable of processing what to do about what they feel? In other words, if they feel, then they must also think.
The leap here would do Evel Knievel, or at least Arthur Fonzarelli, proud. Mostly, though, I thought about my belief that when we try to elevate other animals it’s mostly only in service to elevating ourselves; I think we over-inflate our own “consciousness” because our storytelling compulsion can’t help but do.
Remember how I’d wondered if aphantasia and autobiographical memory deficits could be limiting not just retrospective visualization but prospective visualization as well? Your Brain Is a Time Machine doesn’t directly address that question, but it does directly suggest an answer for amnesiacs.
People with so-called anterograde amnesia generally lose the ability to store new semantic and episodic memories—although they can still learn motor tasks such as learning to ride a bike, and other types of so-called procedural or implicit memories. Previously stored semantic memories (for example, the names of their family members or the capital of France) are largely intact, but some amnesiac patients also have an impoverished ability to recall old episodes of their lives (those that happened before the onset of amnesia).
It is not surprising that someone with amnesia will struggle to describe what he did yesterday—that’s pretty much the definition of amnesia. But do people with amnesia struggle to plan ahead or to describe what they may be doing tomorrow? The answer to this question seems to be yes. Research over the last two decades has progressively emphasized that some amnesiac patients struggle to project themselves into both the past and the future. Once such patient, who was known by the initials K.C., suffered extensive hippocampal damage as a consequence of a motorcycle accident. In addition to losing most of his episodic memories, he had a pronounced deficit in his ability to think about his own future.
That time I suggested we’re “not all that”.
“I’m beginning to think of myself as the most unreliable narrator of all,” muses Rebecca Toh. Having just today finished up Your Brain Is a Time Machine and been reminded of the degree to which our unconscious mind is mediating — editing, really — our sensory experiences before passing them along to our conscious mind, I’d think it’s safe to say that each of us is the most unreliable narrator of all, but we’re all we’ve got.
It’s difficult to express the degree to which the start of any new month makes me heavy and unmotivated and muddled, but it’s like clockwork.
Perhaps my greatest regret about realizing that I am aphantasic is that it scuttles one of my favorite parts from my online biography because my memories simply have no visual component to them at all. It’s one of the best lines I’ve ever written for anything and it falls apart under closer scrutiny. It was meant to convey the lack of an emotional component to my memories, which I’ve come since to realize likely is part of the aphantasia-related autobiographical memory deficiencies. I’m reminded now, though, that now I also wonder about the separate “internal narrative” issue referenced in that earlier post. Do other people who have internal narratives actually hear a voice in a sensory sense, or just sort of experience the conception of talking? Because I’m most definitely in the latter camp. There’s no voice; I can’t even tell if it’s “me” “talking”, per se. It’s the conception of talking but not the conception of a voice, but it progresses temporally just like speech would; to some degree there are moments where I also have the conception of what it would feel like to actually utter the words being thought. So, while I do have an internal narrative consisting of words, there’s no sensory aspect to it. Just like if I think of a song; I don’t “hear” it in my “mind’s ear” or whatever; I simply have the conception of the song.
While sitting outside on the front landing of my mother-in-law cottage reading Your Mind Is a Time Machine, my mind kept coming back to that study about aphantasia and memory deficiencies, and the implications for the inability not just to retrospectively visualize the past but also to prospectively visualize the future — and I started to wonder about potential links between a deficiency in prospective visualization and anxiety.
My posit is this: the ability to prospectively visualize the future enables one in essence to simulate potential experiences and therefore inherently prepare your mind for the possibilities. If one lacks the ability to prospectively visualize, then, your mind cannot truly prepare for the possibilities — or even, perhaps to some degree, distinguish or estimate comparative likelihoods.
It’s almost a bit counter-intuitive, in that you’d superficially think that simulating potential experiences would therefore, in a kind of reverse sense memory, make you experience a version of them; if the possibility being simulated is bad for you, wouldn’t that give you anxiety about it rather than relieve it?
My layman’s flight of fancy here is that this superficial instinct is wrong, and that simulation decreases anxiety by letting you “safely” experience a potential version of events, and that being unable to engage in such simulations leaves a mind more at sea and unprepared.
My mind, for instance, would be perfectly capable of conceiving of possibilities but incapable of making any judgements about them due to this inability to prospectively visualize, or simulate, them. An extreme version of this occurs when under significant cognitive load: I’ve called it the uncollapsed autistic wave function.
A closing sidenote: this has me thinking about the effects the mirtazapine has on my anxiety, which is that it doesn’t eliminate my experience of anxiety — it’s not somehow allowing me to prospectively visualize the future and make judgements so much as it’s taking some of the edge off in an almost dissociative way, letting me set it off to the side.
Do people who are not aphantasic, or who do not have retrospective and prospective visualization deficiencies, experience anxiety — or for that matter its treatments — differently?
“Most of us assume visual imagery is something everyone has, something fundamental to the way we see and move through the world. But what does having a ‘blind mind’ mean for the mental journeys we take every day when we imagine, remember, feel and dream?”
Mr Dawes was the lead author on a new aphantasia study, published overnight in Scientific Reports. It surveyed over 250 people who self-identified as having aphantasia, making it one of the largest studies on aphantasia yet.
“We found that aphantasia isn’t just associated with absent visual imagery, but also with a widespread pattern of changes to other important cognitive processes,” he says.
“People with aphantasia reported a reduced ability to remember the past, imagine the future, and even dream.”
Interesting to me is Dawes’ note that this general lack of visualization impacts not just projection into the past but into the future as well — which I’ve been suggesting might be the case (links to blog search for aphantasia), because it appears to be so with me.
I’ve been wondering also about the issue of dreams, because I definitely dream in visuals despite being otherwise aphantasic; but I wonder now about other people’s general sensory experience of dreaming, and to what degree my own in fact is lacking by comparison.
The other write-up linked at MeFi notes other linkages which suggest to me now that there’s an entire range ways in which my cognitive sensory experience simply does not match nor mirror most everyone else’s.
Eric Ravenscraft’s look at reaching the limits of our ability to process information has more language I’d find useful in an autistic context — or, rather, in communicating to other people about various experiences of being autistic. To wit: our environment feeling “like a mental DDoS attack that drags down our mental health, allows misinformation to thrive, and even makes the job of delivering news more difficult”. Pair with this earlier thing about cognitive exhaustion.