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When I Realized Other People Can See Pictures in Their Minds

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You’re reading a fabulous novel; the imagery is perfect. You can see the characters, the setting, every detail;  if you close your eyes, it’s like you’re there. This is a part of the normal experience for almost everyone, but imagine having no ability to create mental pictures. A blind mind’s eye, if you will.

That is my reality. I have no ability to conjure images in my mind.

In 2015 this condition was described by science and given a name, aphantasia.

Art by Alethea's daughter.
Art by Alethea’s daughter.

For years, I never realized I was different. I assumed the term “mental picture” was metaphorical, that everyone was like me.  I began to wonder about it when my daughter could remember detailed images, and from memory draw accurate pictures of people, places and things. She told me she just sees them in her mind, and meant it quite literally. Her mind’s eye seems especially acute; I’m afraid she got my share.  She’s aware of the dichotomy between us, and often, when she envisions things then describes them, she will turn to me and and sadly say, “but you can’t picture it.”

If you tell me to think of a chair, I know what a chair is, and can think of different types of chairs — a plush upholstered chair, a wooden kitchen chair and the like, but I don’t get any type of picture in my mind. I can describe to you the chairs in my kitchen with fair accuracy, but I cannot envision them. I can remember every detail about my husband’s appearance in words, but not picture his face. My dreams are primarily experiential and auditory, with strong emotions and only vague, fuzzy imagery. It seems that even in sleep, my mind is incapable of visualization.

Upon reading the BBC article which describes the phenomenon, I felt a strange blend of feelings. Having verbiage for my experience is helpful, but also uncomfortable. I feel like more of an “oddball.”  I don’t necessarily feel like I am missing anything, as it’s the only experience I’ve ever known, but now I understand why relaxing visualization techniques have always mystified me. The soft voice describing a beach setting at sunrise is just words to me, so I was baffled that other people were so engrossed by such things, until I discovered the answer.

What I lack in my mind’s eye I accommodate for in auditory processing and memory. And while I cannot picture a person’s face, I can recognize people, even from years before,with ease.  As you may suspect, I consider hearing my primary sense, and vision a distant second. I am especially attuned to the sounds of my environment, which as a parent is as good as eyes in the back of my head.

I don’t know if I would change it if I could. I cannot imagine what life is like with a visual imagination. I suppose I’m fine as is, even if some people might think I’m missing out.

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Originally published: June 7, 2016
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