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Why I Can't Imagine My Life Without Aphantasia

A few nights ago a friend of mine and I had this conversation.

My friend: “Like if I read you a story, you wouldn’t imagine it?”

Me: “Nope, it’s just a bunch of words.”

My friend: “Like what the people looked like or were doing?”

Me: “I don’t see any of that. I can’t form a picture by thinking of a word.”

My friend: “So if I said Edward was tall, with white creamy skin, green eyes that pierced right thru you. You wouldn’t form an Edward in thought?”

Me: “Not at all.”

This revelation always seems to puzzle people. It’s as if they can’t imagine living in a world without visual imagery in their mind. And likewise, I can’t imagine (literally) what it’s like to have that ability. It seems like something as extraordinary as a superpower!

I’ve always known I see the world differently than everyone around me. I struggled to keep up in school. I am the only child in my family who can’t put faces with famous names. Musicians, actors, actresses, poets, famous authors… I have to google them every. single. time. I hate reading and get lost in all the descriptive words that attempt to “paint pictures” for you throughout the entire book.

I’m not sure I see this as a disability, although it comes with its own set of struggles. But that’s mostly related to the fact that our language, customs, writing, famous sayings, and educational system are set up for those who have the ability to visualize in their “mind’s eye.” So in that way, it’s quite a challenge!

I’m sure it’s something most don’t even think about, but here are a few examples. Even the way people talk is geared towards those who hold that “superpower.” “I can see it now!” “I can only imagine!” “I can’t imagine!” and “Picture this.” These are just some examples of very common phrases in our daily language. Some of the most common forms of therapy start with saying, “Close your eyes and picture an ocean. Now picture a seashell on the white sandy beach. Now picture yourself walking barefoot on the edge of the ocean.” This kind of therapy is one way used to treat PTSD, which I have. Needless to say, I cannot do this kind of therapy. I get lost at “Close your eyes.” I can’t understand why someone would say, “Close your eyes and picture…” It seems very counterproductive to me.

“Picturing” to me would require me to hold an actual picture of a person, item, or place and see it with my eyes. At that point the word “ocean” and the picture of the “ocean” can be linked. But when I take the picture away, the picture is gone. All that’s left is the word “ocean” and the facts I have logged away about an ocean, such as: it’s blue. It’s wet. It’s huge. It has sharks and whales in it. But those words are just facts known… it’s not imagery.

The way things are filed as “memories” for me is in vast amounts of facts, filed-away descriptions. This makes my recent loss of some important pictures of my children a huge loss. It’s not like I can readily pull up those times in my head. When the pictures are gone… they are gone. In most cases I know it happened and I know details about what happened, but the only time the movie replays as if an actual movie playing is when I dream.

Parenting has been tricky in several ways because I have children who talk to me with great detail. When they are excited about their day, they love to “paint a picture” for me with their words. But actually the more descriptive details they use, the more frustrating it is for me. I do much better when they bottom line it. If they like a movie, they like to tell me what happened in the movie. I can’t picture what they are saying and I just get lost in all of the words being used. Recently, my preschooler had an animal visit her school that she didn’t know the name of, so she tried describing it to me. I had to tell her to wait so she could tell her older sisters when they returned home from school. Parenting these visual minds can be like a puzzle at times, and my children are learning that mom gets lost in too many descriptive words.

This is true in outside life interactions as well! Friends talk to me in descriptive wording, maybe describing the “perfect addition” they are thinking of buying for their room. If I’m lost and need directions somewhere, again it’s a very descriptive picture they try to paint for me. “You’re going to go straight until you see a fork in the road and then turn right when you see the thing that looks like a circle, but instead of following it you stay on until you come to the fifth stop sign with the animal crossing sign by it.” Never going to happen! I’ve been known to follow the first step and stop and ask for directions all over again once I’ve made it that far. Another hard one is having to glance down at a telephone number and trying to remember it so I can dial it. That never works for me! I either have to write it down or look back at it four or five times.

My daughter and friend have informed me that when they think of a certain person, they “see” them in their mind. That is surreal to me! When I think of a certain person there’s no visual picturing going on, although I know facts about them I can tell you if need be. I can tell you what color their hair is, whether or not they wear glasses, if they are tall or short… but these are facts I have stored away.

I was diagnosed with a “processing” delay, and now that makes sense to me. My mind is constantly filtering out the words I don’t need and trying to keep only the stuff I can understand. I’m continually trying to keep up and so I can easily get lost in details at doctor’s offices, meetings, speaking with teachers, conferences, and conversations. Chances are if I have a visual in front of me while we talk, I’m going to get what you’re saying a whole lot faster than if I don’t.

Living with aphantasia in a world that can’t “imagine” what that’s even like is a challenge. Most don’t even realize it’s a reality for others. But it’s one I press through daily, and have always lived with, but I don’t know any different.

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Thinkstock photo by Oatawa.

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