My Life With Aphantasia
What it's like when your 'mind's eye' is blind
Uchechi Princewill is a writer and medical student at the University of Benin, Nigeria. His writing explores the motions of living beings, real and fantastical. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bombay Literary Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology, and Pikes Peak Writers Dream Anthology. He is also a regional winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition. He can be found in most spaces @bryanwhoiam.
This A Is Not for Apple: My Life With Aphantasia
The moment someone says, “Picture this,” they’ve lost me. This is because I have whats called aphantasia. Aphantasia is the inability to voluntarily create a mental picture. It is image-free imagination, the inability to visualize. Google it after you’ve read this.
Whenever someone would say something like, “imagine I had no nose,” I’d think, well, that would be inconvenient for breathing, wouldn’t it? But then someone else in the group would go, “Oh my God, you’d look so ridiculous,” and I’d think, well, yes, now that you mention it, they would look ridiculous. Good on you for thinking so far ahead.
The thing I did not realize was that they weren’t thinking ahead. The words “imagine I had no nose” were a direct trigger to mentally create an image of the person and delete their nose. They were seeing this image first, of this noseless person, almost automatically, and only then engaging with the idea.
I was nearly out of my teenage years when I first discovered that people had visual imaginations, and it wasn’t something television made up to make shows and movies interesting. Up until then, I used to think the “mind’s eye” was purely metaphoric, abstract. An artistic way to describe imagination. But imagination wasn’t really visual, right? But then it turned out that people were actually picturing things.
“How do you think if you can’t visualize?” is a question I have gotten many times. One time, a girl I’ve only recently begun talking to asked me this, looking at me wide-eyed and with rapt attention, the way you might regard an entertaining experiment, a specimen.
“Things in my mind are concepts,” I told her. I was trying to impress her with how quirky my mind is, which is something teenagers often do, so don’t judge me; I’ve grown since then. “I understand the concept of a thing. The shape. The size. The color. What it looks like. I know these things because I have a brain, and I have learned words. But I cannot see them visually, not until they’re in front of me.”
“Wow,” she said with a shake of her head, “I can’t imagine.”
“Me neither.” I grin. “I can’t imagine a thing.”
But let me help you imagine.
Another girl I met a few months after falling out of touch with the last was very interested in testing some of the limits of my aphantasia. So she told me, “picture this.” I told her I could not.
“An apple,” she said.
I know what apples are. I’ve eaten quite a few. If you asked me to bring you one, I could. There is no confusion in my mind as to what that is.
“Red Delicious,” she continues.
I know that variant. I’ve eaten them.
“About the size of your fist.”
See, I have to take a quick look at my fist now. I don’t keep the size of it in my mind. It’s just not something I think about much, so I don’t remember. But I’ve had a quick look and, yes, no problem. That’s a big apple.
“Spin the apple.”
“I know what it is for an apple to spin. But now you’re talking as if I have an apple to spin. You want me to pretend? Okay, then. The apple is spinning. The concept of a spinning apple is not a problem for me.”
“Place it in the palm of Superman’s hand.”
“Here we go again with the pretending.”
“Superman is now in a deep squat.”
“That’s quite funny. I like the way you think.”
“Superman is in a deep squat holding a Red Delicious the size of your fist.”
“What a ludicrous thing. I’d like to see that in a comic or one of the Henry Cavil movies.”
“Can you see that image?”
“What? You mean, right now?”
“Of course not. I can think of it. I understand it. I could draw it if I wanted. But you mean I’m supposed to see it? Here’s my perspective: I don’t.”
You may be thinking, “how can you draw it when you can’t visualize it? How do you remember?”
Multiple exposures, I guess? I don’t know. I know what a human being looks like. I know what a muscular person looks like. I know what Superman’s costume looks like. Why shouldn’t I be able to draw him? It seems like most people create a picture in their head and then draw that picture, like some in-universe cheat code. The idea is crazy to me. I can never conceptualize the entirety of a scene or image in vivid detail. I start with the overall concept. Superman, in a deep squat holding a Red Delicious. And I draw because I know what the pieces look like. When I’m drawing the foot, I’m drawing a foot and proceeding logically from there. When I get to the hips, I know what a squat is, and what it involves anatomically, so I draw one. I make all the tiny artistic decisions on the spot. Which way the fingers curl. What the eyes look like. These things appear as I draw them. So, the moment I draw it is the first time I actually see the image.
I don’t imagine the way my mind works is a disadvantage per se. Some people say an abstract mind is better at math and making logical connections. I am damn good at math. I’m good at physics too. I’ll humble-brag now and say I was in the Physics Olympiads when I was a teenager. That counts as a win, right? Now, however, I’m a medical student. And I must say, Anatomy was a nightmare. Many lecturers’ teaching methods seemed to rely on everyone being able to magically conjure images upon description, which just felt unfair. I still passed, though. And I may not be able to conjure bony structures and muscle attachments, but I still damn well know where things are. I do hear, from time to time, whisperings of people out there with photographic memories. They must have breezed through Anatomy, and for this reason, I resent them wholeheartedly.
Other than that, living with aphantasia has been normal. I could have gone my entire life without knowing that you imagined things a different way. That’s exactly how little it’s affected me. Seriously.
However, I think there are a few things that are inconvenient. For one, I don’t remember the details of what anything looks like unless I make special note of them. I won’t remember what you wore last week. Or yesterday. Unless when I saw you, I specifically made an effort to remember. My mind just does not soak up these details by default. They are unnecessary to my experience. Useless, even. Well, useless until I’m at home and my mother tells me, ‘You know that gown I wore yesterday? Bring it out for me,’ and I have to explain to her that I don’t remember it.
I’m not completely certain this particular quirk of memory is related to aphantasia, but people with very active visual imaginations have told me what I was wearing when they last saw me. Sometimes, after many years. Maybe you can do that, but I can’t.
All that said, aphantasia is not a disability. Think of it as an alternate brain path. A different way the glorious, mysterious, terrifying human mind can work.
Still, I feel it would be fun to have both ways of thinking.
Part of why I want to experience life from the perspective of another human being is this. For me, perception is so tangibly different, and no matter how well I understand, conceptually, how people can visualize things, I can never really comprehend it or how it works or appreciate it from the perspective of those who live with that perception.
So, come. Picture this: an apple. Red Delicious. About the size of your fist. Spin it. Place it in the palm of Superman’s hand. Superman is now in a deep squat. Superman is in a deep squat holding a Red Delicious the size of your fist. Can you see that image? If yes, you lucky bastard.
And if you can’t, you have company.
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