When I close my eyes, darkness prevails. No matter how hard I try, I cannot see my mom’s face. I cannot even see a flash of color. I cannot visually replay any memory. I thought that all of this was completely normal until one month ago. Winter break had just begun, and I was surfing the web, reading about rare disorders. Then, I came across aphantasia: the inability to visualize in one’s mind. I was baffled. “Y’all can do that?!” Upon more research, I learned that, yes, 95 to 98% of the population has the ability to see in their head! I had been interested in brain sciences, but now it suddenly became more personal; I was eager to learn everything that I could about this obscure condition.
It has always been obvious to me that I am unable to visualize. When I was up at night, counting sheep was impossible and the effort only woke me up further. None of my memories are in images. They are all in words, emotions, and the occasional sound. Being bilingual has helped me store information in more nuanced words. Growing up, I did have imaginary friends, my four pretend sisters. I knew very little about their appearance because I never saw them. I invented stories with them and imagined (in words, of course) what they were doing and saying to me. While sitting through a boring class in middle school, I imagined a magical machine that would allow one to play movies in their head whenever they wanted. I had no idea that the student sitting right next to me was probably using that so-called “magical machine” at that very moment.
I am constantly hearing my own voice in my head. Sometimes there are up to three concurrent monologues. It is impossible for me to get a moment of silence in my brain, which can become very overwhelming. Mindfulness is supposed to be a technique to bring peace. I hated it. In the second grade, my school hired a professional to teach us mindfulness. Week after week, we were asked to close our eyes and see stuff. I thought that it was all a gimmick. I believed that no one actually saw the images described. Trying to do what the lady wanted left me frustrated and exhausted. I entered the sessions happy and left agitated and annoyed. Ever since, I have avoided all forms of meditation. After my aphantasia awakening, I tried a new type of mindfulness: I asked my mom to describe an experience. As she described the beach in Cape Cod that we visit every summer, I could not see anything, but I focused on the emotions that I had felt in that spot. I could hear some sounds; I could feel sand on my feet. The image was missing but the life was present. The trick with guided meditation for those with aphantasia could be to focus on emotions tied to a specific positive experience and avoid words such as “picture” or “visualize”, as those can be very discouraging.
Aphantasia affects the way that I process and express information. In sixth grade, we learned that there are three types of learners: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Back then, with no knowledge of my aphantasia, I declared myself a visual learner. I still stand by that, even though I find it very difficult to learn from pictures and videos. It is easiest for me to process information which I have read, rather than heard. Synthesizing the knowledge on paper helps me solidify the material. Adding illustrations does not help me retain knowledge because to store a picture I must translate it into words, which is an extra step. Writing comes naturally to me: all of my thoughts are already in words, so I can put them directly on paper. Just do not expect me to write to evoke a mental image: I finally understand why authors do that, but it is lost on me. Aphantasia does not limit creativity. In my case, it has been fueling my creative expression even before I knew that I had it. Being unable to visualize, I naturally turned to making films to “see” the ideas that my mind creates. I developed my unique style of animation/stop motion/video with a voice over to give my ideas a visual representation.
I am very happy to have discovered my aphantasia relatively early on, as it demystifies many concepts that seem mundane to most. Nevertheless, once I internalized my aphantasia, I had a deep feeling of utter frustration. When I thought that no one could see from their imagination, I was not bothered to miss out on having a mind’s eye. As a comparison, I am not upset that I cannot teleport, because no one else can. However, if I were to find out that 98% of people were secretly teleporting I would be very upset–Wait. If you can visualize, you can easily pretend that you are anywhere you want, whether flying over the forest or at the bottom of the ocean. That is a form of teleportation. Y’all can do that?!
If you just realized that you too lack the ability to see beyond, then welcome to the club. For “y’all who can do that,” take advantage of your magical power. And, if you are, like me, fascinated by brain sciences, I would love to discuss further, so please reach out!