If I ask you to think of an elephant do you see an elephant in your head when you close your eyes?
I never knew this absence of mental imagery was even a thing until my daughter pointed out that she and I were missing something my wife and other daughter had. Ask us to visualize a rainbow or a sunset and we just see nothing. We can’t create pictures in our head of objects, people, places or experiences. Where others can visualize these things, we can’t. Not for people, memories, or images past or future. When people say visualize this in your mind’s eye I just thought that was a turn of phrase. It now dawns on me that other people were really seeing something in their heads.
(I’m also realizing that that when people describe that they can hear the sound of their voice in their head (a train of thought), that it wasn’t just a metaphor. But my thoughts are silent.)
Handicap or Asset?
My inability to visualize doesn’t seem to have handicapped my imagination or creativity. I am constantly thinking about new things – I just don’t see them as pictures (or hear them.)
I’m not sure what it is I can’t do that others can. Perhaps I can blame my failure in sports on it? Or my inability to sing or dance? It likely explains why when my wife asks me what someone was wearing or what their house looked like, I come up empty. Or more telling, why I can’t visualize the descriptive language in poetry or in a novel.
What’s interesting is that lacking what most everyone else seems to be able to do may explain how I think, communicate and process information. Perhaps this explains how I go about the creative process. When I want to describe an event that happened, I don’t bring up the visual imagery of what the places or people looked like. Instead my stories are of what I remember about the facts/data/conversations around the event.
It might also explain why pattern recognition and abstract thought (the ability to think about principles, and ideas that are not physically present) come easier to me. Possibly because I’m not distracted by visual pictures associated with the data that others see. I just see raw data.
At times the result has been transformative for more than just me.
The way I’m wired has given me (and likely other founders and those in other fields) an edge. So, how can others with aphantasia consciously harness that? And for those who do see pictures in your heads is there anything you can learn from those of us who don’t?
(I wonder if I could have benefited from a modified classroom curriculum if this had been discovered this early. Or if I could have been taught how to visualize. But what would have been have lost?)
Pluses and Minuses
We’re Just at the Beginning of Understanding
I’m curious if there’s anyone else who can’t see pictures in their head.
Let me know.