Aphantasia is the term for when someone can’t imagine something in their mind. As the article’s title alludes to, it’s “mind blindness” or not having a “mind’s eye.”
The author, Blake Ross, says:
“If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. … You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.”
He’s not alone, as this condition seems to be present in a small percentage of the population. (Scientists currently estimate 2-3%, but they’re just now starting studies on the topic and further investigation might push that number higher.)
As writers, this perspective not only gives us all sorts of story and character ideas, but it can also raise many questions about the concept of imagination itself. Let’s take a look…
How Our Imagination Affects Our Life
Some people who are aphantasiac don’t dream at all. No daydreams or fantasies for some of them either. The inability to call an image or sound to mind can also affect drawing or playing an instrument.
Our sense of direction might depend on the ability to visualize a map. Even spelling skill can be affected by our ability to picture whether a word looks right on an imaginary whiteboard.
Many who love reading talk about imagining themselves as part of the story, picturing the characters, setting, or story world. Yet for aphantasiacs, that experience doesn’t apply.
On my Facebook post, we got into several interesting discussions:
- How those visuals actually appear in our head:
Others probably have different experiences, but I described my experience as “feeling” the image forming inside my brain so strongly that I “see” it. If I had to assign a location to the “movie” screen, I’d say it was on the inside of my forehead. That’s not quite how it is, but when I visualize things, my eyes often naturally tilt up (and to the right) a bit.
- What it means to think conceptually rather than visually:
Jo Eberhart, an aphantasiac, explained:
“Visualise the following things in your mind’s eye, one at a time:
* A beach
* An orange traffic cone
* A hammer
Chances are, when you got to the word “justice” there was a moment when you had a very clear conceptual understanding of the word, but you hadn’t yet come up with a picture to represent it. (Because it’s a concept rather than an object/place.) That moment of conceptualisation is how I imagine EVERYTHING.”
- Whether people’s experiences with visualizations have changed over time:
Language can shape brain processing (such as how cultures without a word for pink see fewer differences between the color red and what we’d consider pink), so before movies, were people less likely to visualize books? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question. *smile*
- How our imagination sensitivity might affect our overall sensitivity:
Serena Yung theorized that her strong memory for touch sensations might be part of the reason she doesn’t like being touched by others, and FloppyJaloppy and I were comparing notes on how our sensory memory might explain our dislike of horror movies. Perhaps those who are easily overly stimulated by certain sensory information experience them stronger in their brain processing centers as well.
Does Our Imagination Affect Our “Talent”?
In many fields, people talk about talent vs. skill. Some have natural talent, so things come more easily to them, while others can succeed through harder work.
This made me wonder if our imagination affects our talent. Or if the concept of talent is misleading, and that “talent” might be (at least partially) just how our brain processes and recalls information.
Perhaps “talented” painters are more easily able to hold an image in their head while they make the canvas match. Or maybe “talented” composers are more easily able to hold all the contributions of an orchestra in their mind while they capture the notes of each instrument.
Others can certainly paint or be musical, but just as when we’re less talented at something, we might focus on skill to bring us up to speed. Blake described his ability to spell and play the piano as muscle memory rather than anything visual or auditory based.
Blake is an author, and I first saw this article from another author who shares this functionality, and one of my Facebook author friends chimed in on my post to say her brain worked this way as well, so obviously this condition doesn’t prevent the ability to imagine ideas, concepts, or stories. Rather, it can affect someone’s ability to add sensory information to those concepts.
How Does Our Imagination Affect Our Writing?
When discussing aphantasia, scientists often focus on the visual aspect of sensory imagination, but similar issues can occur for the other senses as well.
- Can they visualize a beach?
- Can they visualize someone’s face?
- When thinking of a song, do they hear the complete arrangement of voice, instruments, and beat?
- Can they recall flavors and tastes?
- What about smells? Or touch memories? Or emotional memories?
In thinking about my ability to imagine various elements of my story worlds, I started to wonder if my sensory strengths and weaknesses affect my writing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the question should be how my brain affects my writing rather than if it did.
Case Study: My Imagination Blind Spots
As part of my reading about the condition this past weekend, I learned that the ability to visually imagine places or things is different from the ability to visualize faces. Prosopagnosia is the term for “face-blindness.”
While my ability to visualize in general is strong, my ability to focus on faces is not. As I said on Facebook:
“My facial memory is zero—unless I bring to mind a photograph of someone, and then I can visualize a bit. And when I say zero, I mean that I can’t even visually remember what my mother looks like. I know her hair, but that’s it.
When I dream, I never see faces. They’re all blurry, like on Google Street View. *smile*”
After thinking about it, I realized that when writing, I often don’t focus on my characters’ faces. I’ll describe their body language and hair/eye color, but I don’t think about their face at all, much less write about it.
I think I subconsciously realized this blindness a few years ago. For my first (currently under the metaphorical bed) story, I found images for all my characters and all the settings.
For my next story, I tried skipping all that work and didn’t use any visual references. However, while I didn’t miss the images for settings, I found I missed my characters.
So for my last several stories, I found images to focus on when writing my characters, which helped me include facial expressions and features. (Ha! My Pinterest activity is necessary. *grin*)
As for my imagination ability for my other senses…
“My audio memory is about the same as visual, maybe even better. If someone asks me to remember the Star Wars song, I’ll hear it full-orchestra style with all the instruments. And unlike with visual memory, the details often don’t fade over time.
For taste, I remember the texture of foods, but not so much the flavors.
For scents, I remember the adjective descriptions, but not the actual smell.
For touch, I remember if it was good or bad, but not the details.”
This matches my experience when writing about senses in my stories. I often easily focus on the general visuals, sounds, and character voices, while faces and the other senses take more effort for me to include.
If nothing else, learning about how others differ from our own experiences can give us unique character ideas. But maybe by being aware of our imagination weaknesses, we’ll remember to not neglect them in our writing. Skill for including sensory information can be learned after all. *smile*
Do you see “movies in your mind” when you read or write? How has your sensory imagination affected your life? Do you have blank spots in your sensory memories (such as for faces)? How strong or weak is your ability to remember or create with your different senses? How do you think those strengths and weaknesses affect your writing?Pin It