Aphantasia is the inability to experience certain senses in your mind. A common example is an inability to visualize imagery (in your head). When you tell a non-aphant to “imagine a dog” in their head, they will see a visual image of a dog: It will have a breed, color, size, and any other traits a physical dog has. In contrast, a person with aphantasia won’t see anything, even with their eyes closed.
Aphantasia is like owning a computer with no monitor. A computer is a machine that processes information, while the monitor is the object that displays that information. Most people buy computers with monitors, but you can run a computer without one. All the information a non-aphant (computer with monitor) can “create” in their mind exists for aphants (computer), but that information is not “displayed” (no monitor).
I am a “full aphant”. I cannot see pictures, hear sounds, smell foods, or anything of that nature in my head. The world I live in is conceptualized through abstraction: When I “visualize” a dog, I recognize what a dog is, but without any specific properties. If you ask me to describe the dog, I will describe the properties a dog has. As this dog isn’t an actual image, it may or may not have certain properties non-aphants already know about (such as a name or color); unless that property is needed. Do note that other aphants may default to different properties since thinking patterns aren’t universal.
My memory contains order but not a true sense of direction or depth. If I were to create a mental palace, there wouldn’t be any rooms I could walk into. Top chess players are described as being able to recreate the board state (with the best player having photogenic memory). The equivalent visualization — of the board state — for an aphant is simply memorizing the lines used to get there (i.e literally “e4 e5 Ke2”) or the literal order of pieces on the grid.
I can’t visualize faces or scenery, and the daydreaming I do is abstract: It’s a dream — which aphants can normally experience — without the visual. The experience isn’t cinematic. A non-aphant may daydream about a beach to relax, but if I “daydream” about a beach, there is no visual. Instead, I will “daydream” about relaxing (perhaps on a beach). The purpose of the daydream goes beyond the physical scene.
When I create art, it follows an objective approach. A common belief is that aphants have little to no imagination. I wouldn’t say this is true; rather, we must determine how to make the imagination reality. Aphant or not, it takes skill to create art. Non-aphants aren’t “better” artists or musicians, but they may have an edge in the experimentation process: An idea that is better off in your head stays there.
I can’t hear any voices. I CAN maintain a thought process. If you can play a song in your head, I can too. However, I will need to make the sounds in real life to hear them. That said, the sound I think about may not be the sound I create in real life. In this regard, it may be easier to think while talking out loud for certain tasks.
Watching food-related videos such as mukbang is a waste of time for me. I won’t be able to taste or smell anything in the video unless I create the dish the video is about. Cooking guides are helpful, but any other “food” video serves no benefit beyond the reaction of the person in the video.
The Superpower It Isn’t
Aphantasia may maintain benefits in certain aspects of life, but I can’t tell you which since I can’t experience the world without aphantasia. With that being said, I can describe common misunderstandings non-aphants have when they discover aphantasia.
I maintain a high level of focus… Sort of. There is this idea that only being able to see reality results in a more “in-the-moment” experience. However, living in the moment has less to do with experiencing reality and more about how often you think. I struggle to live in the moment because most of my experiences remain irrelevant. I don’t recall them (but I do remember them). I’m great at focusing — sometimes to the detriment of my health — because I’m committed to my thoughts, not because of aphantasia.
Non-aphants commonly comment on how cool it would be to “be able to see gruesome images, but not remember them”. This assumption really isn’t the case. If I look at a gruesome image, I may not remember the actual image, but I CAN remember the disgust it brings alongside the idea of said image. For example, an aphant with trypophobia who sees a “gruesome image” won’t visualize holes in their skin, but the idea of having holes in their skin will still disgust them.
A Common Misunderstanding
There are many common phrases or concepts that I couldn’t understand until I learned what aphantasia was.
I thought this meant focusing (on sleeping). I never realized that you could mesmerize yourself to sleep by watching sheep jump over a fence.
The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique, which involves visualizing a physical space — such as your house — to memorize information. This method relies on visualization skills to assign information to visualized objects. I obviously can’t perform this in the way it’s intended.
Any form of imagination is “conceptualization” for me. In this regard, “closing your eyes” is meant to enhance your focus rather than allow you to see a mental image.
"Stop undressing me"
I can’t add or remove any objects from my vision. I can’t see anything I’m not already seeing. Apparently, others can: Let it be known I have a MASSIVE…
The Biased Aphant
Aphantasia isn’t precisely a disorder. You’re not set back how other people with disorders are set back. However, common misunderstandings create situations that limit your communication with non-aphants. Bringing awareness to aphantasia is important: There are definitely moments where a disconnect in how the brain works affect the ability to educate.
For example, a person devoid of emotion (alexithymia) describes their situation as “the neutral feeling people have when they wake up”. However, non-alexithymians understand that this statement is subtly incorrect. The phrase “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” comes to mind. If you were to teach a person — with alexithymia— using a lesson plan based on emotions (where information is enforced by happiness and sadness), the person would still retain the information, but their takeaway would be slightly incorrect.
For example, it was common for my music teachers to use visualization to describe how my body should react while playing an instrument. If I was told to "imagine a beach", they wanted me to relax more or experience that visual as I played; while I would conceptualize properties the visual (i.e beach) had. This explanation is subtly incorrect, and so was my takeaway. I was unable to spend enough time learning on my own terms to fix it and it showed in my performance.
In my education, I struggled the most with concepts that relied on visualization. English assignments that advise you to use “imagery” destroy me. It’s hard to remember every property that makes up a scene, let alone one I’ve never experienced. I’ve created unreleased songs that contain my interpretation of imagery, but non-aphants describe them as weird. This “weird” disconnect in my writing assignments involving imagery affected my grades in English class.