A fantasia on aphantasia

Once again, I interrupt my as-yet-still-untitled long-form story to bring you a personal blog post. This one’s not quite an ‘unpost’ but might nevertheless be a bit on the rambly and ill-formed side, hence ‘fantasia’. That’s because it’s a reaction to something I discovered about myself (and everyone else) only yesterday. And when I say yesterday, I literally mean Tuesday 27 November 2018.

The title and opening bar of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor
Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K.396

Unlike my unposts, this post has a picture attached. It’s the opening bar of a Mozart fantasia that I enjoy playing on the piano. Fantasias are pieces of music that spring from the imagination and don’t necessarily adhere to any particular compositional form. They’re often more interesting to me than sonatas, for instance, because they take all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

My life has taken quite a few unexpected twists and turns in the last couple of years, and to some extent it’s been a belated voyage of self-discovery for me. But yesterday’s revelation really came completely out of the blue, thanks to a tweet by autistic advocate and academic Shona Davison. She introduced me to the word aphantasia (and the derived word aphantasic).

When I was in secondary school, I remember a teacher talking about ‘the mind’s eye’. She said it refers to how we see things in our imagination, but assured us that we don’t actually have an extra eye in our head – it’s just an expression. Fair enough, I thought – I’ll add that to my lexicon. Little did I realise at the time that my entirely abstract conception of the mind’s eye might not have been shared by any of my classmates.

I’ve never had any doubt that some people can conjure up vivid images in their heads. People with photographic memory, for instance, or artists who can paint from memory. But these are exceptional people with rare talents. I’ve always assumed that when most people are asked to close their eyes and picture a favourite place, they’re doing much the same thing as me.

When I close my eyes, the world goes dark.

There are no visual images for me; maybe faint, brief, sub-millisecond flashes of light or shadowy nebulous blobs, but certainly nothing I have any control over. When I ‘picture’ a scene, I work my way around it serially, picking out things and naming them – but never seeing them. Yes, I can imagine some of what’s there and the spatial relationships between the things I’ve thought of, but there’s no sense of a coherent visual whole. There’s no image. It’s ephemeral, and almost completely abstract.

Apparently, most people aren’t like me in this respect. But until yesterday I’d always assumed they were. I asked my son and my ex (who I still live with) whether they could picture things in their heads. Both claimed to be able to visualise people and scenes at will. My (autistic) son said he could play ‘videos’ in his head. I asked if they had sound, and he said yes.

Neither my son nor my ex could readily conjure up equally vivid impressions of smells, for instance, suggesting that there really is something fundamentally different about the way they imagine things visually (and in my son’s case audibly); it’s not just that we are describing our inner worlds in different ways.

You see, my visual imagination is pretty much exactly on a par with my auditory imagination and my olfactory imagination. It’s all based on narratives and muscle memory and associated emotions and thought processes that I have to keep replaying to maintain even such a scant approximation to an image in my head.

Sometimes I convince myself that I can almost see something when I try really hard. I sweep out the curve of a domed building in my imagination, perhaps waving my hand in the air as I do so, and think I see part of it for a fleeting moment, but it’s gone. It was probably never really there.

I used to consider myself a mathematician. (I did a degree in mathematics, and spent four years working on a PhD in functional analysis which I didn’t finish.) Mathematicians make use of various idealised entities, some of which you can (approximately) illustrate on a piece of paper: circles, graphs, cubes and so on. But a lot of mathematics requires more dimensions than the three we’re used to dealing with – even infinitely many in a lot of cases.

Some mathematicians have claimed to be able to visualise four- or even five-dimensional figures in their heads, giving them a head-start on developing theories about such geometries. I found the infinite-dimensional geometries I worked with easier to conceptualise if anything, perhaps because there was more regularity and less low-dimensional specificity – but perhaps also because my conceptualisation was never really visual, even in two- or three-dimensional space. My axiomatic conceptualisation may have been an advantage to me in some respects, but it probably let me down when it came to making the imaginative leaps that other mathematicians found easy.

But that’s obviously visualisation of a different order from the everyday kind.

When you read (or write!) a story, do you have a vivid mental picture of the characters and places in the story? I don’t.

When you watch a film, do you quickly recognise all the characters? I don’t.

When you meditate or pray with your eyes closed, if you do such things, do you have some kind of visual image in your head? I don’t. (In fact, closing my eyes just makes my other senses more acute, which can sometimes be more distracting.)

When you’re trying to remember a list of items, do you find it helpful to picture the items in a scene? I don’t.

When someone suggests that a good way to reduce stress is to picture yourself in a forest or by the sea, can you? I can’t.

When someone else suggests picturing everyone in an audience without their clothes on? Well, that just sounds plain creepy!

Aphantasia (roughly speaking, the lack of a mind’s eye) means I can’t imagine people when they’re not there, even people I’ve lived with for over twenty years. If I can remember anything about people’s faces or the clothes they wear it’s because I’ve made a conscious effort to observe and memorise those details, not because I can call to mind a mental image and look there for the answer.

For most people, I couldn’t tell you the colour of their hair. As for eye colour, I don’t think I know anyone else’s apart from my own. And if I’ve only met someone a few times, there’s a very good chance I won’t recognise them when I see them again, especially if I see them in a different context. In fact, when I was growing up, I thought almost everyone looked pretty much the same, but as I’ve got older I’ve somehow managed to compensate for that.

It isn’t just about seeing things in your head, but also about the other senses. As a musician and not-particularly-talented composer, I find it incredibly frustrating not to be able to hear music in my head, in the way that my son (and other musicians I know) apparently can. I can remember tunes and bring them to mind to an extent, but only by singing them under my breath.

I have no ability to ‘audiblise’ an orchestra, complete with harmonies and timbres and so forth. If I can imagine any music, it’s only because I can sing it. So that fantasia that I enjoy playing only comes to life when I play it. I can’t actually remember what it sounds like on a piano, though I can sing the top line to myself and recall a little of the emotion that it makes me feel.

I’ve said that my memory of scenes is serial, and perhaps verbal, to a large extent rather than being an all-at-once thing like normal vision. Oddly, I’ve always attributed my natural aptitude for spelling to having learned to read at quite a young age and having therefore made fairly primitive visual connections between the shapes of words and their sounds.

It’s true that impressions of written words appear in my head as I speak or listen, though those impressions may not be as visual as I once thought. I can rattle off the spelling of a word, but it takes a lot more effort to do it in reverse, which would surely be almost equally easy if I were reading from a mental image. Likewise, I’ve written before about talking to myself when reading or writing. I can’t really hear the sound of a piece of text properly without actually reading it aloud. (That makes writing under exam conditions quite tricky!)

Seeing, picturing and other image-related verbs (even imagining itself) are so often used metaphorically that I wonder whether the metaphor is actually less removed from the original for most people than it is for people with aphantasia. Why say ‘I see’ for ‘I understand’ when there is absolutely nothing to see? Where does the metaphorical link come from?

I’ve always found ‘big-picture thinking’ hard and struggle when I have to expand an idea beyond a manageable number of detailed observations. Perhaps some non-aphantasics really can ‘see’ ‘the big picture’? That’s pure speculation on my part, of course, but it would be interesting to know if there is genuine visual imagery involved rather than it just being a slightly obscure metaphor.

I’d also be interested to know whether there’s any kind of link between ability to conceive of (or ‘picture’) events in time and the ability to visualise some kind of timeline in the mind’s eye. Again, I don’t know if that works for anyone else. I do know that visual timelines and calendars (in the real world) are very useful for me, but they don’t stick in my head. How could they? I can only retain events mentally in their proper temporal sequence (whether they’re past events or anticipated future events) if I can make up a narrative connecting them (which I rarely can).

Difficulties with chronology are also associated with autism, and I’ve considered that to be one of the autistic traits that I have, but perhaps it’s actually an aphantasic trait. In either case, there are at least anecdotal accounts that aphantasia and autism are likely to co-occur.

Before I finish, I should mention dreams.

First, a question for non-aphantasics: when you daydream, is that anything like dreaming – do you have pictures in your head at the time? – or is daydreaming just a word for getting carried away with mulling things over in your mind?

Some aphantasics apparently never have pictures in their head. But I do! (I just have no control over them.) When I go to sleep, I dream, and my dreams involve lifelike, colourful moving images and rich soundscapes (as far as I can tell). OK, lifelike might be stretching it sometimes: dreams can be pretty weird! I can also experience these kind of lucid visualisations just as I’m falling off to sleep. I sometimes get extremely strong sound impressions if I’m struggling to stay awake.

I said I regretted not being able to imagine musical harmonies and textures, but I have composed some amazing music in my dreams, including the music for the spectacular film Alternative Forests, which I enjoyed one night a number of years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything about the film itself or the luscious orchestral score that accompanied it. But I do still remember the title, because it’s just words.

2 responses to “A fantasia on aphantasia”

  1. Comment received from Laura Poole:

    Hi Anna! I’m a non-aphantasic and only recently learned about aphantasia. A friend of mine has this, and the coining of the term and description of it was very helpful for her. Anyway, I daydream a lot, and sometimes it’s just my mind wandering when I should be focusing, lost in thought, but other times I’m deliberately making my own dreams/movies in my head and using images in my mind’s eye. So yeah, in that case, daydreaming is like night dreaming.

  2. I learned about my own aphantasia about the same time as you did. So amazing I could have gone without knowing about it for all of 66 years! I too am autistic and also have prosopagnosia… I wondered almost immediately if the 2 are connected. There has been a bit of research done on aphantasia,( still so very new to science) and they tell us that dreaming and the things we see while we dream come from a totally different place in our brains. You are the first person I have run across who evidently uses the same thinking processes. I too am completely non visual. Fascinating world of human thought processes, there really is a spectrum!