Blind in the Mind
I’ve been blindsided. I’ve discovered your brain can do something mine can’t…and I didn’t see it coming. I—the writer!—who weaves words so evocatively for you, dear reader, am floored to find that most of you, in fact…
see these images in your minds.
Well, duh, you say—don’t we all? No. We don’t. And I had no idea. We’ve been sharing the same vocabulary all this time—“mind’s eye,” “mental image,” “picture this”—but I’ve assumed from playground days that we were speaking in a figurative, metaphorical way. Nope. Turns out your noggin actually spins images in living color, while I am essentially blind in the mind. On the visualizing spectrum, I land on an extreme called aphantasia—“without fantasy.” It’s a thing, I have it, and discovering you don’t has blown my blind mind.
* * *
I’ve never thought in pictures. I never thought this was weird. My first awareness of it was at a very young age. It was nap time one languid noon at daycare, and we wiggling children were loathe to fall asleep on our hard little cots. Our teacher tried to woo us into the Land of Nod with her version of counting sheep. “Close your eyes,” she murmured softly, “and picture the color hot pink until you drift off to sleep.” This was the Barbie Corvette 80’s, the My Little Pony 80’s, and I was a secret unicorn, you get me? I was more than willing to drift into a hot pink sleep. But a few fitful seconds in, I had failed to summon more than an idea of the color. I knew I was thinking about hot pink, but I was confused—were we supposed to see more than this? I squinted and sweated and probably passed out from sheer neural exhaustion.
But why should this be? Colors were my jam. I drank in the sensory garden of a fresh box of Crayolas: the scent of wax and crayon paper, the rainbow arrangement of hues. I noticed the nuances between colors: cerulean and cornflower, both blue, both brothers, but different shades. Even their names shook hands but danced differently in my mouth. And I took an almost perverse pleasure in how viscerally I despised burnt sienna. Burnt sienna. What is this hideous sienna, and why are we burning it—because it’s too ugly to live? Colors evoked dazzling and dramatic emotions in me.
But I never saw these colors when I closed my eyes. I didn’t expect to. It didn’t keep me from dreaming (dimly and unmemorably). It didn’t stop me from doing well at school. It didn’t keep me from thinking—I had rigorous (and later punishing) brain activity. And it certainly didn’t curtail a lifelong addiction to reading. Yet even here, there were clues my approach veered from the norm. My brain would buzz restlessly over paragraphs of dense description like a camera drone searching for action. My eye skipped like candy to every indentation where dialogue began. I was deeply transported by books, but not in pictures or fantasy.
Still, I dominated the English language. For a short kid who didn’t show well in P.E., I could climb the ropes of literature with ease. I swam fluidly through syntax and storytelling and metaphors. Poetry was the shape of my soul. I wrote a limerick for a third grade assignment that got me accused of plagiarism by both my teacher and my mom. (1) In the fifth grade, I wrote a maudlin fable about a dog who neglected its puppies, and they died. The final line and moral of the story was, “Don’t plant the seed if you’re not willing to help it grow.” Overwrought, perhaps, but the point remains: literary devices, I got you.
It was party tricks, too. I “interpreted dreams” by pointing out symbolism the subconscious was kicking up in sleep. I had a gleeful talent of grossing out my friends with what I thought were funny concepts. My best friend gagged every time I’d describe tense situations as “a bulging pustule.” When my friends would groan and clutch their faces and say, “Ugh, thanks for the visual!” I thought we were talking about a manner of speaking. I’ve spent my life looking at my audience sideways—this is fun, people, but calm down.
I had party tricks and perpetual A’s in English, but my friends seemed to have something better. They could daydream in school; I’d stare hard out the window, but my mind never escorted me anywhere but back to class. Another friend rewatched entire movies in her head. I’ve watched Titanic on a TV twenty times and still can’t recall if the boat made it. How did these people ever leave their house, all this entertainment in their brains?
It gets worse—I’ve learned the mass of men gets more from reading, too. That dense description I can’t chew through, the reason I gave up on Lord of the Rings, is the very vehicle that transports my sister to Middle Earth. My friend, Dionne, devours description as she casts faces and scouts locations for the vivid movie playing in her mind. If the author trips up in the placement of a building, she grits her teeth because the surf shop is supposed to be on the other side of the street, and now she must put the book down to rebuild the scene in her head. These are the exact people who complain about books getting made into movies—“It’s never the way I imagined it.” Sheesh, I can’t wait for a book to get filmed so I can finally see it.
I don’t see characters in my mind, and I don’t see real people either. It’s not that I don’t remember faces. I know exactly who and what I’m thinking about; it’s just not a snapshot or a vivid rendering. “You mean it’s blurry?” friends have asked. “Like a hazy ‘dream sequence’ with smoke and shadows?” No—it’s simply not a visual memory at all. It’s an impression, a “knowing.” But this lack of visual recall makes for spotty memories, and this distresses me. I can’t clearly recall cooking one pot of my famous spaghetti in the apartment I shared with my best friend. Days and years blend together; I can’t call to mind one full day that I’ve lived, ever. But I do remember conversations, people, how I felt. I have a rich inner life; it’s just not in pictures.
In spite of all that, I practically live in my mind. I zone easily, and my inner world is a deep ocean of quiet thoughts. When I find myself in noisy, chattering society, I feel forced to “surface,” which can be very jarring. I prefer one-on-one conversation to small talk. “Tell me your story” is my favorite question, and probably the reason I read so much autobiography and nonfiction—I prefer the life stories of real people to fiction. I write, too, to tell my own story back to myself. I’ve kept a journal since I was 8 years old. It wasn’t intended to record memories; I simply needed to unload my inner world on paper. But as time goes by, I find I don’t remember many details unless I revisit those diaries. It’s like I’ve offloaded most of my memory to these bright be-kittened hard drives. I can hear my P.E. Coach now—WHERE’S YOUR BRAIN, OCHOA? Sitting in my closet, of course, in a big box with Sharpie on it.
One day, I got fed up trying to explain my brain. “Surely,” I reasoned, “some rando out there can relate.” I fired up the internet and typed offhandedly, “Why can’t I visualize things in my mind?” Instead of the two or three casual forums I was expecting, I was shocked to find that this was a thing…with a name…and a robust conversation was making the rounds about the latest research.
Aphantasia was first documented in 1880 by a scientist named Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, incidentally. Galton took a test group through a visualizing exercise and had them rate the clarity of their mental images. (Darwin himself described his images “as distinct as if I had photos before me.”) (2) Strangely, about 2-3% reported seeing no imagery at all. These anomalous results dropped off the radar for generations, until one day they resurfaced in an unexpected way.
In 2010, a man called “MX” was referred to a British neurologist when he lost his ability to conjure mental images after undergoing heart surgery. His mind’s eye had suddenly gone blank, and he was very distressed at losing his visual memory. Adam Zeman, the neurologist, and his team helped the patient recover some of his visualization, and a fellow researcher published the study in a scientific magazine. (3) The response was unexpected; readers began to write in from everywhere, each claiming that they, too, had MX’s condition—except instead of losing their ability to visualize, they never had it in the first place. Zeman turned his focus to studying visual processing in these so-called aphantasics. He gave the condition its name and has since pioneered a growing field of research on visualization in the brain. (4)
So how exactly do visual and non visual brains differ? The research is illuminating. When people with a functioning “mind’s eye” are shown a picture, a unique neural pattern lights up in the brain; when asked to imagine the picture they were shown, the brain lights up in the same pattern. Aphantasics, on the other hand, will fire a neural pattern in response to visual information, yet these areas remain silent when the subject is asked to imagine the same image. Nonvisual areas of the brain light up, however, when asked to complete tasks that would seem to require visual recall. For example, when asked to imagine their house and count the windows, aphantasics can report the number as quickly as those with a mind’s eye. They experience an “awareness” of being in the house and know where the windows are without seeing them vividly. Those with a blind mind’s eye simply use different circuits in the brain to store and access visual information. (5)
I’m certainly not alone. An estimated 2% of the population has aphantasia. Still—it’s been a disheartening discovery. I feel left out of a basic human experience. How is everyone enjoying vivid imagery and memories while mine are a dim and fleeting experience? Worse than that, how can I claim to be “artistic" if I have no visual comprehension? It’s all becoming clear, this visual impairment: I struggle with fashion, my design is derivative, and I trip over anything requiring spatial competence (like directions: please don’t tell me you live “inside the loop” or “just south of downtown.” I don’t have an atlas in my head. Give me directions in a word list). At the same time, I have always been deeply stirred by songs and poems and paintings. My college path always shot straight through the Arts and Humanities, and I wither without a creative outlet. With aphantasia, I feel like a fraud, frantic some visual dreamer is going to come take my “art card” away.
Luckily, I’ve learned visual imaging (or lack of it) has little to do with creativity or comprehension. As more aphantasics come out of the woodwork, there are a surprising amount of artists and inventive folks in the bunch. Craig Venter, a biologist who helped create the first synthetic cell, was interviewed about his aphantasia in an online article. He felt utterly unhindered by the condition, saying,
“I’ve known many people with photographic memories for facts who can’t even remotely combine them conceptually like I can.”
“Perhaps,” the author muses, “not having a mind’s eye forces you to see the world differently, resulting in an unusual eye for art or alternative modes of thinking.” (6)
Alternative. Unusual. I haven’t yet reached the point where this strange condition makes me feel superior (I’m working on it). But it doesn’t make me feel as inferior and left out as I first did. I just can’t stop thinking now about how we’re all thinking. I’ve become obsessed with other people’s brains! So what about you—how vivid is your mind’s eye? If I asked you, "What is your favorite memory,” how and where does it appear in your mind? Tell me a story of how you visualize. I can’t promise I’ll see what you’re saying, but tickle my brain.
It’s been in the dark all this time.
(1) There once was a lady from China
Who thought that she’d buy a nice myna.
“I need him to eat
All my carrots and beets
And especially those gross things called limas.”
(Third Grade Anna had just learned about myna birds, and also hated vegetables. This was all me.)
(4) (For more information on Zeman’s research, visit his website: http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/healthresearch/cognitive-neurology/theeyesmind/)