I Cured My Aphantasia With a Low-Budget E-Course, Self-Therapy, and a Wee Bit of Microdosing
does what it says on the can
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a public post for a secret reason. The post contained my notes on having aphantasia, a mental disorder wherein you are incapable of producing mental imagery.
The secret reason I wrote it was because, at the time of its composition, I set out in earnest to try to cure my aphantasia, and I hoped that I could eventually—like, maybe in a few months—follow the post with a sequel entitled something like, “I Cured My Aphantasia With a Low-Budget e-Course, Self-Therapy, and a Wee Bit of Microdosing.”
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What triggered this quest was: I got tired of hearing one of my favorite meditation teachers telling me to picture a still quiet moon during his meditation videos. This sounded like a nice suggestion, but every time he said it, I was like, “respectfully, screw you, I can’t see anything.” And then I decided to prove myself wrong, so that maybe one day I could say to Michael, “wow, you’re right, being watched over by a still quiet moon of loving awareness is great.”
I didn’t really know whether it could be done. Aphantasia is not a terribly well-studied phenomenon, and there’s no established course of treatment. Some people on shady corners of Reddit claimed that they’d cured themselves of it, and, also, I met an apparently non-crazy person at a party (hi Chloe!) who told me that after a therapeutic breakthrough, her visual mind became unlocked somehow. But many other people with aphantasia report that it’s an unchanging, life-long condition.
What I didn’t predict was that I’d be able to teach my brain to visualize in about two weeks. My efforts were outrageously successful.
My visual pictures aren’t great. They’re pretty low-detail, colors are faint, I can’t do more than a word of text, and, with faces, I can imagine flickers of characteristic details—vivid eyes, a vehemence in the smile—but the full picture is hazy. But I am definitely visualizing, enough to know that I was not capable of doing this before. It’s not contributing a lot of usefulness to my mental life, and I can’t calculate chess moves yet. But it turns out to be fun to doodle dragonflies and perfume bottles in your mind when you’re stuck in traffic. I like picturing fennel bulbs, can’t really say why.
In this post, I want to straightforwardly lay out what I did so that other people with aphantasia might be able to duplicate it. The method has three parts: the practical part, the emotional part, and the chemical part.
The practical part
When doing research on potential aphantasia cures, I found this guy. He claims to have taught dozens of aphantasic people to visualize through 1:1 coaching, and he also has an online course.
He didn’t really have any solid evidence of his claims. But I trusted him. Why? Because he is absolutely horrible at marketing. His company used to be called AphantasiaMeow, and now it is called the Research Center for Developing Consciousness. Along with aphantasia coaching, he advertises training in psychic powers. So, uh, this is not all that slick. Generally, slick people who sell you worthless things are better at being slick than this. Also, his publicly available YouTube content, while not being awe-inspiring, was also not crazy. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll shell out $150.
And his course was really good! I don’t want to go too much into detail about what it contains, because, well, the guy has to earn a living. But I’ll tell you a little bit about the most helpful parts.
The course is mostly composed of visualization exercises, but it starts by laying out a huge misconception that many people with aphantasia have. Which is: usually people with aphantasia imagine that visualizing people are really seeing images. Like, when they close their eyes, they don’t just see a black void. But that’s not true!
Most people see a black void just like aphantasics do. They just have a sense of an image alongside it, hovering in some imaginary parallel nether-space. (Apparently, some people who are especially skilled at visualization actually do see projected images, as if they’re real objects, but that’s a rare ability.) The course goes into more detail, but that’s the basic picture, so to speak.
This was surprising news. And it made me realize that a misconception had frustrated a couple of my previous attempts to learn how to visualize. During these attempts, I would close my eyes, and recall as much sensory detail as I could about some object—a lemon, a pencil—hoping that it would actually take shape on the back of my eyelids. But this was aiming for entirely the wrong target.
However, this understanding also left me in a weird place. So… visualization is having a sense that you’re seeing something, it’s not real seeing. Got it. But what is it like to have the mental sense of an image? I’d experienced seeing, but I’d never experienced mind-sight.
Thus, aphantasia training would involve learning to flex a mental muscle of unknown location, to produce a phenomena I hadn’t witnessed. That seemed really mysterious and hard to do.
It turned out to be easier than I thought. While doing some of the exercises in the course, I felt extremely faint flutters of hard-to-describe pseudo-visual activity somewhere in my mind. Then I just tried to make those flutters happen more.
I think my meditation experience helped here. Through a bunch of meditation practice of one sort or another, I’ve spent a lot of time introspecting on little peculiarities of sensate experience and trying to magnify the ones I enjoy, so this wasn’t that different.
To give you an idea of what the exercises are like: a lot of them involve trying to activate your mind’s eye by talking, aloud, about what you might be hypothetically seeing, if you could visualize. For example, one of the exercises is to look around the room for 3-5 minutes, describing everything you see in the present tense in detail, like, “I see the walnut dresser, it has three rows of three drawers,” et cetera. Then you close your eyes and do the same thing, speaking as if you really can see things with your eyes closed. It’s kind of like talking yourself into hallucinating.
But hang on a second. Why should that do anything?
There is one fMRI study of an aphantasic person. Scans revealed that, when asked to visualize, he displayed different patterns of brain activity than healthy subjects—specifically, less activation in areas associated with mental imagery, and more activation in regions associated with semantic processing. Crudely speaking, he was using non-image parts of his brain to do image stuff. This matches with my subjective experience of aphantasia, wherein trying to remember an image brings up a set of words, sounds, and even spatial information, just no pictures.
So, the way the exercises work is… okay, this is where it gets fuzzy for me. But I guess that… since people with aphantasia use their word-brain instead of their image-brain when trying to visualize… then… by using their word-brain extra hard… maybe the dormant visual brain regions will be activated a little bit in the process… so new brain connections will form?
This is not my area of expertise, clearly. All I can tell you is that it worked. During exercises like these, I occasionally felt something, and I just tried to keep feeling that something. I did about an hour of this per day.
It probably helped, as well, that I was somewhat obsessive about it outside of these practice sessions. Everywhere I went, I tried to see that stupid moon in my head. I’d look out the window, and think to myself, “I can see the stupid pale bright moon hovering in that blue sky.” In bed, I’d think, “I see the stupid moon impossibly vivid and bright hovering above me as if falling slowly from above, about to crush me with its lunar majesty.” I suspect that this was some of the most meaningful practice.
However: getting into such an eager state of mind would have been impossible without the emotional component of this endeavor.
The emotional part
On this blog before, I have mentioned my sometimes-coach, Mark Estefanos, who is an interesting combination of therapist and cognitive philosopher. I talked to him about my visualization problem, and he had a theory: that I have a deep emotional aversion to my imagination, some sort of suppressed terror of the hallucinatory depths of the unconscious.
I have to tell you, I didn’t really buy this at first. But I did notice something: there was a part of me that was resisting this whole visualization project. When I had made attempts to visualize before, I’d have thoughts like, “this is lame,” “you’ll never be able to do this,” “why are you wasting your time,” et cetera. And I generally don’t have thoughts of that character: I am reasonably fine with doing stupid things and trying difficult new tasks.
So I sat down and asked myself: if I had an emotional aversion to this, where would it come from? The answer that came up was interesting.
At a certain point in my life, I decided to try and be a cool person. I’d been a lonely bullied nerd, and I’d had enough of nerdy loneliness. So, I was going to travel and be worldly and dress well and play the social game. I didn’t think I could totally escape my nerdiness—that option is obviously not available to me. But I decided to be the kind who could select a wine to go with dinner and apply hair product correctly. This worked quite well and was hugely socially beneficial. I became dateable and got a career in prestige media, and I would highly recommend the former.
However: part of how I did this was rejecting everything I had been, previously. And when I was quite young, I was really imaginative. I chanted improvised poetry to myself about vampires and curses in the bathtub. I had a whole fantasy world I made up, based on a main character named “bunion.” (This world was invented when I was stuck for three hours in a foot clinic while my brother got fitted for orthopedic shoes, and I had nothing to do but read the posters on the wall.) None of this was visual, but it involved a pretty wild inner landscape that I cultivated actively.
Without consciously intending to, I shoved that side of me away, in the course of trying to become socially acceptable. Implicitly, I judged my imaginative tendencies negatively. And, even at this late date, I still have a bit of that implicit judgment lying around; I am still trying, a little bit, not to be that person I was.
So I tried to give myself full permission to inhabit that suppressed childish energy. I reached back in my memory, and thought of all of those hours of idle imagination. There was some dormant aspect of myself back there, some quivering shy echo of how I’d been, which was hesitant about being unearthed. I responded to that meekness, praising that weird child I was, for having the courage to be so strange. After this bit of self-therapy, I found myself able to delve more eagerly into attempts at visualization.
I also took drugs.
The chemical part
I feel that, at this point, I would be violating my personal brand if this didn’t involve some kind of psychedelic consumption.
Personal brand aside, I had a good reason for bringing psychedelics into the process. During the comedown of a couple of previous psychedelic trips, I’d actually had brief flashes of hypnagogic imagery. It wasn’t anything terribly impressive—maybe a ghostly sense of a tree, or a hint of some bubbling fractal oozy psychedelic stuff—but it was noticeable enough to be surprising. As well, something something neuroplasticity something something.
So, during this two weeks of intensive visualization training, I did some microdosing. I considered macrodosing, but I didn’t think I’d be able to steer that particular ship into focused visualization exercises. I tried both LSD and psilocybin—maybe like 35µg and 0.2g, respectively. Neither had a decisive effect. But on microdose days, the pseudo-visual activity was more pronounced.
Also, on microdose days, when I was practicing visualization, I had this creeping physical sense of “something’s happening” that appeared to correspond to progress. It was almost like I could feel the near-visualization in my body when I stumbled on an effective exercise—mostly as little tingles in my stomach. And I used those felt senses as a compass, apparently successfully.
To anyone who hasn’t taken psychedelics, I suspect that this could sound totally insane, and that is okay with me.
Anyway, it was during a microdose day when I said to myself, “oh, yeah, I’m seeing the moon. Huh, weird.” But I can still see the moon on non-microdose days.
None of this left me feeling that microdosing was a necessary part of the process, but I do think it helped.
So what is visualizing like, anyway
If you’re reading this and you have aphantasia, maybe you’re wondering what visualizing is like. Here is the best description I can give you.
You know when someone asks you a question, and you have a good answer, but it comes to mind as a sense of insight before the actual words come out of you? Like, the answer is available to you, but it’s just below the surface for a moment?
That moment is kind of what mental imagery is like, but it’s extended—using the mind’s eye is a continuous experience of that feeling of knowing without fully grasping. You know that you’re “seeing,” say, a still quiet moon. You can answer questions about it; if someone asks you what its color is, you will say, bright bluish white, and, queried about its surroundings, you might mention a dark sky and grey clouds—and this will honestly correspond to what you’re experiencing. (My imaginary fennel bulbs tend to be asymmetrical, slightly bigger on the left.)
But it’s all hovering beneath the surface, obscured from actual sight.
There may hope for you, fellow aphantasic
I can’t say for sure that everyone with aphantasia will be able to treat themselves in such a fashion. But I can say that I thought I was an incurable case, personally. Aphantasia has been a defining feature of my mental life—I really did not have mental imaginary up until now, or at least not without the help of LSD. And I’ve reacted with frustration previously when people suggested to me that I could just “get over it.” But then I found the right blend of techniques, and I… just got over it.
Having unlocked the basic ability so quickly, I suspect that there’s more for me to learn here, that the images could become much more impressive. So I’m going to keep training myself. I will also try to figure out what visualization is good for, if anything, beyond my own amusement.
But if it’s just for my own amusement, that’s fine. The learning process was interesting in and of itself. It’s good to be reminded that my mind is more plastic than I might imagine. And I just saw a jack-o-lantern, which is something.
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you should take the course on becoming psychic too, just imagine the upsides
Sasha bro I don't know if you read these comments but in case: what that visual imagination is good for is rendering content that was encoded when visual imagination/memory was a more dominant modality, ie childhood goodies that aren't currently accessible because their semantic hooks are weak but their visual associational ones are strong. You built a map from intelligible suchness to visual content, so run it in reverse and point the input at the past, where you encoded that way.
My partner cured her aphantasia over the last yearish (can connect you two if you're interested) and has experienced a spontaneous unfolding of childhood content that's integrating in new and developmentally significant ways. Yay!