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Reflections on Aphantasia
having a blank mind
I am unable to visualize. When I close my eyes and try to imagine something, nothing swims into my mind’s eye. If you tell me to “picture” someone I love, I’ll recall a sense of their qualities, or how they make me feel. But their face will remain shrouded.
This makes me wonder whether my mental existence is more shallow than that of others, whether my somewhat detached, playful, and ironic view of life is partially based on my blankness. I have never been haunted by an image of suffering or pined after the picture of a distant lover crossing a hypothetical room in a hypothetical evening. When I am reminded of some contentious issue, like firearm regulation, I’m not watching a movie in my mind about horrible things happening; everything is simply a concept. It’s easy to stay at a mental remove.
I also haven’t, ever, fixed a desired future in my imagination, and pursued the inner portrayal, day after day—which, recently, a self-help book told me was the key to achieving anything. I’m relieved that I’ve been able to achieve at least a few things, in light of this deficit.
Sometimes, I forget that most people are not this way. Then I’ll mention it to someone and they’ll lose their shit. One friend recently asked me, “so what happens if you close your eyes and try to picture a Jedi.” Here is what happens: I hear the swing of a lightsaber, I smile at the beautiful absurdity of the Star Wars franchise, and I understand that the image, if it existed, would contain a white tunic. It’s a centerless cluster of ideas, playing out in different corners of the mental workspace.
It’s possible that aphantasia actually makes writing easier for me because there’s nothing to get in the way of the words. I’m not worried about doing justice to the pictures in my head—they are not there. Also, since I don’t remember through the visual, life is already stored as a series of connected verbal clusters, ready to be deployed. I just have to start moving my hands to get them out of storage. Recently, it was revealed to me that some people have trouble describing recent incidents in their lives in anecdote form. And this is totally foreign to me. The first words I call on aren’t always fantastic, but they can always be summoned.
Sometimes I’ve been accused of lying about this. For example, a friend told me he didn’t believe my aphantasia in light of the fact that I can play chess—how am I calculating moves if I can’t visualize? One answer is that I just don’t do much calculation. I’m not good at looking ahead, and I’m best at chess when I play solidly and defensively, obtaining simple positions that don’t require as much calculation. But I do some mental piece-moving. It feels like it’s being accomplished with spatial memory, which I do have—I can feel directions in my mind, as if I’m walking through familiar spaces in the dark. Similarly, when I calculate, it’s like I’m following the pieces through dark alleyways in my mind.
Being accused of lying about my mental life feels weird, but I do understand it. On my end, I feel like accusing everybody else of lying, especially expert visualizers, those who have many mental pictures in mind. I honestly can’t quite grasp that people live with such a saturation of horrible and beautiful representations. I can’t imagine just walking around with a collection of paintings of personal tragedies, sexy people, shining cliffs, unimaginable cruelty, and baby ducks, all on display the moment a reminiscence is called for. I have a hard enough time managing my thoughts as it is, you know?
There is another potential upside I wonder about, which is: maybe I have an easier time accepting death than other people. The transience of things has always seemed obvious and relatively easy to accept for me. Everything has already slipped into the void for me, everything that’s not right here. I remember that, last summer, I sat with a friend in a park in Dumbo at sunset, watching the pink-purple fall on all the metal and water, the wheezing cars and glass towers. I thought: this is as beautiful as it’s going to get. But it didn’t occur to me to hold onto the substance of the moment, because I knew that was impossible. When I turned around, it was gone.
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