Aphantasia is the inability to visualize. People who have aphantasia can’t form images in their heads, whether they’re faces, objects, or memories. I’ve been hearing a lot about aphantasia lately, which is weird to me because I have aphantasia. This is something I’ve known for quite a while, and it’s not something I’ve put much thought into. It’s just the way I think, and I have to work around it. I’ve never thought of it as abnormal, but that it just is.
The people I’ve spoken to about this are always so shocked. When they think donut, they visualize a donut with all its goodness. When I think donut, I get blackness. If I try really really hard, I see a fuzzy image of a donut hole. It vanishes in half a second. Maybe less. When they think about their mother, they see her face as clear as day, as if she was standing in front of them. I see nothing. I can describe her face to you, but in my head I see a vague round shape with a slash of a line for hair, as if she was a cartoon character. And they’re always surprised that I’m a costume designer, a very creative and visual profession. I’m good at color combinations and pattern mixing, and yet, I can’t see any of them in my head. I have to search for the images or draw them out in front of me, and yet there’s something innately in me that just knows what works with what.
The internet says there’s 2 to 3 percent of us in the world, who can’t think in images. And for those who can visualize, they think it’s such a tragedy that I can’t see anything in my head. What if my mom dies? Would I not be able to remember her? To that I say so what? What does her appearance have to do with her personality? What does the shape of her face have to do with who she is to me as a person? Aphantasia doesn’t affect my memory at all anyway, so I can still remember all the ways she loves me, the ways she mattered to me. She could become ghoulish and ugly and she would still be my mother, so why is it so important to see her face? And if it mattered that much, well, luckily, we live in a day and age where I already have thousands of photos of her that I can look at. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at all by not visualizing. And having heard others speak about their own thoughts, having an empty black head is almost freeing, less distracting. No intrusive embarrassing memories playing on loop. No getting stuck on sad memories that force their way into my visuals.
Instead of images, I think in words. I think exactly how I speak. I talk to myself all the time, but only in my head. There’s no images to distract from the thoughts, so why not?
There’s not much research on aphantasia yet – why some people have it or not, how it affects daily life, etc. I heard on a podcast (Terrible, Thanks for Asking) that aphantasia might come from a traumatic childhood, but that’s almost definitely not true in my case. My childhood was perfectly normal, except for maybe the extremely strong focus on academics. There’s the argument that perhaps I don’t remember because trauma can be suppressed. But, I was a huge daydreamer as a child, going back as far as I can remember. And there was never a moment where I thought, “Huh, I don’t have movies in my head anymore.” This is just how I’ve always been. So if you’re doing research on aphantasia, let me know. I’d be happy to let you poke around my big, empty head.