August 24th 2017
Today I learnt about the phenomenon of aphantasia. I stumbled across it whilst reading something, and, as I often do, when I find a word of which I do not know the definition, I spent an hour of my evening learning about it.
Aphantasia is a rare condition where one can not mentally visualise imagery. Think of it like being blind in your ‘mind’s eye’. Aphants, as they call themselves, cannot picture things in their heads like most people. If you ask an aphant to picture a red triangle in their head they wouldn’t be able to do it.
They’d be able to draw you a red triangle. They’d be able to describe it to you. They could tell you that a triangle is a three sided, two-dimensional shape. And that red is the colour of a tomato. But they wouldn’t be able to actually imagine a red triangle in their mind.
When you think about it, it’s a bit bonkers that the rest of us can picture a red triangle in our mind. Like, I know that I can draw a triangle on paper because my hands can grip a pencil, and I can move that across paper. But what am I drawing on within my own mind to imagine a red triangle? That’s a bit bonkers and could fuck with your head if you thought about it for too long. It’s been fucking with my head all night.
(First, I know that that triangle is green, not red, but I didn’t have a red pen anywhere in the house. And yes, I could have just changed my words to say “green pen” but I didn’t want to.
And second, anyway, there’s no real way of knowing whether the colour that you perceive that green to be is the same colour as I perceive it to be, because there’s no real way of describing colours, but that’s a topic for a different ramble)
Ask an aphant to imagine a beach, and they wouldn’t be able to do it. They could tell you the last time they went to a beach. They could describe the sand, because they have the knowledge of the sand that was there, but they just can’t imagine it.
A person with aphantasia cannot picture their mothers face in their mind, but that’s not to mean that they don’t recognise their own mothers. ‘Putting a face to a name’ works in a completely different part of the brain than visualisations, apparently.
It’s not just visual, either.
Aphants can’t sing songs in their heads. They can’t imagine someone else’s voice. It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that they don’t dream either. At least not traditionally. They remember plot, but no visuals.
The most fascinating, terrifying and maddening thing about it, is often a person with aphantasia doesn’t even know they have it. Quite often they find out later in life when they start to figure out that they operate a bit differently to others. Twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty year olds and it kind of just never came up.
They didn’t know that they had it because they’d never known experienced anything different. It’s all they’d ever known. Only when someone asks them “Hey, try and imagine a red triangle in your head” do they say “what the fuck do you mean?”
I’m not sure why this fascinated me so much.
Until tomorrow, the brain is weird, humans are weird and none of this makes sense anyway.