You may remember being a child if you made some reasonable decisions as an adult, and you may also remember going to school. Perhaps at some point during all that child being and school going you recall a teacher asking you to close your eyes and picture something -- geometric shapes in math class, what Saskatchewan looks like in geography (answer, a rectangle), or the lacy, wafting curtains your English teacher was making such a big deal about for whatever metaphoric reason. I have recently learned that when you were asked to picture these things it wasn't some kind of metaphor for 'think about them very hard' but asking you to literally make a mental picture like some kind of drawing in your head. If you did alright in that English class you may have used some context clues to pick up some incredulity in my writing there, that's because I can't make those mental pictures.

Aphantasia has only recently been described in scientific literature and has put into words some long term inklings I've had about how many people seem to think versus how I think. Aphantasia at its simplest describes a person who cannot form mental pictures. I am such a person, and if it shocks you to know we walk amongst you imagine how shocking it was for me to realize I'm an aberration. You literally counted sheep and visions of sugar plums danced in your head. What does a dancing sugar plum look like, I'll never know.

I was first tipped off to some weirdness when I spent some time vaguely connected to Jim Davies' Science of Imagination Lab at Carleton University here in Ottawa. They were trying to build a program that imagined things, and I found this fascinating because for the most part I can't stop imagining things, I'm imagining this right now. To me imagination has always been about inventing novel ideas, either by way of something completely new, or compositing things that already exist in a creative way[1], so you'll have to imagine my surprise (in pictures if that's how you do it) when the focus of the lab seemed to largely hinge on generating pictures. What do pictures have to do with imagination? (You probably know better than I do). At the time I did what all humans do and immediately got to rationalizing, but it really stuck with me, why were these smart people spending so much time pursuing a completely flawed model as though it made sense?

I finally distilled my question to something Google-able 'thinking in words vs thinking in pictures' specifically. Aphantasia hadn't been coined yet and the closest I got to was a Physics Forums post which contains a lot of wild speculation about us weird image-free folks, and puzzling whether we can even exist at all. It's not at all an uncommon reaction for people to start bargaining with me here:

'You must see something.'

'Unless you and I have a very different idea of what seeing is I don't think so'

'Maybe you don't know you're seeing stuff'

'Uh, maybe you don't know you're not?'

At the time I needed to drop the lab, and drop pretty much everything that wasn't messily crying into a linear algebra textbook. So I didn't even think about this again until I read the above article and the other shoe dropped (did you actually see a shoe dropping there? Asking for a friend). I shared it on Facebook and spent the rest of the evening trying to explain to interlocutors what thinking is without some sort of internal hallucination.

To clear the air, as best I can while accepting that explaining how you think to people with next to no frame of reference is a bizarre struggle, I think in words. This blog post, all my fiction, tweets, and cranky Slack messages are a direct transcription of my internal monologue, which probably explains why they are usually rambling and rarely lucid. If you said to me "picture a cube" I would begin to compile more or less a list of facts about a cube -- a cube is a regular three dimensional figure, it has eight corners that connect six faces, those faces are squares which are two dimensional figures with four equal sides. Actually, for the writing of this sentence I couldn't remember how many corners a cube had so I had to look it up -- I can't rotate an internal picture of it, I just have the facts at my disposal which might let me math it out if it was both necessary to my survival and all paper and internet had been lost. If you ask me how I can recognize someone's face, as I have been asked, sometimes the answer is as simple as 'I just know that' which I think can generally be translated to the fact that I have memorized the 'facts' of their face. You might be starting to see why talking about this stuff gets difficult.

Your weird brains absolutely fascinate me though. I first really wanted to know how any of you read -- do these alleged pictures not get in your way? Are they distracting? Is it like a banner stuck to your face or more minority report? Hololens or Augmented Reality style? How do you walk and think? You can listen to a radio (or eternally buzzing internal monologue, as the case may be) while wandering, but you can't really watch a video -- how can you see where you're going? I imagine you'd have as much difficulty answering these questions as I have of similar ones pointing the other way. How are we just learning about this? How many philosophical theories have we just taken a tire iron to?

It also starts to put some light on things that I've always found bizarrely difficult in my life -- why do I hate visual scripting (ie Blueprints) but love writing code? Because I have an easy time keeping words (especially lists) in my head, but can't track pictures as well (sorry to the visual scripting languages I've mercilessly mocked over the years, it wasn't you it actually was me). Why is my sense of direction so embarrassing that I get turned around in malls and hotels, and don't even get me started on Vaults in Fallout? Because I can't really keep the floorplan in my head.

Despite not signing anything Rob agreed to be my 'phantasiac' research subject, so while your experiences may slightly vary he claims he has very vivid mental pictures.

One of the first experiments we tried was turns drawing maps of familiar places. While we both produced more or less blobs, it's easy to tell when Rob is aiming at North America, for example, but mine are always incomprehensible. In board or tabletop games unless there is colour coding like a chess board I have a hard time orienting distances and diagonals, I often need to use a pen or ruler to indicate the line -- Rob on the other hand is quite good at X-COM. I work in VR which people might think would be a struggle but I actually don't find it especially challenging -- it's easy to move things around so I can see them, but rearranging the actual house that I live in is always a nightmare because I can't really figure out if the couch is going to fit in that spot or not until I am most of the way into trying it. I don't remember dreams for the most part and should one slip through it is also completely in words, and so often gets me thinking there is someone disembodied in my room talking.

On the flip side I am a lightning fast reader, possibly because I'm not taking the time out to form pictures. I think in more generic terms too, Rob when was asked to picture a dog had a very specific creature in mind where my inner dog is more abstract. To me adding a trait to make it more specific is pushing onto a list not a reconstruction of the whole 'image' -- if you ask me to remember a brown dog I can just add that to the list of things about this instance of dog, Rob's making a new dog.

I can be a big picture type of person to a fault because I can ignore some of the details that a mental picture might bring in -- my inner dog template can be applied to any dog because I'm only thinking of the fundamental attributes that when listed out describe a dog. This makes me a bit wordy when describing something specific because my life's big assumption has been that you are also compiling a list, and are not able to sub in those details for yourself. I have an easy time memorizing facts, especially my inhuman absorption of song lyrics (though this is a bit of a monkey's paw in that I cannot actually sing). And I can still creatively imagine things if we are using my above definition for imagination.

But for the image based implied definition, no, not even a little bit. I am devoid of that kind of imagination completely.

Now that the difference is on my mind I spend a lot of time contemplating cubes, usually just as I'm going to sleep as a few people I've talked to says their picturing gets more vivid before they sleep, it's hit a nearly religious state, because I am so curious about what this picturing stuff would even mean. Sometimes I feel close, but usually like I'm trying way too hard, more like wanting to believe. Twelve edges, six faces, those faces are squares, a square is a two dimensional figure with four equal sides.

Footnote: If you know any researchers looking to do some research on Aphantasia I would love to talk to them

  1. Apparently it was in 2012 that I was starting to intuit this difference. ↩︎