Blake Ross is 30 years old and he just learned something about everyone else in the world: people can visualize things in their minds. Which is like, yeah, duh. But Ross has aphantasia, which essentially means that his mind’s eye is blind, that counting sheep means nothing to him.
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time — or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Understandably, this threw him for a bit of a loop.
—If I ask you to imagine a beach, how would you describe what happens in your mind?
—Uhh, I imagine a beach. What?
—Like, the idea of a beach. Right?
—Well, there are waves, sand. Umbrellas. It’s a relaxing picture. You okay?
—But it’s not actually a picture? There’s no visual component?
—Yes there is, in my mind. What the hell are you talking about?
—Is it in color?
—How often do your thoughts have a visual element?
—A thousand times a day?
—Oh my God.
The more I read his story though, the more I started wondering if maybe I wasn’t a little aphantasic…or have become so as I get older. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been aware of the mind’s eye and visualization, but I just now tried to close my eyes and picture something but couldn’t. Ok, maybe that’s tough to do on demand. When was the last time I had pictured something? Not sure. Like Ross, I don’t dream or remember dreams (although I did when I was a kid), I’m bad with directions, my 6-year-old draws better than I do, I remember facts and ideas but not feelings so much, and when I was a designer, the conceptual stuff was always easier than the aesthetics. This bit also sounded familiar:
I’ve always felt an incomprehensible combination of stupid-smart. I missed a single question on the SATs, yet the easiest conceivable question stumps me: What was it like growing up in Miami?
I don’t know.
What were some of your favorite experiences at Facebook?
I don’t know.
What did you do today?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.
Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.
I don’t know how much of that is the aphantasia and how much is positioning on the autistic spectrum or introversion or personality or some other kind of thing, but organizing events into narratives has never been easy for me.
What’s odd is I’ve always thought of my memory as a) pretty good, and b) primarily visual. When I took tests in college, I knew the answers because I could “see” them on the pages of the book I had read them in or in the notebook I had written them in. Not photographically exactly, but pretty close sometimes. I’m really good with faces, but not so much with names, although I’ve been improving lately with effort. I do well on visual tests, the ones where you need to pick out the same shapes that are rotated differently. Yes, I’m bad with directions, but once I’ve followed a route, I can usually muddle my way back along that same route visually. And sometimes, my feelings about past events are huge.
There’s this story I tell when the topic of celebrity sightings in New York comes up. My very first sighting happened a few months after I moved here. I was reading in a Starbucks in the West Village. Two women walk in, order, and sit in the back, maybe 25 feet away from me. At some point, I look up and I instantly recognize the woman who’s facing me: it’s Keri Russell. And in that moment, I understand celebrity. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in person in my life, and I’ve never even been a particular fan of hers, even though she is currently great in The Americans. It was her eyes, her crystal blue eyes. They were literally mesmerizing and I could not stop staring at them, which she noticed and I had to leave b/c I was being really weird.
So, two things about this story. Sitting here now, 13 years later, I can’t picture what she looked like, not exactly. There’s no image in my mind. She had short-ish hair and those blue eyes, but other than that, she looked…well, like Keri Russell. But when I recently told this story to a friend, he cocked his head and said, “she’s got blue eyes?” Oh yes, I told him, absolutely, those amazing lazer-blue eyes are the whole point of the story. A few days later, remembering his comment, I looked and Keri Russell’s eyes are not blue. They’re a greenish hazel!
Reader, I know memory is a weird thing and all, but what the hell is going on with me?