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?
Dick Cavett has been doing a version of his talk show, on and off, for about 40 years. Sometimes he couldn’t remember the guests from a show he’d just taped. Johnny Carson couldn’t either.
There is still a Cheever show of mine to be unearthed. I wish I could remember what’s on it. A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.
Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.
I don’t know if this is related to separating one’s work life from the rest of it, but this happens to me all the time. If you were to ask me tonight what I’d posted to kottke.org today, I doubt I could tell you more than one or two items (out of the seven to nine items I post during a typical day). When I see friends outside of work, they sometimes remark on stuff I’ve posted recently and it usually takes me a few moments to remember what it is they’re referring to.
Finding out that others have this problem is a major load off of my mind…I really thought my memory was going down the tubes. (thx, mark)
I once went through a painful, protracted breakup, conducted almost entirely over this LG phone. It wasn’t a bad phone, but to this day, even a picture of it is like a punch to the gut - its Major-thirds ringtone, the wallpaper mocking my heartache with its cheery blue sky. I feel a little nauseous even describing it (my description may just be nauseating, in fairness).
In 2001, I spoke to my father on this Kyocera smartphone from 8th Avenue, having run up the block from work just in time to see the first tower fall. I don’t have to go into all the emotional baggage which that implies.
Now, in my current phase, I probably don’t have enough perspective to characterize what of me is reflected in my current phone, but I think that in a while, I’ll have an idea.
Since the time began that we were never to be found without our mobile phones (or whichever portable devices, for that matter), I feel that somehow all of the memories of the current chapter of my life are being constantly averaged out and inextricably linked to the phone that I’m using.
Do you have any similar experiences to share? Do you think that linking my identity to my gadgets entails a sort of anthropomorphism? What do you think Proust would have to say about all this? (I’ve never read Proust, so I’m honestly asking.) Other insightful references to prior discussions or great thinkers would be helpful as well.
Update: Michael Leddy at orange crate art has been mining his Proust and has turned up an incredibly relevant passage to the discussion:
…a thing which we have looked at long ago, if we see it again, brings back to us, along with our original gaze, all the images which that gaze contained. This is because things — a book in its red binding, like the rest — at the moment we notice them, turn within us into something immaterial, akin to all the preoccupations or sensations we have at that particular time, and mingle indissolubly with them.
-Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again
New research suggests that doctored photos can easily influence a viewer’s memory of the events depicted.
For example, those participants shown the doctored photograph of the protest in Rome (top right), in which figures placed in the foreground give the impression of violence, rated the event as being significantly more violent and negative than it actually was. In their comments, they also provided false details, such as conflicts, damages, injuries and casualties that did not appear in the photos and were not documented at the event.
From an article on human memory that includes profiles of a woman who remembers everything she’s done in her life since age 11 and a man who remembers almost nothing after 1960:
The metaphors we most often use to describe memory — the photograph, the tape recorder, the mirror, the hard drive — all suggest mechanical accuracy, as if the mind were some sort of meticulous transcriber of our experiences. And for a long time it was a commonly held view that our brains function as perfect recorders-that a lifetime of memories are socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic, and if they can’t be found it isn’t because they’ve disappeared, but only because we’ve lost access to them.
That’s not the case, of course. A better metaphor for human memory might be that of an almost-saturated sponge trying to sop up spilled water on a counter. The sponge gets some of the water up but also loses some of its already-captured liquid and you just sort of smear the watery mess all over until the counter is completely wet but appears less waterlogged than it was. At least, that’s how *my* memory works.
From an article on mnemonics in the NY Times Magazine:
This might well be called the year of memory. Already, I’m able to click on the icon that marks the Find function on my little pocket Treo. Can’t think of a friend’s last name? I enter “Myrna,” and in a second the screen invites me to choose Davis, Greenberg or Lewis. Can’t remember the name of a book by Jonathan Spence? This time, it’s Google to the rescue: three clicks gives the answer: “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.” And that’s just the start.
Apple has just released Tiger, its latest operating system, which includes Spotlight. Just as Google searches the World Wide Web, this new feature uses a word or phrase to find a document inside your computer. Microsoft is at work on a new operating system, Longhorn, with similar capability. Such powerful assists to memory raise a question never before conceivable: Why struggle to remember anything?
I’ve been increasingly aware of this phenomenon with my own memory. Emails are forgotten seconds after they’re read; Mail.app will keep track of those. If I’m having lunch with a friend and they bring up something I’ve posted to kottke.org recently, it often takes me several seconds to remember posting it…my weblog (my outboard brain) is where I put things that I want to “remember”. I’ve never been able to remember people’s names worth a damn, but until recently, I knew hundreds of URLs. Now my newsreader keeps track of those for me. I know 3 phone numbers by heart: mine, Meg’s, and that of my childhood home (where my dad still resides); the rest are in my cell phone. Birthdays and special occasions are in iCal…I know a few friends’ birthdays and when the 4th of July is, but that’s about it. And Google remembers everything else.
I’m sure with all that storage space in my brain freed up for other things, I’m able to do so much more with my limited mental faculties. If only I could remember…
As one gets smarter, how you use your memory changes. “Verbatim memory is often a property of being a novice. As people become smarter, they start to put things into categories, and one of the costs they pay is lower memory accuracy for individual differences.”