A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words When Words are All You’ve Got – Living with Aphantasia

I have a condition called Aphantasia.  Simply put, I cannot visualize.  Where other people can close their eyes and conjure up images within their minds, all I see when I close my eyes is blackness.

It might not sound like a big deal because in many ways it is not.  My Aphantasia did not prevent me from doing well in school or participating in activities and sports as a child.  I enjoy writing and art, I can cook and bake, and go through a thousand different menial tasks that are unimpeded by my condition.  My life in many ways is normal and unhindered.

That is not to say that my Aphantasia does not impact my life in many random ways that others take for granted.

For example, I am horrible with people’s names.  I can meet someone a dozen times and still have no clue what their name is when I meet them again.  There will be a familiar itch that scratches at my memory but until something rings a bell and a connection is made, I am at a loss.  Most people can simply close their eyes, conjure up a picture of someone and attach a name to that image.  My mind contains no images, only words.  My memory is full of descriptors.  For instance, I might remember someone by an event we attended together or a pet they own and until that descriptor is revealed once again, I will often draw a blank.

This extends from people to items, as well.  Even if someone catches me as I am headed to the store and asks me to pick up something for them, unless I am familiar with the specific item or write it down, chances are I might get it wrong.  Though I try to retain as much information as I can on the fly, I am easily thrown off and confused when faced with similar-looking items.  I cannot recall images, so I will question everything from size to brand to scent or flavor.  My mind will usually hone in on a color or a shape, leaving me to stand there, holding two similar items, trying to decipher which might be the right one.  Most people will simply take a mental snapshot to help them remember which item to get.  Instead of one picture that retains all the important information, I would have to store away the brand, size, color, flavor, scent, logos and a multitude of other descriptive words.

I am severely directionally challenged.  I could pass through somewhere multiple times and still find myself lost when I go there again.  I get turned around easily, as well.  Most people can close their eyes and recreate images of places they have been before.  However, unless something very specific has happened in that location that I will distinctly remember with words, the image of most places remain in my head only as long as they are within my sight.  Because I cannot close my eyes and instantly picture a walk I have done many times before, there is a distinct chance I could get lost headed there again.  I might remember that there is a library on a specific street somewhere downtown but if the many random houses and buildings along the way mean nothing to me, nothing will feel familiar until the library comes into sight.  If I turn onto the street a couple blocks too far, I might wander the wrong way for a period of time before the neighborhood changes enough for me to realize I have gone the wrong way.

I am also horrible with directions.  Many people can close their eyes and retrace their steps.  They can easily give detailed directions based on visuals they can recall, counting in their head, telling people to go down this street 8 blocks, take a right, go down 6 blocks more and take a left.  Even if I have been somewhere before, I have trouble giving precise directions like that.  Because I cannot visualize, short of memorizing every street and cross street in every town I have been in precisely in order, my brain has to come up with easier markers to remember, things that will stand out to me.  My directions might include a house that still has their Christmas lights up in July or a tree with a huge knot on it that looks like a face.  Simple things like a change in decor or a chopped down tree, however, will hurl me into a state of confusion that leaves me instantly lost again.

Though I enjoy being artistic and have been told I have both talent and a good eye, I have trouble creating physical representations of things without having pictures readily available.  I love to sketch and paint, but cannot conjure up images in my mind so I need to reference actual pictures before I can get spacial differences and angles just right.  Because I have to rely on pictures, my artwork often lacks originality.  At best, it might contain inspiration from multiple sources, yet it still always feels vastly unoriginal to me.  My writing, on the other hand, has greatly benefited from my lack of visualization.  I tend to be superfluous with my words, always trying to verbally paint images others can understand even if, like me, they cannot see it in their head.

I am overly sentimental and cling to mementos and photographs because they give me a physical reminder that I can see and hold, something that is more than just words.  No matter how many times I have seen someone’s face, the moment they leave my sight, I can no longer picture them.  In my mind, I will cling to the detail of edges and curves of faces and bodies, freckles and dimples, wrinkles and scars, to find descriptors that set them apart.  I have traced the angles of my fiance’s face a thousand times so I know the shape and feel of his face better than I know my own, because when I close my eyes, no matter how hard I try, I cannot see him.  Both my parents have passed away.  I don’t have any pictures of them so their faces are lost to me forever.  While watching a movie or show, I might see an actor and think “my father had a jaw like that” or “my mother stood like that when she was upset” but those are only small segments, similarities I recognize, random sparks and connections.  But the whole of their faces are gone.

Though I take classes in both tai chi and yoga, I always feel an entire segment of my classes are wasted on me.  Whenever the instructors begin an exercise in meditation and visualization, it is completely lost on me.  They will suggest everyone closing our eyes and imagining warm lights emanating from our cores or roots taking form and helping to ground us to the earth.  When I close my eyes, however, all I can ever see is blackness.  I spend that time, instead, concentrating on the feel of my breath entering and leaving my body, the feel of the air on my skin.  I turn my entire focus inward to the here and now, trying to release the jumble of words ever-floating throughout my head.  It is not meditation as others might do it but it is the best I can do.

I can go on and on with all the ways, big and small, that Aphantasia impacts my life.  Think of all the mental pictures most people store away in their minds.  Mental pictures for all the people, places and things they encounter every day of their lives.  Not being able to create mental images might seem like a very trivial thing – until you take the time to try and describe all those pictures using just words.

Aphantasia can be exhausting.  Most people store a multitude of images in their minds because it is faster, easier and more efficient.  Imagine if you had to describe every one of those images using words to someone who had never seen what you were describing.  You had no way to show them a picture, no way to help them understand other than describing everything. Imagine if you had to rely solely on your words.  Imagine how time consuming it would be to collect a variety of descriptors for every item instead of being able to share one simple image.  Now imagine that being your every minute, every day.  Imagine only being able to pull up words for everything instead of images.  How many words would you need?

In high school, my algebra teacher gave the class an assignment to write a paper, step by step, on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The purpose was to teach the importance of showing all the work and not leaving out any steps.  However, I think this technique would work wonders for raising awareness for Aphantasia.  It would be a good exercise to have someone have to describe things in their lives, from the most important to the everyday trivial, to a sketch artist using only words.  Much like nobody in my algebra class could successfully make a peanut butter sandwich by writing out the detailed steps one by one, I imagine most people would struggle equally as hard to find all the words to accurately describe a snapshot of their life.

People often assume I am forgetful or absent-minded, easily confused and lost in my own mind.  The truth is, I often have to work at least two or three times as hard to recall anything because I cannot take the shortcut of storing pictures instead of words in my memory.  People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take a moment and think of a vacation picture or an old family photo that means a lot to you.  Think of the different shades in that sunset along the coastline on your honeymoon or the creases in your deceased grandparents’ faces when they smiled, that small scratch on the rear side just above the bumper on your first car or the way your prom date looked standing next to it.  Imagine trying to recreate those whole scenes again, by memory, piece by piece, using only words.  Would a thousand words be enough?  Welcome to my world.

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Explaining My Aphantasia

I frequently write about mental health topics, particularly ones that directly affect me because I firmly believe it is easier to explain conditions when you write what you have experienced firsthand.  Though more often than not, I write primarily about mental illness, there are mental health-related conditions that exist outside what would be considered an illness or disability.  One such mental condition, one that I live with personally, is aphantasia.

Growing up, I honestly did not realize that my mind worked any differently from anyone else’s.  When I’d sit in a classroom with my fellow classmates and the teacher would tell us to imagine something in particular, my mind would race through a database of sorts, pulling out words to describe whatever we were instructed to visualize.  I did not know back then that my mind was different.  I had assumed that was how everyone’s brains worked because nobody had ever told me any differently.

I was in my early twenties when I first discovered just how differently my mind worked.  I was a young mother back then, watching random children’s programming with my toddler.  On one random educational children’s show, I honestly do not remember which, one of the characters suggested all the kids close their eyes and imagine something or another, walking children through some exercise in imagination.  They ended by asking the children watching if they could see it and what colors had they chosen for their creations.

I remember sitting there completely dumbfounded, one of those “wait.. what?!” moments.  The whole concept that anyone could create images within their head, actually see pictures, blew my mind.

When I close my eyes, all I see is blackness.

When I try to pull up a recollection of something, all I ever get is a long series of words, of descriptors.  The best way I can describe it is that my mind is like a vast room of file cabinets, all containing various data.  Whenever I start thinking of something, my mind races, looking for facts to connect to the recollection in question.

If someone tells me to close my eyes and imagine an apple, I never am able to see an apple in my mind.  Instead, an inner dialogue starts, spewing out everything I know regarding apples.  Apples can be red or green or yellow.  They can be solid colored or speckled or mildly striped or splotchy in appearance.  There are crab apples as small as a cherry and honey crisps as large as a grapefruit, but most apples are around the size of a fist.  They are somewhat round but not completely.  They have little bumps on the bottoms, similar to the base of a pepper.  They are usually sweet but some, like granny smiths, can be tart.  The best time for apple picking is the fall. Apples can be used in recipes for…

My mind races on and on, yanking out every fact it can find that has anything to do with an apple.  There’s times it’s almost like a data overload because so many facts will surface at once.  After all, I KNOW what an apple is.  I’ve had many apples over the years.  But at no point can I conjure up even a simple picture of one.

When my brain first made that connection that other people could see things in their minds, I couldn’t help but feel like THAT was the abnormality because the very idea felt so foreign and alien to me. For months, I questioned friends with seemingly stupid questions. “If someone tells you to close your eyes and imagine an apple, can you actually see one?  Like not just KNOW what an apple is but clearly see one IN YOUR HEAD as if it was sitting right there in front of you?”

Again and again, the answer came back as a resounding yes, of course they could.  Everyone I knew seemed to be able to conjure up images in their brains like their own personal movie screen.  Everyone, that is, but me.  It was like that one game we all played as children where one of these things was not like the others and it turned out I was the odd man out, the one that was different.

Over the years, I’ve periodically looked for others who might be experiencing something similar.  As my children grew older, I even questioned them to see whether they had the ability to visualize.  I do not know whether the condition CAN be hereditary or not, but none of my three children share this trait with me.  They can all visualize just fine.

It wasn’t until recently that I even stumbled across the term aphantasia.  For decades, I just referred to it as an inability to visualize, doing my best to explain that all my brain could ever muster up was a series of words to describe and connect things but never a single picture.  From time to time, I would randomly still ask others if they could visualize in their mind’s eye, hoping to find someone else who might be like me, but I never had any such luck.  That is, until around two years ago when I stumbled completely by accident onto a research study being done in the UK for Aphantasia.

I was beyond excited.  I was elated.  I was no longer some random ugly duckling, alone and unique in all the world.  My brain wasn’t broken, flawed, some freak abomination that existed outside the realm of everyone else.  It turned out this was an actual medical condition that affected as many as one in fifty people to varying degrees.

I found myself reaching out to the scientist that was heading the research study into aphantasia, explaining that it affected me, too.  I was sent a series of questionnaires to fill out for him to add to his research data.  We emailed back and forth a few times over the next few weeks.  It was wonderful just knowing that I wasn’t broken or crazy after all.  When I found out about my mthfr genetic mutation a short while later, I contacted him about that, as well.  I do not know whether it is in any way related, but I wanted his data on my case to be as complete as possible.

Aphantasia is not a disability.  It is more of a nuisance.  Where other people can immediately conjure up images from thoughts, my brain is left to sort through piles of data, an inner dialogue of words, for what is relevant to every situation at hand.  I often joke about how, though most people put in their two cents, I stop closer to a quarter, but in actuality that is just how my mind has always worked.  I have frequent data overloads in my head and tend to ramble on subjects until I get it all out.

I’ve been complimented numerous times on my writing, how people love the comparisons I draw and the flowery words I use to describe everything.  It is not anything I have ever done intentionally.  My mind is just chock full of words because it is void of imagery.

Over the years, I have felt the impact of my aphantasia in many ways that other people take for granted.  For instance, I am absolutely horrible with facial recognition.  I might look at someone that I have seen dozens of times and have trouble putting a name to the face because they have changed something as simple as their hair color, gotten a hair cut or put on some weight.  I know that I know them, that there’s something about them that is familiar, but until I dig through the databases in my mind looking for other connections beyond physical traits like their eye color, nose shape or height, I’m often at a loss.  I wait for someone else to mention a name or a location or occasion connected to them, something to make that connection click.

I have no memories of my past, at least not in the way that others experience them.  Others can close their eyes and be transported back to a sunny beach they visited years ago, reliving the beauty of the moment.  For me, all I have is a stream of facts.  I can tell you the approximate dates I was there, can tell you how blue the water was, comparing it to other recollections I have to similar shades of blue.  I can tell you how warm the air felt by comparing it to other types of warmth, but I can never relive that day.  My mind catalogues data.  It does not retain memories.

Perhaps the worst affect that I feel from aphantasia is the weight on my heart.  When my children leave to go to their dad’s house or to go back to their dorm, I cannot close my eyes and picture them here again with me.  I can look at a photo of them but that is the only image I’ll have until I see them again.  I am very partial to photographs and videos because it gives me actual glimpses back in time, something my own mind cannot do.

I lost both my parents in 2010.  I don’t possess any pictures of either of them so their faces are lost to me forever.  I can list off basic facts like the crows feet that spiderwebbed beneath his eyes or the fact that my mother used to furrow her brow when she was upset or deep in thought but I can never close my eyes and picture their faces ever again, can never see the way the corners of my dad’s mouth would turn up into a smirk when he was about to tell a punchline of a joke or see the way my mother’s nose would crinkle when she would sample a taste of something she was cooking.  I know those things happened because the words are locked away in my brain’s database, but the actual images of those moments have been lost forever to me.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how often everyone else relies on visualization and it makes my condition feel even more glaring.  Last year, for instance, I began taking meditation classes hoping to add to my mental wellness toolbox.  I sat in a group with several others talking about breathing exercises and conscious breathing.  Then it came time to begin our first actual group meditation.  We were all told to close our eyes, uncross our legs, loosen our muscles, to place our feet squarely on the floor and rest our hands flat on our thighs.  We were guided to pay attention to our breathing, the slow in and the out, to feel the air around us and to be in the moment, fully aware of ourselves and our bodies.  So far, so good.  Then the instructor told everyone to imagine a small ball of light glowing inside themselves, in their core, to see its brightness, feel its warmth, to imagine it growing inside us, filling us, to see the light expanding beyond ourselves, encircling us, filling the room, expanding outwards, continuing to grow.

And THAT was completely where she lost me.  When I closed my eyes, all I could see was black.  There was no glowing orb and there never would be.  I had words within my head to compare to lights with a soft glow or of lights expanding similar to the approach of dawn, but no matter how hard I might try, I could never visualize that ball of light, or roots connecting my feet to the earth to center me or any of the other visualizations commonly used in meditation.  Meditation techniques commonly used by everyone else are completely lost on me because they rely heavily on visualization.  For me, meditation has become about situational awareness, of feeling my breath flowing in and out, of feeling my heart beating and feeling the sensation of the air on my skin.  I cannot imagine and visualize anything flowing and growing around myself so instead I use meditation to pull myself into the here and now, to concentrate on my body in the present and to try to silence my mind.

In the last year, I have realized my aphantasia goes beyond an inability to visualize.  In another “mind blown” moment, I had someone ask me whether I could mentally recall other senses, such as the way things tasted, smelled or felt.  I realized all recollections of those senses were just words, as well.  I could tell you that I remember the sweetness of a cupcake or how well water smelled similar to hard-boiled eggs or how a fleece blanket felt soft and furry like a baby animal.  But they are all words.  I cannot taste that cupcake again nor smell that egg smell nor feel the sensation of that soft fleece again on my fingertips.  I have the words to describe them all because I have experienced them all before but I cannot relive any of those moments again.

Perhaps the only sensation I am able to recall to any extent is pain and that is very limited.  I suffer from PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse over the years.  There are times when I have flashbacks, reliving those moments of abuse all over again, where I swear I can feel the blows again.  I am not sure if it is a matter of muscle memory tied to the PTSD itself or if it is a genuine recollection of some sort.  All I know is that it only occurs during flashbacks and it is only physical pain that my body can recall.  Unfortunately, following PTSD flashbacks, I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted so I have never been able to delve into those recollections more.

These days, I often describe my aphantasia as a type of blindness in my mind’s eye.  I think back to watching The Miracle Worker, the story about Anne Sullivan teaching a young, blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate.  Helen Keller couldn’t see the water because she was blind.  Again and again, Annie Sullivan signed the word for water into her hand until her mind made that connection.  She could not see the water, would never see the water, but her mind was able to make that connection.  That word meant water.  That is how aphantasia works within my head.  I close my eyes and my mind’s eye is blind.  My mind cannot see the water, cannot see an apple, it will never see anything.  But it makes those connections of words to items.  I might not be able to ever visualize an apple, but my mind possesses the words to know what an apple is.

Aphantasia is a condition where the brain is unable to form images or visualize.  It is a condition that often leaves its sufferers feeling broken and alone, as if their very brain is flawed and doesn’t work like everyone else’s.  Current studies show that it affects approximately one in fifty people.  It is not considered a disability or an illness but rather more of a hindrance or nuisance because it affects a person’s overall quality of life.  Unfortunately, though, there is very little research currently available on the subject to explain what causes it nor is there any cure.  It is just something that I, and many others like me, have learned to live with over the years.  Whenever we close our eyes, our world fades to black.

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