Picture a tree. Most of you reading this likely just conjured an image of some kind of tree within your mind. Meanwhile, I didn’t. There is no picture of a tree within my head. There never is, really. My brain doesn’t make pictures in my mind.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized that other people actually had images in their minds. I was talking with friends and realized that when they talked about picturing things they literally meant that they had pictures forming inside their heads. When I started talking to other people about this, it seemed that everyone else was able to create these images in their minds with such ease. I started noticing the ways that I was hindered by not being able to do the same. It felt rather lonely to be the only one I knew who couldn’t do what seemed to come so easily to others.
Then, this morning, I came across a word that describes my experience, aphantasia. Aphantasia is a relatively new term that has been suggested to describe the experience of those who are not able to visualize imagery in their minds eye. While this concept has existed since the late 1800’s, it wasn’t until 2015 that a name was given for this experience.
As I read about aphantasia and other’s experience with it, a sense of relief washed over me. Knowing that there are others who share this experience is so reassuring and comforting. As I have learned more about autism and my other neurodivergencies, I have had many of these moments and, each time, it feels as if another piece of the puzzle has been put into place. With each new discovery, my understanding of myself grows and I am able to learn new tools for easing my experience in this world.
From the research that I’ve done, it seems that many people with aphantasia are born this way. From birth, they lack pictures within their minds. Recent research seems to suggest that there may be a psychological component and that some people may develop it later in life. I fall into this second category.
I can think back to my childhood and remember worlds within my mind. I had a vivid imagination full of brilliant imagery and complex storylines. I would often drift off into one of my imaginary worlds for hours at a time, a much needed escape from an unpleasant reality.
By the time I reached high school, my mental health had significantly deteriorated. I was fluctuating between extreme depression and short periods of mania. Then I began to hallucinate. The pictures in my mind were projecting outwards and taking on a life of their own. There were tall dark figures that would follow me for days. There was a young girl who had died gruesomely who would come to visit me and say awful things. The hallucinations grew to the point that I had to be hospitalized for a couple short bursts.
At some point after that, I stopped getting pictures in my head. It wasn’t something that happened all at once or even in a way that I noticed it happening. It wasn’t until that conversation with friends that I truly realized that I don’t see pictures anymore. I also realized how long it had been since I had had a visual hallucination.
While I cannot say conclusively, I think that in an attempt to protect itself, my mind shut down the ability to conjure images. I had also suffered trauma during this time period which we know has the ability to change the brain. My mind, in order to protect me, stopped the production of images to keep away the horrifying images that tended to plague my mind, both as hallucinations and flashbacks.
For those of you without aphantasia, the idea of not picturing images may seem very strange to you, so I’d like to try to explain how my mind works.
When I close my eyes, there is only darkness within my mind. No images. No light. Just a vast space of darkness. Within this darkness there is sound. There is always sound. I typically have a constantly running soundtrack playing through my mind. The song of the day stuck on endless repeat sets the backdrop for my thoughts. Atop this background is a flurry of concepts, vague ideas without words or pictures, just the concepts swirling together like memories in a pensieve. Then, from out of the swirl of concepts develop words. My thoughts, the ones that I identify as mine, are a running stream of words. I narrate my thoughts and all that goes on around me.
My mind can be a cacophony of sounds and concepts and words, yet there are not pictures in this mix. Overall, I’m ok with the way my mind works in this regard. I don’t really miss having pictures in my head, especially since their absence correlates to the absence of very disturbing imagery I don’t want to see. There are, however, times where this is a disadvantage. When learning physical tasks, I have to either watch someone do it or see a diagram, because I cannot picture what to do when people describe the action. I also cannot picture my loved ones. When I am away from my husband, I cannot remember what he looks like. Similarly, I am awful at directions when driving because I can’t picture a route I’ve taken before to remember how to get somewhere.
While aphantasia may have some drawbacks, I don’t mind having a brain that doesn’t make pictures. My mind is a blending of concepts and sounds and words and I like it that way. It’s just nice to finally know that there are others out there who share this experience.