Close your eyes. Now imagine your dead father’s face. Pull it into your inner sight, the wrinkles on his face, the dear crooked smile, the stubble of beard, the gray-brown hair that fell just so on his precious forehead.
Feel that which arises at this inner sight: the up-rush of warmth, the soft nostalgia of memory. Bathe in this image as you might bathe in a crystal clear stream. Ahhh, you have him back for a moment in your inner mind and heart. Aren’t you lucky to be able to pull him into memory in this way, to not lose him entirely?
Now that your eyes are open and your heart softened, imagine those of us in the world who can’t see this way, who can’t pull up the faces of loved ones into inner focus. Try to imagine the differences of perception which exist among us.
Now hear the term that scientists use to describe this condition: aphantasia. This term refers to a condition where a person does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot visualize imagery.
Welcome to the dim and blurry edges of trying to visualize in my world. Although I am not sure if I would clinically qualify (because I can sometimes visualize vague and hazy images) there does seem to be a huge difference between the way many others are able to naturally pull forth images in the mind’s eye–and the way my mind’s eye mostly refuses to cooperate.
I cannot fully picture my husband’s face. He left for work this morning; he’s gone. When I try to pull him forth into the mind what exists is a dim and hazy feeling of his essence, etched in with some mental brushstrokes of possible hair and cheeks and vague eyes.
Our daughter in Oregon? In this mind she’s an energy, easily accessible, easily pulled into an envelope of love, easily available. But to actually picture her? I can–almost–imagine her, but it’s mostly a wavering blurry energy field with snippets of possible blond hair and–is that a smile? Perhaps.
Our son in New Jersey? Yes, there he is, but he’s not really a steady reliable image. He’s a sense that I feel in nooks and crannies of my perception. He’s larger than life–I can almost feel his mannerisms as he’s reading these words. And now he’s gone until the next moment when this almost-image arises.
My friend–the only other person I know with this condition–says she sees mostly nothing at all. The inner world remains mostly dark. And that can make her very sad at times. When she wants to see her dead father or mother’s face. When she really, really, wants to see her daughter in her mind’s eye.
I have felt shades of that sadness at times, but my experience has been somewhat different. Back in the 1980’s, in a time of spiritual opening, images started pouring into me. I could clearly see the faces of relatives, the neighbor down the block, that lady with crazy hats in town, a house on the hill, people who had died.
These full-color images never arose when trying to visualize. They appeared as an amazing gift. Oh, there’s my dearly departed Grandpa! Why in the world am I seeing the lady at the gas station? Why, there’s my mom!
Between the ability to see inadvertent images, and the ability to deeply feel energy, I have rarely mourned the haziness of inner sight. It can be a nuisance–it can be darn right challenging–but it also feels that the compensations have resulted in a deep rich life. I am actually truly grateful for the way this brain perceives.
Challenges, you ask? When you can’t really recall a person’s face, guess what you do? If they’re rarely seen, you tend to forget them. This happens with many people, anyway, but those without clear inner sight can suffer more easily. Memory issues can also arise.
OK, an example. Two years ago I stood in line at the grocery store. In another lane stood a woman I knew.
“Hi, Kathy,” she said, smiling.
“Hi!” I replied cheerfully and immediately felt full-blown panic. This was a woman who I knew well. Really well. Someone I saw regularly. But who WAS she?
At such a moment you can feel so lost. I had never forgotten a well-known person in this way before. Who was she? Was this early onset dementia?
It took another hour or two, but I finally figured it out. She was a board member that I saw every month–but had never seen her out of the context of board meetings. Since her face was not memorized, it was virtually impossible to recognize her in a different scenario.
Barry says my lack of ability to visualize has worked in his favor at times. When building our house he used to ask, “Hey, Kath, should we put the front door here? Should the windows go there? What kind of boards should we put up?”
My standard answer: “Sorry, I can’t picture it.”
If you’d like to learn more about this condition, here are a few links:
Blind in the mind: why some people can’t see pictures in their imagination
Aphantasia: A life without mental images
To make a long story even longer, I probably won’t recognize you, dear blogging friend, unless we’ve met at least three times before. There’s a 50/50 chance I could spot you in a line-up. So please be patient if we ever meet. Tell me who you are more than once, if you please…until I memorize who you truly are…
Wow. I had no idea there was such a thing. I’ve gone and read all the articles and it seems like it’s only (2015?) been named. When I was a young adult I wondered for a time if I could only remember times as a kid that we had photos of, not knowing if I was remembering an actual person and/or event, or just remembering the pictures of that time. Either way I could visualize those times, and I don’t think that’s quite what you’re talking about. Were you always like this? When did you learn that not everyone was like you? Do any of your siblings have the same thing? It’s very interesting and I don’t mean to pry, just curious.
Hullo, Dawn, I saw that a few readers were reading the links. You are lucky you are able to visualize. Ummm, yes, I think I was always like this. But am not sure. It seems so normal. Was at least like this in my 20’s when we were building the house. Just learned more about it last year and realized it’s a “condition”. I don’t think of it as a condition, just a different way of perceiving. My siblings and parents and kids seem to visualize OK, but haven’t tested or grilled them extensively. Barry visualizes really wonderfully, full of rich detail. No worries about prying–I haven’t talked or thought much about this before, so it’s kind of fun to talk about.
It is GOOD to read your blog again, Kathy. I find this an amazing fact about you, as you have such a beautiful, imaginative way with words. I sometimes can conger up an image when I shouldn’t. That can certainly get me in trouble at times!!
Hey, Barb, good to see YOU too! I can imagine things sideways and backwards and upside down in words! Therefore, I don’t like the folks who say that people with this condition can’t “imagine”. That’s crazy! We just imagine in really sneaky pete ways. Tee hee. Stay out of trouble, girlfriend!
Kathy, the way you write and describe things always made me feel like my mind’s eye could never be as sharp as yours. You are an amazing person whose ability to compensate truly impresses me. I guess that is why you take such detailed, amazing pictures with your camera. Once again I am so grateful that the Bard of the Bay has returned.
Bard of the Bay–how funny. You are so sweet, John! I guess part of the compensation is learning how to see things very deeply. And to be able to put that seeing into words. So funny about the camera; don’t really know how that all fits in!
Kathy, I was amazed that you cannot visualize because the imagery in your writing makes ME see more clearly in my mind’s eye. Perhaps this is why you are such a creative person who is in tune with the present moment? Your unique way of communicating what you see and experience through words and photos creates a platform for the memories you can’t otherwise visualize after the fact. Do you dream? I must read the links for more information of the condition.
Wow, it’s a strange phenomenon, Barb. Who knows? But I think our unique ways of perceiving show up with different “results”. And I think perhaps you are right about this way of communicating providing that platform. Thank you! Never thought of it that way. (And, less, I dream. Because then you’re not trying to visualize. Dreams are like visions to me, not produced, but given.)
Kathy, you have such a beautiful way with words (and photos as well!!) and it really surprises me that you have trouble seeing with your mind’s eye. Your words bring your world to light for me and I can see clearly how beautiful you are. I’ve been able to see with my mind’s eye, all my life. I didn’t even know that some people cannot do this. You’ve opened my eyes once again. Thank you for expanding my view. Please don’t ever worry that you might not recognize me if we were to meet. I don’t put many pictures of myself online so it wouldn’t surprise me with I am not recognized. No worries, my dear. ❤
Hi, Brenda, thanks–as always–for commenting. And how wonderful that you can see so well with your mind’s eye. Such a gift! This must comfort you from your home, where you can imagine the world vividly. As for not recognizing you–I would not. You would have to come and gently tell me. I think I’ve probably caused hurt feelings over the years by not recognizing people in our town, but that’s the way it is. I appreciate that I’m able to share in a way that creates images in other eyes!
There was a couple of times that a ‘spiritual’ teacher tried to get me to visualize an imaginary scene or to see an apple with my eyes closed. I was embarrassed that I was looking only at blackness, and I could easily pretend I saw what they asked…So I said yes I could see it. Seriously, it was only last week when I read your link on FB that I realized I’m different! When I try to visualize I only see black. When I dream, it’s like looking at a movie. When I have dejavu, it’s a feeling. When I have a spontaneous memory, it’s like thinking > abstract.
Jessica, I had the same experience! A spiritual teacher wanted me to visualize some scene…and it was impossible. So happy that you were able to see that link and realize what’s happening in your world! Sure enough, we have some things in common! Wondering if you’ve recognized what strengths this has given you yet?
Nope! I just found out! All my life I thought it was a metaphor when people said to visualize something and then asked if we could see it. Language fails me when I try to describe memories and ‘visions’. I just figure I’m pretending to see stuff. I bring up the memory of it, but that doesn’t include full color images. I need to see people’s faces about five times or so before I can recognize them, if they are not distinctive in some way. I used to journal fastidiously for fear of forgetting my own life. But I can draw great doodles. And I’m a decent portraiture artist. I learned pretty young how to re-learn seeing and draw what I see.
Thank you for sharing this, Jessica, it’s really fascinating. Have you ever had involuntary visions or hypnagogic images where you can actually see images distinctively? Like you, I can’t “see” when trying to visualize, but I can see when the images come involuntarily. It’s interesting what different ways our brains operate!
Hi Jessisa, about 2% of the population have Aphantasia. I am Kathy’s Canadian chum that has it. However I never realized I had it until I heard a story about it on the CBC just last spring; and I’m 67 ! I just thought I wasn’t paying good enough attention or was forgetful but didn’t realize that others were really seeing pictures in their mind’s eye. BTW there is an Aphantasia FaceBook group that is rather interesting …
Hi Sybil, nice to meet you. I didn’t realize that others really can see the pictures in their mind, either. Sounds fantastic. Now my life makes more sense!
We know what a droopy drawers I can be about this, but I do feel that because I have no visual memory, many things I see give me more of a sense of wonder than they might for someone who has seen the thing before. Every time I cross the Halifax bridge and look at the harbour far below I am amazing. I gawk and rubberneck at the harbour and the cargo laden ships.
Unlike you who figured out your lack of visual imagery on your own mine was a fairly recent revelation.
I am sure now that my Aphantasia is why I take so many photos. THEY are my memories. I also note in a daily journal small details like where I went for my daily walk/hike/ramble. I cannot tell you where I walked yesterday unless I check the journal. lol
I met a woman and her dog today at Shubie park. She bent down to say “hello” to Sooki. I looked at her and she said “we met before” to which I responded “sorry I’m face-blind (my simplistic way of explaining my “problem”) and she said “I know, you told me the last time we met”.
Part of me wishes I’d never learned what I was missing. But this journey we call life is about learning about ourselves and being the best us we can be. So I’ll play the “glad game” and try to find the positive …and at least now I know I’m not forgetful … just different.
Thanks for blogging about this.
Sybil, I love that you have that sense of wonder that seems so new, so fresh. How beautiful! And that taking photos serves as your memory. It sounds like you’ve found ways to compensate. I think your situation is a little more “dark” than mine. I do have hazy fuzzy images that dance around the edges. And impromptu visits from the Universe complete with crystal-clear images, coming forth as gifts without trying to visualize. I’ve started sharing face-blindness stories with people, as well. Saves on embarrassment later on! *liking that you’re playing the glad game. But also liking that you express how much it makes you sad at times.*
I have never heard of this condition, Kathy, and at first I felt really badly for you. But the more I read and the more I thought about it, I realized that you have a different condition because of this condition. You can visualize the inside of people better than most of us. And that is a true gift. ❤️
Pam, you get it! That is exactly what I was trying to express. You articulated the blessing at the heart of it. Thank you!!
👀 ❤️ 👀 ❤️
That is really interesting, Kathy. I’ve never heard of that condition. It seems almost impossible! But your inability to picture faces does not hinder the beautiful images you paint with your words. ❤
It’s a mystery, Stacy! I do see things quite clearly in physical reality, so the “painting” with words comes up secondarily. Perhaps the painting with words comes up quite strongly because it’s a way of remembering. Nice to see you here!
Nice to be here. 🙂
This may be a stupid question, but what do you “see” when you read a book? Can you picture the characters and scenery?
The big question I have for you is, what do YOU see when you read a book? I never imagined that reading a book was a visual journey. I can remember the scenes that were described, and then I could draw them if I wanted. But I don’t reference actual imagery with eyes closed. How hard it is to put into words!
I see everything as though I am really there.
Good question. I often slip descriptive parts in books…
Stacy and Jessica and Sybil, I had to think about this for a while. No, I don’t really picture the characters and scenery in a book. Only a vague and foggy image of them. Just enough to let the scene or character “sink” into a feeling. Everything seems translated into feeling; then the feeling goes directly into words that paint the picture–if there’s a need. It’s also interesting that I never feel drawn to looking at photographs. Words paint pictures so much easier. So interesting.
Indeed. I often feel bad for not posting great pictures on my blog or any other media. They don’t capture all the subtleties of words. I don’t feel that a picture is worth a thousand words; I feel more the idea that the picture doesn’t do it justice.
YES, YES, YES! I feel the same way, Stacy. It feels like a picture is just–too simple and doesn’t do anything justice. Doesn’t evoke feeling the way words do. The way words make one soar! But…other people seem to get the same feeling from pictures. Isn’t that interesting? Actually most people get more from pictures than words, it seems. I really only take photos because other people seem to like them. When quitting blogging, I quit taking pics. This makes my husband crazy, lol!
My husband loves pictures, too – even bought me a new camera because I WANT to like taking photos. But I think you’re right – most people prefer pictures, which is where the pressure comes from, I guess. I feel if I don’t post photos, people won’t bother to read my words.
Same with my husband, Stacy. My husband told me “If you’re going to write a blog, you had better post pictures.” He kinda knows, as he’s been in the newspaper business for 40 years and knows what gets people’s attention. Thanks so much for this conversation! I keep learning so much.
Hmm. Interesting. I’ve often thought I had trouble visualizing, but mine isn’t what you describe here. I can conjure up images, but they aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be. Sort of like those cloudy photos you posted. I could get an idea what furniture might look like in a room to figure out where I’d like things to go, but again, it’s a faint picture. Still enough to give me some sense of where to put things.
Thanks for sharing this.
Lori, that actually does sound like would I described. Except that maybe you can see them a little more clear and focused. The tests and links show that there is a wide variety of abilities to visualize, from pitch dark to vivid. Most of us fall in between. I am probably in the lower percentage, but it sounds like you’re slightly above my abilities. Glad you enjoyed!
Oh Kathy, I have this – but didn’t know it had a name. Aphantasia. Hmmm… good to know someone in science or medicine has started taking it seriously. In me, it’s not as bad as it was some years ago, and I wasn’t born with it. Mine came on after I was prescribed an anti-depressant drug by my doctor that (I think) conflicted with a different drug I was on. The end result was that my previously nearly-photographic memory vanished overnight along with my ability to visualise, my ability to dream at night, my ability to remember images and more. And, as you may remember (or not!) I’m an artist, so it was all a great loss, and a sense of disaster. As well as all that, most of my vocabulary was lost as I had always visualised the spelling and appearance of words. It’s got a bit better over the years, but I’ve not got it all back.
The other thing I’ve got, which I most definitely have had since birth, is a mild form of prosopagnosia, which is face blindness. It’s different from what you’re describing in that it affects ones ability to recognise and remember faces in real life, as opposed to in ones imagination or inner eye. I cope with that by taking note of what people are wearing (if I can remember it – things have a habit of slipping out of my memory like water from a sieve!) and I listen carefully to their voices. In the past, I have lost my husband in a waiting room while I’ve been just feet away from him, I’ve lost him at an outdoor event – and he was, again, just a few feet away. I’ve thought my sister, seen across a carpark, was someone else, and on and on it goes. And as for recognising myself… I look in the mirror and think “just who the f*ck are you?!” I rely on photos, big time. I think part of the thing with prosopagnosia is an inability to identify a face – which is an incredibly difficult object with many different angles – when it moves, as all those angles and surfaces ‘change’, and keep changing. With a photo – it all stays the same, so is much easier to recognise and retain in my memory.
Don’t regard an inability to see internally as a loss, though, Kathy – providing you’ve got other ways to perceive (and I know you have), it’s fine. x
Val, that must have been so challenging to you–to have that near-photographic memory, to be able to visualize, and to dream–and then to lose it so abruptly with that drug interaction. I can see why you might have grieved, and felt the loss so strongly. To have to learn how to be an artist again without the familiar way of creating must have been so difficult. They say that many with aphantasia have problems with face-recognition, too and I certainly have it to some extent. Yours sounds extreme–especially since you feel it even with relation to loved ones.
I do not regard this as a loss at all, Val. This sentence sums it up best: Between the ability to see inadvertent images, and the ability to deeply feel energy, I have rarely mourned the haziness of inner sight. (For me it has always felt a bit like a blessing, as other ways of perceiving have become so much stronger.)
Thanks for sharing your view on life.
You describe this condition so well, it makes me wonder if – to lesser degrees – all of us have a bit of it. I have often encountered people who greet me by name, who clearly know me, and I can’t for the life of me remember seeing them before. Your title grabbed me first, though, because I struggle to bring up a clear image of those not here, or not nearby. Now and then, I get a clear image – plus big emotional presence – of my father (mother, grandfather…), but mostly, what I remember – image-wise – is a photographic image. It’s harder to get the whole essence…except in dreams, or those wonderful waking-dream moments when I have what I think of as “a visitation.” Great post! I’m late in reading, but I see it has garnered lots of interesting discussion!
Cindy, thanks for popping by to read and sharing your perceptions. The aphantasia scale shows all degrees of visualization, from those who can’t see anything but blank or black to those who can imagine a little bit. My son said similar to what you’re expressing. Sometimes it’s hard to pull up a really clear image; another time it’s easy. So you may be right about many (or all) of us having this to some degree. My husband sees everything so clearly, though, that I wonder…
Still trying to catch up with posts I’ve missed…
Aren’t our brains interesting? A month shy of my 60th birthday I found out I had autism, the kind who thinks in pictures. It’s so hard for me to imagine not being able to think in pictures! So I appreciate the ways you and Sybil can describe what it is like.
You say that you never feel drawn to looking at photographs, but words paint pictures so much easier. I am the exact opposite! I always scored very low on reading comprehnsion tests (like my SATs) even though I enjoy reading. I read very slowly and only recently connected the dots to realize that I read slowly because I am translating the words to pictures in my mind.
I’m coming to terms with the idea that I would prefer to see a movie or look at a vividly illustrated coffee table book than to read a book! At least now I know why. But I grew up thinking that smart people read books and become writers, so it’s kind of hard to let go of that image of Barbara the bookworm. 🙂
Barbara, thank you thank you thank you for sharing the world that you see/feel. How challenging it must be to translate words to pictures! You have my deepest appreciation for taking the time to even read my wordy blogs. (I must have put in the pictures just for you all these years…) Hugs and blessings, my friend!
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