Quirks and Quarks on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel (radio) presented a segment about Aphantasia on June 25, 2016. When The Mental Image Is Missing
Aphantasia is the word used to describe having a reduction or absence of the ability to visualize in your mind. In theory, a person could go their entire life without ever realizing their lack of visualization abilities was atypical.
Visualize, mind’s eye, picturing, imagining—our language is littered with words about mental imagery. Why do so many people with Aphantasia go through life thinking the general public doesn’t know how to accurately describe memory and are prone to hyperbole? Relating to experiences you don’t share is challenging. It could be easy to miss the fact your experiences aren’t average.
I have watched movies based on books that were so well done, I’ve found myself thinking I’ve seen the movie before. An example of this is the last two movies in the Harry Potter series. I can pick up a book I have read and loved, and the words come to me before I read them. This must mean I have visualization, right?
Quirks and Quarks have me wondering if it’s more complicated than that, especially after mentioning the correlation between autism and Aphantasia. Temple Grandin has often described thinking in pictures. Other people have connected Synesthesia to autism. For people on the autism spectrum, Aphantasia appears to be another common experience of visualization.
Going back to my experiences, my initial reaction to the Quirks and Quarks segment was that I clearly am not Aphantasiac…then I began to consider my problems with mental math and spelling out loud.
I’ve always known I have issues with these things. I have often used the word dyscalculia to describe my issues with math, but I always understood the problem was in visualization. Teachers would hound me to see the numbers in my mind. I couldn’t. Spelling bees were hampered by similar issues, much to the annoyance of teachers who knew I got perfect marks on the tests. They assumed I was being willful. With my autism-sized stubborn streak well documented, it didn’t seem a large leap to make.
After listening to Quirks and Quarks, I decided to test a hypothesis. I tried to imagine the beach.
Nothing. My mind was a black screen.
The story was different when I added feelings. I tried to imagine the beach near my sister’s place. It’s a long beach that gets roasting hot. Every summer you see people start out towards the water with no shoes, then catch the look of panic on their faces when they realize their feet are burning and it’s as far back for their shoes as it is forward to get to the water. They make a mad dash to the water and gasp with relief when the cool waves hit their feet. When I added all these emotions, images flooded into my mind.
Accusations of autistic people lacking emotions are misinformed. My memories seem to be intricately wrapped up in feelings, to the point I can’t access certain memories without first remembering the emotions. My sister says she remembers more about my marriage than I do. Most days she is right. In order to remember certain things that happened, I have to remember the ugly emotions. It’s easier to forget.
An author interviewed in the Quirks and Quarks piece said her writing is filled with florid descriptive passages because she experiences Aphantasia. Her way of accessing memory is through words. That makes complete sense to me. The other man interviewed describes a much more pattern related system, which I’ve also witnessed with autistic people.
A Twitter associate of mine (Emily @invisiblegirls99) described her thoughts on this topic as nebulous. It is a fantastic word to use. It brings to mind the intricate patterns within the structure of the brain.
There are many implications I haven’t come close to pinning down. The Quirks and Quarks segment opened a window of insight into myself that might have taken a long time to happen organically. It’s cool when that happens.