The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
This might seem strange, but please follow the instructions below…
Imagine an apple that’s floating in the space in front of you. It’s red, has a small green leaf and a stem. Now, using your imagination, look at the top view of the apple. Imagine what it would look like if you sliced it into two parts. Can you see the seeds?
There is a good chance that you completed this exercise with ease. You were able to use your mind’s eye to conjure an image and “see” it using your imagination. This seems natural to most people.
This ability to see an image in your imagination is not the same for everyone. In fact, there are people, like Sachi, who cannot do it. The images simply do not form. No images do. Sachi and people like her live in a reality that is fundamentally different from most people because their brain does not generate mental images.
This is called aphantasia (lack of fantasy) and it’s a relatively new field of study. Most experts agree that it’s not a disability, but a different form of human experience. Ed Catmull, the former president and co-founder of Pixar, wrote about having it. So does Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome.
My friend, Austin Kleon, recently wrote about it and his wife, who edits his blog posts, responded by saying, “I think I have that!” So it goes with aphantasia. People can live their entire lives with it and never know it. These people often respond to my apple exercise by saying, “Wait. People can see the apple in their minds?” They think “counting sheep” is just a metaphor and not something that people can actually imagine.
When I learned about aphantasia a few years ago, I talked to Sachi about it and learned she was an “aphant” and didn’t know it. This fascinated me and I set out to learn as much as I could. The more I talked with people about it, the more people I found who shared the same experiences as Sachi.
For example, Sachi and I have worked closely together since 2007. In our work, I often propose ideas for changes we could make to the Common Craft website, for example. I could easily imagine the new feature in my mind; how it would look and work. When it came time to discuss the idea with Sachi, I often became frustrated because I couldn’t seem to relate the idea clearly enough for her to understand it. Once I learned about aphantasia, I realized that she needs to see the feature on paper in order to see what I see. I was living in the abstract world of imagination and she needed something concrete.
I also started to see how aphantasia likely played a role in our past experiences together. I love traveling with Sachi, but we are very different travelers. The best way I can describe it is that I am a romantic traveler and she is a logical one. We both want to soak in experiences, but I come away with lasting memories that are filled with color and fragrance. These memories lead to nostalgia and daydreams that stick with travelers like me. I can place myself nearly anywhere I’ve been and imagine the experience.
Sachi, on the other hand, remembers being in Tuscany, knows she enjoyed it and can place herself at a specific location, but can’t reminisce. She can’t conjure the experience in her mind. There are no visions of olive trees blowing in the wind, even though she saw them in person and tasted the olives.
I didn’t understand why Sachi never seemed to have the same experience as me. We’d see the world’s most impressive architecture, like the Taj Mahal, and she’d come away shrugging her shoulders. She seemed incredibly difficult to impress and I was at a loss as to why. Now, I understand that these travel experiences don’t become embedded in her mind. They’re fleeting, and as such, have limited future appeal. What Sachi wants most is to sit and watch people in an Italian cafe, probably because it’s life happening in real-time. For her, this has far more appeal than being asked to imagine ancient Romans in the ruins of The Forum.
Think for a moment about how you read books. The words on the page help me imagine characters and events as the story is told. When Sachi reads a book, there are no representations of the characters in her mind. All she has is the words on the page and that’s probably why I’ve never seen her read fiction. Aphants are often attracted to technical and scientific fields (Sachi has a degree in microbiology) and my guess is it’s because they are more concrete than other fields. She loves a good spreadsheet.
Sachi’s phone currently has a photo of our dog, Bosco, on the lock screen. Bosco died in 2016 and I always thought it was odd that Sachi wanted to keep his image on her phone for so long. But then I learned that aphants are not easily able to conjure the faces of loved ones in their minds. She can’t imagine the faces of me or her parents. She recognizes photos as easily as anyone else, but can’t create them in her mind. If she witnessed a crime and was asked to help with a sketch of the suspect, she would not be helpful. I started to see that photo of Bosco as a workaround. She wants to remember his face, but can’t without an image that’s constantly in front of her.
I could go on. The aphantasia onion is one with many, many layers. I have described a few examples in the context of something that is missing, but the reality is that aphantasia is also additive. Sachi has many strengths and some, I believe, relate to aphantasia.
Craig Venter says that his experience with aphantasia meant that he could focus on the big picture because he wasn’t distracted by memorization:
I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches. By understanding concepts vs fact memorization I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.
For Sachi, this seems to manifest in an intense focus on planning and details. I’ve never met anyone who is more detail-oriented and aware of her surroundings. On the water, while I’m gazing at the grand scenery, she’s aware of it, but also notices the waves are getting higher and the tide is ebbing. She starts to check our depth and ensure that all our belongings are secured. She’s also an incredible planner who approaches events with everything in its place. For that reason, our events run flawlessly. I, on the other hand, long for a bit of chaos.
Sachi describes her experience as constantly looking for the signal in the noise. From her perspective, the world is filled with distractions that aren’t productive for her. Perhaps that’s what Venter experienced, too. She doesn’t care about hearing a musician describe their inspiration in an interview, she just wants to hear the music. There are parts of pop culture that don’t stick to her and she’s learned to discard them. Why should she care about the noise? A scientific discovery or a looming financial crisis, on the other hand, is a pure signal in her mind.
I think this is one of the reasons we make a good team. Like any couple, we are different people, but aphantasia seems to take it to a new level. I’m romance and noise, she’s logic and signal. Together, we can cover a lot of territory.
What fascinates me the most about aphantasia is that people can go their entire lives not knowing that their brain works differently from other people. It makes me think about all the other differences in the human experience we don’t yet understand. Do we all have blindnesses and sensitivities that seem normal to us, but aren’t? I have to wonder:
- Do I perceive the world in a way that is rare, unique, or undiscovered?
- Is there a part of me that is a strength or weakness I don’t understand?
I’m sure all of these things are true to some degree, even if they don’t yet have a name.
If you’d like to learn more about aphantasia, the links below are helpful:
- Carl Zimmer wrote about it in the NYT here and here.
- Someone with aphantasia did an “Ask me Anything” post on Reddit
- You can take this quiz to better understand your ability to see mental images
- Here’s an animated video by someone with aphantasia that’s helpful
- This post by Blake Ross was one of the first that caught my attention and goes through a nice and funny FAQ.