Aphantasia - Being blind in your mind

Aphantasia... What is it? 
Have you ever heard of it? 
What a beautiful word, isn't it? 

Aphantasia - a term coined by the researchers of the University of Exeter/Devon/England - is the inability to picture things in your mind.
I learned about it while living in Exeter, and not by chance. I researched for a very, very long time. It took me 34 years to realize that I am blind in my mind.
I had no idea it's a condition that affects many people to various degrees.

What were the odds being in Exeter while researchers were doing studies about aphantasia? 
I wasn't born in the UK (you can tell, I am sure), I emigrated there... from all the cities I could have chosen, I picked Exeter.
Right in the middle of the studies.
Pity I didn't know anything until I left Exeter.
They signed me up for studying my aphantasia, but it was too late for me. I was back home, thousands of km away.
What a shame!

Anyway, allow me to tell you how I came across aphantasia.

You know the expression "dreaming with open eyes".
Well, I have never been able to dream like most humans.

Almost three years ago (in 2015), I decided that it was time to follow my childhood dream only desire, which is: becoming a writer.

I had no self-esteem, no courage, no faith that I can do it, so I had to listen to motivational speeches and subliminal messages (I still do, daily) to make me go against my feelings.
Because I could not see myself in the future as a writer (or anything else, to be honest), I needed to learn meditation and visualization to achieve my goals - some say. 
I read uncountable articles and books - everything I found.
I followed (ad litteram) and applied suggestions and advice that many people with experience give to people like me. 
After three years, I am back to square one.
I cannot see a thing. I cannot stop my mind from thinking.
I stopped it from thinking too many thoughts that harmed me, but I could not shut it down in order to meditate and visualize.
I could not step outside my body, my mind (thinking patterns), and my situation.
It's like fighting against the wind. 

Are you a writer who cannot see a story before it's written? 
Do you have troubles imaging a scene in your book? 
Have you given up on your dream to become a writer because of this? 
I haven't and you shouldn't either. 

Aphantasia, as I mentioned in the begging, is the inability to see (or create) pictures, images, scenes, faces (or anything for that matter) in your mind. You can't visualize at all.

Aphantasia or the blind mental eye. 
You cannot see what's not there. 
You cannot picture anything in your mind.
You cannot recall a face from the past.

There are many people affected by this condition, but not all of them experience the same things.
When they close their eyes trying to remember or imagine something some:
  • hear sounds 
  • can smell 
  • can see and feel without hearing 
  • can feel textures 
  • and some are completely anosmic, deaf and blind. Like me. 
It's not the end of the world, and it's not a deadly affliction. 
If you suffer from it, you are luckier than an uncountable number of people who suffer from serious illnesses. 
The lack of the ability to see what's not there is nothing compared to the real suffering of many.  

But if you want to achieve something great, you need to be able to visualize it in your mind before it happened. That's what I've learned.

Are you familiar with Napoleon Hill's work? 
Have you ever heard of "Think and Grow Rich?" 
Napoleon Hill stresses on the power of visualization in order to become and have what one wants.
He is not the only successful person to do that, he's one of the millions.

Theatre of the Mind - Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz is my book and knowledge of reference.

Those who made it in this life, speak about meditation and visualization. Some (many) affirm that nothing huge can be done without both or one.
A lot of research.

As I am very determined to reach my goal, I have been trying numerous techniques of visualization (sorry for repeating myself). None worked/works. I cannot make my mind to take a break. One second.
When I close my eyes or try to dream with opened eyes, I cannot see a thing, a shape, a shadow... Anything except blackness. I can't feel, I can't hear, I can't smell...

At first (for many years) I thought and believed it was just a matter of practice.
"I need to learn how to do it right". I told myself.
You know, I am not that type of person who gives up after the first try.
Not even the10th or the 100th.
I stop trying only when I succeed. 
So I tried more. Again, and again and again and again and... Still.

I tried with objects, smells, sounds, textures. Nothing worked.
I became extremely frustrated, but I still thought it was just a lack of practice and something quite common among people. Maybe I didn't try hard enough.
"If others can, I can too." That's my belief.

I researched more and asked my brother if he can visualize. "Yes, I do that since I was a child. I can see anything I want," he said.

At that moment I realized that I have never, ever been able to visualize anything in my entire life.
I had no idea!
I asked other people. All said they can dream whatever they like.
All but me.

I can't dream, okay. But why?
Is there something missing from my brain? 
Or is a mental block? 
That's what I am working to discover.
I need answers because I don't believe that I was born like this.
Find here some answers.

I often write about the fact that as a child I could not see myself in the future as other children. That made me think that I was not going to have a future.
I knew then it was not right not being able to see or imagine something that doesn’t exist. I was convinced I was going to die soon.
Otherwise why not being able to dream?

I cannot draw, I cannot recall a scent, a sound, a feeling, a memory… nothing.
Weirdly enough I write about past experiences (I published quite a few memoirs) but only as facts and if it’s something tragic, I feel the pain as I know I felt when the traumatic event happened.
I know I felt that because I am very empathetic and sensitive, but I cannot go back at that moment.
I cannot feel what I felt then. If I cry is because I am reliving.... without remembering.
For me, memory is all about perceptions, feelings and emotions. It's not about forms.

Does this make sense to you? 

It wouldn't for me if I didn't know what I am trying to say.

What is even weirder is the fact that I can write a story from scratch.

As I start typing, the story flows. I don’t know from where. If I sat down and try to imagine a scene in it, it does not happen. I must type, then it comes.

If it doesn’t, I give up because no matter how hard I try, I cannot see something that it is not in front of my eyes.

I know now that I have aphantasia and I am worried because I am afraid I will never get where I work so hard to get without the power of visualization. I am way behind my schedule.

Aphantasia is such a beautiful name, but an unfortunate characteristic of a writer (or any artist).  

This evening I came across this article on https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com that speaks about aphantasia and teaches you techniques to play around it. 
I found it extremely interesting and exhaustive. 

If you think or know you are incapable of seeing with the mind, read it. It will definitely "open your eyes."

Now, let's see if you have aphantasia.
Close your eyes, and tell me if you are able to picture something like in the image below? 

Aphantasia, being blind in your mind by Cristina G. Exeter
Photo credit: Pixabay
I can't.
I can only see what's in front of my eyes.

Can you picture an apple? 
Try it.
If you can, it means you have a degree of aphantasia and you can work around it.
You could learn to see more.

I can't picture anything at all.
But I am not giving up. I know that one day, I will be able to see the future I want and deserve to have.

As a curiosity, I wrote several fantasy stories (dystopian) which I haven't published yet.
Isn't this contradictory to what I said in this article? 
You tell me. 

On the other hand, are those people who can see too much in their minds. Hyperphantasia is the term for that. And it's pretty scary if you think about it. Anything that comes in your head takes a form.
I am not sure I would be cool if I were affected by hyperphantasia. 

But imagine this power - a supernatural power for me - in the hands of a writer (artist).

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  1. Hi there, Cristina. I'm an artist, with aphantasia too. Your post makes absolute sense to me.

    I have relived without remembering as well. I can remember how I felt at the time, too.

    I've dabbled with writing short fiction before. I can't imagine how things will really turn out in my writing, but I can do rough plotting beforehand if desired. Either way, it feels often like I am writing(typing) to find out what I will write, or I write(type) to find out what I think.

    I remember hearing writers say something like, "the first sentence of a story decides what the story will be like." For me, it feels like I am tossing dice blindly, starting from that first sentence. It's like I am embarking on a journey with limitless possibilities. I have to make choices all the time, especially in the beginning, that I feel unsure about making. I understand that the story could be taken into multiple directions, but I don't know which one is best, which one will actually be interesting to read. From that first sentence can be birthed thousands of different stories, with different flavors and messages. I try to pick directions that are internally consistent to what I've chosen so far. But because of that, I find it is quite easy that I will write myself into a boring, or bad story (all well). However, when I'm not busy making decisions, that is when the writing flows mysteriously, just as you said. It's a lovely feeling.

    When I draw, the essence of the act is almost the same. I don't know what I will draw, or what I want to draw. When I try to think too much about it, I end up paralyzing myself! I start out with drawing something I've drawn many times before (muscle memory), and then I start adding on to it, throwing at it seemingly random elements and features that do not go against what I put down before. It's like I have stored within me visual vocabulary. I have to draw new things in order to increase it. I have internal principles of design within me that help me make decisions about what I've put down on my drawing. After my first drawing is down, it's then that I can really react to it and start having a better idea exactly what it is that I want to draw in that moment. Precisely, it is the case again that I draw to figure out what it is I will draw.

    Thank you for your post, Cristina. I find that when I am reacting to others, I am able to gain insight into exactly what I think about things, or how exactly I do things. Seeing one others' experience, and seeing how I resonate with it, I think is another aspect of aphantasia. I would not be able to be an artist if everybody else stopped making art. It's through their art that I love, that I am able to realize what it is I want to create. I think it's probably the case too, that when I write, I am pulling on what I've read before to get me through it.

  2. Hi Ryan,

    I thank you so, so much for your testimony. It means the world to me.
    Sorry for the late reply, I receive a lot of spam.

    It looks that we have a lot much in common. I am really sorry because I know how you feel.
    I am happy, though, that you are not upset and angry about this. This makes it harder and angriness is so destructive.
    We lack this magical power and only the universe knows why.
    Maybe we have developed other “supernatural powers” we are not paying attention to. I don’t know.
    Have you ever wondered if aphantasia is a skill?
    Sometimes, I think it’s a curse, a punishment. But I was born with it, from what we know, everybody is born clean.
    Unless, of course, we believe in second, third, forth and so on life. In this case, I think the punishment makes sense. Who knows what we’ve done in a past life because we had the power of visualisation?
    I am mad, I know. You should read the story I write now. It’s the worst story ever written. But I will publish it. I know many will relate to it, although no one will read it.

    It’s so amazing that you can write stories if you don’t force yourself. Yes. I know the feeling.
    I have so many stories in my mind (ideas) but when I want to write one, another one I never thought of takes the lead. So I let this story write itself. I type and type and when I can’t, I know it is finished. It happened last week. For 15 days a story wrote itself in front me. I was so amazed. I didn’t mind I was a puppet. It sounded like a great story.
    Of course, it’s not always that easy because the story has to make some sense. But I am of the idea that every story/book, painting, etc., has a market. Pity we are not business people.
    Artists with determination try everything, and sometimes it’s frustrating.
    I wish you all the best, Ryan, and if one day you realize that you can see your future, let me know what you’ve done to achieve that.
    I would give anything to be able to see what I want to see.


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