It appears that the writer John Green has recently discovered that he has aphantasia — “when your brain doesn’t form or use mental images as part of your thinking or imagination.” (The opposite of aphantasia is “hyperphantasia,” or having extremely vivid mental imagery. Most of us exist on a spectrum somewhere in the middle.)
People usually don’t discover they have aphantasia until they realize people aren’t speaking in metaphor when they say, “Picture this” or “picture an apple.” (A common example: someone will be in a meditation class and realize they can’t visualize a quiet stream or whatever.)
My wife Meghan only realized she has aphantasia after I blogged about it — and she has a master’s degree in architecture! (After I shared our revelation, I found out my friend Sachi LeFever is an aphantasiac, too — her husband Lee wrote a great post about it.)
When we come across art or writing that really speaks to us, it sometimes elicits a feeling of being part of something, as in, “I thought I was the only one!”
Discovering aphantasia is kind of flipped response: “Wait, you mean everybody else can do this?”
But depending on what you’re trying to do with your life, aphantasia can be an obstacle or it can be a gift.
For example: When Meghan is rearranging the furniture in the room, she has to push everything around before she can see whether it will work or not. This used to strike me as terribly inefficient — I could tell her, just from looking, that the couch isn’t going to fit there — until I realized that the novel arrangements she came up were because of her method. She will try out arrangements I wouldn’t bother with because I couldn’t visualize them. She doesn’t try to make the space something it’s not. Her eye isn’t clouded by visions, it’s focused on what’s actually in front of her. So her aphantasia, in this context, becomes a really powerful thing.
Many aphantasiacs report an internal monologue, or a kind of running radio in their head. (This is why it’s terribly frustrating for Meg when she has three boys talking at her at once — she literally can’t hear her own thoughts.)
But think of what a benefit thinking in language instead of pictures is to a writer! There’s no need to translate the pictures you see in your head into words. (More examples of writers talking about this benefit here.)
While it might seem like a superpower to be able to make all these pictures in your head, that doesn’t mean you can actually do anything with them.
You’d think such a condition would be a kind of death warrant assigned to a career in the visual arts, but not so! Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar and helped make huge advances in 3-D animation, announced “my mind’s eye is blind” a few years ago, and even found other animators at Pixar with aphantasia. He told the BBC that aphantasia helps clear up “some misconceptions about creativity”:
“People had conflated visualisation with creativity and imagination and one of the messages is, ‘they’re not the same thing’.
“The other one I think that people might have assumed, but if you think about it you can see why it’s false assumption, is you would think if a person could visualise, they’re more likely to be able to draw.
“If you open your eyes and you take out a pencil and pad, how many people can draw what they see? The answer is a very small number, so if you can’t draw what is in front of you then why would we expect that you would be able to draw what you visualise?”
(Related reading: “Visualisation and Why We Don’t Need it to Make Visual Art.”)
In several recent newsletters (see: “No expectations” and “You don’t need a vision”) I’ve been playing with the idea that having strong visions might inspire a kind of inflexibility in the artist that keeps them from seeing what’s in front of them and improvising a response.
Overall, I find it really interesting how resistant some people seem to be to the idea that our brains aren’t uniform, that there’s an endless variety of thinking and seeing and being and feeling. For me, I love learning how other brains work, because I not only find something I can take away for my own brain, my world expands, and something I thought was simple, like imagination, becomes richer and more complex.
To learn more about aphantasia, go to aphantasia.com.