I'm an Aphie
We're aphants, or aphies.
Close your eyes, and think of a beach. Apparently, you can likely see the sand, the sea, the sky, the seagulls, the people, as though you were there, or close to it. That's your visual imagination working. Your mind's eye is not blind.
I found out that aphantasia is a 'thing' about a year ago, whilst listening to a podcast from the wonderful Robert and Joe of Stuff To Blow Your Mind. You can listen to it online. Ever since, I've been reaching out to people to attempt to understand how it affects them; does it affect others as it does me? I've discovered that aphies are a wonderful community. We're all so different, but we're linked by mind-blindness, and the ways we've learned to get by without being able to visualise.
There's been little research on this mental quirk, despite first being described in 1880 by Francis Galton; Galton has been commemorated in the aphie community with Aphantasia Awareness Day – August 18th, or 18/08. The next step didn't come until a man known as MX reached out to Professor Adam Zeman in 2005. That's when the term aphantasia was coined - 'a' meaning 'no' or 'without', and phantasia meaning “the process by which all images are presented to us'. Most aphants don't think of it as a disorder; we're just a bit different.
The Mind-Blind Poet
Lately I've been wondering how I can be both mind-blind and a poet. Being a poet is largely about being able to conjure up imagery for your reader, but I don't do that. I've come to realise that because I think mainly in narratives and word – for example, I could describe my face to you even though I can't picture it – I am well-practiced at filling in those gaps with language alone. Before I sat down to write this post, I read back through a few poems and realised I very rarely use settings or scenes for my work. The majority of my poetry is about feelings and thoughts and words; when I do use imagery it's never with a picture in mind. The closest I can get is to try to empathise with people's reactions - “how would I feel if I could see this?”
A good example of this is my poem Worms. It's all about that disgust felt towards oneself when feeling unloved and unwanted. Its genesis was not visual, however. The seed that blossomed into one of my favourite pieces was an ear-worm – I could not get the kids' song that starts 'Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, going down the garden to eat worms' out of my mind. And yet, despite no ability to create a picture in my head to work from, I created something that a lot of people can picture and feel repulsed by.
Worms fill my yawning maw.
Scooped up for consumption
with a handful of dirt
indiscriminately thrown in
with the wriggling bodies.
Biting down, I think of
all the somebodies who
don't love me, and the
nobodies who did.
At the end of my garden
I find my truth in filth.
The Good and The Bad
Being an aphant is not the worst thing in the world. I am a lot more attuned to things like tone of voice, language and olfactory cues. The world of scents is interesting – could you imagine dreaming in smells? The other morning I woke up from a dream about a field on a summer's day; I knew that because I could recall smelling the hot grass and dust, and feeling the sun's warmth. There are difficulties with aphantasia – lots of us struggle to think spatially (I've got a whole method of dealing with that one!), or struggle to recall when things happened. If an aphant says 'the other day', it's anyone's guess whether that means yesterday or last year, until a calendar can be used to get a context for time passed. I was talking to my husband this morning about an appointment he'd attended with me – I took a stab and said it was about 3 weeks ago, before looking it up in my calendar and realising it was actually in early June. Another good example is when I was asked to keep a food diary for a week. Being me, I forgot to fill it in for a few days and tried to track back – I ended up lying about a few meals because I just could not recall what I'd eaten two days earlier.
There's some sadness associated with aphantasia too. The biggest thing for me is that I cannot conjure up the image of lost loved ones in my mind. When Nan died, I studied photos of her, trying to teach my brain to cement her face in my memory. It didn't work, and I can't help but feel I'm missing out there. There are things from my past that I wish I could revisit; birthday parties, my first communion, my childhood bedroom. I accept these are lost to me, except in the form of stories made of words. My life story is a novel, not a movie.
I'm never going to be an amazing artist. I'm probably always going to spend 10 minutes every morning trying to recall where I put my keys. My internal world will be darkness. But I have my words, and that's everything to me. I'm different, not broken.