When Adam Zeman at Exeter University coined the name “aphantasia” for that condition back in 2015 I was soon made aware of it through broadcasts by the BBC and realised that it explained the issues that I had encountered throughout life recognising people and putting names to faces. Whether I have the full congenital condition I don’t know but another factor is that it is more common in people who focus more on conceptual than visual subjects such as mathematics and science and those have always been my better subjects. Until Doctor Zeman published his work I had always assumed that the “mind’s eye” was just a figure of speech rather than a specific ability within the brain, so this information was literally an eye opener to me.
I tried asking people about what they saw in their mind’s eyes but they were never that clear about the details. They seemed unable to explain whether their mental vision was two or three dimensional and when I asked a mathematical friend whose mind’s eye was fully functional whether he could visualise in four dimensions, four dimensional geometry being a favourite subject of his, he admitted that he couldn’t, so at some level he was clearly conceptualising just as I do. I imagine that those with full visualisation ability find it equally difficult to imagine not having it, much as nowadays many young people cannot imagine life without a mobile phone and have difficulty comprehending black and white pictures and films. For a conceptual thinker like myself it is difficult to understand how anyone can think clearly with all that visual imagery continually distracting their thoughts and yet we have all managed to live side by side relatively effectively throughout history.
I have always been aware that something was amiss in my visual skills in that I can draw or paint almost nothing unless I have it continually within sight and am able to flatten the image mentally into two dimensions, which I find almost impossible knowing that the reality is there before me in three dimensions. At school in art class I once painted a vortex of colour with lightning flashes and other abstract details and when the art mistress asked me what it was I told her that it was a headache. She nodded in apparent understanding and moved on to another pupil. In fact I used to suffer from common migraine and while lying in bed suffering from it just for once I would see within my mind’s eye amazing swirling patterns of colour that I used to describe as a nest of writhing multicoloured dragons. In fact I was disappointed when the attack cleared and my mind’s eye went entirely black again. Since those days I have occasionally suffered from classic migraine with its zigzag patterns superimposed on my normal vision, but that is clearly an effect within my optic nerve centre rather than those other visions, which were only visible when I closed my eyes. In fact in the days when I suffered from a common migraine I would quite safely drive home from the office and then go to bed to enjoy the psychedelic lightshow in my head. Since then it has occurred to me that the patterns looked fractal in nature, which suggests that they emanated from some neural cluster that contained no well structured information yet but was just free wheeling until one was imposed on it. This would imply that I had a mind’s eye but somehow wasn’t actively using it, as though some vital connection to it was missing.
While I couldn’t draw or visualise images my best subject at school was actually pure geometry, possibly because my mind instinctively interpreted geometric images as conceptual structures rather than pictures. However it couldn’t resolve human faces into conceptual terms in the same way, which is probably why I have trouble recalling what people look like unless I have noticed facts about them while seeing them. Even my four dimensions enthusiast friend was surprised by my ability to tackle geometric problems that he couldn’t quickly.
After learning about aphantasia I noticed something strange, that my dreams were acquiring far more detailed visual imagery in place of conceptual imagery as they had in the past. It was almost as though my unconscious mind was at some level experimenting with the ability that it apparently had locked away inside itself. Despite that I haven’t made much progress in visualising anything consciously, which suggests that my unconscious mind has much broader access to its abilities than I do consciously. When I realised what seemed to be happening I registered a very clear desire not to continue along that path as visual imagery is how I fundamentally recognise the difference between the real and imaginary worlds. My conceptual model of reality can become distorted and evidently has back in my youth but I am simply incapable of seeing things that aren’t there outside of a migraine attack and I would prefer it to remain that way.
This apparent awakening of a mental ability that I didn’t realise that I had until I was made aware of it raises an interesting question about the phenomenon that this website addresses. Could my startling novel writing activity equally have made me aware of a dormant ability that has since been awakened and has developed over recent years just as my mind’s eye seems to be opening from another cause? The prospect is fascinating.
As an average man in the street I accept that the ghostly images that I see in shop windows aren’t phantoms but simply reflections of reality. Although I have a copy of Richard Feynman’s book QED on quantum electrodynamics, which explains why a small proportion of the light hitting the windows chooses to reflect off them rather than pass through them, I didn’t need to read it to accept that that is what actually happens. When driving I even trust that phenomenon to show me the traffic situation ahead of me in the high street when my direct vision is obscured. Would it be reasonable for me to trust those phantom illusions any more than the ones that I have sensed during my experiences related in these pages, which appear to have shown my unconscious mind admittedly more faintly the events ahead of me in my life? The fact that other people also claim to see the former but not the latter, but also claim to see visual images inside their heads when they aren’t anywhere but there, makes me wonder what the difference really is. The answer may be that society wouldn’t be able to cope with a reality where people could perceive the future and came to rely on that fact, so that society prefers to turn a collective blind mind’s eye to the possibility. Ultimately it doesn’t matter to me but a little more serious research into the possibility would be reassuring.
[Next - Great Northern Time Machine]