‘What it’s like to live my life without mental images’

Aug 22, 2018
Marnie says she has been obsessed with taking photographs since she was a child, to compensate for her 'blind mind'. Source: Pexels

Can you remember what your best friend looks like? Or your next door neighbour? What about your son?  If they went missing could you describe them to the police?  I couldn’t if they were mine.

I don’t have Alzheimer’s or amnesia, but I do have a condition called Aphantasia. Very simply, it means I have no ‘mind’s eye’.  I cannot visualise anything or anyone.  Don’t get me wrong, if one of them rocked up at the front door I would know exactly who they were, I just cannot ‘see’ them in my head.

It’s not just people either. Over the years I have been to many relaxation sessions.  I listened to the instructor’s soothing voice saying things like “Imagine you are on a deserted island, it is so peaceful, watch those waves rolling in and running up the sand”.  No, not going to happen. My mind sees nothing.

Aphantasia is a fairly new discovery and I had never even heard of it until just a few years ago, but when I did, there was an overwhelming sense of relief.  Suddenly everything made sense, and as I met more people online and we discussed how this condition affected us, I realised I was not alone; we had all known we were ‘different’, but never known why.

It was my husband who picked up on it first. I had been berating him for counting how many kangaroos were feeding in the paddock as he was driving the car.  He told me he glances at the paddock and then counts the kangaroos from the image in his mind. What? How is that even possible?

When he realised I couldn’t do that, he thought he had some kind of superpower, but after talking with others, we found out they could do it too, it was me who was the odd one out.  Then he saw an article on Aphantasia and said, “Read it… That’s you!”

The more I read, the more excited I got. Now I knew why I couldn’t fold a flat piece of cardboard into a box; visualise how a room would look rearranged, repainted or redesigned; why I never recognised that someone had a different hairstyle, new glasses or grew a beard; why I couldn’t design a dress or visualise how the finished article would turn out by looking at a pattern; recognise different makes of cars (a sore point with my sons); or describe a scene I had seen. The list was endless, but more important to me was now I knew why I couldn’t remember my parents’ faces.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love them enough or I had forgotten them – I simply didn’t have a ‘mind’s eye’. 

My obsession with taking photos since I was a child also made sense. I was subconsciously using my camera to compensate for the missing component in my brain.

Aphantasia affects people differently, I find I also cannot visualise distances, colours or where pain is occurring – others may have no problem with this.

If you are planning on robbing a bank I would be the ideal witness. Unless I consciously remembered certain details, I wouldn’t be able to tell the police anything other than perhaps, “They had a gun”.

Had you heard of aphantasia? Has a diagnosis ever provided you with a sense of relief?

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