Story Behind the Story

5 (More) Things About Aphantasia You Should Know!

Last week, my piece on aphantasia ran in the New York Times. It was a pretty surreal experience, and I’m so thankful for everyone who made it possible. I started working on the piece in November 2019 for a class at Yale called the Education Beat. Due to Covid-19, I’ve been waiting for publication since February. 

I’ve been thinking and talking about aphantasia since I found out about it halfway through my first year in college. Since then, I’ve fielded questions and asked many more. I wish that all the interesting things I’ve learned about this difference in the human experience could have made it into the article, but due to time and word constraints, they were either left out or cut. Here are the top five things I wish made it into the article somehow. 

Do aphants dream?

One of the most common questions I get when I talk about mindblindness is “Do you dream?”

Short answer yes. I dream in color with sound, and the scenes look like real life–sometimes. But I also dream avisually (with no pictures) or in only text occasionally. Before learning about aphantasia, I didn’t consider the avisual dreams as actual dreams. But then I realized that stories were playing out in my head in the middle of the night,  and I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Seems like a dream to me. 

However, my experience isn’t universal. People who have aphantasia, known as aphants, are divided on this. Some can dream, and others can’t. From what I’ve read/heard, this seems to be a part of the normal, unrelated variation in human dreaming. 

Even among non-aphants, there are many variations on this thing we call “dreaming” Some people dream in color, others dream in black and white. Some people can control their dreams, and others, like me, find that impossible. I’ve even heard that some don’t dream with sound. Some people inhabit other people/characters or even dream in the third person while others only dream in first person as themselves. 

I can’t see Jesus in guided listening prayer

“Close your eyes and picture yourself on a beach. The waves are coming in and making the sand squishy between your toes. You can hear the sound of the waves crashing against rocks. Now picture Jesus coming to meet you there. Do you see him yet? What does he look like? Does he look happy to see you?”

Guided listening prayer is a way for Christians to invite God to speak into their life. There’s some controversy around it, but when done right, I think it can be a very worthwhile and powerful experience. I’ve only participated in guided listening prayer twice. Once before I found out I had aphantasia and once after. 

The first time, I didn’t know what I was missing. I thought the whole concept of “imagining things” was figurative and no one was seeing anything. But the second time, I felt self-conscious. Would the other person think there was something really wrong with me if I said I couldn’t “see” Jesus? Would she take it as a sign that I wasn’t right with God or something? I never found out because I lied and said I could see him. 

This experience may seem pretty inconsequential. After all, not everyone practices listening prayer, and it’s definitely not the only way to hear from God. But imagine being in a room where everyone “sees” Jesus but you. 

In researching for my article, I came across a story from someone who said that her parents always described seeing God and experiencing him visually during prayer. No matter how hard she tried, she could never see him and took that as evidence that he didn’t exist. 

Subconscious visualization

When Adam Zeman and I spoke, he told me that some aphants feel like they almost see something when they try to visualize, but they just can’t access the image. He hypothesized that at least some aphants still produce mental images even if we can’t consciously see them. This would explain how aphants can recognize things even though they can’t picture them in their minds. Again, not everyone experiences this, but I do. It also helps explain a lot about how people can draw/reproduce things that they’ve seen. 

Caveat: maybe not with faces

As I mention in my article, aphantasia is correlated with prosopagnosia–face blindness. Zeman observed that this seems to be the exception with recognizing things. As my roommate can attest, I suck at recognizing people.

Ironic process theory: Don’t think of purple elephants

According to ironic process theory, consciously trying to suppress a thought makes it more likely to surface. This is often illustrated by asking people to think about anything except purple elephants. I’ve always found this really strange because I usually have no problem just thinking about something else. I can look around the room and think about each thing I’m seeing instead. Many other aphants I know have expressed similar experiences. 

I think the ironic process theory still applies to aphants. We’re not immune to intrusive thoughts, and trying to not think about things that make me anxious does make those thoughts more likely to surface. Some people even find it hard to suppress the concept of a purple elephant even if they can’t visualize one. 

My point is this way of illustrating the idea might not work for some people, and it might cause confusion. Most people don’t believe me when I say that I’m not seeing a purple elephant, and without knowledge of my own aphantasia, I would have a hard idea wrapping my mind around ironic process theory. 

Image streaming and “cures” for aphantasia

According to this youtube video I watched when I first found out I had aphantasia, some people have ‘cured’ their aphantasia through something called image streaming. 

When I interviewed Adam Zeman, he told me that many of the aphants he’s come into contact with have tried it, and it’s largely ineffective. I’ll admit, on days when I’m really frustrated with learning Chinese, I wish I could visualize.

But if you told me I could snap my fingers and ‘cure’ my aphantasia, I ultimately wouldn’t take you up on it. When I first discovered my aphantasia, I was really frustrated by it. What had I been missing? What would I have done differently if I knew? But through the process of writing the article, I learned that my aphantasia isn’t something to be cured. It’s something that makes me (and 2-5% of the population) special.

I know that my mind blindness changes the way that I learn and has a real impact on me, but I think the ways I’ve learned to adapt and grow because of it make me the student and writer I am today. 

Now what?

After my article ran, many of my friends, even the ones who had heard me talk about being mind blind, reached out to say that they think they have aphantasia too. It speaks to how much we take our own experiences for granted. 

People say “picture this” and we think we’re all having the same experience. It’s hard to fathom that someone else might mean something completely different. And visualization isn’t the only experience like that. Words are defined and shaped by our frame of reference, experiences, and context. In my article, I wondered what else there is that we take for granted. As I keep digging deeper, I realize the answer is a lot more than we think. Maybe it’s time to stop wondering and start asking around.

To read more about aphantasia and keep up with research developments, check out the Eye’s Mind Study website!

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