The Curious Case of Aphantasia in the Writing Community
Aphantasia is a condition where an individual cannot visualise images in their minds eye. It was first described in 1880, but it’s only since 2015 that we’ve had a name for it, coined by Professor Zeman at the University of Exeter. Now I’ve successfully summarised the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on aphantasia, let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole together.
In October of last year, I was hopping around the wonderful world of Youtube when I encountered a video by AmyRightMeow named, “I have APHANTASIA (and you may too…without realising it!)”. AmyRightMeow is a Welsh artist, known for her animation/animatic work on Youtube, Instagram and most other social networking platforms. The video describes how she recently realised that she has aphantasia and that in order to draw she relies heavily on reference pictures to build up landscapes, living rooms and even people.
I became somewhat obsessed with this idea. And I know, an alternate way of thinking seems like a terrible thing to be obsessed with, but it amazed me that someone with such a different mind could still be so creative. In the back of my head, I kept thinking about it and kept thinking about it, until finally I turned to the good people of the writing community on Twitter. I posed a simple question, “how many of you picture scenes in your head while writing, and how many of you don’t picture anything?” and I got a pretty amazing response.
Of the 186 people who voted in the poll, 90% visualised while writing, but 10% did not, a much higher number that the 2% predicted to have aphantasia in the world’s population. Of course, it may be that people with aphantasia were busy searching Twitter for folks talking about the condition when I posted the poll, which would inevitably skew the results. However, I found a surprising number of folks I already followed and chatted with believed they had it too.
The discussions I had with people who have aphantasia were immensely interesting. For instance, you’ll notice that I’m not using terms like “suffer from” or “afflicted with” when I talk about aphantasia, and that’s because the vast majority of the folks I spoke to with this condition didn’t convey that kind of sentiment to me at all. The way they think about the world is different, not difficult. The “aphants” I spoke to found it just as strange to imagine being able to picture things, as I do trying to figure out what it’s like not to be able to do it.
I spent two days chatting about this on Twitter, and with my irl friends via Facebook and by the end of it, three really interesting points came out of my discussions:
- One of my followers (sorry, I’ve forgotten who and I can’t find the tweet!) suggested that folks with aphantasia may be attracted to writing as a form of creativity, as they can describe things through fact stories, i.e. they know how to describe an apple, but they store it as a list of facts rather than visualising it. Writing is a way of being creative, that doesn’t require the ability to visualise, which might explain that 10% I found through my poll.
- While the original research on aphantasia focused on the ability to visualise, the term can also be used to talk about a limited ability to imagine any of the senses. When I posed this to my friends from university, they found it fascinating that I can fully imagine all five of the “basic” senses, while they had varying levels of ability for each. This probably goes someway to explaining how absorbed I get when writing 😉
- Some people also don’t think in words. This stumped me, and honestly, I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it (probably because I think using ALL THE WORDS). Essentially (and this may be a bit wrong, so apologies), some people think in concepts, rather than words or images. I think the easiest way I can exemplify this is with the idea of love. We have plenty of words to describe love, and we feel it, but we also have a concept of it sitting in our brain. When we see it in the real world, we recognise it and think about it, even if we don’t pay it much attention. We might not internally say “they’re in love”, but we might make a series of connections that lead to something else. Like we might look at a couple holding hands and suddenly find ourselves texting our own partner. There’s been a series of thoughts to make that connection, but we don’t necessarily know what they were, because we don’t pay enough attention to when we’re thinking without words. This is an article Alice Cann shared with me if you interesting in diving even further down this rabbit hole.
Basically, the curious case of aphantasia in the writing community has taught me that human perception and consciousness are utterly baffling, completely ridiculous, and I love everything about them. I may also have gotten a third PhD idea from this…possibly, definitely.
So, how do you think? Do you see pictures? Can you imagine touch, taste, smell and sound? Or do you have aphantasia? How do you think it affects the way you interact with the world?
Honestly, I have so many questions about this, I could go on and on. However, for now, I shall love you and leave you. Folks who have aphantasia or who don’t think in words, please feel free to correct me if you spot anything I’ve got wrong!
Otherwise, I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat bizarre blog post and enjoy the rest of your weekend!