Learning I Have Aphantasia Helped Ease My Anxiety
I have aphantasia, a neurodiversity (a different way of thinking), whereby I am unable to visualize. Most of you reading this now can easily imagine a sunset, a calm lake, or fluffy white clouds against a crisp, blue sky. I simply cannot conjure images. Having a blind imagination, as it's sometimes called, used to trigger my anxiety insomuch as my inability to visualize used to cause frustration, anger, confusion, shame, and a feeling of failure.
What Is Aphantasia?
Most people have never heard of "aphantasia." I certainly never had, and rightly so: the term aphantasia was only coined in 2015 by Dr. Adam Zemen, a neurologist from Exeter University.
According to the Aphantasia Network website:
"Aristotle coins the term phantasia in De Amina (On the Soul), Part III to describe a distinct capacity between perception and thought — a sort of ‘sixth sense.’ . . . (Dr.) Zeman coins the term “a-phantasia” to describe the inability to visualize in 2015."1
Throughout my life, when people said they could see things in their imagination—with their mind's eye, as it were—I always assumed they meant it metaphorically. Still, on a subliminal level, I knew that my experience was different.
Here is an abridged list of some of the nuances of my aphantasia:
- I can "imagine" things, but my imaginings have no accompanying visual aspects.
- I can remember things, but I don't experience the memory visually.
- In school, I had no visual imagery to assist in certain aspects of learning, memorization, for example.
- In school, I would read textbooks but quickly forget the content. Exam time was a nightmare.
- As an adult and an avid fiction reader, I skim over descriptive passages about the setting and people's appearance. I prefer reading dialog about how people feel, their hopes, and their struggles.
- I forget a novel's content within weeks of finishing it. I remember that I liked it and generally what it was about—for a short while—but I can't remember the title or author unless I look it up.
- I'm terrible at remembering directions. (Thankfully, there's GPS.)
It is important to note that while people with aphantasia share some of the traits I've described, not everybody experiences anxiety from them. Similarly, people who have vivid imaginations may experience some of the nuances I've listed -- remembering directions for getting from point A to point B, for example. Everybody is unique.
Above, I wrote about how I've felt frustration, anger, confusion, shame, and a feeling of failure about my inability to visualize. The frustration and anger were cognitive responses to being asked to visualize when I knew I could not. I experienced confusion, shame, and feelings of failure at more of an unconscious level. I wanted to fit in and couldn't understand why I couldn't do what seemingly everybody else could do. These are the things that caused me anxiety.
Learning I Have Aphantasia Eased My Anxiety
In early 2021, I went to a hypnotherapist to help with my anxiety. The therapist began our first session by asking me to "picture" myself somewhere calm. Frustrated, I told her I couldn't visualize. Believe it or not, it was the first time I had said it out loud to a practitioner. Quite plainly, she said, "Oh. You have aphantasia."
Those four words changed my entire perspective. I was stunned. My image-free imagination had a name. There were others like me out there. I wasn't alone. A flood of understanding washed over me. I felt vindicated and validated.
Since that day, I've had several a-ha moments where I realized how having aphantasia influenced aspects of myself. In understanding that I have aphantasia, all the anxiety associated with my inability to visualize dissolved. I wasn't a failure at all. I simply wasn't neurotypical (I don't think like everyone else). As such, I gained an entirely new appreciation for myself.
Aphantasia is not a disease or a disorder. It's not something that needs to be cured or fixed. Aphantasia is simply a difference in how people imagine. While most people can "see" the imagined world, there are others, like me, who "imagine" using memory, observation, perception, and experience as our tools.
Because of my aphantasia, my brain developed strategies that helped me to learn and create and to be intuitive and innovative in truly unique ways. Aphantasia is my superpower.
- Aphantasia Network, "History Of Aphantasia -- A Timeline Of Events." March 2020.
Scott, L. (2022, May 18). Learning I Have Aphantasia Helped Ease My Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, February 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2022/5/learning-i-have-aphantasia-helped-ease-my-anxiety
Author: Liana M. Scott
Agree with you completely. Having this issue affects you in so many ways. I love positive talk, but diminishing Aphantasia's challenges means it is being depicted incorrectly, even though there are people who somehow have Aphantasia who say they have pretty good sense of direction. It would be nice to put those people together and see if they have some visual imagery, or what tactics they use to apply their working memory to directions.
Ex: I store my memory differently and my retrieval system is recall from actually seeing what I can presently see at the moment. I don't otherwise see a person when I want to. Sometimes I have associations, or use repetition to retrieve faces, feelings and emotions to store those memories, and more.
I store things and can't remember where because I have no photographic memory.
Learning differently may mean it takes more effort and time for us to the same place as others.
Negative consequences of not being able to apply the same methods to get to same place may hinder us. Our self esteem may suffer because we are labeled as dumb, we become impatient with ourselves.
I'd like to mention everyone is different,& 2 things. "It" wasn't discovered in 2015. Just someone was popular enough to coin a name to it, and gained popularity, &, made himself the expert because we are all experts to our own experiences, right? Nevertheless glad they brought up it's popularity so we could speak about it.
Now for the crux of the matter. Just like many who have deficiencies like autistic, or ADHD then there are us, pp without this 3rd eye, Aphantasia, and what I call "Can't Visualize or Dream Vividly" isn't a superpower, just like a loss of a limb isn't a superpower, or having ADHD, et. We have to come up with ways to get the same result as others and adjust. This is time-consuming and doesn't always provide results.
I would forget every concept and trick I learned and have to come up with concepts from scratch to do regular math. I practiced hrs to associate concepts to store them in my memory bank, but even then I couldn't retrieve them until I saw them. Ex I would physically draw a pie chart to cement concepts I had been taught, but couldn't visualize. If I knew 1= was the entire pie I remembered to cut it into 4 pieces to represent that * 1/4 of the pie would be .25 and I could come up with the same answer to remember the placement of the 4 in 4divided by 3, do the math, if it came to correct answer then I could the actual problem lets say now I knew where to place them in the sheet of paper, I used patterns to remember where they went for that 1/4th exercise, then do the long division problem of 569 divided by 80021 or longer problems. Phew, see how exhausting that was even referencing it?
Some Aphantasians, if you will, can come up ways with maneuvering objects so they don't get lost such as a map, perhaps by other clues they see. Perhaps they have more imaginary and visual perceptions than they know. Perhaps their brain came up with a different way of mapping it. My brain has not. I'm the weirdo u see turning the map rotating it, and your looking at me oddly. This is a painful experience, knowing I can only get to 1 place, this 1 route, and I can only recall the St when I'm actually on it. Tom from Aphantasia Network says Aphantasians are actually better at figuring out how to use information to adjust to this sort of thing. I am not. My imaginary canvas is black. If I fuel a visual thought it is shades of grays and blacks trying to be formed.
So in this area I guess I would be interested what tools other Aphantasians's use to maneuver these obstacles, so I could use them. Since I have no visual memory aiding me, it has caused me to get lost in my own neighborhood 1000s of times. I would classify it as a huge disability because it has disorientated me, caused me to make disruptive life change. If I miss a turn, I miss important appointments, or come late to my job. The average person would turn around and reroute easily. I cannot. So I would practice getting places dozens of times. The problem was once I stopped going to those places I forgot how to get to them just as easily and pp around me would get frustrated and I would be shamed for not learning how to adjust to this. I have written instructions to get just about everywhere. Since I can't visualize things I have trouble storing things because I can never remember where they are unless there in the open for me to see and imagine the chaos this creates. I would write shortcuts to aid me at my receptionist job until repetition took over and I could memorize what to do, and get reprimanded because my managers feared I could aid in leaking out sensitive information (you needed a login but it freaked them out that I had to do this.) I have to write out a word to see if it looks right to see if I spelled it correctly. I learn slower than others, but I could grasp a new concept better, and had better than average comprehension scores.
I have shared similar frustrations—glad to finally have a name for what makes my life more difficult. I have no sensory memory, but profound emotional ones— not always helpful, either!