No, I Can’t Picture That: Living Without a Mind’s Eye

A writer with aphantasia on visual memory and imagination

So you can’t picture me? There is this slight disappointment in their eyes when they ask it, a quick shift to disbelief. A shuttering.

I have felt in my life a wide berth between what I and another person are saying — the shuttering, as I think of it. The moment in a miscommunication when the other person gives up, or in. What was translucent becomes opaque.

When you start asking around about what happens in people’s heads when they imagine things, the first thing you’ll notice is: it’s impossible to talk about. There is no linguistic framework for people who don’t imagine visually. A surprising amount of people won’t believe you if you say you can’t. They will say, but you know it’s not like, literally using your eyes. They will say, maybe you just need to practice. They will say, you probably don’t realize you’re doing it.

When you start asking around about what happens in people’s heads when they imagine things, the first thing you’ll notice is: it’s impossible to talk about.

And it’s not just imagination: it is also memory, the most basic kinds of thought. An image will never “pop into my head.” I will never have an elaborate visual fantasy or visualize a scene from one of my favorite books. I have never been bothered by a film version of a book not looking how I pictured it, because I have never pictured one. When I remember things I do not see them.

For roughly the first twenty-six years of my life, I did not realize this was not normal.

[imagine a beach]

It’s true that I don’t have a good memory when it comes to my experiences, and it’s true that I can’t “see” you if you’re not standing in front of me. I’ve often felt a sneaking suspicion that despite my lifelong goal to Be A Writer, I am not naturally creative. I do not create so much as record. This is why I turned away from fiction early on and began writing poetry. If I said, I am all in one ear and out the other — if I said, every poem I’ve ever written is literal — well, I’d be telling the truth.

If I said, I am all in one ear and out the other — if I said, every poem I’ve ever written is literal — well, I’d be telling the truth.

There is something to this, though: the creative as tied to the imaginary, the imaginary derived from the imagination, the imagination derived, at its core, from the image — always a visual. We live in a sighted world; it is, after all, considered the primary sense. And make no mistake — I can see (with the help of contact lenses). I can even dream (most people like me can). But I cannot consciously form mental pictures, whether those be imagined or recalled from memory. This is called aphantasia — a as in without, phantasia as in fantasy — literally, the absence of fantasy.

It might sound depressing at first. My mother cried when I called, mystified, to ask her if she could actually “see” a picture in her mind when the meditation tapes said to imagine yourself on a beach. Of course, she said. I see a beach. A pause. What do you mean when you say you can’t?

Of course, everyone said. I imagine a beach. Why, what do you do?

Nothing.

I’m not sure why it’s always a beach — the American cultural imagination, it seems, relies heavily on the tropics. When I was stressed, my mother always told me to imagine myself on a beach. This is roughly what would happen in my brain, though the specifics often varied:

Okay, there is a beach, there is sand, there is water. A beach is made of sand which is made of tiny rocks. A beach leaches heat from the sun. Skeet shooting is better than hunting but only slightly because you’re still firing a gun. A beach, a beach, a beach. I am imagining a beach. If you ran in cleats on the beach you might shatter a seashell. If I lived on a beach it might have seashells but they would all be in shards. I would allow bears on my beach, but only in the summer. They would stomp the shells before I ever got to them but I would never declare it open season. In winter Jim Carrey stands on the beach. Could I pull off Kate Winslet’s Eternal Sunshine hair? I wish someone would invent that memory machine. Remember you are on a beach. Okay. On my beach, it would always be mostly sunny, no breeze, for the love of god don’t feed the bears.

In the time it took you to read that paragraph, an image or two may have flashed through your head. Maybe a beach, maybe an ocean, maybe the sun, maybe a gun. Maybe just some shapes. For me, it was just words, my own voice in my head, not a sound exactly, just a thought, just words.

This is called aphantasia — a as in without, phantasia as in fantasy — literally, the absence of fantasy.

Among the friends I polled about the acuity of their visual imaginations, I heard responses that ranged from it’s like a watching a movie that I get to direct to I see abstract fuzzy shapes, but I know what they are. I did not speak to a single person who did not have any capacity for mental visualization; part of me wonders if this is because I surround myself with artists, writers, and musicians. I know there must be other aphantasic writers, artists…poets, even. Could Gertrude Stein see mental images? At times it is such a lonely, dark world.

[color theory]

People talk about similar things, sometimes — usually with color. What if what I see as red looks completely different from the red you see? someone will ask, probably after smoking a bowl or two. A dawning reality. I guess we’ll never know, everyone in the room agrees. But red is still red and nothing else. What about those poor colorblind people? Who can’t tell the difference between a red light and a green?

My father is one of those people. When I was small I wondered if I was different — maybe I was colorblind too? Maybe there was something a little off about me, about how I saw the world? I wasn’t colorblind, but I wasn’t wrong, either.

Then again, does anyone see the world the “right” way?

A few months ago, sitting on the basement stairs, I showed my mother a photo of what people with different types of color-blindness actually see. It depicted several multicolored and rainbow-striped hot-air balloons floating in a clear blue sky. To the dichromat — a person with red-green colorblindness, lacking the medium-wavelength cone, who can’t distinguish between colors in the green-yellow-red sections of the visual spectrum, my father — the only distinctions in the picture are between what we would see as a vague periwinkle, a grey, a navy, a yellow-green, and an olive green.

My mother cried when she saw this photo, too. She told me how she had ordered a pair of glasses that were supposed to correct colorblindness, as a surprise for my father. She saw a video online where people put the glasses on and were suddenly astonished by the world around them. Like waking up from a coma, like looking at the earth from your first airplane window. She thought it would make hunting easier for him, that he might enjoy the changing seasons a little more. Maybe sit in awe of a sunset with her. She said, I just thought, how could he live that way? He’s missing out on so much.

Then again, does anyone see the world the “right” way?

In his lecture on blindness, Borges said that as he went blind the world became a constant mist, greenish or bluish, vaguely luminous. The world becomes undefined and full of certain colors: yellow, blue which may be green and green which may be blue. No red, no black, no white unless that white is grey.

This makes sense, considering what we know about vision. As the brightest and roughly the central color on the visual spectrum — think Mr. Roy G. Biv, a man you might remember from elementary school — yellow is the most vivid color for people with normal color vision. It tends to be the first color we see in a prism or a rainbow, the first color we notice in a scene, which is why it’s used for precautions, construction vehicles, yield signs, the like. Blue, on the other hand, has the shortest wavelength and scatters easiest — as Rebecca Solnit notes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “blue is the light that got lost.” It’s the reason the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and distant mountains are blue — the atmosphere scatters the light and blue is what we see when something is too far to make out, when we can’t see clearly. To my father, yellow is just a slightly brighter version of red, orange, and green; the rest of the world is a dull, indistinct blue.

When the glasses arrived, my mother wrapped them up like a birthday gift, gathered us in the living room, waited hopefully with her hands clasped in her lap. He opened it — masked bewilderment with gratitude — tried them on. Made some jokes to lighten the mood. My mother on the edge of her seat, praying. He looked around the room, then out the window. I guess the grass might be greener, he said. The glasses didn’t work — but who’d expect them to?

The glasses didn’t work — but who’d expect them to?

She was distraught; he was confused. He asked, why would you think I needed these? He said, It’s never bothered me. This is the way the world has always looked.

[aphantasia: a rediscovery]

Aphantasia was first described in 1880 by Francis Galton, in a paper called Statistics of Mental Imagery. Galton noticed that “the great majority of the men of science” to whom he first posed the question of mental imagery “protested that mental imagery was unknown to them.” They called Galton “fanciful and fantastic” for believing that “the words ‘mental imagery’ really expressed what [he] believed everybody supposed them to mean.”

This is exactly how I felt the day I found out, though I am not a scientist.

It turns out that maybe 2 percent of the population lacks a “mind’s eye.” These people are generally not ill, or impaired; rather, their brains work (and have worked since birth) in a slightly different way. In studies, when asked to describe a loved one’s face, most aphantasic test subjects did so easily, but the facial-recognition sectors in their brains did not light up the way they did in control groups. When asked to close their eyes, imagine they were standing in a spot in their home, and count the number of windows they could see from that spot, they were able to give an accurate number. Scientists found that the visual circuits, which lit up in the control group when they were asked to use their imaginations, remained dark in aphantasic subjects. Instead, other regions of the brain lit up, regions which had been inactive in control subjects.

All of this is to say: there is more than one way to store visual information in the brain, more than one way to access our memories, more than one way to imagine. More than one way to cross a lake. There is, of course, always, more than one way to think.

All of this is to say: there is more than one way to store visual information in the brain, more than one way to access our memories, more than one way to imagine.

Many of the people who admit to having aphantasia, including Blake Ross, the Facebook programmer and writer who wrote the article that first clued me in to the fact that my imagination was not quite “normal,” are what I casually and probably offensively refer to as STEM people. They are good at math, at science, live in that bleak logical world of computer languages. I am not this. I am not objective. I am not a software person, a math person. I do not think in formulas or graphs or charts.

But then how do you think?

(These days, hardly at all.)

In many ways, Ross’s article was intuitively familiar to me — the endless I don’t knows when asked about your day; the “milk voice;” the preoccupation with ideas; the inefficient, convoluted steps to a given If Situation, Then Result? type of imaginative game — and in others, completely foreign. I can’t imagine not being able to dream. Sometimes I stay in bed for hours after I first wake up in the morning because I am more likely to remember what happens in a dream if I’m not so deeply asleep. I can’t imagine never having had a song stuck in my head.

This feels like a pleasant (if alienating) reminder in an age where everyone repeats the same catchphrases and the world seems to have devolved into a Facebook advertising algorithm or a BuzzFeed article that assumes it knows how you feel about any given situation at any given moment — there really is so much variation between all of us, locked in our own heads. I lived the last twenty-six years assuming my friends and I were thinking the same way just because we were thinking the same things (see: the hive mind). But there will always be a divide — uncrossable, unchartable, endlessly inexplicable.

I lived the last twenty-six years assuming my friends and I were thinking the same way just because we were thinking the same things. But there will always be a divide.

[elementary education]

As I’m writing this essay, a good friend is editing a first grade language arts textbook. He sends me a page, which instructs teachers to: “Define imagination as ‘making a picture in your mind of something that you are not experiencing in real life.’”

They say the point of a liberal arts degree is to teach you how to think critically; is the point of elementary school to teach you to think visually? And if it is — did I fail?

The best way to describe how I think is in analogies, or the homework you were assigned when you were seven. A horse is to a car as a [blank] is to a microwave. The city is to a mouth of humid breath as I am to the cockroach roaming inside. Wedged between the teeth. Often my analogies are not analogous so much as associative: the things we learn, growing up, the shorthand we create for ourselves. I think in words, always, all the time. Inside my brain is dark, a noncolor, a nonspace, an echoed running monologue of my own voice. It is difficult to remember the experiences I do not immediately write down. My whole life has been a sieve, like trying to remember a dream after waking. All fog and quiet and I don’t know.

[lost in translation]

As a poet, being aphantasic and not knowing it made graduate school more frustrating than it needed to be. Now, it feels like rereading a mystery novel after you know whodunit: all the signs are there. But then — well, how many times can someone tell you you’re too spacey? If a poem is a metaphor, what is mine? O litany of disconnected nouns, vague impressions of invented planets! In MFA workshops, I received constant feedback about how my work was too abstract. A professor once told me, not unkindly but not kindly either, that reading my manuscript was like listening to too much Radiohead. I know what a concrete image is but it did not dawn on me fully why having them mattered so much to other people: when you can’t visualize imagery either way it’s hard to care whether it’s concrete or not, whether each image is part of a larger scene. I never knew that they could: to read a poem and see it! To read a poem and see anything but the words, the letters.

As a poet, being aphantasic and not knowing it made graduate school more frustrating than it needed to be. Now, it feels like rereading a mystery novel after you know whodunit: all the signs are there.

This, by far, is the greatest disappointment, that someone can do the thing I’ve spent my life dreaming of — see a poem, see a story, see a memory — no, not just someone, but most people.

See — if you think in words it turns out you write in words, too, and people call you cerebral and professors tell you that you don’t quite fit in one camp or the other and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but they’re just not quite sure what to do with you

When you are a child your mother also says I’m just not quite sure what to do with you.

[miscommunications]

When I was ten, I wrote a short story in a notebook that involved every swear word I could think of, every obscene thing I wasn’t supposed to know or talk about. I tried to make it the most debauched story I could imagine. Looking back, it was probably something vaguely erotic, the words fuck and shit, and the assumption that sex was something that involved men and women and their private parts. I didn’t know what it was, exactly. Immediately after writing it — and I have this memory exactly, strongly, like it’s branded on my brain, on my flesh — I was so ashamed of myself that I tore the sheets out of the notebook, crumpled them up, and threw them in the trash. It was thick black paper and I wrote in silver sparkly gel pen. I remember this, the feel of the stiff, ripped sheets, the cold silver metal of the trashcan in the bathroom.

I was so ashamed of myself that I tore the sheets out of the notebook, crumpled them up, and threw them in the trash.

Except I didn’t do that, apparently. One evening a short time later my mother came into my room and had a deeply uncomfortable talk about the story with me, the specifics of which I no longer remember — I know she found a notebook of mine that was titled My Stories, and she opened it up, happily, proudly, to read them, what her only daughter had created. Then she found that one and was horrified; I doubt she thought she’d have to have the sex talk so early. Neither of us were prepared for it. I remember this: lying very still on my bed, on top of my quilt — navy blue with white snowflakes — staring at a ceiling sprinkled with glow-in-the-dark stars and burning with shame. Thinking but how how how how could she possibly have found it? And god please let this end. I so sharply remembered throwing it out. Throughout this conversation, my mother did not understand that I did not understand what sex was — that I didn’t even really know how my own reproductive system worked or what it was, only where it was, and that it was forbidden. And thus enticing. And thus, the curiosity and its attendant hot rush of shame.

To grow up female is to internalize that shame, feed it, live with it, let it grow in your belly and sternum and proliferate in your lungs. It’s the one thing I’ve been unable to eradicate in my adulthood, that rears its head at the most inconvenient of times — when I’m thinking to myself, well, this one thing I want to say — it’s normal, right? — well, maybe not, I should keep quiet — well, what is normal, anyway? — better not say it, just in case, all the same. And the person I’m speaking to just looks on expectantly. Asks what I’m thinking. Oh, nothing — and then the shuttering, that miscommunication, excommunication, where the face becomes an expressionless mask. The gap, widening.

These days we say most things are normal, so long as they are not directly harmful to others. Children will explore sexuality long before they know what it is. I can’t remember when I first grasped the mechanics of heterosexual sex, or what my reaction was. A nebulous fear of men that persisted well into adulthood, perhaps. The longing for attention, the recoil when it came. An uncomfortable laugh. The persistent, quiet revulsion at the thought of my own body, its many vulnerabilities.

Translation Beyond Metaphor

[the anatomy of a memory]

In so many scenes the details have been lost. What is the difference between describing and imagining? If I say I was in a forest with dappled light am I supposed to see the forest? I can describe to you how a few months ago I was leaning against an enormous, primeval-looking log, about twenty feet off the trail and a little ways up, and he was standing in front of me, and there was moss all around us, and I touched his cheek and I pulled him nearer and dared him to fuck me right there. And I can describe the next moment, when a couple and their small child walked by and we sprang apart, a little embarrassed and a little exhilarated, laughing. But I do not see this. I feel the forest but that is not it, either. I know what a forest is: I know. It is a fact and I feel it. A forest grows behind my right lung when we talk about a forest.

What is the difference between describing and imagining? If I say I was in a forest with dappled light am I supposed to see the forest?

When I call up a memory I feel it in a very specific place in the back of my rib cage, behind my right lung. I do not see it. (This is also, curiously enough, the place I feel brain-freezes when eating ice cream.) When I was a child and my mother told me we were leaving Canada and moving back to Texas, we were in the car and she was driving me home from something — ice-skating lessons? — and it was sunset and we were at the crest of an enormous hill. The sky was pink and orange and endless and I did not want to leave. The mountains, the ocean: I knew their absence would haunt me. I can’t emphasize enough: I do not see this as I write it. But I know it and I feel it: that one felt like dread.

[lost in translation]

Here’s the thing about imagination, though: in most cultures, the very concept is centered on sight. It’s impossible to extricate the two, linguistically — translations range from images to chimeras to phantoms to shadows. The English word comes from the Old French imaginacion, which meant concept, mental picture, or hallucination, from the Latin imaginari, to picture to oneself. In most European languages, the word comes from the Latin. In German, it’s Fantasie, from the Latin and Greek phantasia — fantasy, imagination, appearance, to become visible. In Icelandic, from the Old Norse: ímyndunarafl, the image-making power of the mind.

Comparatively, in Chinese, the characters 想像力 (xiǎngxiànglì) break down to miss you/want — image — power. In Japanese, the characters are the same — 想像力 (sōzō-ryoku) — but they break down to idea — image — power. The Chinese characters give imagination an intuitive emotional context while the Japanese characters appear to remain more abstract, though I couldn’t say for certain because I am not a speaker of either language. The nuances escape me.

The only major language base for a nonvisual — or at least nonspecific — imagination seems to come from ancient Buddhist texts.

The only major language base for a nonvisual — or at least nonspecific — imagination seems to come from ancient Buddhist texts. In Sanskrit, the words typically translated as “imagination” can also mean anything from thought, mind, spirit; intelligence, genius; wish, desire; choice, option; supposition, meditation, opinion, understanding; to composer or contriver, depending upon their contexts. This last word — विकल्पन (vikalpana) — is the first direct connection I’ve found linking art and imagination.

Arabic, though, has by far my favorite interpretation. خيال (khial) translates as imagination, fiction, illusion, shadow, or silhouette; it can also mean ghost, wraith, or shade. Arabic, of course, is a language of poets. We are all aware of this, instinctively, even if we don’t naturally fold the knowledge into the language itself — the greatest power of the imagination lies in the fact that it’s as much a creator of horror as it is of beauty.

[imagine a boy]

As a young teen I had an active imagination, in that I thought at length about plenty of scenarios that did not explicitly happen. Sometimes these were career-oriented — Oprah wants me on her show, my book in her Book Club? What a charming guest I am, what lives I’ve changed — but most of my imaginative energy was spent in less fruitful ways. Hopeless romantic, raised on love stories — for the most part they began “and then he kissed her,” “and then he touched her hair.” We could talk about cultural expectations of women here, or the rom-com industrial complex. We could talk about how he was never specific (and I was always her, direct object, outside myself, outside agency, flat character receiving the action in the story of my fake life). Or if he were specific, he was only ever called “he,” and even if he were supposed to be a real person there was never an image associated with him. I would never have expected there to be; it didn’t really matter who he was or what he looked like. I met Zac Efron in a CVS in Hollywood, in the self-tanning aisle. (And then he kissed her.) Or my favorite musician at a dive in his Scottish hometown. (She sat down next to him and ordered a beer. Struck up a conversation. And then he showed her the loveliest highland hills, and the whole world was green. And then it rained, and then he kissed her.) And then and then and then there is nothing there but the words, hollow, an empty black space and then.

Aside: When I tell a friend about the Zac Efron fantasy, she comments on how visual the details are — self-tanner! CVS! What she can’t seem to grasp is the fact that for me those details are purely situational. This is how I imagine: If I were to meet Zac circa 2006, where would it be? Probably LA. Probably buying self-tanner because on TV he always looks a little orange. Probably at a CVS or some other basic pharmacy because he’s not super-mega-rich-and-famous yet. (Stars! They’re just like us.)

I don’t have to see it to tell the story. In fact, sometimes not seeing it makes it easier. It begins simply, with a verb. And then.

What I mean by this: there are plenty of ways to get where you want to go, whether that’s on camera talking to Oprah or the bland heroine in a story the patriarchy kindly started for you. I don’t have to see it to tell the story. In fact, sometimes not seeing it makes it easier. It begins simply, with a verb. And then.

[the anatomy of a memory]

I am still this way: in love with love, with longing, with impossible odds. “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances,” wrote the poet Robert Hass. Sometimes my own memory feels distant enough from me that I long for it; the men I love have almost always been far away, in some way or another. The better to tell myself stories about, the better to not be broken by. I have always lived primarily in the darkness of my head, a lost continent, a shield of mist. No one needs to visit me there. I wouldn’t really want them to.

Some nights when I am in bed waiting for sleep, I try to imagine my long-distance lover, how it began — list the elements of the scene I won’t see again but can always feel — sitting across from me, black jacket, smooth knotted wood, long dive bar table, a little sticky, half a beer left, knees touching underneath, telling drunk stories over the dark low bar noise, are we flirting, is this happening, is this all in my head — and then. He kissed me. The back of the room, a black wall, beside the door. This happened. I know it because I feel it: the hope, the fluttery nerves, the is this a bad idea excitement of it all. His knees take shape behind my right lung. He does not feel closer, or close enough. The start of the story still contained in the feeling: longing, lust, those early trappings of love.

This is the thing people tell me about their own love stories: no matter how precious they are or were or should be, your memory warps them, your present self looking back warps them. They’ll close their eyes and say, Yes, I can see the person I loved, if I focus I can see this experience I cherished or suffered through as it plays out. But what I’m seeing might not be what actually happened.

My memory works closer to erasure than reframing or reshaping. It becomes a nothing space that once held an emotion; when the emotion fades, the detail goes with it.

This is fascinating to me, the morphology of a memory, how visuals could shift and change over time. My memory works closer to erasure than reframing or reshaping. It becomes a nothing space that once held an emotion; when the emotion fades, the detail goes with it. I remember my longtime on-and-off boyfriend, who has since passed away, but I also do not remember him. I know that version of myself must have existed, but I do not remember her. This is the hardest and easiest part: when a person is gone, they are so fully gone. When a time has passed it becomes nothing but facts — words, sentences, nothing attached. I remember such small things. All the verbs and none of the nuance.

I could say we sat in the parks at night and climbed up to the tops of the buildings and kissed on the bleachers, which were a dull, scratched silver and ridged and riveted and sometimes too cold and sometimes too hot, and we argued about politics and I spoke to him in Spanish even though he didn’t understand it and we did the kind of drugs that burned as they dripped down my throat and turned the sky into one shimmering dome of star and the parking lot into a grey-blue ocean and we drank gin in church at 2 a.m. and we played cards and we got stoned and warm and sleepy and floated in the hot tub, the light under the water casting shadows against our legs and the june bugs flocking around us like june bugs do — and we did and we did and we did and I know all these things happened. And the feel of the relationship at the time was some vague unwanting guilt.

So much of my life as a woman has been that: a vague unwanting.

I do not remember my college boyfriend at all, though I have poems about him. I wrote them assuming they would inspire memories in the future. I was surprised when they didn’t. To read them now feels to me like reading something written by a stranger, about a stranger’s life.

I imagine we all have these moments: this inability to connect to who we were, even when we try our hardest. So the present becomes all the more precious: this intangible thing we’re reaching for even as it passes by. It seems like every few years I burn my life down and start over somewhere new — and I’m still not good at endings. Doesn’t matter if it’s a friendship, a relationship, a place, or just the flight home at the end of a vacation. Something is lost. Something will never be found, won’t be made better in the retelling. Something always gets erased.

I imagine we all have these moments: this inability to connect to who we were, even when we try our hardest.

[hallucinations]

The day I discovered aphantasia, I took a close friend out to lunch and asked her about her imagination. She told me if she closed her eyes, it was a little like she was sitting in a small dark room, watching a projector, housed where her third eye would be. If her eyes were open, she could still visualize, and see whatever she was imagining right in front of her. Like a hallucination? I asked. No, she said, a little like a TV’s picture-in-picture setting, where reality is the little picture.

When I was a teenager and took acid, I never hallucinated, though the desire for a hallucination was the explicit reason I took it. What I remember: the shag carpet squirmed like little worms and the shadows from the streetlamps played on the brick like ghosts and the falling leaves became small parachuting bodies, or suicides, depending on the mood. The long journey home, and the mistrust: those, amplified. The crisp October air, the smell of damp autumn rot grew larger and smaller and larger again. The standing on a 10-inch-wide ledge on the roof of the building? Well, the ground looked closer and I was euphoric as a leaf. I knew I would not fall and I did not fall.

Eventually, though, I did. You always do, at least once. Years later, after a particularly long weekend that involved too many different varieties of drugs, I remember the next three days were full of disturbing auditory and proprioceptive flashbacks. I hid in my room. There was a fist in my mouth. I was sure I was falling, or being suffocated. I was sure someone was touching me. I was sure there was a man in my room. I crawled into the shower and he followed. I could hear him speaking and sometimes it was words and sometimes it was a garbled low growl. I hid under the covers for three days. Intellectually, I knew he was not there because I could not see him. To actually see it, or him — eyes open or closed, in my mind or in the world — I never would have considered it possible. I recovered from that trauma a great deal faster than anyone would or should have thought possible. There’s a certain luxury to aphantasia in that way — to be able to assume visual flashbacks are just devices employed in movies to further the plot, that they don’t terrorize people in real life.

There is, of course, always, a dark side to being a deeply visual person: the nightmares, flashbacks, trauma, PTSD. You don’t only remember the lovely things. Hell will always get top billing. It took my friend years to recover from PTSD because the past kept coming back and crowding out the present. More than a decade later, she said, she could still see her worst nightmares happening, just as vivid as the first time. Mine? They’ve been mist for years.

[show, don’t tell]

As a poet, the inability to imagine visually helps, in certain small ways. I am accustomed to thinking in metaphor. To my knowledge, I’ve always thought this way; if I don’t, my thoughts bore even me. There are times I have been asked what I was thinking about, only to realize I was thinking nothing at all. For me, thought is never passive — I have to construct it in sentences. Think of it as a defense mechanism. I have spent my life assuming counting sheep was a metaphor, assuming none of us visualize and all of us want to, so much that we’ve developed the entire language of imagination to revolve around that wish.

I have spent my life assuming counting sheep was a metaphor, assuming none of us visualize and all of us want to, so much that we’ve developed the entire language of imagination to revolve around that wish.

The way my brain works lends itself easily to wild poetic leaps and associative shifts. If a word gets stuck on the tip of my tongue, I have to follow a bread crumb trail of vague verbal associations to find my way to it, and if I get lost, then I might as well just use an association as a stand-in and hope you understand. After all, I don’t have to reconcile any of the imagery I use in conversation, in poems. If all rain is acid then everything outside the desert will die. If I am an unlatched suitcase in space you are the vacuum my contents fall into. A concrete image is exactly the same as an abstract one. An idea can be expanded upon indefinitely with very little emotional consequence. If I write a poem about a person’s face melting off, I’ll never be haunted by the sight of it.

I tend to care more about the way the poems look on the page than the images they contain. I care about structure and texture and sound: the richness of the words themselves, mouthfeel. An o so round. The long ah sound of every down-home Texan vowel. The crisp click of an x.

If I write a poem about a person’s face melting off, I’ll never be haunted by the sight of it.

I think other disciplines can’t quite get away with this in the same way. There’s a lenience people give poets; they assume a poem doesn’t need to make logical or syntactical sense to have its intended effect. Doesn’t need to be seen if it’s felt. To quote Ntozake Shange, queen of the New York City subway poets: a poem shd happen / to you like cold / water or a kiss.

In fiction, they teach you: set the scene so the reader can see it, feel it, be immersed, stand inside of it and look around. There are so many rules — all those balls you need to keep in the air. Tie up your loose ends and while you’re at it, your shoelaces too. Don’t make your characters stand and ruminate at the kitchen sink, but don’t rely wholly on plot either. Show, don’t tell. Even that — show — we prioritize the visual, always. Show me, show me, show me. The woman’s skin burned to bone the day she forgot her umbrella at home. The body began disposing itself: all seeping blood and strings of viscera. After the astronaut’s cable was severed from the ship, the air ran out, his mask cracked, and the capillaries in his face and eyes burst. His skin shrunk in slow-motion, to this: a shiny white suit around a dehydrated husk. You shucked the fresh corn, found kernels dry as dust. Your mother stood at the kitchen sink, shoulders slumped, fingers pruning in dishwater. Those wretched scraps of celery, fat and floating. Show me, show me.

[miscommunications]

In Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, a book that is about exactly what it says it is, he makes the argument that we, all of humanity, don’t actually see that much when we read. Maybe abstract shapes, maybe a flash here or there. He says we become immersed, but immersion isn’t the same as visualization; that we remember traits, the inner lives of characters much more than we visualize the details authors provide for us. And who could argue with that? What’s happening when a person reads is different, after all, than what happens when a person conjures a memory, or actively pictures something in his or her head. The words don’t necessarily immediately translate into pictures — or do they, for some people?

The strangest thing about this book — written by a book designer I respect, admire, even, at times, idolize — is its utter insistence on this point-of-view. Mendelsund spends several pages talking about Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote frequently about the power of the image in prose, the power literature holds for the development and strength of our visual imagination. Nabokov was known to draw out his characters, his stories, and the characters in the stories he read, even draw pictures of what he imagined in the margins of books. He is not the only author to have done this; many great writers seem to demonstrate an acutely visual imagination. For him, the act of reading as well as the act of storytelling was deeply rooted in the visual. But Mendelsund, like the scientists Galton interviewed so many years ago, doesn’t even consider that Nabokov may have been describing the act of reading as he experienced it. That what he saw when he read a book — if associative, if memory-driven, if personal — was, in fact, seeing.

Perhaps we are already so different in life experience that we can’t imagine perceptual experience being different, too. After all, what makes us human, if not how we think?

It’s common courtesy today to accept that not everyone experiences life the same way. Treat others as they would like to be treated, so says the revision of the golden rule. So why would we assume everyone experiences imagination like we do — why assume if they say they’re not, they’re lying? Perhaps the potential for miscommunication, for deeper divisions within our shared humanity, fundamentally affects our sense of self, sense of reality, sense of sense itself. Perhaps as humans we are already so different in life experience that we can’t imagine perceptual experience being different, too — or at least, don’t want to. After all, what makes us human, if not how we think?

[lost in translation]

A few months after I discovered aphantasia, I joined an online group for aphantasics, looking for artists, for new friends, for what I vaguely thought might be my people. What I found? Like in any group of human beings, some are creative, some less so. Some are good writers and some are not. But most — almost all — had this tendency to blame certain personal weaknesses on whether or not they had the ability to conjure mental images, as though to lack it was a disorder or a disability and not just a different way of perceiving the world. Disorganized? It’s the aphantasia. Lost your keys? Aphantasia. Nonreligious? Your lack of faith is probably due to your aphantasia. Difficulty relating to other people? The fault lies in the disorder. Can’t meditate or make a decision? Well, have you considered the aphantasia?

This, I think, is a natural human tendency. I did it too, at first. The world makes a little more sense when you realize why you’ve always felt a little bit outside of it, and everybody loves a scapegoat if it means you can give yourself a pass when it comes to the hard work of improving yourself. There must be an innate reason why I am this way, we think. We blame an astonishing amount of natural human flaws or traits on what we perceive as pathological or physiological problems. We want an excuse, a doctor to prescribe us a quick fix. And though aphantasia is physiological, in that in most cases it is intrinsic to one’s natural brain circuitry and functioning, it seems absurd to consider it some kind of disability requiring treatment.

I deeply, desperately wish I could close my eyes and picture the faces of my loved ones. I wish I could remember a book and see the story.

I will freely admit this: I deeply, desperately wish I could close my eyes and picture the faces of my loved ones. I wish I could remember a book and see the story. I wish I could re-experience the shades of my memories like characters do in movies — maybe like you do, in your head. I wish my daydreams were visual and strange like my dreams at night are, and I wish that I could see glimpses of the dreams I remember upon waking. When I think of my future, I wish I could visualize any small part of it.

Can I see myself in five years, or ten, or fifteen? No.

Is that the reason I am the way I am? No.

Borges, on his own blindness: a gift, he says, which gave him knowledge of Anglo-Saxon poetry, of the Icelandic language, the discipline required to write poems he could only hear, not see. A vaguely luminous state of being. A perpetual mist. It is not the same to lose outer sight as it is to lack inner sight, but both are states in which you can almost grasp what it is you cannot see. Both an instrument. He quotes Goethe: “Everything near becomes far.” The visual world slinks away from the physically blind; the richness of memory from the mentally blind. But neither is anything more or less than this: a chance to become something new.

Trying to write this essay has in many ways felt like embarking upon an impossible translation project. When the language doesn’t fit you create a new language, reframe your vocabularies, feel them shift into other things like a foggy road in and out of headlights. First an opaque wall. Then translucence, an other side you can’t quite make out.

See how it’s all so visual, still? See how I still call it “seeing”?

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER ADVERTISEMENT

About the Author

More Like This

Illness Is Inseparable from the Self

Talking to Esmé Weijun Wang about identity, disability, and weaponized glamour

Mar 4 - Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada

Postmodern Literature Is the Best Expression of What It’s Like to Be Autistic

The scattered plots and timelines of books like “Infinite Jest” make sense with the way I experience the world

Aug 28 - Alex Sobel

‘Why Is Illness What Makes You See Us?’

‘Why Is Illness What Makes You See Us?’Esmé Weijun Wang and Porochista Khakpour discuss how Lyme disease interacts with their identities as women of color, writers, and friends

Jun 4 - Esmé Weijun Wang