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This Is What It's Like to Not Be Able to Visualise Anything

Aphantasia is common, yet most people can't even conceive of being unable to picture anything in their mind.

Alice Sanders

Alice Sanders

Photo: sbtlneet via Pixabay

For most people it’s difficult to imagine a life without visualising images. We visualise on a daily basis: what’s left in the fridge, the crinkled face of a lost grandparent. We not only use these images to aid our everyday lives and recall the past, but also to imagine our future. Who hasn’t pictured the tiny flat they hope to one day afford?

So, what’s it like for someone who can’t picture these things? Who can't even picture a tree when they think of one.

Arfie Mansfield, a 32-year-old analyst, has Aphantasia – a phenomenon that means he cannot picture images in his mind’s eye. This phenomenon first came to light in 1880, but was only recently named in a study, in 2015, by Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology. It’s possible it affects as many as 1 in 50 people.

Like most things, people’s ability to visualise lies somewhere on a spectrum; some imagine things vividly; the logo on the milk carton, every crease and wrinkle of nana’s face, every nook of the tiny flat. And there are some for whom images are a vague outline. Arfie has something more akin to Total Aphantasia, which – according to the website aphant.asia – means it is pretty much impossible "to create images, sounds, tastes, smells or touch" within his mind.

VICE: You can’t see pictures in your mind?
Arfie: Correct, I can’t.

How do you think? What do you think in?
I don’t know – not words, either. Sometimes I do, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. I’ll have to deliberately think in words; it’s not default.

If you don’t think in pictures or words, is it more like concepts?
I’ve always just thought that I thought in thoughts. I think it might be in relationships – I can think how things relate to other things.

Have you always known the way you thought was significantly different to other people?
A friend said that a friend of theirs was Greek but had lived in England for ten years, and they were wondering whether he thought in English or in Greek, and until that moment I had no idea that anyone thought in languages at all. The same goes for mental images: when people said a "mental picture", I didn’t realise they were being literal – I thought it was poetic. When I found out it wasn’t, a bit of the poetry of the world disappeared. I’ve only known for a few years, so it’s taken some time to get used to the notion that not everyone thinks the same way. Which seems facile, but…

No, not at all. That’s quite alienating in a way.
Yeah, it’s massively alienating, because when it comes up people are always very surprised and weirdly defensive.


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Defensive how?
It strikes me that by mentioning that I don’t think in pictures or in words I’m somehow attacking their approach. The fact that there is another way makes people uncomfortable. Everyone is always asking questions like, "Can’t you tell me what your dad looks like?"

Can’t you tell me what your dad looks like?
I know what my dad looks like, I know what my entire family looks like, but the only reason I could tell you what colour my dad’s eyes are is because I checked once after someone asked me. A friend asked me to describe my family and I was telling her all about who they were as people, and she said, "But what do they look like?" I just said, "I don’t know."

Do you think that means appearances are less important to you?
I’d like to think so, but no. I think I’m about as shallow as everyone else.

Have you ever visualised an image in your mind’s eye, ever?
After getting a little bit high I saw pictures in my mind, which to me was a very novel concept. And as soon as it happened I went [clicks fingers] 'Oh, that’s what people mean!'

Now that I have experienced it vividly once I’ve been able to push and try to see things. Now I know it’s a possibility I just about can. I suspect it might be a skill that I could work on and eventually I’d be able to see things in my mind, like "normal" people.

When most people read a book they build that world in their head pictorially. What happens when you read a book?
The words go in and I understand them. I’ll focus on the relationship between people, concepts and places. I won’t picture characters, even if they’re vividly described. I won’t go, 'Oh, yes, I imagined he’d be played by Brian Blessed.'

"I know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, I just can’t recall it in the form of an image. I can think about aspects of it."

How do you fantasise?
With events and relationships and concepts, I suppose. The same as I think. I can imagine things happening. I just don’t imagine how it looks, feels, sounds or whatever.

Does it affect your memory?
I can remember what things look like; I just can’t see them that way. It’s like it’s stored in machine code. It’s not processing in there [he points to his head] as visual stuff. I know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, I just can’t recall it in the form of an image. I can think about aspects of it.

Do you think it makes some things more difficult?
I imagine so – it’s just I haven’t experienced the other side.

Are there benefits to it?
It frees me up to think things that aren’t necessarily easily expressible in the English language. That does mean that I then have trouble expressing them in the English language.

It must be frustrating to translate a thought into language if that’s not how you think.
Yep – I can sometimes describe it. I’m describing something outside of language, using language; that’s what language is for. If we don’t have an exact word for it in English, we have words that point towards it.

Isn’t that all language ever does? Words have different connotations for everyone. What one word conjures for me won’t conjure the exact same thing for you.
No, the word "pictures", for instance.

@wernerspenguin