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When your mind’s eye is firmly shut

Close your eyes and picture someone you love. Easy, right? Not for Kate McCarten, as she explains in this piece first published on David Farrier’s newsletter Webworm.

Just over a year ago – before the apocalypse officially started – I had taken my annual escape from the grim winter in my adopted home of Berlin and returned for a few weeks to my sunny kāinga tupu, Aotearoa New Zealand. I had recently read an article about a woman who doesn’t have a stream of consciousness. As in, she doesn’t think in words. She doesn’t have a voice in her head. It had blown my mind and so I started telling my sister about it. She immediately interrupted me, as sisters are prone to do.

Oh my god, yeah I know about this – that thing where people can’t visualise stuff, right?

Wrong. But wait, what are you talking about now?

My sister began explaining that there are some people out there who don’t have a mind’s eye; who don’t see pictures in their head when they’re thinking. And that blew her mind. The more we discussed it, the more confused I got. It eventually dawned on both of us why I was so confused: I am one of those people. I don’t have a mind’s eye. I don’t see pictures in my head when I’m thinking. And what’s more, I’d never even realised that anyone could do that.

I’d accidentally discovered I had aphantasia – all thanks to a chance conversation with my sister.

It took me 31 years to discover this very fundamental part of myself.

Aphantasia is the inability to visualise mental images. Most people who have aphantasia are also unable to recall sounds, smell or sensations of touch. That’s me. I can’t do any of it. Never have, never will. Put simply: my imagination is blind.

There are a lot of mind-bending things about aphantasia. But the thing that amazes me most is that it was only officially “discovered” six years ago by a guy called Adam Zeman. Professor Zeman was referred to a patient who’d lost his ability to visualise after a heart operation. Before the patient had heart surgery, he had a vivid, visual imagination just like most people. Afterwards, he couldn’t picture anything.

Zeman began studying this case and after talking to different people, quickly realised that this was not unique to this one patient. If Zeman hadn’t been referred to a patient who’d had this drastic shift in the way they perceived the world – and hadn’t panicked about it – we’d be none the wiser. And so he coined the term aphantasia. Because the identification of the condition is so new and the research is still so scarce, no one really knows how many people have what I have, but estimates range from 1-3% of the population.

If you want to know if you have aphantasia, this is good way to find out.

Kate McCarten (Photo: supplied)

In the year since I found out I have aphantasia, I’ve had many discussions about it with friends. Because most people do have a mind’s eye, the idea that anyone doesn’t seems to be an extremely hard one to grasp. It’s almost impossible for our brains to think about how a different brain works; we are so limited by our own experience. So let me try to break it down for you a bit. Think of the person you love the most in your life. Think of the curves of their face. The colour of their hair. The way they smile. How they look when their face breaks into a laugh. You have a picture of all this in your head as you’re reading this, right? Well, I don’t.

I can’t see what things look like, or hear what things sound like, unless I’m actually seeing them with my eyes or hearing them with my ears. But – and this is the part that is hardest to explain – I still know what things look like. I can still remember things. I still know what my bedroom looks like when I’m not in it. I know what a tree looks like. I know what my mum’s voice sounds like. I can close my eyes right now and I know where the couch beside me is, where the bookshelf is, where the TV is. But I can’t see them. I just know.

A metaphor I read on Reddit once explained it better than I can. Think about it like a computer with the monitor switched off. All the programmes are still running, all the information is still there, you just just can’t see it.

So how had I lived 31 years without realising my brain and imagination doesn’t work like everyone else’s? I’ve had many long and repetitive and exhausting conversations about this, and I still don’t think I’ve ever been able to explain it satisfactorily. I guess the only thing I can say for sure is that I just assumed everyone’s brain thinks in the same way mine does. Don’t you?

But as soon as I realised I had aphantasia, things I didn’t even realise didn’t make sense before suddenly started clicking into place. Why I never remember people. Why I need to write words out on a piece of paper when people ask me how to spell something. Why I never really understood why people were disappointed about the casting for the Harry Potter movies because the actors didn’t match how people pictured the book characters in their head!

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And there are a lot of concepts I always vaguely assumed were just hypothetical turns of phrase or story-telling tropes that I now realise are actual real things people’s minds do. Daydreaming. Picturing the audience naked when you’re public speaking. Flashback sequences in movies (memories are actually like that?!). Imagining yourself in your happy place to help calm down. Not being able to get the image of Trump’s mushroom dick and yeti pubes out of your head.

I’ve never had any image in my head. When I’m reading, I can’t see the world the author is writing about. When I’m recalling memories I’m just recalling what I know happened, not what I saw happening. When I close my eyes, I just see black.

I know it’s hard to comprehend. It’s hard for me to comprehend that most people can see things in their mind. But at least I have a point of reference: I can see things with my eyes, so I can understand what being able to see something is like. The only way I can try to explain it to people without aphantasia is to tell you to imagine black. Not a black room or a black piece of paper. Just black. Just nothingness. And hey, whether or not you can picture that, welcome to my world.

People often ask me if it makes me sad. It’s hard to mourn something you never had, but it does feel like I’m missing out on something. Reading books would probably be a lot better. My sister says reading for her is like watching a movie in her head. That sounds pretty fun.

It would be nice to be able to recall the faces of the people and places I love, especially during the never ending nightmarish hellscape of a Berlin winter during lockdown. And yeah, sometimes if I think about it too much I do feel a bit sad about it. But I think that’s the case with everything, right? And there are some positives to having aphantasia. At least I can’t picture Trump’s toad dick.

This piece was first published on David Farrier’s newsletter Webworm. Subscribe here.

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