Imagining Visualization

I have aphantasia. It is the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free imagination. This text is a musing about “What if I was not internally blind?”

It must be overwhelming. If I imagine that all those things that get me thinking would in addition have an image pop up before my inner eye, I get all dizzy.

There are those trivial cases: somebody mentions an apple, and I’ld see a red apple. And that red apple might be accompanied by the refreshing sweet and sour taste of an apple in my mouth, and it might trigger hunger and craving.

Next, an image of an orchard would come alive. An orchard that I marched by as a young soldier on the 50 km march during boot camp. I would remember the farmer standing at the wayside to give us a refreshing apple after he had seen us walk by his farm five times already on our way to complete the seven rounds in the hill range called Jura in the French speaking part of Switzerland.

Next I see my feet, all swollen and full of blisters. Just seeing them triggers the hurt and pain of way back when it happened, and through the distance of thirty years almost I can still see myself hobbling to the train the next morning to enjoy one and a half days of mostly travel to spend some hours at home.

I can smell the despair, pain, and sweat in the train. It’s an unscheduled special train for the armed forces that takes us down into town to catch a normal train into our home cities. I am glad that Switzerland is not bigger, or we would have had to recuperate in the barracks.

Now, all these memories triggered by the mentioning of an apple, and as I write the word again, it all restarts, bringing up an image of an orchard in Canada. Our Pastor had tried to become a farmer in British Columbia, and though he failed, the permanent resident visa he got for this helped him a year later to settle in Canada, get to know a church, and help build the network that I was part of for seventeen years. Again, this brings forth memories in form of pain, emotions, smells, tastes, and a flood of other images, pleasant and unpleasant.

I am imagining this like that because inside me, without having images or memories of smell and taste, thoughts spinn off other thoughts in an endless stream of parallel conversations, and it’s great. I am aware of about 100 parallel dialogs at any time. This is what it must be like for others, just with so many more memory pieces and triggers available.

But then, I recall the time I added smell and taste back to the picture, and the memory and sensory overflow that caused. Suddenly, I experienced my private light shows without external stimuli, erratic and beautiful. Sometimes, I went into total block, or experienced what it would be like for sentient computers to have a stack overflow.

So I come to the conclusion that either most people that have an inner eye must be far more robust or think far less than me just to survive.

I can also see that positive memories can keep somebody attached to things far more. The sweet memory of tasting apple cider in the Burgundy would have you wanting to go back. And having an image of a loved one when you think about them might have you call them or miss them.

Now, I can understand some of the nostalgia people experience, I can see a reason for their attachment to the known and tested, I get how they build relationships much easier, and I can forgive them for thinking less.

It’s all because they see an apple when they hear the word.

When I tell you to visualize an apple – what do you “see” in your imagination?

You might imagine a lifelike image of an apple in your mind, while your friend might only see a dim or vague image. Some will find it easy to visualize an apple, while others will have to work a little harder to paint that picture. Some of us can only hold images in our minds for mere seconds, others for longer. But almost all of us will have some variation of this quasi-perceptual picture-it system.

People with aphantasia lack this visual system completely.

We don’t create images of familiar objects, people, or places in our mind’s eye. Not for thoughts, memories, or images of the future. 

The word for tree in Hebrew sounds like the word for blindness. Once we decided for one of the two trees in the garden, we cannot see the other. Living in categories like good and evil is akin to spiritual aphantasia.