Aphantasia: It’s a concept that’s been floating around on some social media sites during the past year or so. And I find it fascinating. Some people, it seems, are completely unable to see mental images with their mind’s eye. The online posts describing this phenomenon are usually accompanied by a picture of an apple, drawn with varying degrees of detail. The reader is then asked to close their eyes and visualize an apple. If you are unable to even picture the vaguest impression of an apple, you may have aphantasia.
The memes that made aphantasia Facebook and Twitter’s fixation of the moment some months ago seemed to suggest that there’s a sort of spectrum at play. If you can make a more detailed or less detailed mental image, you are more or less an “aphantasiac,” respectively. However, a little bit of pedantry regularly comes up if you get into reading the online discussions on the subject. Some folks will insist that aphantasia describes a total lack of mental image, and if you can visual any image at all, it doesn’t apply to you. I’ll take their word for it, I guess. It’s an interesting enough concept without splitting hairs over the exact correctness of definitions.
I’ve tried the apple visualization myself, and it’s piqued my curiosity on how such visualizations might vary from person-to-person. I’ve read some other online discussions that suggest I’m not alone in being able to make a fairly detailed mental image, but it’s not something I can maintain for more than a second or two. With a little focus, I can get the sharpness and clarity of the apple to increase. Maybe I’ll catch the vein of a leaf or the white flecks and the green grain of the skin. But then, it’s gone, dissolving instantaneously back to the place where Plato stores his forms.
So I’m probably not aphantastic, but I’m not sure I’m a particularly skilled mental visualist, either, at least where endurance is concerned. It does bring to mind a childhood conversation that came up occasionally, that is, people describing the mental experience of reading. I imagine reading and aphantasia have some sort of link, because where else does our mind’s eye have such use?
I know I can recall people comparing reading to seeing a movie play out in their mind. Despite greatly enjoying reading, I’m not sure I can relate. Much like my apple, the mental images I see while reading are often brief and abstract. And, like the apple, I can devote a little extra focus to produce something more vivid, but I often find that takes focus away from what the text itself is saying. I’d much prefer to comprehend the meaning of text, rather than wasting energy on mental visualization. It also seems, from conversations I’ve had, that not everyone makes that distinction.
And I also wonder to what degree mental visualization, and aphantasia, in turn, affects our memories. My earliest memory, some may know, is escaping from a burning house with my father around the age of three. There’s a few images of that night caught in the amber of my mind. They aren’t vivid. I recall seeing the house across the yard. I can’t remember if I saw any fire. I recall being on the road leading to my grandma’s house, less than a mile away. I recall the burnt out wreckage of a building, who knows how many hours or days later. I recall the skeletal frame of the house that would spend the remainder of my childhood blossoming from the ground, a bit like a phoenix from the ash.
But I have no actual memory of the “old house,” as my family sometimes calls it, itself. When we watched camcorder videos last winter, the old house appeared a number of times, I couldn’t tell if it was a place I ever actually lived, even though it’s a fairly provable fact that I did live there, at least a few years. My mom tells me I had a Teddy Ruxpin doll I liked, as well as a tape of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi I watched with it. I don’t remember the bear or the mongoose. But I do remember a dark lit room, a TV, a brick wall behind. I’m fairly certain it’s a place that never existed.
But, in any case, it’s fleeting, and I suppose I should count my blessings that I can mentally visualize any of it at all. Apparently some of us aren’t so lucky. Aphantasia is a fun little curiosity of the human brain and easy enough to check for yourself. Visualize an apple, if you can.
Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.