Aphantasia

By Matt Layman on May 24, 2017

Can you picture a small child eating a candy bar? What do you see? For the majority of my life, I assumed that the question of “what do you see?” was a way of asking “can you recall the concepts of what was described?” Then I learned that most people really see something. As in, they can see an image as if their eyes were seeing it directly. Truthfully, I’m still sort of in shock that this ability is possible, and that I don’t have it.

The ability to “see” memories or imagined things is said to occur in the Mind’s Eye. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the Mind’s Eye was a somewhat literal expression.

I stumbled upon this characteristic of humans by reading a random article on the internet. The article, written by a man named Blake Ross, covers his cognitive ability and a lack of visual sense. He learned that this lack of sense is called aphantasia. I read through the article thinking “this is unbelievable,” not because he sounded crazy, but because my experience was so closely aligned to his. When I recall memories, there is no visual component to it.

In a way, it feels like I’ve uncovered a personal disability. There isn’t anything that I can really do about it, and I can function as a normal human being, but I know that there is big skill missing in my life that most people have and don’t even realize they have.

For me, it immediately raises some questions. If people can visualize things in an actual visual way, what’s the point of virtual reality? How in the world do you “switch” between your actual vision and the vision from your Mind’s Eye? Is it like picture-in-picture? Can you pay attention to both at the same moment?

I’ve known about aphantasia for somewhere around a year now. Every so often, I get reminders that general human memory and vision seems to be very different from my own, and it sends me swirling.

This post is not to say “pity me.” It’s an attempt for me to record my thoughts about who I am and how I function in the world. If there is a take-away from this, I think it is simply:

Be greatful for the abilities that you have.

If you want to chat about this with me, I'm @mblayman on Twitter.



Matt Layman

Matt is the lead software engineer at Storybird.

Always eager to talk about Python and other technology topics, Matt organizes Python Frederick in Frederick, Maryland (NW of Washington D.C.) and seeks to grow software skills for people in his community.