The revelation that changed the way I understand my brain

“Imagine a shape. Imagine a second shape. Put them together in your head. Now imagine a scene in which that object appears.”

This is how it happened. Up until this point, I thought my brain was typical. Well, mostly typical. I certainly didn’t think that my brain worked differently than 95 to 98% of the population.

But it does.

“Think about where you are. What do you see in the background?”

Nothing. I saw nothing.

Sitting at my computer, acting as the subject for a mentalism routine by my friend, I started to wonder if something was wrong with me. I thought back to the difficulty I had in the past with guided meditations. I knew what a bubbling brook looked like. I knew what a tranquil beach looked like. But I couldn’t “see” them.

I asked my friend if I was supposed to be able to literally see what he was asking me to imagine. His answer started me on the road to discovering I had what is called aphantasia — the inability to visualize.

Roughly 2–5% of the population are not able to see images in their head. Like other things in life, it is a spectrum, so not every person with aphantasia has the same experience.

Sometimes I can see a flash of an image in my head. But it’s gone in a split second, leaving me with maybe a couple details I can describe.

From what I understand, some people see absolutely nothing. Some people can see a very vague image.

I’m writing this because I wish I had learned about this at a much younger age. There are things that have always bothered me about myself, and I believe I now have answers as to why that is.

I have a very poor autobiographical memory. Recently my friends were reminiscing about high school. I remember almost nothing.

I can’t remember any of my teachers names. I can “see” a couple of them in quick, vague flashes. I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup. I don’t remember what our classrooms looked like. I don’t remember what the inside of our gym looked like.

For a long time, I thought that maybe I had some repressed trauma that was keeping me from remembering things, but it’s not just from one period in my life. I don’t remember much of my life, at least in ways that I can see in my head. Reading about aphantasia has helped me understand that this is not unusual in aphantasiacs.

The strange thing is that for all this time (I’m 42 years old), I adapted to it. But now that I know I have aphantasia, it’s like I can’t figure out how I used to. Sometimes lately I feel paralyzed trying to do a task that I’ve done a million times before. It’s an incredibly frustrating feeling.

I find it interesting that even though I can’t see things in my head, I am still able to write creatively. From having conversations with friends, I think I’m starting to figure out how my brain adapts.

I’m going to use examples from Dungeons and Dragons to illustrate my point, because I realized that there are aspects I do very well as a Dungeon Master, and aspects that are very hard for me.

I “know” what specific detail evokes the emotion I desire in a section of description without being able to visualize it. I’ve heard people refer to something like a “visual rolodex” that they flip through in their head to figure out what they want a river to look like, for example.

I have a rolodex too, but it’s more of an idea one.

I know that a wider river would make it harder for the party to cross. So too would a strong current. I know that the type, or lack, of foliage around the river would impact how safe they would feel being along the riverbank. I know that the depth of the river is important, and I can think of ways to describe it visually, even though I’m not seeing it in my head.

The smaller details give me a great deal of trouble, I’ve found. Some DMs are able to paint beautiful pictures with their words off the top of their heads. I can do that, but not without planning. I’m much better running a pre-made campaign, as long as it’s one of the ones that gives you a lot of details about the environments, etc.

I started running a newer campaign that only gave you the bare bones in many environments, and I had a very hard time. If I had the time to plan ahead and flesh out the details before the session, it would have gone better, but I didn’t have that time, and it quickly became very frustrating for me.

I do, however, have a very thorough knowledge of the rules. This is due to my very strong auditory memory. I’ve played enough and listened to enough DnD podcasts that I have heard how the rules work many times. In the same way I remember song lyrics for a song I haven’t heard in 20 years, I can typically recall the intricacies of a rule. Or a Shakespeare soliloquy that I heard a few times 5 years ago.

So while my aphantasia makes some things harder, it has helped me in other ways. I wish I knew about it much earlier in life, as I think it would have helped me a great deal. It’s also important to re-iterate that my experience may differ from others whose brains work similarly to mine.

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Peter Flynn

Peter Flynn

Writer, editor, podcaster. Formerly Winging it in Motown. Twitter: @pflynn42