Aphantasia veils the past and the future from the mind’s eye. That can be a gift to philosophers like Derek Parfit and me
There’s an early memory from my childhood, representative of its peak happiness. I’m on a simple, iron child’s seat on my father’s bike. He’s just picked me up from kindergarten and is taking me home through the forest on the way to our house. It is a spectacularly fluorescent Danish spring, and we’re travelling through woodland illuminated, from above, by the light-green foliage of the tall beeches only just coming into soft leaves and, from below, by snow-white forest anemones spreading around us in dense, endless carpets.
Bringing this scene to my mind, I don’t ‘see’ anything. I have aphantasia, the neurological condition of being unable to visualise imagery, also described as the absence of the ‘mind’s eye’. Still, I know that those visual elements were there; they’re stored in my mind as knowledge and concepts; and I have particular and strong emotional responses to the thought of the light and colours.
Until very recently, I had always assumed that my experience of reality was typical, and that being able to see only things that are actually there – present and visible in the external surroundings – was normal. But discovering that I have aphantasia brought to my awareness differences in perception and self-conception between me and others that I’d always registered on some level, and felt disturbed by, but had never consciously thought about.
The further I’ve delved into research on this neurological anomaly, the more extensive its explanatory reach has proven. It has been like finding the master key to my life and personality, and has significantly deepened my understanding of my psychology, my philosophical views, and my aesthetic and literary preferences.
The distinction between what ‘is’ and what ‘isn’t there’ in external reality is, of course, problematic, as philosophy has observed through the ages and has been confirmed by modern neuroscience. On the predictive processing model of consciousness – one of the more prominent neuroscientific theories today – most of what humans perceive as external reality is projection. The neuroscientist Anil Seth thus explains that the phenomena we experience as objective and independently existing in our surroundings are, to a great degree, our brain’s best guesses about that reality, generated as a response to an external reality, but based on saved data and expectations – and, as such, a form of controlled hallucination.
This makes me wonder how I’m able to project unconsciously what appears to me as fully fledged external reality, and thus successfully form images as part of the brain’s predictive processing, but not consciously create images. How can I perceive anything visually? I asked Seth about this at a talk I attended, and he put me in touch with the psychologist Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter who is involved in some of the first extensive studies on aphantasia. Zeman gave me a test that measures visual vividness on a continuum. While such tests entail some uncertainty, in part because they rely on subjective reporting which is fallible, the result was unambiguous: I have ‘extreme aphantasia’– ie, no ability to summon up internally even the vaguest, blurriest contours of a specific object. Neither my memory nor my imagination has any visual dimension.
Though usually described in negative terms and as a deficit, I suspect aphantasia isn’t simply a reduced experience of reality
What is there, then, in the absence of visual content? Imagination is heterogeneous, comprising various dimensions, and spatial and kinaesthetic imagination can seemingly be preserved in aphantasia. The philosopher Derek Parfit was aphantasic, and described his memories as propositional and stored in sentences. I would rather describe my imagination and memories as conceptual and emotional – consisting of thoughts, feelings and sensations. I cannot visualise my childhood home but, with a combination of conceptual and spatial memory, I can describe it – and, if I do, I notice I’ll start moving my hands and body as if I were in the house. I can feel it, almost physically, when I think of it.
Zeman also supplied me with a report on the first systematic study of the neuropsychological and neural signatures of aphantasia, which confirms many of the hypotheses formed on the basis of self-reporting and anecdotal evidence. It connects aphantasia to introversion and autistic spectrum features; to difficulty with recognition, including face-recognition; to impoverished autobiographical memory and less event detail in general memory; to difficulty with atemporal and future-directed imagination, including difficulties with projecting oneself into mentally constructed scenes and the future; to elevated levels of IQ; and to mathematical and scientific occupations.
Most of these apply to me. In light of my extreme aphantasia, my profession, however, seems somewhat conspicuous. I work as a literary critic and researcher: ie, with stories in the experience of which visual imagination plays a key part for most people. Indeed, some aphants report that they struggle with reading fiction. But, for me, the emotions and thoughts evoked by literary scenes of strong visuality are sufficiently stimulating to stay engaged and fascinated. They invoke qualities and moods, and often trigger a strong and compelling longing to see the actual thing. I have, however, always had a strong preference for philosophical and conceptual literature – my favourite book is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930) – which aphantasia could plausibly account for; as well, perhaps, as for my relative indifference to poetry compared with most people who work with literature professionally.
Though usually described in negative terms and as a deficit, I suspect aphantasia isn’t simply a reduced experience of reality. This may of course just be wishful thinking; but, considering the perceived differences between my experience of the world and that reported by others, it seems to me the mind and body compensate, and that the absence of some features leads to exaggeration of others. Zeman himself notes something similar, suggesting that aphantasia may come with an increased interest in the visual world. And so, my description of my aphantasia in terms of what is absent inevitably veers towards what is, in turn, present.
My mind seems to compensate for this with a stronger absorption in, and greater intimacy with, the present moment
Aphantasia seems to come with a greater sensitivity to direct visual impressions. Aphants’ inability to imagine or recollect beauty internally and privately may well make the meeting with it externally more overwhelming. This could explain the difference in response to both beauty and ugliness noticed by myself and others throughout my life. The appreciation of beauty is of course fundamentally human, but my reaction to strong visual stimuli – films, nature etc – has always been remarkably intense. I’m often made socially uncomfortable when experiencing spectacular scenery in the company of others. It’s difficult to contain myself and stay engaged in conversation when my disbelief and absorption in what I’m seeing feels norm-divergent and over-the-top. The aphantasic absence of the mind’s eye may account for a particular kind of ‘visual vulnerability’. This would, conversely, explain my exaggerated negative and depressive response to ugly surroundings – since aphants don’t have the option of compensating for any external lack of beauty with exciting internal visuals.
The aphantasia also explains, at least in part, why, in contrast with most people I meet, I find it hard and unnatural to tell my life story. I don’t really think of my past, and when asked about it, I find it difficult to recall and recount. Nor have I ever had specific ideas or visions for my future – only abstract thoughts of wishing to be happy, intellectually stimulated, healthy, with good people in my life, and access to natural beauty.
The flipside of this disconnection from the past and the future is seemingly an increased ability to be present. Indeed, the aphantasia study report notes the possibility of less mind-wandering frequency in aphants. And it seems plausible that fantasising about the past, future or any fictional scenario will be far less engulfing with no visual content to entertain the mind.
I would further hypothesise that aphantasia comes not only with a greater ability to be present and remain undistracted, but also with a reduced sense of self. In his book Reasons and Persons (1984), Parfit formulates the view that personal identity is reducible to physical and psychological continuity of mental states, and that there is no ‘further fact’, diachronic entity or essence that determines identity. The belief that persons are separate entities with continuously existing selves, he argues, is to a great extent an illusion. The connection between this reductionist account of personhood and Parfit’s aphantasia seems to me obvious. Our philosophical views are based on our intuitions – which are, in turn, formed by our neurology; our perceptual experience of the world guides our ideas about it. Speaking to Larissa MacFarquhar for her article ‘How to Be Good’ (2011) in The New Yorker, Parfit reports on his inability to visualise imagery, having few memories of his childhood and almost never thinking about his past. This diminished sense of continuity and substantiality of his own self will likely have directed him towards general anti-essential hypotheses about personhood.
Aphantasia could certainly explain why Parfit’s theory resonates so strongly with me – as well as my sympathy for Eastern contemplative and monist theories such as Buddhism that advocate self-abandonment, detachment and renunciation. While many people find such non-essential ideas of personhood and existence disturbing and estranging, to me they’re not only obviously plausible, but also highly relatable – and easy to practise. When I introspect, I literally see nothing – and on that basis, it is likely more difficult to create and uphold an idea of a centred, essential and continuous self.
While the aphantasic imagination and memory have fewer dimensions and likely less richness, the mind seems to compensate for this with a stronger absorption in, and greater intimacy with, the present moment. My sense of connection to my past is weak. I have very few memories like the one of flying through the anemone-lighted forest on my father’s bike, and they rarely come to my mind. The colours and light of the present are always capturing my attention.