Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Aphantasia and Executive Function

Non-verbal working memory without a visual imagination?

Six weeks ago, I wrote that aphantasia can look a bit like ADHD. Since then, I’ve been trying to find out more about the resemblances, and maybe even connections, between the two “conditions”, one a disorder and the other not (even) a disability. I found some significant part of what I was looking for recently when a Reddit user named margobisbee posted a link to this YouTube video in which Russell Barkley, a recognized expert on the subject of ADHD, speaks about executive function impairment. According to Dr Barkley, there are at least 5 different types of executive function which are impaired in the case of someone who has ADHD. They are:

  1. Ability to inhibit your behaviour, to allow the other executive functions to take over
  2. Ability to use visual imagery (non-verbal working memory)
  3. Ability to talk to yourself in your mind as a form of self-guidance (verbal working memory)
  4. Ability to control our own emotions and motivations: to moderate our emotions so that they’re more in keeping with our welfare and our long-term goals
  5. Ability to plan and problem-solve: mental play, manipulate information in our minds

I don’t have the second of these abilities at all, but I think I’m OK as far as the other four are concerned. I certainly have that voice in my mind (number 3) giving me instructions and questioning my actions. Sometimes I wonder if it’s ever going to shut up. Number 4 is a tricky one: I think I’m quite good at controlling my emotions but recently I’ve begun to see that maybe I’m not so good at recognizing what they are: see what I’ve previously written about anxiety here and here. As for 5, while I’ve said before that I have problems with planning, these problems seem to be mainly an effect of the lack of a visual imagination. I think I’m pretty good at (non-visual) mental play and the manipulation of information.

I’ve transcribed in full what Dr Barkley says about the second executive ability:

The second is the ability to use visual imagery, often called non-verbal working memory. Humans have the ability to hold images in mind about what they are proposing to do, and they use those images as mental maps to guide their behaviour toward the intended target and also to remember the sequence of steps that’s necessary to accomplish that goal or that task. Out of this executive ability also comes our sense of hindsight, foresight, and overall our subjective sense of time. So, we’d expect all of these to be impaired by the disorder, and so they seem to be.

This is an accurate, if concise, description of what I feel I’m missing as a result of aphantasia: the ability to hold images in mind and use them as mental maps to guide my behaviour towards my target and to remind myself of the necessary sequence of steps. And, of course, my “subjective sense of time” is so much at odds with—you know—actual time that it sometimes seems like a joke. For example, when I’m in the middle of a complex task, even one I’ve done many times before, I usually have no idea how long I’ve already spent on it, how long more I need to spend on it or when it’s likely to be finished.

It seems to me that my third ability — the constant internal monologue—attempts to fill the gap by substituting a narrative for the missing mental map. I’m very familiar with that narrative, which I call “This is what I’m going to do”. Because I can’t simply glance at it, as one might presumably do with a mental map, and because I suffer from anxiety (which seems to be exacerbated by the disorientation which comes from not being able to glance at a mental map when I’d like to), I replay this narrative repeatedly and (it sometimes seems) interminably, to the point where I get bored and sullen and I start to resist the inner voice. Of course, the whole process quickly becomes exhausting, even though I’m not actually doing anything.

I’ve found that the best way to accomplish something is to get so absorbed in it that I can ignore that internal monologue. The task itself can be quite complex—like writing an essay with a convoluted argument—and the lack of a mental map doesn’t seem to cause me any difficulty. (I’ve never grasped why or how some people seem to find Post-It notes, index cards or diagrams useful in this kind of context.) But, as far as I can tell, the “task” needs to be a single, integrated exercise whose elements are essential parts of the overall concept. I can’t take a bunch of unrelated “to-do” items and pretend they’re parts of a more general, abstract project. Well, I can, but fewer than half of them will get done. As you might imagine, I’m no good at multi-tasking, or at switching my (purely metaphorical) focus from one microtask to another.

So, I seem to have arrived at the paradox that I need to learn to tune out this inner voice that tells me to do the things that I really ought to do!

On the subject of that mental map, I wrote some time ago that I was puzzled to catch myself trying to visualize the process of completing some tasks I had to do, and what the outcome would look like. This attempt at visualization wasn’t a deliberate act but it wasn’t wholly unconscious either. It struck me as being like an instinct or habit, and I was puzzled as to how I’d developed the habit of doing something that never produced the desired results. I’ve found myself doing the same thing a few times since and the result is always dispiriting. But the last time, a few days ago, I finally thought I understood what was happening.

Like many aphantasics, I dream (so far as I can tell from the fragments I remember) in full-colour visual images. And the failed attempts at visualization tend to happen first thing in the morning, just after I’ve woken up. So, I think that my imagination has been primed by the forgotten dream to expect some visual images and therefore to try to produce them. If I’m right, this strangely unrewarding habit is one that I’ve formed in my sleep.