Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Aphantasia, memory and self-image

Photographer with camera with a big lens takes self-portrait in car’s wing mirror
Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

Last week I wrote that a consequence of my lack of mental images is that I’m not able to visualize the future or to picture in advance the outcomes of my actions. I took it for granted that this was something that I’d need to compensate for. I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the meantime and, on second thoughts, I’m wondering if the absence of a visual imagination might be less a disadvantage than it seems. It might even be thought of as automatically self-compensating. Because of course there’s no guarantee that an imagined future event or state will actually come to pass. The ability to “see” such an event or state may tend to make a person more ambitious, more focused or single-minded, but it doesn’t necessarily make it more likely that that person will actually achieve the foreseen outcome.

Looking for an example of the upside of aphantasia, I came up with the fact that I never do the lottery. In the past, I’ve put this down to my simply not seeing the point in betting against enormously long odds (or in queuing up to pay the only tax that’s entirely voluntary). But in the last couple of days it’s occurred to me that the situation might be very different if I’d been the kind of person who could picture myself shopping for a yacht or an island, or taking the entire extended family to Orlando for a couple of weeks. When it comes to the lottery, I think I’m level headed and prudent, but maybe I just lack imagination.

So, having established to my own satisfaction that aphantasia has a significant effect on the way I envision the future, I now want to take a close look at what it does to the way I picture the present and the past.

A couple of months ago, I was really taken aback to discover how much my sister, who is three years younger than I am, can remember about our childhood. I thought that my memory of my early years—where events have faded into a dull, murky opacity in which incomplete glimpses of particularly significant or memorable occurrences can be vaguely discerned, with effort—was the norm. Apparently, it’s not. Again, the absence of a point of comparison with the mental processes of other people seems to have misled me into making unfounded generalizations about “how memory works”.

And, to be honest, the experience has been a bit unsettling. I’ve come to suspect—as usual, without a basis for comparison that I could use to confirm the suspicion—that my memory is noticeably worse than average, and not just about the distant past. I’m reminded that, one Christmas in the mid-80s, my then wife gave me one of the Mister Men books in my Christmas stocking. It was Mr Forgetful . I was puzzled and a little surprised by this choice. Surely forgetfulness wasn’t my most obvious characteristic, was it? Obviously, I lost track of things, often needed reminding, sometimes got a bit vague and wooly. But no more than the average person, surely? (Naturally, I can’t remember anything else that was in my stocking that particular year—or any other.)

I’ve always been inclined to resist taking notes, using to-do lists or keeping a diary. I’m beginning to think my life might become a lot easier if I were to make a conscious effort to overcome this resistance. There’s an analogy here with photography. I take very few photographs, hardly any in fact. In this, my behaviour is quite different from that of most people I know. But, because of my aphantasia, I’m actually someone who could probably benefit more than most from taking, storing and looking at photographs. Similarly, if my memory is as bad (relatively speaking) as I suspect it is, then to-do lists and other productivity hacks would probably be a lot more useful to me than they are to the people who tend to use them!

When I tweeted links to my previous posts about aphantasia, someone on Twitter asked me if I might also have SDAM (severely deficient autobiographical memory). I hadn’t heard of the term before so I Googled it. And, having read a bit about it, I’m really not sure what to think. Since I don’t have mental images, I think it’s fairly safe to say that my episodic memory is in no sense vivid. On the contrary, it’s dim, fleeting and incomplete. But that would surely be true of most people with aphantasia. As far as I can tell, my autobiographical memory (which I think is a subcategory of episodic memory) could accurately be described as deficient. Whether or not it’s “severely” deficient I really don’t feel able to judge. I think it’s a possibility that I need to consider.

So much for the past. How do I “see” the present? Naturally, unless I’m looking in a reflective surface, I don’t have a self-image in any visual sense. Perhaps nobody does—I’m no longer sure what it’s reasonable to assume about the way other people’s minds work! But I think it’s considered normal to have a self-image. On the other hand, I think it’s equally considered normal that that self-image should be misleading or distorted. Otherwise, Burns’s well known lines wouldn’t make much sense:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us!

So, am I, devoid of any mental pictorial respresentation of myself, in a worse position than somebody who has a vivid but inaccurate self-representation? I suspect not but I’d like to be a bit more certain. It was while trying to dredge up instances of how the absence of a self-image might have affected me that I remembered another anecdote from the mid-80s, one which also features my ex-wife.

She was a student in Trinity College, Dublin, at the time. On one occasion, we were drinking in a pub in the centre of town with a group of her fellow-students. Somebody was taking photographs. This was long before digital cameras existed, so the roll of film had to be finished, then sent off to be developed. It was a few weeks—perhaps longer—before I saw the pictures.

When I eventually saw them, I noticed a man who quite obviously coudn’t keep his eyes of my then wife. I found the intensity of his gaze a bit disturbing, to be honest. “Wow, he’s really into her,” I told myself. “It’s odd that I don’t recognize him—and that I don’t remember seeing him that night. Is he another student?” Finally, the penny dropped. “Oh! It’s me!”

This was 30 years before I even suspected that aphantasia existed, or that I had it. I categorized my failure to recognize myself in a photo as just one of those amusing tricks the mind plays and duly forgot about it. Thinking about it now, though, it tells me a lot about how I recognize people both in pictures and in real life. I rely a lot on factors like clothes and context.

In this case, the context wasn’t helpful: there was a fairly large group of students present, some of whom I knew better than others and some of whom I didn’t know at all. As for clothing, I was wearing a jumper (sweater, if you prefer) which was a bit too small for me and which I hadn’t really liked in the first place. I wore it only when it was the last clean one I had! It was also lighter in colour than what I’d normally have worn. So my confusion was as much a failure to recognize the jumper as it was a failure to recognize my face or build.

When I started to write this piece, I expected it to be more conclusive than it’s turned out. It’s clear, at least, that I need to get (belatedly) into the habit of taking notes and making lists. It’s equally clear that I have for a long time being deceiving myself about the reliability of my memory.

I thought this would be my last word of any substance on the subject of aphantasia. But there’s at least one other large topic I need to cover. The times I’ve felt most at ease with myself have been when I’ve been studying and writing about English literature. I’ve written a doctoral thesis on a seventeenth-century poet. I’ve made several attempts—reasonably successful in my own judgment—to write fiction. On the face of it, these are activities to which the absence of a visual imagination could be expected to be detrimental. I’ll return to that question soon.