Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

The five stages of coming to terms with aphantasia

Dark, choppy sea with rocks in the foreground
Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

I’ve never before done a retrospective review of the year just ended, but 2018 was unusually significant for me. It was in April that I eventually recognized (having sceptically read Blake Ross’s post on the subject two years earlier) that most people, unlike me, can form mental images. I’ve always been fascinated by the workings of the mind, by memory and the nature of thought. It’s quite a biggie to discover, many decades on, that there’s a fundamental fact about these phenomena that nobody’s ever told me about — because they naturally assumed I already knew.

My responses to this major discovery have to date gone through four stages, and I confidently expect that there’s a fifth to come. In writing about these stages, I don’t mean to imply that everybody who has aphantasia reacts in the same way. If I’ve learned anything from reading Alan Kendle’s book on the topic, the posts on the r/Aphantasia subreddit and the comments on my own posts here on Medium, it’s that the different ways in which aphantasia affects those with the condition cover a very wide range. As I’ve said before, the impact it has on people’s lives depends on such factors as personality, occupation and circumstances. So, the title of this post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I’m not asserting that everybody with aphantasia goes through these five stages. Rather, I’m trying to describe my own individual, particular trajectory.

1 Euphoria

My father died in 1970. The forty-sixth anniversary of his death was the first one for which I was on Facebook. One of my sisters marked the day by changing her profile photo to a picture of my Dad. I recognized him, of course: he was very distinctive-looking, with a shock of white hair, and my mother always said he looked like the actor Joseph Cotten. But while I recognized him, his appearance was a surprise to me. I realized that I don’t have an internal sense of what he had looked like and I couldn’t have called an image of him to mind. Acknowledging this made me feel obscurely guilty: as if I’d been at fault for failing to pay due attention to his memory. But it got worse. I found that I also couldn’t call up an image of my mother, who had died much more recently. Or, indeed, of anybody else. That memory of mine was a disgrace: I really ought to do something about it!

Then, a few months later, I was relieved and excited to discover, reading Blake Ross’s story, that perhaps it wasn’t through neglect or fecklessness that I’d “lost” these mental images. Maybe I’d never had them in the first place. I don’t mean that I believed I’d once been able to visualize, and carelessly let the ability get away, on the “use it or lose it” principle. I’d always known (or thought I knew) that thought and memory weren’t visual qualities. But there were clearly some people — artists, witnesses to crimes — who were able somehow to construct a kind of visual representation of what they held in their heads. I couldn’t do that, and strongly suspected that the reason I couldn’t was that I wasn’t trying hard enough. Learning that some people are just visualizers and others (many fewer, if Blake Ross was to be believed) just aren’t, seemed to let me off the hook for my poor visual memory, to my great relief.

2 So that explains why …

More than one person has pointed out that, when you find out you have something like aphantasia, there’s a temptation to ascribe all the things you don’t like about your past, your behaviour and your personality to the condition. That’s a trap I’ve certainly fallen into, pouncing on the idea that my difficulties with “focus”, my repeated and persistent failure to keep my “eyes on the prize”, and other characteristics that can be described with visual metaphors, must be the result of my inability to visualize. Eventually, of course, it becomes clear that, not only are there many people with aphantasia who don’t share these problems but more significantly, there are lots of people who have similar problems and who can visualize perfectly well.

To judge by appearances, most people aren’t particularly ambitious. Probably only a minority have grand plans or life goals. Lots of people don’t maintain their focus, but allow themselves to be distracted from their aims. Certainly, not all of these people have aphantasia. I’d been arguing that it’s harder to cope with anxiety when you can’t visualize (imagine) successful outcomes or reassuring scenarios until a commenter on one of my posts pointed out that it’s at least as hard when you can picture all the potentially disastrous alternatives! I really hadn’t thought of that. So maybe aphantasia isn’t the all-purpose explanation (excuse) I’d been taking it for.

3 Hang on, maybe this is bit more serious than I thought

Eventually I thought that I began to see parallels between (what I thought of as) my aphantasia-related behaviour and ADHD (inattentive subtype). While I was careful not to claim that I might actually have ADHD, it did seem possible that some people who are affected by aphantasia in the same way that I am might also have (or have been diagnosed with) ADHD. I got direct messages on Twitter from one such person who told me that he recognized the symptoms/behaviours I’d described. He himself had been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall, which hadn’t helped.

I began to worry that I might not be able to work through my ADHD-like (or, as I sometimes put it, ADHD-light) symptoms on my own without medical help. I might need, if not prescription medication, then possibly meditation training, which I couldn’t afford. Thinking about prescription drugs made me turn my thoughts to non-prescription ones. Rather than an amphetamine like Adderall or Ritalin, I wondered if an hallucinogen like LSD or psilocybin might be a better idea for someone with aphantasia.

In my short time on r/Aphantasia, I’d noticed that the question of hallucinogens is one that comes up regularly. People who’ve just discovered that they have the condition wonder if they might be “cured” by the use of acid or mushrooms. I don’t feel that I need to cure my inability to visualize but things I’ve been reading about James Fadiman, Steve Jobs and Michael Pollan’s recent book have made me wonder if hallucinogens might help me to counter my more general problems. (In fact, I’d been wondering about this for several years before I learned about aphantasia.)

A number of responders on r/Aphantasia have said that, while LSD and similar psychedelics don’t give them hallucinations or mental images, they have nevertheless found these drugs helpful in less specific ways: they report that the drugs have made them sharper, more at ease with themselves, better able to cope.

4 The Flow

A few weeks ago, I came across a reference to a book I hadn’t heard of before, though it seems to have been a bestseller. (I suppose that, when it comes to books, my attention is directed more at fiction and related titles.) The book is Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It’s about how people are using altered mental states — ecstasis and a sense of flow — to improve their … what, exactly? Their lives, generally, I guess. Their productivity, to start with. In the case of Navy Seals, their ability to function as a unit. For others it might be artistic creation or attempting to improve the condition of humanity or pushing themselves to physical limits.

People in all these fields were finding that “getting out of their heads” in one way or another was helping them to achieve great things. Some people were using hallucinogens to accomplish this but others were using meditation, sensory deprivation, extreme athleticism or one of several other techniques.

(This is not exactly a recommendation of Stealing Fire. I think you should read it, if you haven’t already, but sceptically and with caution. The authors are, in my view, a little too much in awe of some of the leaders of our current crop of giant tech companies, figures such as Elon Musk and Sergey Brin. They’re wildly enthusiastic about Burning Man, but to me they make it sound like hell on earth.)

Many of the people featured in Stealing Fire are trying to hack the flow: to turn a rare and elusive experience into something that can be entered almost at will. They aim to make an altered state of consciousness their normal state. That isn’t what I want. But I can’t help wondering if an occasional dip into the flow might help me to deal better with my directionlessness and lack of “vision”. Stealing Fire has at least persuaded me that it’s worth trying.

I’m not, however, going to search for this altered state by suddenly, latish in life, taking up mountaineering nor am I going to try to learn the techniques of deep meditation. In fact, I’m planning to look for the flow in the only place I’ve ever previously — if rarely — found it. I’m going to write more. But I’m going to write differently and with a better sense of why I’m writing than I’ve had in recent years. (The question as to what my motives are for writing is one that’s bothered me since I completed my first full-length piece of fiction just over three years ago. I expect to have more to say about that soon.)

What next?

Just in the past few weeks, I’ve reached the fourth of my “five stages”. I’m sure that there’s a fifth stage to come but as yet I don’t know what it will be. I’m looking forward to finding out.

[Update 30/06/2019:] Since I wrote this, I’ve reread Stealing Fire and posted a review.