Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

There is no plan A

Some further thoughts about aphantasia and visualization

Small, empty blue cup with small spoon and saucer on a white-grey surface
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I’ve never had much interest or confidence in self-help books. This isn’t the place to go into the reasons for that except to say that such books always seemed to be in the business of offering unrealistically simple solutions to unavoidably complex problems. This being so, while I was certainly vaguely familiar with expressions like “creative visualization”, I’d never paid much attention to what they might entail, or be intended to accomplish.

But when I recently realized that I have aphantasia, it was inevitable that I’d suddenly start to think about visualization much more than I ever had previously. And, as I’ve already discussed in my recent posts on the subject, once I did begin to think about it, there was no great mystery about how the capacity to picture a future state might be useful in helping to bring that state about. To someone who doesn’t have that capacity, the notion that it might be helpful seemed less a question of “self-help” than of common sense.

So, naturally, I’ve continued to Google combinations of words like “visualization” and “motivation” and was intrigued to find this piece in Forbes magazine with the title “Visualize Success if You Want to Fail”. This article cites research which suggests that “creative visualization” does not, in fact, help to keep us motivated:

When we imagine having reached what we want, our brains fall for the trick. Instead of mustering more energy to get “there,” we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we’d actually reached the goal. Physiologically, we slide into our comfy shoes; blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases, all is well in the success world of our mind’s making.

If the article in Forbes correctly represents the research findings (the paper it cites is behind a paywall), it doesn’t debunk the idea that “visualization” in general is irrelevant to the process of staying motivated and achieving goals. Rather, it’s saying that a particular kind of visualization, termed positive by both the author of the Forbes story and those of the research paper, may be useful for reducing anxiety but it doesn’t help us to press onward towards the achievement of our aim. For that, they say, it might be better to try instead

critical visualization, in which realistic obstacles, setbacks, and other decidedly not-so-positive factors are considered. Even failure itself, in all its rawness, should be thrown in and dabbled with as a possible outcome.”

In short, visualization of differing kinds may be useful for different purposes: so-called positive visualization may help us to deal with anxiety, while critical or realistic visualization may help to keep us focused on our objectives, so that both kinds are likely to useful at different times. In any case, it seems that visualization of one kind or another has an important role to play.

About three weeks ago, I woke up one morning and quickly thought about what I needed to do that morning. I had three tasks of moderate urgency and at least average importance. I caught myself attempting to visualize both the process and the outcome of carrying out these tasks. Naturally, I came up blank, as I always do when I try to form a mental image. Immediately, I felt kind of thwarted, as if my sense of purpose had dissipated. And all before I’d even managed to get out of bed.

Of course, I hadn’t decided to visualize in this way. As far as I could tell, the process was neither deliberate on the one hand nor unconscious on the other. To me, it seemed rather to be driven by something between instinct and habit. And that puzzled me. That is the only time I’ve observed myself doing that. I haven’t done it since and I can’t remember ever having done it before. Yet, if I can trust my perception of it as something habitual or instinctive, it’s presumably something I do regularly without thinking about it. In fact, it’s something I’ve presumably done tens of thousands of times over the years.

And that possibility is more than a little disturbing. After all, how can I have developed the habit (if indeed I have) of doing something that must have consistently and repeatedly proven ineffective and unrewarding? If only an idiot will repeatedly do the same thing and expect a different result, what does it say about me that I’ve presumably attempted the utterly pointless often enough for the process to have become habitual?

It’s clear that the inability to visualize future plans affects different people in different ways, depending on a whole range of other factors, such as their personality and their occupation. For some people, the need to live “in the moment” simply because they can’t see any alternative is a boon, for others it’s a nuisance. I found a very informative thread on Reddit, which gives illuminating examples of both responses. For one person:

Great thing about not thinking about the future is the reduced anxiety. Instead of worrying about things before they happen, I tend to just react in real time when things do happen. After all, it is only then that I have the most information about the subject and can make the best decisions.

Whereas, for another:

For the near future (less than two years ahead), everything I’ve already committed to is written in my planner and I’ll do it as each day comes up.
I’ve always enjoyed it and excelled when clear paths to success are given to me (like with completing a physics experiment correctly, following a recipe, getting a degree), but doing something like creating my own objectives and designing my own processes in an internship is a great challenge.

What this suggests to me is that whether aphantasia is a good thing or a bad thing depends largely on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If those circumstances require us to plan flexibly — in a way that can’t easily be reduced to a checklist and a fixed workflow—aphantasia will be, frankly, a curse.

If, on the other hand, those circumstances require us to be flexible but without having to plan—simply to respond to changes as they occur—then aphantasia will be a great benefit. All of which leads me to the conclusion that I need to arrange my life so that it more closely resembles the second set of circumstances than the first. I’m being only slightly facetious when I say that my ideal occupation would have been an improvising jazz musician. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that now.

But, if I can’t be a musician, perhaps I can still be an improvisor. One of the tired old tropes procrastinating writers amuse ourselves with is the supposed distinction between a “plotter” or a “pantser”. I (naturally) reject both terms, maintaining that every fiction writer is a plotter to some extent and that it’s not possible to write “by the seat of one’s pants” exclusively or for very long. As I suggest in the Google+ post, the terms “planner” (who plans everything in advance before starting to write) and “plunger” (who dives right in) are much more accurate. Obviously, I’m a plunger. Even if I were to diagram out a detailed plot right at the start, I’d never be able to hold the diagram in my head.