Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Sex, SDAM and aphantasia

This post may contain TMI. Stop reading any time you like, obviously.

Do you remember what it feels like to have sex? I don’t. In fact, until just a few years ago, the notion that one might remember a feeling, if it had occurred to me at all, would have seemed a category confusion. Feelings or sensations aren’t memorable, I’d have thought, and memories aren’t felt. Memories are cognitive, surely, not affective. It’s not as if they’re directly experienced; they’re more like a conversion of experience (among other things) into a different format, one that can be stored away and recalled. I didn’t begin to suspect that I might be wrong till after — some time after — I found out about aphantasia and SDAM.

SDAM and aphantasia don’t always coincide or overlap. There are people who can’t form visual mental images, yet can remember, more or less vividly, episodes and incidents that have happened to them. And there are, I understand, people who don’t have vivid episodic memories even though their imaginations are visual. When I first learned of this I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I had been inclined to assume that SDAM and aphantasia were in effect the same thing, given different names because they had been approached from different directions by different teams of researchers. Apparently this isn’t true.

Nevertheless, though they are different things, it’s not at all uncommon for them to go together. The paper that persuaded me that there’s a distinction between them was written by a man who has both! (As do I.) So it’s not always easy to distinguish the effects of one from those of the other. Sometimes the effects seem to reinforce each other. When I first concluded that I must have aphantasia, about 5 years ago, I wrote several posts on Medium about the various ways that I thought aphantasia affected my behaviour and my perception of the world around me. I’ve since moved those posts to this site. There was one post in particular, titled “Aphantasia, sex and gender”, that I wasn’t satisfied with. It seemed to me to be missing something essential. I always intended to return and look at the topic in more depth but, until now, I haven’t done so.

Now I think I know what was missing from my earlier post. When I wrote it, I was thinking of aphantasia as primarily affecting the visual imagination. But I learned not long afterwards that I also can’t call to mind tastes, smells or sensations. In comparison, my auditory imagination is not as empty; it’s quite lively and complex. I suppose that’s why I’m much better at recognizing voices than I am with faces — though I’m still not able to distinguish between CD-quality sound and a fairly low bitrate MP3. It took me a long time to realize that it’s a waste of time for me to try to decide which of several different roasts and blends of coffee bean I prefer: I simply can’t remember the tastes or smells of the ones I’ve previously tried.

Clearly this is an area where aphantasia and SDAM overlap: to say that I can’t imagine what, say, Lavazza’s Il Perfetto Espresso tastes like is effectively the same thing as saying that I don’t remember the taste. It’s for this reason that these days I’m much more inclined to put the emphasis on SDAM rather than aphantasia, though it was aphantasia that first caught my attention.

So, when I was attempting to write about sex and aphantasia before, I now think I was leaving out of account two important factors: I was concentrating entirely on imagination rather than memory, and I was paying attention only to visual stimuli, without regard to taste, smell or touch. I’m pretty sure it’s uncontroversial to say that smell, taste and touch play an even more important part in the experience of sex than vision does, though that fact seems not to have occurred to me when I was writing my earlier post.

When I was younger, I often wondered if sex hadn’t been oversold. I mean I liked it, obviously, and I’d certainly rather have it than not, but when people spoke about it, as they often did, in terms of ecstasy and intense pleasure, I’d wonder what I was missing. It occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t been doing it right, and that I might get more pleasure from it as my performance improved with more practice. (It’s possible that I never got enough practice! I mean, what’s “enough”?)

Obviously, I’m having to speculate, because I’ve no way of directly comparing my own experience to other people’s, but I have been wondering whether much of the pleasure and enjoyment of sex that most people claim to experience derives from their ability to recall and reexperience the feelings or sensations, the smells, the taste — and, of course, the visuals — associated with it. If that’s true, perhaps my vague dissatisfaction with sex results from the fact that, for me, the experience doesn’t leave any traces in the episodic memory. Who knows?

One of the questions that preoccupied me when I was writing regularly about aphantasia was the extent (if any) to which it resembled ADHD or affected executive function. It seemed likely that an inability to visualize could be expected to impair one’s visual working memory. I understand that recent research (to which I don’t have access) suggests that executive function in general is not adversely affected by having aphantasia. Before I heard about this research, however, I read a lot online about ADHD and executive function, and I found that some researchers believe that ADHD is linked to a lack of dopamine.

That got me wondering whether I’ve ever experienced a dopamine “rush”. Naturally, as you might expect of someone with SDAM, I couldn’t remember having experienced one, or (assuming that I had) what it felt like. So I decided to start paying attention to see if, when I finished a piece of work or accomplished something challenging, I got a little reward in the form of a mood boost. And I did! But it wasn’t very strong and it lasted only a moment or two. In fact, I’d say it would have been barely noticeable if I hadn’t been keeping an eye out for it. I can’t imagine that the prospect of repeating the experience, even if I could remember the feeling, would act as an incentive to try to recapture it by doing the thing again. So, maybe it’s possible that I wasn’t experiencing the “rush” as strongly as most people do.

I’ve often noticed that I don’t tend to get excited at the prospect of some forthcoming treat, for example attending a concert or similar event. When I’d see other people getting worked up to a pitch of anticipation, I’d react in one of two ways, depending on my mood. Either I’d envy them and wonder how I could emulate their state, or I’d assume they were faking it and wonder how and why. Once I had learned about SDAM and aphantasia, though, I thought I had a more persuasive answer: I wasn’t getting myself into a state of anticipatory agitation because I wasn’t able to imagine the event itself. I couldn’t picture it, so I remained relatively detached. But now, I’ve begun to wonder if dopamine might equally have something to do with it. What if I’m just not getting excited because my dopamine level is lower than average?

Naturally, I started to Google the terms “SDAM” and “dopamine” together, and I came across this fascinating piece in Nature, “The forgotten part of memory”. (Sorry, it has disappeared behind a paywall since I originally read it.) It suggests that dopamine is essential to our ability to forget. So maybe that’s it: because of SDAM, I haven’t any difficulty in forgetting episodes from my life — with the result I just don’t need dopamine as much as most people do!

Posted by Art, 30-Jul-2023.