Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

I forgot the future

SDAM, aphantasia and a purpose in life

About 2½ years ago, I sat in a psychotherapist’s office and she asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had no idea. I made an effort to come up with an answer but it didn’t sound convincing to either of us. The therapist either decided that it would be a waste of time to try to get anything more out of me, or felt she had already planted the seed of further reflection that would bear fruit much later. Either way, she quickly moved on.

At the time, I was almost 60, and I found laughable the notion that it might be worth a person’s while actively to seek fulfilment in life. If occasionally a life turned out to be in some sense fulfilling, that was invariably the unplanned result of chance. There seemed no point in pursuing a purpose or goal in life when one’s own efforts could have no perceptible effect on the results. For most of its duration, my life had been aimless. That didn’t seem particularly regrettable. It was just normal.

There’s a song by Joe Jackson that goes “You can’t get what you want till you know what you want”. I always used to sing “You can’t get what you want if you know what you want”. Not because I’d misheard the words — I knew exactly what they were meant to be — but because I thought my version was closer to the truth.

When I was seeing the psychotherapist I didn’t yet know that I have aphantasia. I had read Blake Ross’s post on the subject some time before and felt a momentary flash of recognition. I made a note of the URL, intending to go back later and digest his credulity-straining assertion that a majority of people can actually see things — like, inside their heads! It wasn’t till two years later that I rediscovered the URL, and this time the sense of recognition stuck.

In the months after I accepted that I have aphantasia, I began to think that my lifelong aimlessness might in part result from my incapacity for visualization. Though I haven’t been diagnosed with SDAM (severely deficient autobiographical memory), I’m not in any real doubt that I have that condition (which sometimes accompanies aphantasia). My memories are not graphic or vivid: they’re more in the nature of ideas, abstractions, concepts and narratives than of images; it’s a bit like having index cards or ledger entries instead of detailed descriptions.

Note: SDAM and aphantasiaThere’s a very informative paper by Nicholas Wynn Watkins, titled “(A)phantasia and Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory: Scientific and Personal Perspectives”, freely available for download in PDF from various websites.

My mental conception of the past is dull, unexciting, featureless and full of gaps. Eventually it dawned on me that this is equally true of my conception of the future. After all, there’s no reason why my prospective imagination should be any clearer or sharper than my retrospective one. I don’t “remember” the future any better than I do what has already happened. If most people have at least some vivid, replayable “episodic” memories, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that they view the future in an analogous way? That they can actually “picture” themselves, attending that college, going on holiday to that exotic location, searching for a new job, buying and living in that house? Of course, I’m not suggesting that these imagined glimpses of the future are accurate. I don’t kid myself that most visualizers have a precognitive faculty. What I am suggesting is that these pictures of an imagined future, however misleading they eventually turn out to be, can constitute a target and roadmap that remain stable and consistent long enough to support a sustained pursuit.

It seems that consistency and stability are the key. It’s easy enough to decide that I’m going to be a more diligent and conscientious person than I have been, or more open to experience, or any number of other things, but without some kind of visual support I just drift off the path, and usually sooner rather than later.

The fact is that I can’t really imagine any kind of future. Obviously, I couldn’t expect to imagine it visually but somehow I haven’t been able to imagine it conceptually or in the abstract either, at least not in any way that sticks and makes it a substantial target to aim for. I suspect that, for better or worse, human imagination is disproportionately dependent on the visual — and that remains true even for some/many of us who don’t have a visual imagination.

Anyway, the therapist’s question prompted some kind of self-examination on my part, not immediately, but more than a year later, after I’d had time to think through some of the implications of having aphantasia. And guess what? To my surprise, I do know what I want to do with my life. I want to write, and to get some kind of recognition for my writing. That now seems so obvious that I have trouble grasping the fact that I’ve gone for years — indeed decades — without recognizing it. Writing has always been the thing I’m best (and, I often think, the only thing that I’m really good) at. Sometimes, it has seemed that I’m prepared to go to excessive lengths to avoid admitting that.

Coming to this realization, however late, shows me that it’s not necessary to be able to imagine things visually in order to find a purpose in life, though the lack of a visual imagination may lead one to “look” in the wrong places. In other words, I’m not blaming aphantasia or SDAM for the belatedness of my discovery. I’m very happy to know now what it is that I’m aiming for. I’m simply saying that a visual imagination, if I’d had one, would probably have made it harder to miss the path. On the other hand, it was never inevitable that in the absence of a visual imagination I would take so long to find my way, any more than it was for people like Ed Catmull. That’s just the way it turned out.

The curious thing is that, while I expect this discovery to make me feel significantly better about myself and my life, I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of difference to my behaviour. I have been writing, on and off, for about 30 years. That includes some unsuccessful attempts at drama, several college essays that I was quite pleased with (but only one of which survives), my doctoral thesis, a handful of journal articles on the subject of Andrew Marvell, a self-published novel, several short stories and a miscellany of posts over the past three years, first on Medium and more recently on this site. The difference, if any, is that I’ll now give this activity priority and try to make it my central activity. Ideally, I’ll go about it a bit more purposefully. It also means that I’ll try to write more critical book discussion and fiction, and less about such topics as tech, search, publishing and the future of the web. I do have one more tech/publishing piece to write (on the relative merits of ePub and PDF as a format for books), but it will be short.

Posted by Art on 14-Jun-2020.