“I apparently have aphantasia,” I told my friend. “Didn’t know it had a name.”
“Really?!” she said.
“Yeah, I have no visual imagination,” I replied.
“That’s fascinating that you write with that to me,” she said. “Mine is lackluster but not complete lack like aphantasia is.”
I laughed. “That’s part of why I’m insecure about my writing. That’s why I always worry that it sucks. That it’s not good,” I said. “I don’t see things. I can write physical descriptions, but I need reference pictures. And I focus more on dialogue and emotions. It does help that I used to be a reporter and then a medical transcriptionist. You have to write things down word for word. So writing dialogue is fairly easy to me. Either coming up with it for fiction or writing down what people actually said later in non-fiction.”
“That’s fascinating to me,” she said.
“But I need pictures to remember what things look like. And I can’t imagine something novel,” I said. “I find it amazing that my readers don’t realize.”
“That really is neat,” she said.
Neat? I thought. Because it wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. At all. My entire life, I’ve had a hard time relating to other writers. They seem to find things easy that I find difficult or impossible. And I tend to be good at very niche parts of the craft. It’s a bit like being left-handed in a world designed for righties.
Or at least how I would imagine it to be (and how I’ve observed it to be for others), since I’m quite right-handed.
“It makes your writing more impressive to me,” she said. “I think it makes sense with your writing style but isn’t obvious if that makes sense.”
“Yeah,” I said. Because I thought I knew what she meant, even if I weren’t quite sure.
“Like you saying that I’m like huh, yeah, that fits with how she writes in some abstract way I couldn’t word. But I wouldn’t have been like ‘you have aphantasia because of how you write.'”
I smiled. And here I thought it was so obvious. The illusion of transparency strikes again.
What Is Aphantasia?
So what is aphantasia anyway? Basically, it’s the lack of a “mind’s eye.” Individuals with aphantasia cannot visualize images that aren’t there. It apparently was named in the 19th century by Francis Galton (an early psych researcher) but isn’t a phenomenon that has been studied or received much attention until recently.
The more I read about it, the better I feel. I had labored for years under the insecurity that as a creative person that the fact that I lack a visual imagination makes me inferior to other creators. But as it turns out, I’m in good company.
Probably the most famous author who reportedly had aphantasia was Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World (which if you read it closely hinges heavily on dialogue and metaphor — visual descriptions are quick and typically hinge around color or more abstract terms).
And as a much more modern example, former chief of Pixar Ed Catmull not only has aphantasia but noted other professionals in animation also have the condition. For example, Glen Keane — who created Ariel, the Little Mermaid, can’t visualize things either.