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  • Writer's pictureHazel Manley

To See or Not to See (or five things you probably didn't know about aphantasia)

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

What is Aphantasia?

Most people I've asked have never heard of the word so let's kick off with a simple definition. Whilst the word sounds faintly reminiscent of a 1940s Disney film featuring, among other things, dancing mushrooms , the Oxford Language dictionary defines it as "The inability to form mental images of objects".

Attempt to depict what happens when I try to visualise a daffodil.
Aphantasic Dafoldil

Not everyone can see images in their head

(If you are someone who can't form mental images, you may at this moment be asking, "Other people can see pictures in their head?")

To many it's a revelation that what goes on in other people's heads is not the same as what happens in their own! Since we only have direct experience of how one brain works (our own), it's easy to assume that our experience is the norm and everyone works that way.

It wasn't until I started doing my teacher training around 15 years ago that I suddenly realised that other people (lots and lots of other people) can see pictures in their head. We were talking about learning spellings by visualising the letters. Visualising letters in your head? This was news to me! Back at home, I quizzed my primary school son. "If I say a word, can you see the letters in your head?" It turned out, he could see them so clearly that he could read them backwards as well as forwards. It had simply never occurred to me that what went on in my head was different from others. I still find it hard to believe that others can visualise!

Some years ago, I was in a small, busy restaurant with a blind friend. I mean 100% blind, not partially sighted. She kept fidgeting about, feeling around behind her seat, but there was nothing within reach. When I asked if she was OK, she said: "What's behind me"? Beyond arm's reach behind her, there was a pillar. She couldn't explain how she knew, but she did. I think her brain was processing sound and air changes.

I've told this story because in a way, this is how I usually 'visualise', not by seeing, but by a kind of knowing that is hard to explain. If I say I have a picture in my head, (except on rare occasions such as the border between waking and sleeping or in prayer/meditation - and even then it tends to be patchy) I don't mean I see it so much as experience it. I know it's there; I can even describe it, but I can't actually see it! Trying to use photo editing to show what my mental imagery is like is nearly impossible. What I see is not black, it's just nothing with occasional glimpses of pictures out of the corner of an eye that vanish when I turn and stare at them. They are vague and disconnected and this was the best way I could find to portray them. I added phrases to the picture because mostly when I think of an object, I have a non visual description in my head. I can describe a daffodil, and because of this and making models etc as a child, I could draw one, but not with much detail unless I can see one with my physical eyes. However, like my blind friend, I use the vocabulary of the sighted because it's easier than trying to explain it another way.

How many people have aphantasia?

Having explained this, the reaction I usually get is: "You mean you can't see images in your head? I thought everyone could do that!" In fact, researchers think around 97% of people can see images in their head. Of the remainder, some have a very limited ability to form mental images, some have no mental imagery at all, and some not only cannot visualise, but have no mental version of the other senses. If the UK population is 67 million, at a conservative estimate there must be over a million people with aphantasia in the UK alone!


Until 2015 aphantasia didn't have a name!

Aphantasia is not new, but until 2015, the condition didn't have a handy name. The name was coined by Professor Adam Zeman who was working on report about people losing the ability to think in mental images after a brain injury. However, not everyone can point to a time when they used to have mental imagery and an event that changed that, as not all aphants have lost their mental imagery through trauma or something similar. Many cannot remember ever having had the ability to visualise. Probably, the reason I had no idea others could visualise was simply that I have never been able to do this. When I discovered that everyone I asked could do what I couldn't, I assumed I was the only one and in some way weird. It was only years after discovering this, when I stumbled across an article about Zeman's work that gave it a name that I realised that there were more people like me around.


Aphantasia doesn't have to limit creativity

Although aphants or aphantasics (both terms seem to be in use in the aphantasic community) can't visualise, it doesn't mean they lack creativity. A Wiki article about it lists authors, illustrators, Disney animators, comedians and inventors in its list of famous aphants. There's even a Facebook group especially for aphantasic artists and there have been special exhibitions of their work.

As for me, I've begun to realise that my unorthodox methods of working (often frowned upon by 'proper' art teachers) has developed because of my inability to visualise.

Painting from life takes me ages as I simply cannot hold an image in my head. Between looking at the subject and looking down at the paper, the image has gone, so I have to look again and again and often use a verbal description to help retain crucial information such as proportions. I have found that photos really help as I can put these next to the paper or even on the paper.

Composing a picture when you can't move images around in your head and have no idea what the final result will look like if you move one element slightly to the right is tricky. I was recently delighted to come across an artist who uses reference images manipulated in Photoshop and verbal descriptions as part of her working process. My processes are similar, but I rather like to take and print out my own photos wherever possible, enlarge sections, cut out elements and physically move them around to experiment with composition. Some while ago, I decided that having spent a lot of time getting a composition exactly the way I wanted, it was often a waste of my time trying to draw this freehand onto the surface I wanted to paint it on. For large works, I trace or print onto an acetate and project this using an OHP. For smaller works, I print a full size copy and trace the basic outlines onto the surface ready to begin painting. For a long time I was shy about admitting this, because many artists would look snootily down their noses they visualised me 'cheating'! I've come to realise that this is just a tool to support my creativity in the absence of being able to visualise and the finished piece is no more or less beautiful than if I'd produced it using methods approved by non-aphants.


Want to find out more about Aphantasia?

If you would like to see artworks by other aphants, there is an online exhibition on the Glasgow University website.

If this blog has started you wondering if you might be aphantasic, and you would like to find out, there is an online questionnaire called VVIQ on the Aphantasia Network website alongside lots more interesting information and articles.

 

Gorse

A quick photo of my latest oil pastel: Gorse
Gorse - work in progress

I've used video and photos of Gorse to illustrate this blog. Gorse is a 16 by 20 inch oil pastel on acid free linen paper. At the time of writing it's not yet available on my website - I've not even removed the protective edging tape yet - if you are interested in buying it please email me at artbyroehart@gmail.com








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