On the 31st of August, my boyfriend suddenly sent me a link from Wikipedia. It was a link about Aphantasia – it had 4 simple sentences in it – and 3 references.
“Aphantasia is a hypothesized neurological condition where a person does not possess a functioning mind’s eye. The term was first suggested in a 2015 study for a specific kind of visual agnosia. Further studies are being planned. The term was coined by the team led by Prof. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter Medical School.”
“Have you heard of this condition before?” He asks. Unsure of what condition it might be, I quickly googled and managed to come across a test (an abridged version of the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire used by psychologists) on BBC News which was developed by the University of Exeter.
Me: I think I have aphantasia.
Kelvin: Really??? Can you see my face now? In your mind, can you remember my face?
He seemed really anxious.
After closing my eyes, I tried to visualize his face in my mind. C’mon, you just saw him 6 hours ago and you see him every, single day.
I replied, “No.”
He was surprised. It turns out that two of his friends have this condition too and he didn’t even know that is exists. Well, neither do we, since we had always thought that everyone thinks the same way. And so I never find the need to explain to people that I do not think visually, that I’m unable to conjure a mental image of a person. It’s weird and hard to explain, because being unable to visualize hasn’t really affected me in any way that I know of. My memory doesn’t seem to be affected, and my facial recognition ability way surpasses my hyperaphantastic boyfriend.
“I know that it’s you when I see you, but I can’t visualize your face very accurately the moment you’re out of my sight. Can you?”
“Yes, I can. I can see your face in my mind, all the details.”
Researches like this is extremely irresistible to me. It coaxes me to think about ways to experience life that are radically different from my own, and it offers clues to how the mind works. Why does my boyfriend think so differently? Why doesn’t he feel how I feel? Why do some people love to read books?
“Can you count sheep when you’re trying to sleep?”
“No, I can’t count sheep. When I count sheep, I can only ‘count’. I don’t see any ‘sheep’ in my mind, and that’s why I’m wondering who even came up with that idea of counting sheep.”
“It’s a genetic condition.”
“You know what? I….can’t seem to visualize my mother’s face or my brother’s face either.”
“This could be a reason why I hate to read books, particularly fiction. Even when it comes to short paragraphs which are describing the look of the character or what he/she is wearing, I can never ‘see’ it. And I never understand why people always say, ‘Oh, the books are always better than the movie adaptation.’ I guess that explains.”
Despite this being something which I can relate to, I didn’t know about this condition until he asked me to try to recall how he looks like.
“Because Roland told me he just found out he has this problem. He thought that everyone is the same.”
That’s pretty true. I’ve always thought that the reason of why I hate to read is as simple as myself being born lazy. Turns out, I’m sort of ‘compromised’ on what books have to offer.
“Don’t forget me.” He quickly sent me a photo of himself.
“Doesn’t look like the mental image in my head.”
“Ok, you must keep photo of me with you, so you don’t walk away with the wrong guy.”
My test result:
He did the test as well and got the result of Hyperphantasia.
To be honest, I think that aphantasia could be more prominent in the Chinese race. Just like the genetic trait which, about half of all people of Asian descent share, causes a prompt reddening of the face in response to drinking alcohol. While the red-faced alcohol response can be annoying, it may also be beneficial to populations on the whole, as it appears to be associated with lower rates of alcoholism. In fact, the drug disulfiram, which is used to prevent relapse in recovering alcoholics, has some of the same biochemical effects as the flushing gene does when it is expressed. People with aphantasia may have, in fact, acquired other forms of compensation to their thought and memory processes which allows them to function normally.
“Is everything vivid to you?”
“Yes. I can imagine you in your exact form now sitting next to me.”
“Well, if I try to visualize that same image I see my legs tangled, somehow.”
“Now I am stroking your hair, and Seiji barking next to me.” Seiji is his dog.
“Ok, I can visualize actions but it’s hard for me to visualize faces. BUT I can hear Seiji bright and clear. In fact, I can imagine my mom’s voice very clearly.”
“Next question: when you read the text on messages, do you ‘hear’ the words?”
“Yes, I can visualize and remember voices and tones very well. Very, very clearly, almost as if that person is talking to me.”
“You have compensated talent, haha.”
Images aside, I realized that I’m way better at remembering names than him, perhaps because he remember names by imagining how the person looks like, whereas I remember their faces and associate their names with their faces.
“If I don’t consciously merge the name with the image of the face, I can’t remember their name. And that is not passive. Takes effort. And when I forget to do it, I will forget the person’s name.”
This could be a way of how my brain compensates with the lack of the ability to visualize in my mind, that’s why the moment I see someone, I know their names from my way of linking and association.
In my world, mental images don’t exist. But this has never affected me greatly. Other than the fact that I hate reading books.