Slices of Life - Welcome to the world of aphantasia

Slices of Life

Welcome to the world of aphantasia

By Jill Pertler

Ever feel lost? Welcome to my life. Quite literally.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had trouble with directions and all things spatial. I described myself as geographically challenged. I can’t find my way out of a paper bag. I used to routinely get lost in a familiar mall. I thought it was normal.

I was right, and wrong, at the same time. I am normal, but not like most people. My normal involves a living with condition called aphantasia, which is the inability to voluntarily create a mental picture – or map – in your head. People with aphantasia are unable to picture a scene, person, or object, even if it's very familiar.

It took me until now to even know I had a condition, so while I am lacking in ability to visualize, I never knew it because it’s how life has always been for me.

And it probably would have stayed that way.

In the last year, I started meditating. I loved the idea of calming and focusing my mind, but I found soon, within the practice, that I was challenged – in an extreme way – in any meditation that employed the basic technique of visualization.

Simply put, visualization involves seeing something inside your mind. It might be a sunset, a beach, path leading into a forest or any other usually positive outdoor scenario that might put you into a good mind space.

I loved meditating because it put me in a peaceful place. I found I was nearly an expert at breathing; it was almost like I’d been doing it my whole life. I am also able to focus my mind for at least 30 consecutive seconds at a time, which is just slightly short of the recommended amount of 12 to 14 minutes.

I found an infinite reservoir of peace and calm residing within my being. I found myself valuing people and life like never before. I began to understand the importance of truly living in the moment.

There was only one problem.

I was unable to visualize. Completely. When I close my eyes, I see… nothing.

You close your eyes and are able to envision a beach or  palm tree? I can’t. I see the light that trickles through my eyelids. I see nothing except maybe a yellow or orangish glow, if it is a bright day.

I never knew I was lacking. I never knew I was unable to visualize; I never knew I was mind-blind. I never knew aphantasia was a thing.

For the most part, it wasn’t. Although initially discovered more than 140 years ago, the condition has been relatively unstudied in scientific and medical circles. Renewed interest in occurred in 2005 when a professor from the University of Exeter named Adam Zeman sort of rediscovered the whole phenomenon; it took another 10 years for someone to come up with a name for it – aphantasia.

The opposite is extreme vivid imagery capabilities and is called hyperphantasia. It’s estimated that 2.6 percent of people are in this hyper state, while less than one percent experience aphantasia.

Lucky me. I’m rare and groundbreaking all at the same time.

Honestly, I almost wish I’d never discovered my deficit. But now that I have I can’t go back. I can unsee what I can’t see. I don’t wish the same one you. Still, if you are with me, I want you to know you aren’t alone. We are in the dark together. Quite literally.

If you’re part of the less-than-one percent, I’m glad we’re in this together. Our commonality might even prove to be enlightening. I just can’t visualize it, but then again, neither can you.

(Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.)


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