Thinking about thinking

In this very personal piece, Toby considers the implications of a recent revelation.

Think you understand how other people think? Think again. You’re not even close, and probably never will be. I recently learned this lesson via a remarkable discovery about myself – or maybe it’s about everyone else.

On the WhatsApp group of my MSc course mates, one of my friends recently posted a picture taken of his TV, showing one of our wonderfully batty old lecturers, giving a vox pop while at a niche conference about a recently (re)discovered condition called Aphantasia. Condition is not quite the right word, but people with Aphantasia have a ‘blind mind’s eye’ – they cannot visualise images in their mind.

The message went something like “Look, Peter (names have been changed to protect the innocent) is on the tele with this thing – I always told you he was bonkers!”

“Haha, yeah …. Wait a minute….”

And that is how I found out that I have Aphantasia.

If I say imagine a red triangle, you are probably able to conjure up an image, emblazoned on the back of your eyelids. Discovering this is almost literally incredible to me. I can’t conceive what it must be like – whenever I close my eyes, it just goes dark. Apparently you can even do this with your eyes open which is frankly even more ridiculous, and I appeal to you not to do it while driving or operating heavy machinery.

For several days afterwards, and often since then, it has preoccupied my thoughts. How is it that for over one third of a century, no one bothered to mention to me that the following phrases are not just metaphors or turns of phrase:

The mind’s eye

Picture the scene

Visualise ‘x’

Where do you see yourself in 5 years

Daydreaming

Imagine an imaginary manager managing an imaginary menagerie

And so on

Previously, I assumed this sort of thing was simple metaphor or hyperbole – no-one can literally create those images inside their head, that would be… mental.

A fellow Aphantastic describes it as if the brain was a computer, it works fine but her monitor is switched off. I think a slightly better analogy is that where you have a full GUI, I’m running command line. You’re on Windows, I’m bash scripting. All information is held and recalled as facts or concepts. When prompted for a red triangle, I bring to mind the concepts of red, and of triangle. I could draw it and recognise it, but there’s no picture floating around.

Talking to my friends and family about it, a lot of interesting questions that arise, often to do with memory, recall, recognition, dreaming, navigation and so on. I’m probably more forgetful than average, but not to a very unusual extent. I can recognise people and things when I see them, and describe graphical things from memory, as long as I have consciously or unconsciously stored sufficient facts about them. The science is still quite new but indicates a different part of the brain deals with dreaming; nonetheless, I only rarely dream or rather recall it, maybe once a year or so. I can navigate quite well having done a fair bit of sailing and being a keen mountain walker and off-road runner, but I do have to work at it.

The Internet means there are endless anecdotes and explanations about this fascinating feature of the human brain, and if you’re interested, I’d recommend reading this post which reflects my experiences and the journey of discovery. I have also been reflecting on what this means for how I relate to other people in every sense, and encourage you to do the same.

I have, I now realise, developed strategies and mechanisms to compensate for the unusual way my brain works. I often draw to help myself think, say in a meeting discussing such and such detail. I often check my understanding when someone has described something visual to me. It seems that If I can parse this sort of information well, I seem to be able to store the essential information in my head but they have to be reproduced with pen and paper or maybe CAD. Back to the computer analogy, it’s like trying to open a Jpeg in notepad. The information is there, but I can’t access it directly in graphic form.

Reflecting on all this, I realise how amazingly patient most people are when I find the need to sketch as they talk or have them repeat things, or listen to me say “can I just check…” so I can lodge the information in my brain. If you’ve waited while I pause to slowly martial my thoughts: thank you. And it makes me think, am I as patient with others who think in different ways to me, who need to process information in ways I’m not used to?

It’s also given me a new perspective on prejudice towards people with different abilities. As an English, white, male, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied person I try to remain aware (not always successfully) that society tends to favour me, and to stay modest. It probably would have been harder to achieve my modest successes if I had not lucked out in life’s lottery. I am not comparing my unusual but mostly quite functional brain to other people’s situations, but it has given me a fresh perspective on the differences that other people live with: an inkling of what it’s like when society is designed around English, White, Male etc – and you don’t tick all the boxes.

My little quirk might prompt a little pity from some people, but I can assure you it’s completely unnecessary. The only thing that saddens me is my inability to picture the faces of loved ones, particularly those who aren’t with us anymore. I have carried on for decades with no problem and achieved some modest accomplishments not in spite of it but simply with Aphantasia. I don’t consider it a shortcoming or a problem; it’s just how I am. I have read about one ‘sufferer’ who has managed to ‘cure’ himself, but I’m rather nonplussed by the idea. I feel quite defensive about my imperfect mind and would resist anyone trying to ‘treat’ my ‘condition’. Aphantasia is a part of how I think, who I am. I now understand much better how people with other ‘disabilities’ feel about their way of being, and how other people interact with them with respect to their way of being – and sometimes without respect.

I don’t need pity, and generally I don’t need help (but I might ask for it sometimes). A little patience and understanding would go a long way, and if you can’t manage that then I’ll survive. But with my newly shifted perspective, I will redouble my efforts to be compassionate to people who don’t need pity or help, just a bit of patience and understanding.

Finally, although I’ve sort of always known it, I’ve realised in a much deeper way that its literally impossible to really understand what’s going through another person’s mind – after all, no one noticed for over thirty years that what was going through my mind was quite different to what was in theirs – and vice versa.


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