Learning I Have Aphantasia Helped Ease My Anxiety
I have aphantasia, a neurodiversity (a different way of thinking), whereby I am unable to visualize. Most of you reading this now can easily imagine a sunset, a calm lake, or fluffy white clouds against a crisp, blue sky. I simply cannot conjure images. Having a blind imagination, as it's sometimes called, used to trigger my anxiety insomuch as my inability to visualize used to cause frustration, anger, confusion, shame, and a feeling of failure.
What Is Aphantasia?
Most people have never heard of "aphantasia." I certainly never had, and rightly so: the term aphantasia was only coined in 2015 by Dr. Adam Zemen, a neurologist from Exeter University.
According to the Aphantasia Network website:
"Aristotle coins the term phantasia in De Amina (On the Soul), Part III to describe a distinct capacity between perception and thought — a sort of ‘sixth sense.’ . . . (Dr.) Zeman coins the term “a-phantasia” to describe the inability to visualize in 2015."1
Throughout my life, when people said they could see things in their imagination—with their mind's eye, as it were—I always assumed they meant it metaphorically. Still, on a subliminal level, I knew that my experience was different.
Here is an abridged list of some of the nuances of my aphantasia:
- I can "imagine" things, but my imaginings have no accompanying visual aspects.
- I can remember things, but I don't experience the memory visually.
- In school, I had no visual imagery to assist in certain aspects of learning, memorization, for example.
- In school, I would read textbooks but quickly forget the content. Exam time was a nightmare.
- As an adult and an avid fiction reader, I skim over descriptive passages about the setting and people's appearance. I prefer reading dialog about how people feel, their hopes, and their struggles.
- I forget a novel's content within weeks of finishing it. I remember that I liked it and generally what it was about—for a short while—but I can't remember the title or author unless I look it up.
- I'm terrible at remembering directions. (Thankfully, there's GPS.)
It is important to note that while people with aphantasia share some of the traits I've described, not everybody experiences anxiety from them. Similarly, people who have vivid imaginations may experience some of the nuances I've listed -- remembering directions for getting from point A to point B, for example. Everybody is unique.
Above, I wrote about how I've felt frustration, anger, confusion, shame, and a feeling of failure about my inability to visualize. The frustration and anger were cognitive responses to being asked to visualize when I knew I could not. I experienced confusion, shame, and feelings of failure at more of an unconscious level. I wanted to fit in and couldn't understand why I couldn't do what seemingly everybody else could do. These are the things that caused me anxiety.
Learning I Have Aphantasia Eased My Anxiety
In early 2021, I went to a hypnotherapist to help with my anxiety. The therapist began our first session by asking me to "picture" myself somewhere calm. Frustrated, I told her I couldn't visualize. Believe it or not, it was the first time I had said it out loud to a practitioner. Quite plainly, she said, "Oh. You have aphantasia."
Those four words changed my entire perspective. I was stunned. My image-free imagination had a name. There were others like me out there. I wasn't alone. A flood of understanding washed over me. I felt vindicated and validated.
Since that day, I've had several a-ha moments where I realized how having aphantasia influenced aspects of myself. In understanding that I have aphantasia, all the anxiety associated with my inability to visualize dissolved. I wasn't a failure at all. I simply wasn't neurotypical (I don't think like everyone else). As such, I gained an entirely new appreciation for myself.
Aphantasia is not a disease or a disorder. It's not something that needs to be cured or fixed. Aphantasia is simply a difference in how people imagine. While most people can "see" the imagined world, there are others, like me, who "imagine" using memory, observation, perception, and experience as our tools.
Because of my aphantasia, my brain developed strategies that helped me to learn and create and to be intuitive and innovative in truly unique ways. Aphantasia is my superpower.
- Aphantasia Network, "History Of Aphantasia -- A Timeline Of Events." March 2020.
Scott, L. (2022, May 18). Learning I Have Aphantasia Helped Ease My Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, April 2 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2022/5/learning-i-have-aphantasia-helped-ease-my-anxiety