I have evenly become obsessed with a phenomenon introduced to me last night. Aphantasia. Ever heard of it?
Neither had I. Last night I was scrolling along Instagram, as we all do, when I came across a post that demanded action. The post told me to imagine an apple. There were no confines to what I could imagine, just to conjure up the image of an apple. The post then confronted me with the image above, and asked me which ‘apple’ I saw in my brain.
I saw #5. Maybe #4 if I tried really, really hard, but mostly #5. The post then continued to define something called aphantasia: “a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.”
To say that this was an earth shattering revelation is an understatement. I read more about it, watched some videos, and discussed this phenomenon in depth with my roommate 'til around 2am. Was I really an anomaly?
There was another test online I stumbled upon. It told me to imagine a ball on a table. Then it told me to imagine a person coming over and pushing the ball off of the table. It then confronted me with several questions:
I asked Jess, my roommate, to try this exercise. Then I asked her the questions. She answered them without hesitation-the ball was blue. It was about the size of the baseball. A boy with black hair pushed the ball, and the table was our dining table, wooden and rectangular.
When I tried this exercise myself, I was only able to answer these questions after they were asked and I had to then decide on my answers. I decided to make the ball red arbitrarily, and then eh, why not make the person pushing the ball a girl?
My entire life I have struggled with certain things and just assumed everyone in the world struggled the same way! After thinking about it incessantly for 24 hours now, I’ve kind of figured out how to articulate what it’s like to be inside my brain.
My brain functions like a search engine. I obviously still have memories, I can still recall what things look like, but they are all based off of concrete facts that I have learned. For example, I know what an apple looks like because I’ve been exposed to apples, in real life and in photos, my whole life. So when I’m told to imagine an apple I can do so by referring to the facts I know about apples. I know an apple is (typically) red, I know it has a stem and a leaf, I know its general shape and its general size. So yes, I can draw an apple from memory.
But I cannot see the apple in my mind. Hypothetically, if I forgot that apples had leaves, my “mental image” of an apple also wouldn’t have a leaf. If you told me to picture an apple, then told me to change the colour of it, add a leaf, add some bruises, change the background, put the apple on a tree or my hand, I cannot do that. My brain doesn’t play out like a movie. All I see is darkness. My mental images are all pulled 100% from my memories.
Another example is that when I read descriptions in a story I don’t build the scene in my head. When my brain sees a description, for example: “The room was large and oval shaped. Sunlight poured in through the open window to my left onto the ornate Persian rug draped on the floor. In front of me sits a mahogany desk with a portrait of a man hanging on the wall behind it, and a crystal chandelier suspends above my head.” Can you see the room built in your head? Can you mentally place yourself in this room and “walk around”? I can’t.
However, it doesn’t mean I can’t write descriptively. I wrote that phrase above! Evidently I’m capable of placing myself in a scene I just can’t picture the room as a coherent space. I see a chandelier, a window, a rug, a desk, but all independently. They aren’t placed in relation to the other things, they just exist as simultaneously thoughts in my head. And when I say I “see” a chandelier, I mean that I can see a fuzzy sketch of a generic chandelier, or even in some situations, just the word “chandelier.”
Anyway, what does this mean for me as someone working in a creative field? All of you in the creative field must be wondering, how the hell do you manifest cake designs without being able to build the cake in your head? Are you literally winging it all the time?
Well since I’ve never been able to do that, I’ve had to adapt without even knowing I was adapting. My cake design process is based heavily on reference images, sketching, inspiration photos, tried-and-true pattern and colour combinations, and experimentation. Until a texture or colour combination is literally in front of me, I have a very hard time visualizing if it will be a cohesive design. As a result, I’m assuming a cake design takes me longer than someone who doesn’t have aphantasia. It also explains a lot of my biggest creative cake challenges.
I distinctly remember one cake that made me so frustrated–scream and pull out my hair frustrated. I had decided to wrap a band around the bottom of the top tier, but I couldn’t decide what colour and width I wanted to make it. I spent hours taking photos of the cake and sketching over them, looking at colour swatches, painting little off-cuts of fondant and holding them up, and asking people for opinions. It took me days to finally come to a decision, and I still second guessed it. It was this cake right here:
I still look back at this cake with disdain because it challenged me so much creatively, but now there is a little bit of an explanation for why. I couldn’t mentally switch out the band colour and width, I had to do it in the physical realm in order to fully understand how it'd translate on the cake.
Initially, this realization shook my idea of self a little bit despite my best efforts to not let it. Every article I’ve read about it says it’s not a disorder, that it does not mean I am disadvantaged. But I couldn't help but feel like I was missing a cognitive function. And yes I’ve adapted to it and I have been pretty successful in my creative endeavours, but I can’t help but imagine how much easier and more creative I could be given I didn’t have aphantasia.
This isn't the right way to think about it though. This thing–this aphantasia–doesn't define me or my abilities at all. If anything, finding out about this has made me feel more in control of myself and the way I learn. Now I know that if I'm not grasping something right away, it isn't because I am dumber or less talented, it just means I have to find an alternative way of understanding the concept–my own way.
I am SO intrigued by this phenomenon and I want to continue to research it and ask all of you guys about it. Do you think you have aphantasia? If you do, how do you feel about it? Did you know? If you don’t have it, were you aware of it? Did you think everyone had the ability to form mental images?
I’m so curious and I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts on the topic. Leave a comment, DM me on Instagram, reach out! Let’s talk about it.
PS. Watch this video! It explains aphantasia really well and it's how I discovered I had it.