Aphantasia & memory

If I close my eyes and think of an apple, I see nothing but grey mush.

I have no ‘mind’s eye’. I have aphantasia.

If I think of sunshine, skies and birds, all I see is grey mush. If I think of my husband’s face, I see grey mush. I cannot call up an image of my parents, but I will recognise a photo if I see it. When I see people in the street, unless I know them very well, they will just be faces. Some may be vaguely familiar, but I won’t be able to identify them, even if I have been talking to them the day before. That is embarrassing.

Yet I can memorise almost anything now that I know the methods.

Until a year ago, I had no idea that other people actually saw images. I thought that we were all talking in metaphors. It was a huge shock to discover that most of you ‘see’ things that I can’t.

Wikipedia defines aphantasia as:

Aphantasia is a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery. The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 but has since remained largely unstudied. Interest in the phenomenon renewed after the publication of a study in 2015 conducted by a team led by Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter, which also coined the term aphantasia. Research on the condition is still scarce.

Many people with aphantasia also report an inability to recall sounds, smells, or sensations of touch.

This image is found all over the internet, giving a visualisation ranging from 1. hyperphantasia (visualising everything vividly) to 5. aphantasia (visualising nothing).

When I wrote Memory Craft, I didn’t know that I was imagining things any differently from others. It was a huge shock when I discovered that there was such a thing as aphantasia and that most of you don’t have it.

When I talk about creating ‘vivid images’, as I do so often in the book, I didn’t mean real images that you can see. I meant metaphorical images: concepts, stories, ideas. I do get vague constructed images somewhere behind my head ( this makes sense to me!) but they are veiled, lack colour and certainly have no definition.

I haven’t talked about this before in case people thought that Memory Craft was only for people with aphantasia. It isn’t. It is for everyone.

Wherever you are on the visualisation scale, you will adapt to your concept of ‘images’. You will have been doing so all your life.

I probably use stories and logic more than those who can readily visualise. I probably struggle more when setting up my memory palaces. And I think aphantasia may explain why foreign languages and history were impossible for me before I discovered memory techniques. Now I am learning French, Chinese and lots of history at a rapid rate – and loving it.

When I first discovered that others are seeing vivid images, hearing sounds in their imagination and can even recreate tastes, I felt really ripped off. Then I discovered research that suggests that being unable to reconstruct events from the past reduces the chance of post-traumatic stress. We simply can’t relive trauma. Other research suggests that aphantasiacs are more likely to be strong in logic, compensating for their weakness in memory. That certainly reflects my school experience, when mathematics, physics and computing were the only subjects which came easily. The research is still new and anecdotal.

My conclusion: aphantasia is not an obstacle to memory training. It just means doing it slightly differently.

Further links:

Scientific American on Aphantasia
BBC: Aphantasia: a life without mental images (also talks about the other extreme)
University of Exeter’s list of aphantasia links:
Live Science on aphantasia

Nature: A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia.

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