My Mind’s Eye

/ 28 April 2016

I am blown away by this: people can actually picture things in their heads. Up till last week I have always assumed that picturing something in your head was a metaphor of sorts, another way of saying “remembering.” After all, I have never done it. I’ve never pictured anything in my head. Last week I learned there was a name for this: aphantasia. I learned this from the New York Times, “Picture this? Some just can’t.” (I have since seen it in a few other places.)

Since I thought my condition was simply the human condition, I never remarked on it. But after reading the NYT story last week I asked Alex, “Can you actually picture things in your head? Like are they in color?” He closed his eyes and said, “Yes.” A few days later I asked Mary to close her eyes and picture Himmelblau House on Kelleys Island. She shut her eyes and began describing the grass, the water, the porch. I asked her if she could actually see the colors of those things, if it was like being there, she said that it was.

When I close my eyes and try to see Himmelblau House I see an afterimage of the screen in front of me where I’ve been typing. I see abstract dunkelbunt colors. I can remember and describe Kelleys, I can even, perhaps with some effort, construct a schematic of sorts in my head. A kind of model of Himmelblau House rebuilt from experience. But I do not see it. In fact, I always thought this reconstruction process is what “picture in your mind” meant. “Picture yourself on a beach” in a meditation sends me off reconstructing a beach scene that never really includes colors or breeze, but means in some intellectual way “beach.” I do not see pictures in my head at all.

I don’t see places I love in my head. I don’t see the people I love in my head. If Mary is away on a trip I cannot pull an image of her to my mind, though I can easily recognize her image in a photograph and know her when she returns. I am hard-pressed to describe anyone to you because I don’t see them when I describe them. I wonder if this is related to how difficult it has always been for me to remember people in general? Or anything, for that matter. My memory has always been spotty.

The odd thing is that I consider myself a visual thinker! I love drawing and designing things. I have a good sense of color and space. I can imagine things that are not there and construct them. I just cannot ever see them in my head before, during, or after I’ve made them. I can only see them when I look at them.

I accept this as who I am. I had no idea it set me apart and I consider it a gift that has allowed me to grow in ways that are uniquely Eric. I’m not asking for any pity or concern. In fact, the opposite. I am presenting this as an example of the wonder of the universe. An example of how unique each of us is and how varied the human condition can be. We can’t assume others see the world as we do. For me, I slide this in with my tinnitus, a part of me that I accept and work with, not against.

But, wow, I am completely blown away and still feel like someone is pulling my leg. You really see things with your eyes closed? Wow.

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