Aphantasia and Visualization Challenges

Have you ever heard of aphantasia? If your answer is no, then you and I would have had that in common up until a few weeks ago. It’s amazing the things you learn while writing, whether it be odd facts from research or the ins and outs of grammar. But what I’ve found most valuable are the things I’ve learned about myself.

A few weeks ago I read a post on social media about aphantasia. For those who don’t know, allow me to explain in my very limited understanding. Aphantasia is the inability to create mental images in one’s mind. Simply put, someone with this condition would have a mind’s eye that’s blank. Say you recalled a happy memory of your childhood. If you can picture that moment like a movie playing in your head, then you do not have aphantasia. Someone with the condition, however, would recall a memory as something more like a list of facts that describe it rather than having a visual.

Interesting, right? No, I do not suffer from aphantasia, but the post did bring up questions for me. The original poster spoke of having the ability to “see” but also having limitations on the details they could conjure. THAT described me.

I had not paid my lack of visualization skill any heed until I started writing. The issue really came to light when my husband, who creates the characters for my book covers, told me I didn’t give him enough details. Shockingly enough, it wasn’t stubbornness on my part, but a complete inability to truly describe my characters. Even when writing them I kept to general details and never dove into more complex ones such as facial structure.

Despite my concentrated efforts to give the requested information, I struggled to provide the depth my husband wanted. I could not see my characters, or at least not more than hair and eye color, skin tone, and whether they possessed a beard. It occurred to me then that the issue also happened while I read. No matter how much detail an author provided me, my brain rarely put much of it together. At best, I get an image with a blurred face. Hair and eye color are typically the only thing clear to me unless the character has a specific scar or the like.

The same can usually be said of a character’s clothing. Whether I’m writing or reading, I don’t get much in the way of apparel beyond color.

For those without aphantasia, visual recall or the ability to create mental images has a vast range from highly detailed to vague. Where do you fall on the scale? Read the paragraph below and see how many details your mind can create.

The dirt road rounded a bend and weaved into a grove of lush green oaks and birches. A split in the canopy overhead allowed just enough sunlight through to illuminate the path through the shadows. To the left, a stream flowed over black rocks, creating a constant hum, while a steep drop into a darkened hollow edged along the right.

Can you picture the entire scene? If you can see it vividly, congratulations! I envy you. Being that I lie low on the visualization scale, picturing this scene comes with great difficultly for me. I can only imagine one aspect at a time. For instance, if I picture the dirt road heading into shadows, I get a pretty clear image, but when I attempt to add in the trees, the road completely disappears. I can see trees to either side, and a massive black center.

If I pan to the stream, I can see the water washing over the black rocks but the trees and road are no where to be seen. I do get some blurred silhouettes, something akin to a watercolor painting. Fun right? XD

Obviously my lack of ability makes writing difficult at times, but understanding the weakness means I can learn to work around the issue. Though it isn’t always the most productive, I can focus on individual parts of a scene, describing each of them in turn until all the pieces are altogether on paper. This is what I did to write the paragraph above, in fact. I can also use pictures to help guide my descriptions. If the image is in front of me, getting those words down are far easier and faster.

Of course, I can’t constantly pull up a picture for everything, and given that I write fantasy, not everything in my imagination even exists in reality. Many of my first drafts are often lacking in descriptions for this reason, and its a constant effort to make sure I include them.

I find the entire concept fascinating, and honestly, I doubt I would have ever understood so much about how my brain operates had I not started writing. I realize now why I struggle to enjoy Epic Fantasy novels. My mind has no use for pages upon pages of description. My preference to novels that are heavy with dialogue and focus more on emotional development rather than action scenes makes a great deal of sense and may also explains why I primarily read romance.

While reading and writing is where I’m likely most effected, the lack of visualization abilities give me understanding about other aspects of life. I struggle to remember people’s faces unless I see them on a regular basis, even people I’ve know for years. I’m also quite terrible at giving and following directions while driving, and while not completely to blame, I imagine this does me no favors. 😉

Writing has helped me grow in so many ways as a person. Understanding oneself is important, and I’m grateful for small insights like this that help me identify what exactly my obstacles are. Acknowledging our struggles, big or small, is the only way to press forward. Even with the challenges I face, and though it is exceptionally frustrating at times, writing is a part of who I am. I love storytelling, and we should never allow challenges to stop us from doing the things we love.

Drop a comment and let me know how YOU fared on the visualization test!