Close your eyes and picture a banana. How well can you see it? Is it a vivid picture? Now imagine a world where you close your eyes and everything is dark. This is my reality. When I close my eyes and try to picture that banana, I can’t see anything. I have memories of the look and taste of a banana but trying to picture one is impossible. For eighteen years, I thought this was normal. Whenever people would describe picturing things in their mind, I always thought that they were over-exaggerating. I had no reason to believe that people were different than me. Until I stumbled upon a Youtube video about this thing called Aphantasia.
Aphantasia is the inability to produce mental images. It is so rare that only one to three percent of the population have been recorded as experiencing it. However, it’s extremely likely that more of the population suffers from this but just aren’t aware of it. It has only come to researchers’ and scientists’ attention in the last decade. Information about aphantasia and its effects is still slow-coming.
In my experience, aphantasia unknowingly shaped a lot of my life. I am a very creative person, but I’ve subconsciously found different ways to be creative. If an author begins to describe a scene in detail, I skip over those paragraphs because it is impossible for me to visually imagine the details. I’ve done this my whole life without knowing I was experiencing aphantasia.
I also love to paint; I find it extremely relaxing. However, I’ve never painted an image from my own mind. I always reference a picture online. For the longest time, I simply assumed I wasn’t artistic enough or that maybe painting just wasn’t for me. In reality, aphantasia is behind my struggle with this. There are no images in my mind to convey on a canvas.
The idea of closing your eyes and seeing nothing might frighten or shock people who don’t experience aphantasia. And while the condition doesn’t affect regular life much, it does have some serious cons. People who suffer from aphantasia often struggle to remember faces. I personally have not suffered from this, but when I close my eyes, I can’t picture the faces of those closest to me. I know what they look like, and I can easily describe their features to you, but when I try to conjure a mental image of them, nothing happens.
Those suffering from aphantasia hope that in the future, researchers will identify the problem within the brain and develop ways for aphantasiacs to finally see within their own minds. Maybe one day I’ll be able to picture that banana—or my boyfriend’s face.
Photo of Bernal Heights, San Francisco by Sarah Crawford