A reflection on aphantasia, hyperphantasia, and other weird ways that thought and memory work differently for each of us.
Five years ago, I learned that you have a superpower I don’t—you can see things in your mind!
The inability to do so, I learned, is called aphantasia. Here’s the fantastic and hilarious article by Blake Ross that led me to this discovery: Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.
If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.
You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.
I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.Blake Ross
Like Blake, I too made it to 30 with no idea seeing things in your mind’s eye (or the equivalents for other senses) was anything more than colorful language. At the time, learning about this helped explain a lot of things for me, such as why it takes work to remember what I did today (and I’m often stumped by the simple question of what I did over the weekend) even though I can recite extensive details about the arcana of technical systems. Or why I can go somewhere 100 times and still not know how to get there, unless I memorize the facts of each turn.
It took a few more years and the r/Aphantasia subreddit to learn about something called SDAM, which again deepened my self-understanding. I’ve often reflected on how much and how fast I’ve forgotten the experiences of my own life (even though I don’t think of myself as having bad memory more generally), and SDAM finally explained it. Although SDAM is separate from the mental blindness of aphantasia, many people with aphantasia seem to have it as well.
So what the hell is SDAM? It stands for Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory—a simultaneously wordy yet not very explanatory term for what the BBC calls “the inability to mentally time travel.” Essentially, I know some facts about things from my past, but I don’t know first-person stories. If that creates more questions than answers, buy me a drink sometime and let’s chat.
Reflections on Personality & Happiness
So that’s the background. More recently, I listened to the audiobook Why You Are Who You Are by Mark Leary with my girlfriend. It’s a lecture series about the roots of human personality, covering things like personality differences between people, where the differences come from (spoiler: it’s the usual mix of nature and nurture), and how they alter our lives.
Although the book could have been better, there were some insights. In particular, Leary described how happiness is in large part a personality. I’d never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. And like other personality traits, it’s partly genetic. Apparently, 30–50 percent of the variability in happiness across people is due to personality differences rather than the objective quality of their lives.
The book used the terms positive and negative affectivity for happiness and unhappiness, and explained that (1) they’re not opposites (e.g., you can rank high on both), and (2) they’re better thought of with the additional variables of frequency and intensity. Also related, there really are lovers and haters, who are dispositionally inclined that way toward any number of unrelated things and activities. Unsurprisingly, these traits correlate with openness to new experiences and ideas.
If I had to guess where I land on the bell curves for each of these, I’d say that I’m average for frequency of happiness and unhappiness, slightly below average for intensity of happiness, lower than that for intensity of unhappiness, and high on openness. I’m grateful for where I land. It doesn’t sound fun at all to be generally inclined toward unhappiness and disliking things.
I had a meaningful realization in the process of writing this. I’ve long thought of myself as pretty mellow/chill, without a lot of high highs or low lows. I seem to move past negative emotions and experiences faster than most, which is something I’ve tied to my aphantasia and SDAM ever since I learned about them. I definitely haven’t thought of myself as unhappy. But now I see that this was colored by thinking of happiness and unhappiness as opposites rather than orthogonal. So I had to rewrite my first draft of this section. It used to claim I’m “higher than average on happiness”. My updated version above nearly reverses this, acknowledging that I’m likely lower than average on intensity of happiness. That change felt like a meaningful discovery, and a success story for why writing a blog filled with introspection might be worth the effort. Listening to the audiobook got me started on self examination, but it was in fact the process of writing about it here that made me realize I’d been wrong about myself.
Meena’s Mental Superpowers
The other day I was talking with my charming girlfriend Meena about perceptions, memory, and aphantasia. We’d talked about this before, but a new insight was just how strong Meena is in all her crazy mental and memory superpowers that I struggle to even comprehend. Not only does she have a mind’s eye, but her mind’s eye is as good as it fuckin’ gets, and her mind’s ear, nose, tongue, touch, proprioception, and emotional replay aren’t far behind. Basically, Meena has motherfucking hyperphantasia for nearly all of her senses. Holy fuck.
I had her rank senses she could perceive and control in her mind on a subjective 10 point scale, and here’s what she said as I took notes:
- Vision: 10+
- She gave an example of something she could visualize on demand that she’d never seen before: A penguin hopping on a pogo stick through the Amazon. She sees full HD video. The penguin had three little tufts of hair, she said, that were wiggling in the wind as it jumped. She could also go back and add any details she wanted, like a scarf.
- Hearing: 9
- She’s especially strong at remembering and replaying music (with total control over the tempo, pitch, etc.), but she can also clearly generate and hear distinctive voices, animals, and more. As strong as this sounded, when I questioned her, she said her mental vision was a lot stronger and that it took less effort with vision.
- Smell: 4
- She said this was her weakest mental sense, though in real life smell was her strongest sense relative to other people. She said she can’t smell new things in her mind or mix smells and pick them apart, but she could smell some distinctive things strongly. Still, I think her mental sense of smell is stronger than for most people, since mental smell is less common to have at all.
- Taste: 9
- She can accurately taste in her mind what a dish will taste like prior to adding a new ingredient. WTF, that sounds hella useful for cooking. She ranked mental taste a nine only because it takes more effort than vision.
- Touch: 9
- She can feel in her mind the feeling of being punched or touching a hot stove (as examples), but it doesn’t hurt. She can also feel soft touches like feathers. She can look at objects and know what they feel like, and can replay how objects felt in the past. Again, this was only a nine because it took more effort than vision.
- Emotional replay: 6 or 7
- Notably, emotions from sad memories decay over time for her, whereas emotions from happy memories last much longer. (A nice trait, since the opposite is true for most people.)
Must be cool to be a Meena! I’m a big fat zero on all of these, by the way. If you want to know what the experience of seeing through my mind’s eye is like, imagine you have eyes on the back of your head, and try looking through those. I don’t see black; I see nothing. Same goes for the other mental senses, though I’ve found that absence of mental smell, taste, and touch is often more relatable, since they’re less common.
As the conversation continued, Meena and I also discussed synesthesia and hypnagogic states. I found an unscientific hyperphantasia checklist on Reddit, and Meena crushed all or nearly all points for every sense. Here it is if you want to compare to your own abilities or understand what some people can do:
Visual — Picture an apple on a plate.
- What color is the apple?
- What variety is the apple? (Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Macintosh…)
- Which direction is the light coming from?
- Is there a specular reflection — i.e., a shiny spot, as if light is being accurately reflected by the skin of the apple?
- Are there imperfections in the surface? Roughness, subtle variations in the color of the apple?
- Is there reflected illumination from the plate onto the apple?
- Can you easily zoom in on the apple, rotate it, etc.? How faithful to an actual 3D physical object is this in your mind’s eye?
Audio — Imagine a song, one with vocals and instruments. Pick one you’re familiar with.
- Does it have all the instruments?
- Are the vocals changing pitch, tone, etc.?
- Are the vocals actual words, or just sort of gibberish fitting the role? (Try singing along to whatever is going through your head out loud if you’re not sure.)
- How sharp are the drums?
- Can you change the tempo?
- Can you make the singer sound like they huffed helium?
- Can you swap out instruments? Swap out lyrics wholesale?
- Can you change the key or mode of the song?
Touch/Proprioception — Imagine your hand and an object, any object, in front of you.
- Can you mentally reach out and touch it?
- Does the object feel like it should? Hard/soft, hot/cold, smooth/rough, etc.
- Could you feel your own imagined hand and arm? Were you aware of the physical movements in the same way that you know where your physical arm/hand/fingers are without looking?
- How heavy is the object you imagined? The right weight?
- Can you change that weight?
- Close your eyes (mentally or physically, whatever works) and concentrate on that imagined hand. Start with the thumb. Tap it to your palm. Do the same with your index finger, then your middle, ring, little finger. Any problems?
- Can you keep going? In other words, can you continue to “tap fingers” with fingers you don’t have — imagine that you had extra fingers — despite not having a real-life analogue to compare to?
- Can you go a step further, and imagine the feel of wholly alien things (bird wings, say) that will require entirely fictitious input?
Smell — Imagine a flower, preferably one with a strong smell.
- Can you smell it at all?
- Does it smell strong enough, or just a faint whiff?
- Is the smell accurate — a rose smelling like a rose?
- Can you make it smell like something else — fresh cookies, say?
- Multiple smells at once? Rose, cookies, old stinky socks?
Taste — Seems to be pretty rare, but… imagine a few foods.
- Can you taste them?
- If you imagine something salty — like a pickle or potato chips — and add imaginary salt to it, does it taste saltier?
- Can you distinctly tell apart the taste of distinct items, like, say, two flavors of chips, or two kinds of candy bar, or two different wines?
- Kind of the acid test: if you imagine a few foods and what they would taste like together, can you go in your kitchen, get those foods, eat them together, and have them taste the same? That is, are your imagined tastes demonstrably the same as the real thing to a degree that it would be useful when cooking?
That list doesn’t cover what I described earlier as “emotional replay,” so while writing this I went looking and found a blog post at aphantasia.com titled 3 Things I Learned Dating an Aphantasic. In it, the author describes how remembering something happy or sad doesn’t make her boyfriend happy or sad. That’s a concise description of the absence of this ability. I would add to that: My memories may in some cases lead to new feelings similar to what I felt at the time of the event I’m remembering, but the new feelings are not replaying as part of the memory itself. If I happen to remember how I felt at the time, I’ll recall that as a plot point, not as an emotional experience.
By now you can probably tell that I find these topics endlessly fascinating. I think I’ve been rambling long enough, though, so I’ll close out with this video of legendary physicist Richard Feynman talking about different ways people’s minds work for something as seemingly simple as counting: