I don’t know what your experience is, but I close my eyes and what I see is… the back of my eyelids. That’s it. If there’s a bright light, I get hints of red as the light shows me some of the blood vessels running through. Occasionally, I might get suggestions of light.
I assumed, probably much like you do that my experience of my mind’s eye was identical to everyone else’s.
What do you see when you close your eyes?
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I don’t “see” anything. I draw from my memory bank the component parts of a beach, and then I put together the words that describe what a beach is. But I don’t visualise “a beach” or picture a beach that I have visited.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised that each person has a different experience of seeing. Some people can see and manipulate images as if they were playing a video game or running a movie. Others experience static images.
About 2% of the population – like me – has aphantasia.
I dream, occasionally, with vivid images.
Sometimes, as I am falling asleep or waking up, for a fleeting moment, images are still there.
But when I try to grasp and see them, especially if I try to play with them or bring them closer, they are gone in a flash.
So what? Why does it matter?
I’m typically unbothered by my inability to “imagine” in this way, as I still have a creative and vivid imagination (in words). But, I’ve discovered that this lack of imagery does have some downsides and challenges.
I seriously wonder how I made it through school without ever realising that I was at a disadvantage. I mean, I had friends with photographic memories. I thought they were kidding that they could literally visualise and see the page they’d read or studied. Apparently not. They definitely had an advantage!
I remember one particular exam at law school where I had taken hours to mind-map an entire area of law (consideration). For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the first word that the mind-map started with. And without any visual assistance, I couldn’t “see it” either! I literally failed to answer that question in the exam because I remembered NOTHING since I couldn’t remember the first word.
My memory is limited to words, lists and rote learning.
I now realise why I struggled with biology, chemistry, and some of the sciences. We were meant to memorise charts, schematics, and images. I had no visual memory and simply had to remember the words and their order. I excelled in open-book exams and failed the rest of the time miserably.
But the impact is more significant than simply at school.
My inability to recall images impacts my memory as well. I struggle to remember people, events & places, and it all becomes a swirl of static in my mind.
A few years ago, I was worried that my lack of memory might have been a trauma response. However, once I learned about aphantasia, I quickly released that possibility. It’s more likely that I don’t remember my childhood because I have no images to attach the memories.
When I look at photos of my holidays in my early twenties and thirties, I can give you vivid details of where we were and what we did. But don’t ask me about the holidays I took when I failed to take photos.
Knowing what I know now about my memory and images, I will always take a camera and photos of those special moments!
“I’m not a visual person.”
For years, I’ve taken refuge in words and writing. I can vividly describe to you in words what I am planning or what I want to create. But the moment you ask me to “visualise it”, I draw a blank.
Well, not a blank.
More like a black, static TV screen with no signal!
A giant black hole of oblivion.
I really have no idea what it looks like!
I can describe it to you in words.
But I can’t see it. I can’t see myself “doing it” or “being there”.
So, the minute I arrived into the coaching world, people regularly and offhandedly talked about visualisation, setting intentions, and holding the image in your mind… I’m left behind.
Thankfully, I have discovered some great resources and workarounds.
Draw it & add more colour & texture
I have Vikki to thank for this – as she challenged me in 2018 to let go of my absolute reliance on words and to explore drawing my learnings. Not as mind-maps of terms but as images. You can imagine my response:
But I’m not a visual person.
This was quickly followed by “I can’t draw” and “I failed art in school” and the tantrum “and you can’t make me“. That was way beyond my comfort zone.
Thankfully, Sondra later introduced me to neurographic art. Now that – that’s something that I can do! It’s random and abstract, and it’s all about making new neural connections and rewriting old pathways into new ways of thinking. There’s colour and patterns, and it can be or become anything. With Neurographics, I’ve “embodied” learning – drawing and colouring mind-maps and emotions and even drawing “into my future”.
Before that, I was doing vision boards, where I began to see what “imagining” and “envisioning” could be. So, while I might not be able to see it “in my mind’s eye,” – I can put it on paper! It was here that I discovered the power of visualisation and imagination.
My office is peppered with images, words and collages.
Moving between states
Where I have really encountered the power of imagery is in moving between states. My first experience was earlier this year when I led a book club on Deb Dana’s book “Polyvagal Theory in Therapy”.
One of her recommended exercises was to draw “the three states”:
- shutdown/avoidance/withdrawal – the frozen state of being too scared to move and interact with the world
- fight/flight – when you are in a high-energy, chaotic state and
- calm/alert – what does relaxed and engaged look & feel like
I made a collage of colouring pages, colouring them according to how each state felt, and then “ruining” it with lines through it. For weeks, this collage hung on my office door, where I could see it from my desk. It was a constant reminder that I had choices:
- Did I want to stay in a state of shutdown and avoidance?
- Would I like to move out of fear and anger – in which direction? Up into calm or down into shutdown?
- Could I follow the lines back into peace?
Eventually, I put another picture that I finished over shutdown and chaos – leaving only the images of calm-alertness available to me.
But the exercise served a deep purpose of reminding me that I had choices.
Kinesthetics & Movement
But this wasn’t the only exercise that Deb Dana offered. And it’s perhaps in her other activities, I found gems that I can use in different aspects of life.
- Three chairs – rather than drawing the three states, she suggested setting up the room with three different chairs to represent each state. You walk through the room, representing moving through the states. For me, I draped the chairs with a grey blanket and a red blanket and then a comfy plush yellow blanket for calm and welcoming. This simple exercise of moving from one chair to the next, representing moving from one emotional state to another, was powerful for me. It opened up more possibilities of what I might do in the future for myself.
- Body posture – as simple and easy as it seems, posture is everything! Deb Dana explored how you sit when you’re depressed, or when you’re anxious… or when you’re calm and relaxed. I started experimenting with how I was sitting or standing, and I found I could stretch my way from one state of mind into another! Literally moving into a different way of feeling state!
- Breathwork – another simple solution to moving between states. This was something I was already familiar with and have used because of my training with mBraining. But I was lazy with my use of breathwork. It really is as simple as “just breathe”. Of course, you have to practice breathing daily to get the benefit of it. You create an “anchor” state of being calm & present – in the here and now. While it works excellently in a state of stress: the best effects come when you’ve practised it daily.
All learning comes with challenges.
I recently started reading and discussing Grant Soosalu’s book “Avoiding the Enemies to Happiness” with a group of mBIT coaches. As Chapter 1 began, I ran into my arch-nemesis of NLP practices: using imagery and submodalities to change states.
What does that mean?
Well, in NLP, you take an image and play with it in your mind’s eye – moving it closer and further away, changing the colours and vibrancy. The further and smaller out, the less important it is. The closer, more extensive and more vibrant – the more impactful and meaningful.
“I can’t do that”, immediately kicked in.
I was particularly stumped when Grant used this to explain how beliefs are created in our minds and reinforced. Now, if I don’t use imagery to develop a point of view or support it – how have I made my personal belief system?
Thankfully, I was on a call with other coaches. While none of them could necessarily relate to my challenge, having never encountered aphantasia before, we started to talk about other modalities and senses.
Obviously, sight and our mind’s eye is only one of the senses.
I’m not limited to only working with imagery and manipulating how I see the world in my mind.
So, I’m playing with other options:
- Can I write my beliefs down, pin them on two chairs, and walk from one view to another?
- Can I draw, paint or colour my way through different ideas, as I did with states?
- What might I do with vision boards to change my mind or challenge my way of thinking?
- How can I use posture and stretching to change my mind and hold a perspective?
- How can I use breathing and other everyday activities to change my perspective and introduce more curiosity about life?
While aphantasia presents me with challenges, it’s not insurmountable! The beauty of these last 24 months – and lockdown – is that I have discovered:
I am a VERY visual person.
Just not in my mind’s eye.