The world turns dark when I close my eyes to try and imagine something. Period.

For three decades of my life, I thought this is what happens to everyone until last week when I read this postand learnt the term Aphantasia, or ‘blindness in the mind’ as some call it. This shook my worldview and I’ve been examining my own brain processes ever since.

It seems that I’ve been ‘seeing’ something different in my mind from everyone else all this while without even realising it. It’s like being told that the projector in your head isn’t working and you ask, “You mean there is a projector?!”

When my eyes are open, I see as what normal people do; at least with the help of prescription glasses and based on my assumption of what other people see. But, try as I might to project an image behind these closed eyelids, I could never do so.

I can recognise my wife from a distance and I obviously ‘know’ her facial features, but ask me to imagine her face in my head and it will only be at best, a loose assemblage of her features rather than the whole face.

I never considered this strange at all but since learning about the existence of this condition, I have spent a good part of the last week or so wondering what other people see in their minds and testing myself to see if it was simply a case of my brain not trying hard enough. Conversations with friends have also led me to explore this further and I began to examine how I’ve gotten by in life so far.

To put things in context, I’ve done reasonably alright in school (though not brilliant), studied and practiced design and architecture, have been writing for magazines, and am currently running a placemaking consultancy — all of which seems to suggest that I am your average, creative member of the community. So let’s take a peek into the deep end of this brain of mine.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

How I Comprehend and Think

So if I can’t see anything in my head, how have I functioned on a day-to-day basis where some degree of comprehension and memorization is needed?

I’m not very sure either but as I searched myself over the past week, I noticed that what I have always perceived as my ‘strength’ is possibly the only way I could have made it through.

Those who have worked with me, would probably agree when I say that I am very good at distilling complex issues and finding insight. Give me a problem and I can distill it down into systems and relationship diagrams to discover new opportunities and even reconfigure it to ‘see things differently’. This might have been how my brain have coped with its inability to ‘see’ things in my mind.

Generally, I understand concepts, objects, buildings, and environments best when I think of them as something akin to an IKEA furniture installation diagram, or an architectural layout plan. It’s like having a metaphorical exploded axonometric diagram that shows how all the parts fit together, or a masterplan of the city that shows the relationship between one building to the other. Everything appears as relative to one another and once I can understand the purpose of each element in the larger context, it sticks. Everything can be a diagram of data points to me.

This quote that I saw on a forumfor people with Aphantasia offers a pretty good analogy of how I comprehend and think:

…I thought the best way of getting them to understand it was by comparing it to a JPG image file like any image you see on the internet.

You see this as a picture but the computer sees it as code. A string of data or information that the computer recognises but it doesn’t see a picture of a kitten.

In a way, I’m like Neo from the Matrix.

Photo by Rishi Deep on Unsplash

On Imagining and Creating

Ask me to recall what my house looks like with my eyes closed, and this is what happens:

I recall the elements in it: first, the larger ones like windows and walls, thinking of where they are in an empty 3-dimensional conceptual space. I then imbue it with characteristics such as color, texture, proportion before placing in other elements like sources of light and position of knick knacks around the house. Along the way, I will also reference other scraps of memories like comments or descriptors made by myself or those who have been in the space before. These and a myriad of other ‘knowledge’ of the space is then ‘assembled’, like a 3D collage, or a real-time digital model in Sketchup that can be navigated. In this whole process that takes place over one or two seconds, I don’t ‘see’ anything, I simply ‘know’.

From this, it’s easy to see that if I don’t remember details of a scene, I cannot create them. If I mis-remembered, the scene will be inaccurate. I cannot simply conjure up an image from memory that I can re-search for new information. Which then leads to the inevitable question of how I survived architecture school, make a living as a designer and writer, and generally enjoy reading works of fiction? How could I have possibly imagined anything?

Indeed I cannot just conjure things up nor simply put things that I ‘see’ in my mind onto paper, because there is nothing to ‘see’. However, because everything is a set of parameters and information in a diagram to me, I manipulate these relationships and launch myself into thought experiments of new permutations.

In this process, things don’t just visually appear in my head, but rather, this involves lots of sitting down quietly to think things through and create these new relationships, often accompanied with intensive doodling in sketches that don’t mean much to anyone.

Often, the process of creation starts with an element. Maybe a word, a physical object, a memory of the physical space, a perception, and this is then used to generate webs of new conceptual relationships. What if we put X with Y? What if we shift A to B? What if we look at A as though it is X and then put it in Y before amplifying it by the power of Z? And when this happens, I then manifest it either as a drawing, a conceptual guideline in my head that is then filled in with details as I go along. So when I say I ‘see’ an idea in my head, what I really mean is I have collected and referenced enough data points to create something. This is also layered on with feelings and intuitions that I have amassed over time to add depth to the ‘visual’ or scene that I am creating.

Perhaps this is why reading fiction by the likes of Murakami is fascinating for me. Through his words, I am able to interpret and reference my own visual knowledge to assemble a world that I could never ‘see’. Through the details captured in writing, I can imagine worlds and scenes so vivid that sometimes I wonder how no one is ‘seeing’ what I am.

From what I can gather on the Internet, it seems that not much is known about the field of Aphantasia. I do however hope that by sharing my experience, more can be learnt. I also hope that those who relate to what I’ve shared would also come forth to share their stories and perhaps open up new areas of discussion on this.

Till then, let’s imagine a beautiful world with our own beautiful minds.