Am I dreaming?

“If you have aphantasia, how do you dream?”

Dreams are one of the several areas we see differences between aphantasics. 

Some report the ability to “see” their dreams visually, and in great detail, but then cannot visualize them again when they wake. For this group of aphants, their dreams are described similarly to visualizers. 

Others only experience the visuals in the hypnopompic and hypnogogic states – the states immediately preceding waking up or falling asleep. In fact, Thomas Edison famously experienced flashes of creativity in the hypnogogic state and used it as a problem-solving technique. 

He’s not the only one. Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí also used a variation of Edison’s method: he held a key over a metal plate as he went to sleep, which clanged to wake him when he dropped it, supposedly inspiring his artistic imagery.

But for other aphants, myself included, no images are experienced during any dream state. Instead, we experience the dream in story and dialogue, devoid of images. 

Here’s the twist, though: I can recognize and respond to visual queues in my dreams, even without the conscious experience of imagery. 

That is, my internal dialogue might say, “Look at that purple wall!”. I’ve recognized something based on its visual characteristics, I’ve described the visual details and interacted with them, yet, I never consciously “see” the color purple, or a wall. I just know it’s there. 

Aphantasic dreaming reveals a fascinating dimension of our subconscious minds. Whether through vivid visual dreams that disappear upon waking, the fleeting images of hypnagogic states, or narratives rich in dialogue but devoid of visual content, our experiences underscore the incredible diversity of human cognition.