Confronting Aphantasia’s Challenges

Last week, we touched on the profound, often challenging journey of discovering aphantasia. Your heartfelt responses showed a shared path of exploration and, for many, an existential struggle.

It’s a phase that many of us, including myself, have experienced. Upon first realizing that we have aphantasia, it’s natural to feel a sense of loss or confusion. For some, it’s akin to discovering a missing sense they never knew they lacked. For others, it’s an “aha” moment that explains a lifetime of experiences.

This realization can be jarring. It might feel like a part of you is missing, a part you didn’t even know was supposed to be there.

When I first learned about aphantasia, I felt a whirlwind of emotions: surprise, and curiosity, but also a bit of loneliness and a sense that I was missing out on something special that others had. It felt like everyone else had a mental superpower that I didn’t.

This discovery led me to make some big changes in my life. I sold my house and shifted my career focus to explore aphantasia more deeply; once aphantasia had a name, I founded the Aphantasia Network. My goal was to bring this topic out of academic papers and into the light, and to connect with others who share this experience.

In the early stages of learning about aphantasia, I was on a journey of self-discovery, getting to grips with the unique aspects of my mind. It became clear that how we process information, memories, and emotions is distinct, and the way others describe it didn’t resonate with me.

However, it’s tempting to fall into the habit of comparing our inner experiences with others. This often led me to feel inadequate or ‘less than’ because I couldn’t visualize in the conventional way.

The pivotal moment came to me when I realized that aphantasia isn’t a shortcoming. It’s just a different way of perceiving the world. This realization was led by a collection of core ideas that have led me to believe that mental imagery is a double-edged sword*. The power of abstract thinking, the involuntary nature of imagery, and the relation to ptsd are just some of those ideas.

That’s not to discount feelings of loss. Just this week, while out for lunch for my partner Jennie’s birthday, I experienced a moment of sadness wishing I could visualize and re-experience the amazing cities the two of us have visited together. While I’m describing facts and trivia about the cities and our time there, I can tell that she’s there, right now, in her mind.

How could I not be just a little jealous?

When reflecting on these moments we must remember the strengths and advantages that come with aphantasia; and that sometimes, belief can be a self-fulfilling prophecy

There are many things I can do better than Jennie and this might not be in spite of my aphantasia, but rather, because of it.

I believe we’re just beginning to appreciate the vast landscape of cognitive diversity. Just as there are many ways to communicate, there are many ways to think and experience the world.

Aphantasia teaches us to value these invisible differences and to understand that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all‘ when it comes to the mind. Cognitive diversity may just be an underappreciated aspect of human flourishing. 

I invite you to share your journey with aphantasia. What was your initial reaction upon discovering it? How has your perception changed over time? 

* Apologies to non-english natives for my use of idiom – I find them extremely useful. A double-edged sword is a sword that has two sharpened edges. Figuratively, double-edged sword refers to something that has both good and bad consequences. When you’re wielding a double-edged sword, you have to be careful that you don’t cut yourself when you’re trying to swing it at an opponent.