Some can hear it, but others can’t…

My last post touched on the multi-sensory aspect of mental imagery for the first time. Many aphantasics were shocked to hear that sensory imagination can be experienced by sound, taste or touch. It took me a few days to read all the responses, and I’ve selected a few to comment on, which I believe highlights the range of experiences we’re all so interested in. 

Can you hear the sound of the guitar? 

“That’s curious. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have no mental imagery. My musical imagery is eidetic. I can – and do – listen to entire classical works in my head. The longest continuous one was the entire Verdi requiem, listened to internally on a long-haul flight. The imagery is very detailed. I can summon up a work and identify the instruments playing in an orchestral texture, or the registration being used in a particular organ piece. 

I can’t turn it off though. It’s in the background as I write (Schumann, third symphony, last movement). Sometimes a short passage will repeat endlessly, typically when I am stressed. And if I wake at night, it is usually with a short sequence of harmonies repeating themselves.“

While this reader can’t imagine what it would be like to have no mental imagery, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a background soundtrack to my everyday life. A good friend telling me an important story, while I imagine the epic, movie-like crescendo just as he gets to the punch line. What a curious phenomenon. 

A great number of you shared that your experience was similar to mine – full multisensory aphantasia:

“After the initial discovery of having visual aphantasia, which was mind blowing in itself, when I then step by step realised people could imagine through the other senses it amazed me each time. 

“I may have multisensory aphantasia, I can’t relate to any sensory experience other than a ‘knowing’, however I’m teaching myself the saxophone.” 

“I have actually zero ability to conjure any sensory input on my own like I can’t recall what things taste like feel like smell like sound like look like any of it.”

“I don’t think with any of my senses. I wonder, do people who can have more food cravings? More picky with music? What about hallucinating? Imaginary friends? How do those fit in?” 

“I was wondering how often you come across someone with full multisensory aphantasia? I cannot imagine any of the 5 senses; touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.” 

And many, many more of the same style. 

Though, this has to be my absolute favourite, as it highlights the extreme range of conscious experiences, and evokes my curiosity about the impacts of imagery on daily life: 

“I’m still not certain what I have. I have a beyond hyper imagination. I’m 58 and had it my entire life. It’s quite interesting and exhausting. I have movies and or hyper cartoons in my SPACE all day everyday. 

If you tell me a story. I may not seem interested. Actually, I am processing what you’re telling me through a visual part of my brain and usually it is hyper which means that the story you’re telling me has now become a cartoon, and if you told me that the lady has a red hat, I may create a hat that is actually the size of Volkswagen just to make it dramatic and funny… If you tell me, she has glasses, I may have them have diamonds all over the glasses.”

This is likely not a typical experience, but it does show us what’s possible. Have you ever considered, throughout your whole life, that someone you might be talking to is animating a cartoon of your story in their mind? I think about imagination all day, and this one still surprised me. 

These replies are a powerful reminder that interest in aphantasia isn’t reserved for those who experience it. 

Instead, it serves as a salient reminder of the uniqueness of conscious experience. It helps us understand that we don’t all experience the world in the same way, and I hope, helps us build empathy for those around us. 

Your partner can’t fall asleep at night? Maybe that cartoon running in their mind’s eye just won’t let them.