by Peta Tranquille
As an artist, I have heard many artists use visualisation as part of their creative process. Some claim they can see what they want the outcome to look like and then try to replicate that vision. This, for many artists, would appear to be part of the steps for creativity; however, a small minority of people expect that this is taken for granted.
What would you say if I told you that some people are incapable of visualising? They have no idea what a creative work will look like before it is made and to think of an idea is not such an easy task or part of their creative arsenal. If you are thinking, "how this is possible?" then you are fortunate enough to be a visualiser, but if you are not confused by this question, you might just be in the 1-2% of the population with Aphantasia.
Aphantasia is defined as the inability to visualise, but it is so much more than that. It also affects the sound, memory, taste, emotions, and even the ability to dream. It has been found that people with the condition have varying levels of inability, and while some people are not even aware they have it, others are struggling with how to accept and then live with this mindblindness. For example, finding out that you are missing out on the ability to sing your favourite song in your head, recall your wedding day or see the faces of your friends and family can make you feel lonely, sad and angry.
For those reading this who cannot understand what it feels like to have Aphantasia, I want you to try the following activity. First, close your eyes and imagine a black box, then put yourself inside that box and remove any light you can still see. Oh, and remember to turn off all the sounds you can hear. Now, hold that vision and think about what it would be like to live with that in your mind all day for the rest of your life.
As an artist with Aphantasia, it is impossible to think of something to create without a physical prompt from what your eyes can see or a photograph. Many people with Aphantasia can only ever draw or paint what they see in front of them. The idea of being able to create something they can't physically see is almost incomprehensible and beyond explanation. When I'm facing a blank canvas, so many artists have said, "just put your pencil on the paper and move it", without realising that this is much simpler if you already have an idea of what the pencil will do. A blank canvas is not my biggest fear; instead, it is an empty mind.
I have lived with Aphantasia all my life but only realised I had it following a yoga class when all the attendees were asked what special place they visited when in a meditative state. Confusion and fear were the first reactions I had when posed with this question, as I didn't understand what they were talking about. I considered telling the class I was in the yoga studio while meditating but feared a weird reaction, so I lied and said I was in my bedroom. Although the idea of being in my bedroom, when I was not, was so foreign and incomprehensible. That evening, I began to research more about the inability to visualise and came across a Professor in the UK conducting studies on the condition. I wrote to him, and following months of interaction and several surveys, it was clear why I had no "special place'. The only special place I had was the here and now.
To this day, that was the last yoga class I attended, but I have tried multiple times to return to meditation. I face the issue that I am yet to find someone that doesn't refer to "going to a special place"! Whilst I used to enjoy meditation, I now see every time I attempt it, with any guidance, it results in more anger and frustration than relaxation. Over the last few years, I have found other meditation forms, including running, walking or listening to music. Not just any music, but it has to be my favourite playlist. The familiarity of the songs puts me in a state of peace, and although I can't hum the songs or recall the artist or title as soon as they are playing, I know all the lyrics.
Over the last few years, I have devised methods of conjuring ideas, and they range from word prompt cards, art oracle cards, mind mapping, watching TV, or reading lots of non-fiction books. Why read a fiction book if you can't visualise what is happening? Isn't that part of the reason people read fiction? Is it not to get away from everyday problems? That is what fans have told me of fiction, and I will have to take their word for it.
Whatever your state of mind after reading this, I hope that I have at least made you aware that not all artists create in the same way. You may never understand what it feels like to have Aphantasia, just like I don't know how you see and hear things in your mind. But I can assure you that I have come to terms with it now and continue to learn more about my mind and how it does or perhaps doesn't work. Although, in the beginning, I was angry for not having the magical powers of visualisation, I am now looking at it through a different lens. We all know, from movies, that superpowers are only in a small minority of the population, so I have concluded that I am one of the special ones with extraordinary abilities. So, like Superman, Spiderman and Ironman, I must learn to understand my particular skills and practice using them regularly to make the most of who I am.
If, after reading this, you too feel that you may have Aphantasia, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have. In addition, many online support groups can help you understand more about the condition, whether it be for yourself or the friends and family around you.