When your mind’s eye is always blank

Sasha Chapin writes about having aphantasia, which some of you might recall I also suffer from (although maybe “suffer from” is the wrong term):

“I wonder whether my mental existence is more shallow than that of others, whether my somewhat detached, playful, and ironic view of life is partially based on my blankness. I have never been haunted by an image of suffering or pined after the picture of a distant lover crossing a hypothetical room in a hypothetical evening. When I am reminded of some contentious issue, like firearm regulation, I’m not watching a movie in my mind about horrible things happening; everything is simply a concept. It’s easy to stay at a mental remove.

It’s possible that aphantasia actually makes writing easier for me because there’s nothing to get in the way of the words. I’m not worried about doing justice to the pictures in my head—they are not there. Also, since I don’t remember through the visual, life is already stored as a series of connected verbal clusters, ready to be deployed. I just have to start moving my hands to get them out of storage. Recently, it was revealed to me that some people have trouble describing recent incidents in their lives in anecdote form. And this is totally foreign to me. The first words I call on aren’t always fantastic, but they can always be summoned.

There is another potential upside I wonder about, which is: maybe I have an easier time accepting death than other people. The transience of things has always seemed obvious and relatively easy to accept for me. Everything has already slipped into the void for me, everything that’s not right here. I remember that, last summer, I sat with a friend in a park in Dumbo at sunset, watching the pink-purple fall on all the metal and water, the wheezing cars and glass towers. I thought: this is as beautiful as it’s going to get. But it didn’t occur to me to hold onto the substance of the moment, because I knew that was impossible. When I turned around, it was gone.”

Interestingly enough, Sasha also wrote about how he used an online course, meditation, and some micro-dosing of psilocybin and LSD to trigger something approaching mental visualization — or at least more than he had before:

There is one fMRI study of an aphantasic person. Scans revealed that, when asked to visualize, he displayed different patterns of brain activity than healthy subjects—specifically, less activation in areas associated with mental imagery, and more activation in regions associated with semantic processing. Crudely speaking, he was using non-image parts of his brain to do image stuff. This matches with my subjective experience of aphantasia, wherein trying to remember an image brings up a set of words, sounds, and even spatial information, just no pictures.

So, the way the exercises work is… okay, this is where it gets fuzzy for me. But I guess that… since people with aphantasia use their word-brain instead of their image-brain when trying to visualize… then… by using their word-brain extra hard… maybe the dormant visual brain regions will be activated a little bit in the process… so new brain connections will form?”

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