Saturday, December 23 2023

Life without a voice in your head

It’s astounding to me that people actually hear a voice in their head. Most people can picture people, memories, things, even with their eyes open. Their dreams are vivid and film-like. That’s not my experience at all, and it took until I was in my early twenties to realise how other people experienced life.

Aphantasia is the phenomenon of not seeing anything when you close your eyes, or not hearing a voice in your head. It turns out that you don’t even have to close your eyes, and it may not be your voice, or even a language you can speak. Growing up I thought I lacked creativity, I couldn’t picture the scenes from books in my head, and for many years I just accepted what I assumed to be social convention:

I thought each of these was just a saying. I would just count, I didn’t realise people actually pictured sheep and counted them.

It makes me wonder, are people with aphantasia less creative, worse artists and writers of fiction?

For me, ideas come as feelings. ‘Vibe’ feels almost right, but it’s more of a gestalt of feelings than the singular feeling of thoughts that I mean. I don’t think I can describe it any better than that.

Some of the most nerve-wracking moments for me are interviews. When asked direct questions, I often can only wait and hope the answer seemingly strikes me. Reasoning out loud helps, and relaxed, long, slow conversations on walks with friends are best. Perhaps the lack of an inner monologue is what has drawn me to journalling.

‘Shape rotation’ is associated with high STEM abilities and scores, but I certainly can’t rotate a shape in my mind and I still excelled in my Physics degree and now have a career in software engineering. Seeing people like Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox describe his aphantasia makes me think there’s nothing limiting about a lack of a mind’s eye, and that the brain is far more wonderfully opaque to us than we know.