992 – aphantastic addenda

So a few bits to add to yesterday’s blog. There were other things I wanted to say, and points to make, but they kind of got in the way of the main thrust of the story.

And, to be honest, I had to cut quite a lot of silliness. Victoria Coren once said to Ian Hislop something along the lines of “in my family, it was seen as slightly crass to be serious about something when you could have made a joke instead”. That’s a motto to live by for me – genetics or upbringing, who knows?

Firstly, it’s to point out that I do actually recognise faces. I do know it’s my wife in front of me – and that’s generally delightful. It’s more about the ability to mentally manipulate things. I *remember* images, but I can’t combine them or do things with them. I know what a sunny beach looks like, but only as a sort of polaroid. I know what my wife looks like, with a bit more fidelity than that, but I can’t imagine her walking down the beach – they’re separate things.

I also have a sense of physical space and structure. Back in the days when I was a DBA, storing the interrelations of 126 database tables in my head, there was something slightly architectural about it – but it was always subconscious. There was a contentment or sense of ease when everything was organised and in place – relationships were known. There was a slight teetering panic when ideas that shouldn’t go together were being asked to. But it was a ‘sense’ of structure, rather than anything I could look at.

That’s causing a certain amount of stress right now as we plan for our loft conversion. I’ve got no way to imagine the reality of it, think about light and shade or what it would be like to move about. I have to make scale models and find out – there aren’t any shortcuts. Much to my very-visual wife’s exasperation.

Said wife also had a phrase for my style of photography – which I suspect is very related to this. “You took a picture of a thing on another thing”. Great artists and great photographers must construct images in their heads and then work out how to manipulate light and texture to convey what they want to say – I’m just glad I didn’t drop the camera.

This hasn’t been a recent thing either – when I was in my second year of secondary school we had an art class, and as part of the still life project we were asked to sit out in the sun and draw the art block. Or “portakabin” as I believe it would normally be known. After an hour of sketching and colouring the art teacher got to me and seemed slighly stunned. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Um, did you remember to count the windows?” he said.

This simply hadn’t occurred to me as being a thing you’d need to do – there was the idea of a building, the idea of windows, draw some stuff that’s like that.

In the years just before I had children, I’d tried to tackle some aspects of this with Betty Edwards’ amazing book “drawing on the right side of the brain” (I got to chapter three). She claims she taught people to see in a way they hadn’t before, and gives great examples of when even Van Gogh completely mis-drew faces like a child would – absolutely no forehead. So I’m hoping to throw myself into that a bit soon, just in case it makes a difference – or to find out whether I’m an edge case she wouldn’t have diagnosed because this was only A Thing two years ago.

When I gave the talk, someone very kindly asked whether they should reintroduce themselves to me so I didn’t have to try and keep notes. It goes to show what a collaborative and embracing place the civil service can be at times, but I said ‘no’. I think it’s my responsibility to do the work so I don’t come across as rude to you – but it would be nice if you were understanding should I obviously struggle to remember your actual name. I am mortified, honestly.

Finally, I do have one other thing I can do that not many other people can – a useless superpower – which I think may be related to, or compensating for, all of the above. But it’s 11:50, so perhaps that’s worth talking about another time.

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