993 – aphantasia: what it is, why it’s lightly annoying, and how you can help

This is a rewrite of a talk I gave at the GDS Unconference a few weeks ago. It will probably be a bit of a mess, as it was more of a stream-of-consciousness loosely guided by a mindmap, but let’s see how we get on.

I’ve got a thing called aphantasia. I didn’t know that it existed. I didn’t know that I had it. I didn’t know it was a thing that you could have.

I did know that I wasn’t very good at art. And that I “wasn’t a very visual thinker”. But as it turned out there was a bit more to it than that.

My lovely friend Kim put a link about it on facebook, I think saying “do I know anyone who has this?” I tend to trust Kim’s interestingness, so followed the link. It talked about people who don’t have the ability to visualise in their minds…which sounded a bit familiar. Aleks Krotoski had also replied, saying that she’d done an episode of Digital Human on imagination that featured it. I had a listen, and it sounded eerily familiar.

So to put this into context, I’d like you to try something for me:

Think of some relative or friend who you frequently see (but who isn’t with you at present) and consider carefully the picture that comes before your mind’s eye. Think about the exact contour of their face, head, shoulders and body. How clear is that picture?

Obviously if you’ve closed your eyes, you might need to reopen them to read this next bit. It worked better in a meeting room, honest.

  • Perfectly clear and vivid as really seeing? 5 points
  • Clear and reasonably vivid? 4 points
  • Moderately clear and lively? 3 points
  • Vague and dim? 2 points
  • No image at all, you only “know” that you are thinking of the object? 1 point.

Now think of their characteristic poses of head, attitudes of body etc, and rate that image.

Think of how they walk – whats the precise carriage, length of step?

And the different colours worn in some familiar clothes?

How did you score?

At this point I asked the room of GDS types to put their hands up if they had mostly fives. Nearly everyone did. Almost everyone else had 4s.

I get mainly 1s for that. And I find it largely incomprehensible that it’s possible to get 5s. I struggle to imagine what my wife looks like in detail. I can sort of remember her as a photo – and can definitely recognise her when she’s there – but I can’t consciously place her in a scene or imagine her doing things within my mind’s eye. This is a shame, because she’s lovely.

So the little test I took you through is one of the sections of the Vividness of Visual Imagery test, which was created in 1973. There was probably a lot more people thinking about vivid visual imagery back in the early 70s. However, getting a low score on this test only seems to have got the name ‘aphantasia’ about two years ago, following some work by a team at the University of Exeter.

I mean, you can kind of understand why not much more research was done – it’s not exactly life threatening. Were it not kind of relevant to AI research there probably wouldn’t be any now. But some research has happened, and they estimate it affects about 2-3% of the population. Some people have been placed in MRI scanners and asked to imagine things – and their visual centres simply don’t fire. Anecdotally, another musical friend says he thinks it’s not uncommon among musicians.

So it’s not life-threatening, but it is kind of frustrating for me personally:

  • When I was little I used to try and count sheep to go to sleep. But it was so stressful just trying to imagine those bloody sheep that I could never get off.
  • Any type of meditation involving visualisation is similarly stressful. Imagine yourself sitting in a beam of sunlight and slowly filling up from the toes? I’m sorry I don’t really have an image of what *I* look like. Just becomes irrelevant noise.
  • Visual memory tricks like the Tony Buzan “one is a gun, two is a shoe” or memory palaces simply don’t work
  • My memory for names and facts about people requires very conscious effort. And occasionally simple cheating by writing it down.

Instead, I sort of remember things as stories. I was asked during the talk how I dream, to which the answer is “I very rarely do – perhaps once per year”. If I imagine things, I’ll hear them almost as radio plays.

It’s also frustrating for me at work:

  • I can’t actually imagine diagrams before I start making them. And it takes me ages to get to the point where I can even start.
  • I can’t deal with people making suggestions to diagrams as I’m doing them, because I don’t yet have a picture in my head.
  • I can’t easily imagine them being different from how they are without starting again.
  • I get really cross when someone tells me something about one of my diagrams should ‘obviously’ be different.

As you can imagine this is even more troublesome in a very visual environment like GDS where everyone’s first instinct is “let’s get it up on the wall” or “let’s draw it up on the whiteboard together”. That’s normal and good.

And terrifying.

I also think, and this is why I wanted to talk about this at all, it can cause frustrations for a team, particularly one where I’m nominally ‘the leader’.

  • Most mundanely, I get a lot of the long dense documents to read that’ll inform where we’re going. And – particularly when dealing with civil-service-ese – that’s pretty hard going for me because it’s hard to assemble a structure that’s any less dense than the words I’m reading. I can’t hold key points visually in my head. So it slows things down.
  • The team may want to try to work things out together on a whiteboard, and I’ll try to avoid doing that.
  • Perhaps most weirdly, the team may want to spend the time creating some large map or diagram of a process or structure…and I simply won’t be able to understand why you’d need to or want to do that. It’s not a thing I can imagine being useful. But I’m starting to learn to remember that it probably is.

So what am I doing about this? Well, I’ve signed up for Adam Zeman’s research at Exeter. I’m starting to try practicing drawing to just see if I can fight my way back from this a bit. And I’m talking about it, so people know it exists.

Hopefully this way you might be able to spot people on your team who could possibly have it, given what I’ve talked about, and slowly we can work out how to better deal with this merely-annoying condition in workplaces that care about diversity.

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