3 Things I Learned From Having Multisensory Aphantasia That Changed My Understanding Of The World
Can you pick a movie you’ve seen before and rewatch it in your mind in HD? Do you taste everything on a restaurant menu before choosing what to order? Can you experience an orgasm in your mind on-demand?
Did you even consider that these were possible human abilities?
Maybe you can easily do these extraordinary feats yourself and assumed everyone else was the same. In that case, I’ve got news for you!
But first, let’s back up.
Hi, My Name is Steven & I’m an Aphantasic
Aphantasia is the lack of ability to see any images in your mind’s eye (also referred to as image-free thinking) and hyperphantasia is the opposite end of the spectrum, with mental imagery as vivid as real seeing.
My journey in understanding the cognitive profiles of aphantasia and hyperphantasia started when I learned at age 30 that most of you have a superpower I don’t — you can see things in your mind. Turns out you weren’t just being poetic when you spoke of picturing yourself on a beach and that “daydreaming” was a highly literal descriptor rather than just meaning you’re lost in thought.
Five years later, new realizations following from this are still common. For starters, I now know that lack of visualization is only one aspect of my aphantasia, and there are numerous other mental senses that people have to varying degrees.
That brings me to my first major learning related to aphantasia.
1. Aphantasia is Multisensory
Research on aphantasia is new (the term was only coined in 2015), but study of the broader multisensory domains of imagination is even newer. Research indicates that 2–3% of people have aphantasia, and about 10% have hyperphantasia. But these numbers refer only to the extremes of visual imagination. Currently, there just isn’t much data on other mental senses. However, Nature reports that people with aphantasia on average have reduced ability with other mental senses, and 26% of aphantasics have “a total absence of multi-sensory imagery.” This lack of all mental senses is sometimes called “total aphantasia,” and I fit squarely in this camp.
I’ve found that this multisensory aspect is often not well understood even by people familiar with aphantasia, so I think it would be helpful to give a brief description of the full multisensory range of imagination, including a little about the range of potential within each mental sense.
When thinking about how best to describe this, I thought it would be fun to do so in the context of what a specific real person can and can’t do. So I turned to my girlfriend Meena who has hyperphantasia for nearly all of her mental senses. I had her rank the senses she could perceive and control in her mind on a subjective 10-point scale, and here’s what she said as I took notes:
She gave an example of something she could effortlessly visualize that she’d never seen before: A penguin hopping on a pogo stick through the Amazon. She sees full HD video. The penguin had three little tufts of hair, she said, that were wiggling in the wind as it jumped. She could also go back and add any details she wanted, like a scarf.
She’s especially strong at remembering and replaying music (with total control over changing the tempo, pitch, instruments, etc.), but she can also clearly generate and hear distinctive voices, animals, and more. As strong as this sounded, when I questioned her, she said her mental vision was even stronger and that it took less effort with vision.
She said this was her weakest mental sense, though in real life smell was her strongest sense relative to other people. She can’t smell new things in her mind that she has never smelled before (unlike with vision and hearing) or mix smells (such as lavender and fish), but she could smell some distinctive things strongly. McDonald’s french fries, for example. Still, I think her mental sense of smell is stronger than most people since mental smell is less common to have at all.
She can accurately taste in her mind what a dish will taste like prior to adding a new ingredient, which sounds incredibly useful for cooking. I often ask her whether something needs more salt since she’s better than me at seasoning; apparently, her method is to add a pinch of mental salt and confirm whether that’s better. And since she can enjoy any of her favorite meals — such as her parents’ egg curry — whenever she wants, she uses her mind’s tastebuds to help with dieting. Meena ranked mental taste a nine only because it takes more effort than vision (the same is true for all the remaining nines below).
She can feel in her mind the feeling of being punched or touching a hot stove, but it doesn’t hurt. She can also feel soft touches like feathers. She can look at new objects and know what they’ll feel like and can replay how objects felt in the past.
Pain (nociception): 0
When describing touch, I mentioned that Meena can feel the tactile sensations of painful things like being punched or burned in her mind, but when she does so the feeling is not accompanied by pain. It turns out she’s just lucky because the ability to imagine pain (equivalent to having mental nociceptors) is something you can find in other people. (Unfortunately, psychogenic pain can sometimes be uncontrollable and result in debilitating pain disorders.)
While closing her mind’s eyes she still feels an awareness of her imagined body’s position in space. This sense continues to work realistically even when imagining having a different body shape. I asked her to imagine herself as a bird with massive wings, and she felt the constraints and position in space of her new room-spanning wings as she moved them. And when she imagined herself as a puppy trying to boop its own nose while closing its eyes, she worried about her dog nails scratching herself as her paws got closer. This awareness of the position of her mental body in mental space felt true to life without having to see herself in her imagination.
Motor Simulation & Balance: 9
She could mentally simulate moving in the ways I asked, including doing a high kick, the splits, and diving (none of which she can actually do). For mental weightlifting, she could even give herself weaker or stronger imaginary muscles and simulate the effect this had on her movements. I asked if she expected that practicing these movements repeatedly in her mind would give her meaningful experience that would help her pick up the corresponding sports more quickly. She said yes — that although she’d still need time to transfer this new understanding into real muscle memory and build the appropriate real-world muscles, the mind-practice nevertheless felt like it would make real-world learning easier. In fact, she said, she’d done this before when learning piano and dance.
Emotional Replay: 6 or 7
Memories of past experiences come with re-experiencing the emotions she felt at the time. Notably, emotions from sad memories decay over time for her, whereas emotions from happy memories last much longer. (A nice trait, since the opposite is true for most people.)
Must be cool to be a Meena! I’m a big fat zero on all of these, by the way. If you want to know what the experience of seeing through my mind’s eye is like, well, it’s not like having a blank computer screen in my mind. A better analogy would be not having a screen at all. I don’t see black (like when closing your eyes); I see nothing. The same goes for all other mental senses, though I’ve found that the absence of mental smell and taste is often more relatable since they’re less common than mind vision and hearing. I’m not sure how common the other things I’ve listed here are, since there’s currently much less related research and discussion of them online.
It might be fun to compare your own mental senses to Meena’s, but here’s something I’ve learned over the years that is key to keep in mind:
2. Everyone’s Thoughts & Memories Work Differently
It’s natural to think that other people’s thoughts and memories work similarly to our own. But it turns out there are so many related variables interacting with each other and affecting how things work that nearly everyone’s inner experience works at least a little differently from everyone else.
Following is a tour of some of the fascinating terrain of differing mental approaches and abilities, and the numerous dimensions that can vary within them:
- Turns out there’s a huge range in visualization ability and (as already discussed) some people have none at all. If you do visualize, do you see video or only still images? Are they vivid and high resolution or dim and vague? Full color or black and gray? Outlines only? Are your visualizations heightened when thinking about certain kinds of things, like people, places, or objects? How much effort does visualization take, and how long can you hold the images? Can you see things you’ve never seen before or only things from your memories? Can you project your imagination into the real world and change what your eyes are seeing (prophantasia), or does it remain an inner experience? If you don’t visualize during waking hours, how about when dreaming?
- Do you have an inner monologue? Some people have words running all the time, some experience it in a limited way or during certain moods, and others have none at all and would be confused by the question of what language their thoughts are in. If you have an inner monologue, do you actually hear the words? See them? Maybe neither, and you just know the words even though they’re voiceless? Do you hear them in your own voice, somebody else’s, or does it vary? Do you feel like there are multiple dialogs in your head that have independent thoughts and ideas?
- Do you have mental hearing, smell, taste, touch, pain, motor simulation, etc.? If so, how strong is each and how much do they influence your everyday thought processes and emotions? Can you project them into the world — e.g., changing the taste of what you’re eating? How might it change your real-world behaviors and thought processes if, e.g., thinking about certain ideas triggered imaginary pain, or if you were able to meaningfully practice activities in your mind (a common practice among pro athletes)?
- Does remembering something come with the ability to mentally time travel and re-experience it in first person? Can you emotionally replay your feelings from past moments? Is this whole concept bizarre because your memories are composed only of plot points or concepts? How might these differences orient you to focus more or less on the past, present, and future?
- Independent of the mental senses available to you, what is your cognitive style? Some people are more visually oriented, some are language oriented even if they can visualize, some incorporate spatial locations into their thought processing, some think more abstractly or conceptually, some are logic oriented, and others are oriented around emotions. There’s a range of thinking styles and strategies even for people with the same mental senses.
- There are more than 70 known forms of synesthesia (an area more widely known than aphantasia even though it affects similar numbers of people), including forms that involuntarily connect sounds with colors, letters with personalities/genders, or certain words with tastes (so, for example, the word “basketball” might taste like waffles).
These are only some of the many aspects of the normal range of human differences in thought, memory, imagination, and learning that form your invisible cognitive profile and make you unique. Generally, none of these differences interfere with normal daily functioning (hence none of these are “disorders”), and people typically find ways to play to their strengths and use different strategies for accomplishing the same mental tasks. But these differences can certainly influence your interests, strengths, career choices, and real-world behavior (e.g., research indicates aphantasics are more likely to end up in STEM fields, and hyperphantasics are more drawn to artistic fields than average).
These differences might also be contributing to why it can be so hard to communicate effectively. When we communicate, we’re often trying to map each other’s internal systems of thinking onto our own via language, but this is a highly imperfect process and we can get a slightly or even wildly different understanding due in part to the differences in our internal translation schemes and underlying modes of thinking.
That leads me to my third major realization.
3. Invisible Neurodiversity is Extremely Non-Intuitive, So We Should Talk About it More
If our core processes of thought and memory work so differently, why don’t people talk more often about these interpersonal differences? Ever since learning about aphantasia, I’ve wondered why people (including myself prior to learning about it) almost never compare how their memory and thoughts work. It seems to be at least a little different for everyone, and it seems to be an interesting subject for most people. And yet, people don’t talk about it without prompting. Even with prompting, most people don’t think about how they think and struggle to describe it.
Yes, there are sometimes more recognizable symptoms of neurodiversity in conditions such as autism and other mental disorders. But even then, it’s common for people to have limited understanding and empathy compared to more visible and physical disabilities. Millions of people suffering from depression, OCD, and other mental challenges can attest to this.
When it comes to neurodiversity that doesn’t have observable characteristics and doesn’t mess with daily activity in obvious ways, it seems that most people are capable of going their entire lives without noticing their differences. As evidence, consider that the term aphantasia was only coined in 2015 and that the typical experience of someone learning they have aphantasia is to stumble onto the knowledge that most other people see pictures in their heads well into their adult lives. In my case, I was 30, but it’s common to hear of people being much older.
Even after learning about aphantasia, most people (including myself) don’t automatically take this further and consider that imagination might extend beyond the visual sense into other sensory domains. And when you learn about that, you still don’t automatically question other methods of thought like the presence or absence of an internal monologue. I could go on. But the point is that it seems to be extremely difficult to realize that others might be thinking using different methods than yourself. In fact, some people get weirdly defensive or simply don’t believe you when you tell them about aphantasia. This phenomenon even made the early days of aphantasia research more challenging, since some scientists were skeptical of the idea that people were incapable of visualizing, and tried to explain people’s self-reports of never having visualized anything since birth simply as poor metacognition. Fortunately, these days we’ve moved past that, thanks to the great work of researchers like Joel Pearson, Adam Zeman, and others. (There’s even an objective test for aphantasia now that examines the effect of perceptual priming on binocular rivalry.)
So why do we naturally underestimate mental variability? Here are a few guesses:
- Most people don’t like to feel different.
- We’re less likely to question differences we can’t see.
- The methods we use to think are so core to our understanding of thought that we near-universally assume it must be the same for everyone and simply ignore the symptoms of differences (e.g., when others use different words to describe thought).
- We take the fact that people can get to similar ideas and outcomes (even if we use completely different mental strategies to get there) to build our strong intuitions that everyone thinks using the same methods.
Starting to break through these barriers could be incredibly important. I think better understanding these invisible differences could be the start of a profound shift in focus and awareness.
What if a much better understanding of human cognitive profiles could, over time, lead to a reduction in the primacy of more visual differences that society often focuses on and the clashes of identity politics that result? What if greater cognitive empathy and appreciation for the invisible universe of differences in our heads could rework some of the core foundations of our identities?
Maybe we’re onto something big.