Aphantasia

Reading is just looking at a dead piece of wood for hours and hallucinating. from Showerthoughts

A few years ago, at lunch with a couple of coworkers, we got into talking about synesthesia. In that conversation, I shared that I experience pretty much the opposite - I have aphantasia. No one at the table had heard of it before, and led to us all sharing what happens when we think of certain things. To my amazement, when we talked about "sunsets," my coworkers conjured up very specific sunset scenes - some beaches, some skylines, some purple, some orange. They were able to move around in that scene. Look in different directions. Add characteristics if you were to add detail to the description. When we tried the same with me, nothing. I knew that would happen, but it was mind-boggling to them.

It wasn't until 2016 when I read a Facebook post by Blake Ross where he shared that he had just discovered aphantasia and that he himself experienced it. It turns out people actually have pictures in their minds. Like they see things. In their heads.

Aphantasia, briefly, is the inability to voluntarily create mental images in one's mind (thanks Wikipedia). I don't know the source of this image, but it's commonly shared when people write about or talk about aphantasia:

Can you see an apple in your mind?

After I got over the newfound realization that I, too, experience aphantasia, I started cataloging weird experiences in my life. The one that stood out most was when my mother used to tell me to count sheep to fall asleep as a little kid. It never made sense to me. What sheep do I count? How do I know when to stop? Why is my mom constantly telling me to do something that makes no sense?

In the apple scale above, I'm deeply a 5. Nothing happens in my mind when you say apple other than the idea of an apple exists. It doesn't have a shape or a color or dimension. It's just an idea and maybe some word associations I have with it like "crunchy" or "crisp" or the sound it makes when you bite into it (the sound is also just an idea, not something I actually hear).

It actually took another few years for me to connect that people had pictures in their minds when they read books and that's why, when the Harry Potter movies came out, people were saying "Hermione doesn't look like I thought she did." I couldn't figure out what they were complaining about. To me, she was exactly as described. Similarly, before I knew about aphantasia, I attempted to read the book Moonwalking with Einstein. It's a book about training your memory using the concept of "memory palaces" where you store memories in imagined spaces and then walk around the imagined spaces to retrieve those memories. I'll steal from Wikipedia again:

In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject 'walks' through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.

I felt like I was failing at the book. I was destined to have a mediocre memory. At the time I had no idea that people could actually magically have spaces in their heads that they can then walk around and store memories in. It was counting sheep situation all over again.

It wasn't actually until very recently to come to the realization that, probably, when people are designing or painting or creating some other art, they probably see what they want to create in their head and they're translating that into real life. I came to understand that this probably why I've always been so drawn to photography: 1) I can capture what already exists, no brain hallucinations necessary and 2) it's the only way I have of preserving a memory or a person.

More recently, I've been trying to understand how or why I operate in such a design-centric or design-driven role. Though it took me a while to accept, I've never been particularly good at designing UIs from a visual or aesthetic perspective. I lean toward thinking about the system of the UI and that UI in the broader system. In old school UX terms, I probably would land more in the interaction design side than the visual design side. I tend to focus more on how someone might interact with a thing and how that thing interacts with other things.

While I maintain strong opinions about what might constitute a good visual design, I've pretty much accepted that I won't be the person producing that. I'll certainly know a good one when I see it, though, and I have an eagle eye for spotting when something is a pixel off - it actually makes me physically uncomfortable, which is kind of strange.

In some ways, I might have an advantage when it comes to thinking through design choices. Because the way I think about design doesn't include much in the way of visuals, it lets me operate past that level of detail. I might actually have it easier than the people who have all those pictures running through their minds. They need to worry about the visual AND about how all the pieces fit together. Now that I've accepted that the visual side will never really be my forte, I can double down on the pieces I am good at and leave the visuals to the hallucinators.