Navigating the world with aphantasia

Navigating the world with aphantasia

Written by Katrice Horsley on February 23, 2021

Have you ever thought about how you think? Not what you think, but how you think? I often do, ever since realizing that I have aphantasia. Having this condition means that I cannot produce any visual images in my “mind’s eye.” When I close my eyes, I literally see nothing.


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I first came across a word for this condition when reading an article in a newspaper: aphantasia. To be truthful, I thought everybody was the same as me, as it is rare that we ask each other, “What happens in your brain when you think?”

It is not a usual conversation starter, though it is one I think we should ask more often, as it helps us understand each other in a way that is vital and necessary.

In my work as a narrative consultant and international performance storyteller, I often have people tell me that I create wonderful images for them with my words and that they can see the landscapes and characters that I conjure up during performances. Yet I see nothing.

The irony is not lost on me, yet I “know” the story, the characters, and the landscapes intimately. I can describe them to you but do so without visualizing them. Let me explain.

A taste of how it is for me

Imagine being taken on a walk blindfolded. Imagine that someone is next to you, narrating what is around you. Your body, feet, and hands can reach out and touch, and you will know when the path slopes down. You will feel the change from mud to gravel, and you will sense the difference in sound and pressure when you are near the cliff edge.

Imagine going on this walk every day for weeks, then think about someone asking you to describe it to them. You will be able to do that without actually having seen it; you will “know it” in a different way.

That is a little taste of how it is for me. I have a constant narration in my head telling me rather than showing me things. I think this is also linked into my inability to listen to anything spoken when I need headspace to think in words.

For example, if I am “crafting” anything with my hands, I can listen to spoken words on the radio. However, if I need to write an article or do anything involving words, I can only have music, no lyrics. There is not enough space in my head for any more words, as they are my main thinking tool and cannot be interrupted.

As a performer of stories and former U.K. National Storytelling Laureate, I am often described as “lyrical” with a strong physicality. These two things are important to me in helping me access and remember the words I need.

I think that lacking the ability to “see” the story enables me to “inhabit it.” This means that rather than describing what I see, I become it.

I am not describing a man whom I can see, who is “wide shouldered, slim hipped, dark haired, and full lipped.” I am that man describing myself in that moment. I am not describing the young woman with “dark curls tumbling over pale white shoulders.” I am that girl, describing myself from behind her eyes, without actually seeing her.

As I perform, my body “inhabits” those people or descriptions, which results in my “physicality.” I describe landscapes almost by “lassoing” them into shape with words, conjuring them up in this way rather than with imagery.

As I try to describe this to you, my hand lifts itself up into the air in front of me as I think of a mountain range. I have to trace the shape of it with words or my hands in order to know it. Yet those words and movements create powerful images for others.

This is further enhanced by how I need to use rhythm or rhyme, assonance or alliteration in my tellings, as they pad out and shape the images, giving them a form that enables me to connect with them in a very tangible and visceral way.

Interestingly, when I am working on writing a book or performance piece, I often start by drawing images. I then add words and descriptive language.

It is impossible for me to write directly onto a computer, or even into an exercise book, for this type of work. I think this is because I cannot contain the whole “pattern” of the piece in my head; I need to see the whole thing out on a roll of paper. Only then can I start to build up the sections. I need to see the “big picture” in front of me first.

Some studies into aphantasia have identified that aphantasics have strong abstract thinking skills. I know this is one of my skills, and I think it is related to the fact that I am not pinned down to a visual of how one thing should look or be. This means that it may be easier for me to connect ideas that others might not be able to.

If you saw a plan for one of my shows, you would very much understand. It is usually a collection of post-it notes, arrows, colored lines, and images. At first glance, they look like a whacky mind map, but to me, they make perfect sense.

I truly believe that in my work as a performer, my aphantasia is a benefit.

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