Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Writing is "aphantas-tic"

"Nothing on TV" Photo by Future Atlas, used under CC license.

This is a common version of a conversation between my husband and me:

Him: "Can you drop this at [name of store]?"
Me: "Sure. Where is it?"
Him: "You know. You pass it all the time. On the way to [place], up on the hill on the left side of the street."
Me: Offers blank look.
Him:  "Past the red house and the super market."
Me: Offers blank look. 
Him:  "Put the address in your GPS."

Or the variant that goes like this:

Him: "I ran into John at work today and he sends his regards."
Me: "John?"
Him: "You know. The tall product rep with the red hair and beard."
Me: Offers blank look.
Him: "The guy you talked to about dog rescue at the holiday party."
Me: "Oh, him. Tell him I say 'hi'."

You might think I have a problem with my memory, and you would be only partially correct. It's not my memory per se that's faulty, but my visual memory. It's essentially non-existent.

I only recently discovered that the way I process the world has a name and other people share it. It's called aphantasia and it means I don't have a functioning mind's eye. I literally can't make pictures in my head. What I 'see' when I imagine something is close to the photo of static at the head of this post.

That doesn't mean I have a thin or poor imagination. It may seem odd and difficult to reconcile that I am a writer and don't have a functioning mind's eye, but when I imagine things, I am able to feel them and associate emotion and meaning to them.

I used to think that when some writers talked about capturing the movie in their heads that they were using a metaphor. But for visual thinkers, this is the literal truth. When I work through a story, I live it from the inside, feel what my characters are feeling, rather than observe it from afar. That may be one of the reasons I only write in deep points of view, rather than omniscient. How could I, if I can never be the camera that pans the scene from somewhere above the room?

When I first worked with a critique group on my first novel 13 years ago, I received a lot of similar comments. They distilled down to: Great story, but you write floating heads in black boxes. Until that moment, I simply had no idea that visual description was that important to most readers. I tend to skim lengthy description. It's especially tedious in epic fantasy. Who needs pages and pages of words describing a forest? I get it. It has trees. It's green. Let's move on. (I exaggerate, but not by much!) For me, description simply to describe is boring. If it has resonance to character emotion or plot, then I'll struggle though it. Otherwise, skim-city.

I had to learn to layer in visual markers for the typical reader. I still run my work by my husband, who unlike me has super-acute visual memory skills. It's likely one of the reasons he is both a talented photographer and a renown interventional radiologist. His work entails making a visual map of a three-dimensional object (a body structure) using a two-dimensional imaging technique (x-ray) and then being able to use his hands to place a needle or a catheter within that structure. His mind's eye is able to hold, analyze, and flip images as needed. This, to me, is nothing short of astonishing.

I can't do it. Now, I practiced as a physical therapist for 25 years and I was extremely good at my job. Most of what I learned from my patients, I learned through my hands and 'listening' to their bodies. It's not that I didn't use my visual senses, but they were always secondary to my kinesthetic skills. There's no surprise that my artistic activity of choice is ceramics. When I'm throwing at the wheel, I feel rather than look at what I'm doing.

I can't read a map, or reverse directions in my head. I get lost a lot. Actually all the time. Thank the technological gods for GPS.

I can't close my eyes and see a picture of the man I have loved for 34 years. I can experience the 'Neilness of Neil' in my mind, but it's not visual. I know he has brown eyes, brown hair, a beard and a mustache. His nose is long and angular. His face is a long oval. He has a ready smile. But these are features I know rather than see.

I have no trouble recognizing him in person or from a photo. I can match images in photos. It's not that my visual skills are lacking; only the ability to hold visual images in my head is missing.

It explains why, despite my high test sores in almost every other subcatetory (we took the IOWA tests in elementary school)  I bombed the tests of clerical speed and accuracy (matching strings of letters) and visual spatial skills (choosing the closed form that matched the flat schematic.)

It must be hell for my cover artists to work with me. I can't describe what I want; all I can do is relate the emotion I am looking for and let them know if it's close when I see a sketch.

How I lived for the past 53 years on the planet not knowing that the way I experience the world is not at all typical is a mystery.  Or maybe evidence that the human mind is marvelously adaptable. One of the interesting things I do experience is synesthesia - that is the mapping of one sense on another. More typical forms of synesthesia involve the visual: people report that numbers have colors, for example. Mine is completely kinesthetic. Sounds have weight. A loud sound feels like a jackhammer against my skin. A whisper can tickle. Colors have feel. I'm also sensitive to visual clutter and have a hard time in big box stores or large grocery stores. The harsh lighting feels like hailstones on my senses and I get easily overwhelmed.

I'm not sure if the synesthesia is directly connected with the aphantasia or is an adaptation. But it may also explain why I am so comfortable thinking in analogies and metaphors. Which cycles back to my ability to write and be creative, despite not being able to visualize.

So what do I think about having a label? Not much, to be honest. It's helped my husband understand why I have the skill and talent to get lost in my own neighborhood. :) And I don't feel bad for firing up google maps (A.K.A the nice lady who tells me where to go) to go places that should be familiar. I know that if I haven't referenced a visual description of something in a few pages of writing, I need to layer some in, especially if it's a complex scene with multiple characters. Otherwise, this is part of who I am. It's just fascinating to know it's something scientists are studying.



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  1. This is super interesting and completely not something I knew about you! I'm even more impressed that you do such an amazing job of writing, even if I don't fully understand things like not picturing a face but feeling an essence. That said, I bet you don't irritate your cover artists as much as you think -- probably the opposite. Those of us who have an EXACT PICTURE in our heads are usually disappointed; getting a feeling feels like a more native language for an artist. Thanks for sharing!

    1. That's a good point, vis a vis working with an artist. I suspect it's more frustrating for me not to be able to explain what I want in a cover. :)

  2. It's very interesting, reading about this memory of yours. I used to be able to visualize people if I knew them well, but I would often recognize someone that I'd seen on the bus or something, but didn't actually know. They would look familiar, somehow. One very funny aspect of my former memory affected my writing. I could always tell when I'd been working too hard on my current novel or poetry, or whatever. Because I would see my hands typing below the face of the person I was talking to, captioning my every word.
    But after suffering a concussion in a car accident 11 years ago, my memory has been drastically affected. I will often not recognize people in my husband's building, or people in my building or border guards that I've met many times. It's terribly frustrating.