Clock at Quick Fix Massage in St. Cloud, MN, 2018.
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Aphantasia and the Study of History

Clock at Quick Fix Massage in St. Cloud, MN, 2018.
Clock at Quick Fix Massage in St. Cloud, MN, 2018.

Here is an amazing fact of life that younger people may not realize until they have a good number of years behind them: You never stop learning interesting, fundamental things about yourself.

My husband and I are in our early 50s and Erik (that’s my husband, in case you didn’t know) just learned that he is aphantasiac. Here is the BBC article about aphantasia that brought this realization to him.

Basically, people who have aphantasia cannot visualize things in their mind’s eye. While it appears that only about 2 percent of the population has aphantasia, this is not considered a disorder; it’s merely a different way for the brain to process information.

Can You See Sheep in Your Mind?

You can take a quiz to determine if you are potentially aphantasiac []. Although, after reading the BBC article, my husband knew instantly that he has aphantasia because he has never been able to figure out what people are talking about when they say to imagine counting sheep when trying to fall asleep. He has never had an image of sheep or anything else in his head, just sort of a gray static, as he described it to me.

I, on the other hand, am hyperphantasiac. I can picture pretty much anything, including sheep, in vivid detail. This is especially true if you ask me to create an image in my mind, rather than asking me to recall every detail of something I have seen in real life. I can vividly recall in-real-life details so long as I have paid close attention to them, but if I have only vaguely looked at something, the details are fuzzy in my mind’s eye.

Differences Between Aphantasiacs and Hyperphantasiacs

Learning that Erik is aphantasiac and I am hyperphantasiac explains a number of differences in the way we think. I can pull up a visual memory of a storm and tornado warning from when I was 6 months old. Erik, however, has always had difficulty spontaneously retrieving memories. He also rarely remembers dreams, though my dreams are often tremendously vivid. I can closely match colors (think paint, stain or fabric) because I can see the color I am trying to match in my mind. Erik struggles with color matching.

Interestingly enough, Erik’s dad was red/green colorblind and did not discover this until his late teens, when he was dating Erik’s mom. She’s the one who figured it out because he kept coming to her with a shirt and tie and saying, “Do these go together?” She finally pulled out her mom’s vast bath towel collection and started asking him what color each one was.

Recently, Erik’s mom showed him a stash of fabric swatches her mom cut out of favorite clothing items because she wanted to be able to remember these pieces of clothing. Erik is wondering if perhaps his grandma was aphantasiac and this was her way of creating a mnemonic device for something she could not picture.

A writer friend also recently revealed that she has aphantasia and she uses her writing as a way to capture images she won’t be able to visualize later. She, too, had problems with exercises in school regarding drawing something from her imagination. She defaulted to drawing a tree. Who would know that she hadn’t seen it?

Erik said the sad thing about aphantasia is that he cannot picture loved ones, so once they are gone, they’re visually gone from his mind, too. This makes me wonder if the inventor of photography was aphantasiac.

Aphantasia and History

This brings me to history. In teaching history, particularly in a classroom setting, we default to an assumption that everyone can read a text describing historic events and picture those events in their minds. We want to be able to help students “relive” past events in order to understand and remember them. We’re relying on a particular mental ability that not everyone shares.

What if 98% of the population was aphantasiac, rather than the reverse? How might we teach history differently? Perhaps the way museums and public historians do, with exhibits and three-dimensional artifacts and costumed tour guides and visiting historic sites. No mind’s-eye visualization needed if an object or landscape is right in front of you.

In thinking of the myriad ways that people take in and process information, whether visually- or hearing-impaired, autistic, aphantasiac, hyperphantasiac, synesthetic & etc., there is so much variety in the human experience that relying on one method of conveying history is likely to leave a lot of people lost and not connecting to that history.

Knowing that not every museum or classroom has the resources to present every history program or lesson in multiple formats, a more manageable system is to present programs and lessons through a rotating series of different formats.

So, within a museum, a program on logging could be presented as an exhibit one time and then later presented as a talk from a historian. Still later, logging history could be presented as an article or website with photographs. The point is not to make staff stressed by expecting all of these methods to be presented at once but to offer them over time. Working in a small museum, I am a huge believer in squeezing a variety of uses out of a particular topic because the research takes so long. Not only does this create efficiencies for staff, this variety in presentation has the potential to reach audiences with many different processing styles.

It feels like I’m stating the obvious, especially for those who have training in pedagogy, but discovering your spouse has a significantly different way of thinking from you and much of the rest of the population makes you pause to rethink a few things. If we all have such fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, is it any wonder how hard it is to find common ground on complex topics such as policy?

Further food for thought:

If aphantasiacs can’t create visual memories, how might this impact their ability to create their own personal history?



6 thoughts on “Aphantasia and the Study of History”

  1. Thank you, Mary, for expanding on this topic. It was oddly affirming to learn that not being able to visualize happens to other people as well even if it is a very small part of the population. Being an INFP personality type (which I am and is also a very small percentage of the population) van feel very isolating the pair that with having aphantasia.

    1. You’re welcome, Laura! Although thanks really go to Erik for finding the article and figuring out that he has aphantasia. Now he’s discovered his sister Jill thinks the same way. I understand that feeling of isolation in regards to Myers-Briggs. I’m an INFJ, which is also a small part of the population. How many of us are walking around in our own weirdness without knowing others are too?

  2. The colour-blind part of this story struck a chord with me. My husband only discovered he is colour-blind after we got married. We happened to see a colour-blind test, and he didn’t pass! Up until then (mid-twenties) he’d had no idea. According to my sister-in-law it certainly explained a few things!

    I’d not heard of aphantasia. I do remember reading about people who cannot remember faces, and wondering now if they are the same thing (although face-blindness varies in severity, I think).

    Altogether a very interesting piece!

    1. Hi, Clare – I think the fact that so many people can go so long without knowing they have color-blindness or aphantasia or any number of other ways of thinking and perceiving that don’t necessarily match a majority of the population shows just how inside our own heads & bodies we are. The way we think and perceive is the way we think and perceive. It’s only when our methods clash with those of others that we run into difficulties or are misunderstood.

  3. I am aphantasic and have dreams ( some folks who are don’t but the part of the mind that visualizes in dreams is different than the minds eye ) I also am incredibly good at recalling details of an object – the aphantasic mind still does things the regular mind does it’s just a different way of processing – instead of images my details are emotional cues and like a word cloud describing the object . I also am spot on ( way better TVAn average ) for matching color swabs – I still have color information it’s just stored non visually

    1. Hi, Jen – Thanks so much for your comment on aphantasia. As I learn more about it from people who have this ability, I’m more conscious of the fact that not everyone visualizes things, but that there are just different ways to process info. It helps to have a husband who is aphantasiac who can explain how he thinks. Because he can’t visualize people who are gone, like his father, he has to find different ways to remember them. For his dad, he will be getting a cardinal tattoo to remember him by because his dad used to call in cardinals.

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