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Aphantasia Revisited: What Is Neurotypical?

My husband’s investigation into aphantasia continues.

He discovered he was aphantasiac in 2019 after reading an article from the BBC on this form of brain function that is primarily characterized by the inability to visualize things in the mind. I wrote about this in June 2019.

Erik recently found another article on aphantasia, this one from Scientific American, that explains more about how his brain works.

Whenever he is asked to recall specific events from his past, he can’t do it. I, with my hyperphantasiac brain, can recall certain past events with loads of detail. (Not ALL events, mind you, and not ALL details. My memory is not endlessly photographic in some super-human way.)

He’s always felt vaguely unsettled by this, like there is something wrong with him because of it.

According to the Scientific American article, this is pretty typical for those who are aphantasiac:

For example, some individuals with aphantasia report weakness in autobiographical memory, remembrance of events in their lives. In addition, many with aphantasia also suffer from prosopagnosia, impaired face recognition. To Zeman, the links to other conditions indicate that there may be several subgroups of aphantasia.

I’m not sure whether Erik has impaired face recognition, though he cannot visualize people who are not right in front of him. It’s why he got a tattoo of a cardinal to remember his father by. He can look down at his arm, see the cardinal, and think of his dad, though his memories won’t be visualizations.

It is noted in the article that Adam Zeman, the neurologist studying aphantasia, has not yet studied hyperphantasia:

Many people with hyperphantasia have told him, however, that they easily lose themselves in daydreams about the past or the future. In contrast to aphantasia, hyperpahantasia has not yet been found to have links to face recognition or memory.

I’m hoping Zeman and other researchers get around to studying hyperphantasia after they’ve worked on aphantasia. I have the sense that hyperphantasia is somehow linked to face recognition and memory because it is the visualization process that allows me to remember things from the past with detail. I’ve found that I if I want to remember what I’m reading or the context of a meeting, I need to be able to make notes, handwritten if possible. Aside from using the muscular activity of writing to help me remember, the visuals of the notes, which I can picture in my mind, also assist my  memory.

It calls to mind the Memory Palace from the TV series Sherlock, where Sherlock remembers the associations between different people and events by visualizing them in relation to each other within the rooms of a palace. Here’s a description of the technique, which certainly wasn’t new to the Sherlock series.

Think about aphantasiac children being taught this technique and how frustrating it must be for them. Only about 2 percent of the population is estimated to be aphantasiac. This is close to the number of people who are estimated to have synesthesia, another neurological processing method wherein the senses are cross-wired with each other. Someone who is synesthetic might experience sounds as colors or numbers and letters as specific colors. About 2-5 percent of the population has some form of synesthesia.

When you think of just the three types of neurological processing abilities I’ve mentioned here, aphantasia, hyperphantasia, and synesthesia, at a certain point you have to wonder: What exactly is neurotypical? Is there such a thing as being typical in a neurological sense, or are people, like my husband, running around with a very specific type of neurologic processing and pretending to fit in with everyone else, but none of us is really neurotypical? We’re all simply making assumptions about what’s typical based on the feedback we get from people and the larger culture, but they could be wrong. And we don’t know it because we only ever really live inside our own heads.

It’s certainly something interesting to think about … all in our own unique ways.

I’ll be watching for research developments on all of these neuro-processing types closely.


2 thoughts on “Aphantasia Revisited: What Is Neurotypical?”

  1. I believe having aphantasia is why I am so drawn to writing. I write to lock in memories at least on paper as I know I won’t be able to visually relive that moment later. I also have trouble with names and faces making me ill at ease socially. I also attribute at least part of my chronic low-grade depression to the sense of loss that comes with incomplete memories.

    1. Hi, Laura – Isn’t it interesting how we can go through so much of life and continue finding out new things about ourselves? When Erik ran across information on aphantasia, it explained how his thinking was so different from others around him, like not being able to spontaneously recall past memories. Having difficulty with names and faces, as you have, would certainly make recalling past memories more challenging. I’m sorry you’ve had trouble with low-grade depression and social situations because of this. Perhaps, if science can help us all figure out more about how we think, and how we think differently from other people, this understanding will lead to all of us being at greater ease with ourselves.

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