I am one of the estimated 1-3% of people who are not able to think visually. To conjure mental images. I cannot remember what your face looks like because I cannot remember what anything looks like. I cannot picture a summer day, or the setting of my story, or the last time I saw my mother.
Until a few years ago, I thought this was normal. I thought people talking about ‘picturing’ things in their mind were speaking metaphorically.
That was when I first learned about ‘aphantasia’. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘lack of mind-pictures.’ That’s me. I lack mind pictures.
I learned about aphantasia on the Fediverse a few years ago when someone I was following ran a short poll related to it. Asked folks ‘what do you see when you close your eyes and try to picture a red heart’ or something similar.
And one of the options was ‘I see a red heart.’
I stopped and stared a moment.
My brain froze as I tried to assimilate… some people literally see ‘a red heart’.
I’ve tried to call up visual images before. Often when trying to figure out what my characters look like or remember a person’s face. Trying to picture a red heart worked the same as all those other attempts — a… sense of a line being traced, the feeling of the outline of a heart being drawn. And in the wake of that tracing an… almost image? A grey-on-grey (except not grey, because it’s not an image at all?) outline of a heart that is more felt than seen, but if it was visual it would be… like ultraviolet? Not part of the visual spectrum, but sensed in some way that I didn’t have words for so I used the words of sight because I didn’t have anything else.
I sure was.
I was even more confused when I submitted my answer to the poll and found that the majority of respondents literally saw a red heart. Like, wtf? You people seriously do that?!?!
I’ve gone through this background because I want the phantasic folks reading this (which probably are most of you?) to understand how shocking having actual pictures in your head is to me.
I want you to understand that what I’m going to try to put words to next is my normal. I have trouble putting words to it because the words don’t exist. But as strange as this will (apparently) sound to you, to me it’s y’all’s visual thoughts that are strange and kind of disturbing. What follows is just… me.
Kinesthesia is the sense of our bodies and physical space. Knowing how to touch your nose with your eyes closed is kinesthesia. So is knowing without looking if your hand is clenched or loose.
People with high levels of kinesthesia can build a mental picture of the space around them so they can navigate it better. Say, trace a maze with their eyes closed or predict where a ball will land. Athletes tend to be highly kinesthetic.
There is, of course, a reason I am talking about kinesthesia.
My thoughts are not visual, they are kinesthetic. Or, as I prefer to call them, ‘shape-feels.’
Well, some of my thoughts are verbal, of course. But that verbalness is just for my surface-level thoughts. Everything else? Shape-feels.
Every idea or concept I know has a shape-feel. For concrete things, the shape-feel is representative. The shape-feel for ‘chair’ is a kinesthetic sense of a basic wooden chair. Imagine the feel of running your hands over a wooden chair — the back, the supports, the seat, the legs — now put those feelings together into one coherent tactile sense of a chair. That’s my thought ‘chair’.
Abstract ideas… well, let me give two examples. Love (the feeling) is a warm cloud (with a fuzzy-blanket texture) wrapped around me. Loving (as in ‘love is a verb’) is a sense of two different things growing together to create something new. Again, the tactile feel of these things.
If I close my eyes and think of the room I am in right now, it’s almost like an echolocation thing? A sense-feel combining how far furniture, walls, etc are from my body and the shape of those things to form a tactile ‘picture’ of the room.
Some shape-feels are completely abstract and impossible to describe. My shape-fell for myself is one of those. It’s… the best I can describe it is there is a warmth in my center that is the essence of ‘Jess’. It is vaguely ball-shaped, but only in the sense that enough warmth radiating out of anything becomes ball-shaped eventually. I could hold it in my cupped hands. It has layers. Sort of. But those aren’t anything about what it is. What it is is me. In some essential way that words don’t encompass.
I don’t see colors, of course. But my memories can be color-coded. Like a paint-by-number picture, my shape-feels can sometimes be labeled ‘this is red, this is green,’ etc.
Of course, when I am thinking, a lot of thoughts and concepts can happen in a short time. I rarely have time to be aware of a large number of discrete shape-feels. Instead, it’s more like a tactile version of those timelapse videos of clouds passing across the sky. One shape-feel shifting into another, forming a coherent thought process that I (often) automatically translate into words, because habit.
Intentional thought often comes in words, verbally. ‘Talking to myself’ thinking that just about everyone is familiar with. But often as I am ‘talking to myself’ I’ll hit a point that I don’t have words for. And then I let the shape-feel fill in for the words I don’t have and move on.
If we are talking and I stop and say ‘words…’ (as I tend to do) it’s because I don’t know how to turn the shape-feel thoughts into words.
I have said elsewhere that I am more comfortable being nonverbal than verbal — that being nonverbal feels more natural to me. I think this is why. Because all verbalness is a kind of masking. It’s translating the essence of my thoughts into a language I can more easily manipulate and others can understand. Autistic people in general are more likely to be aphantasic, so there is a possible correlation between aphantasic thinking and being nonverbal. One of the many things I wish there was more information about, but won’t be because most researchers are assholes.
Nothing I don’t have a shape-feel for is really… real to me. This has come up in two contexts recently. Once discussing programming with emsenn. I struggle with programming in part because programming ideas (function, in that case) are just words. It doesn’t matter how often I read the definitions (more words), if I can’t formulate a shape-feel for a concept I don’t understand it. The idea, based only in the word, feels unanchored, floaty, ephemeral. I need a shape to anchor it in, to explore, run my hands over, internalize, to understand something.
For the first time ever, I was able to explain some of this to emsenn. They were was able to help me formulate a shape-feel for functions by giving me a concrete metaphor for what functions do. I haven’t fully internalized the idea yet, but now it feels… undigested instead of inaccessible.
The second time was a Twitter convo where I was trying to start a conversation about what it means to be a nonbinary dominant. Baffling to me at the time, no one else seemed interested in discussing it. One friend asked me why we needed to discuss it? Why do we need to define it? Isn’t it enough to have the label and live it?
For most people it is, I guess. For me… having something that is/should be one of my identities being just words, being this ephemeral, floaty nothing that I can’t wrap my mental hands around… it’s incredibly uncomfortable. It leaves me off balance and kind of flailing when I think about that part of myself.
I have to say, for all they can be a pain in the ass, these past months putting words to how my thinking works have left me incredibly grateful that words are a thing. I’ve come to suspect that if mindreading or telepathy ever do being a thing, they will be a supremely useless thing in many cases. If I were to be able to put my thoughts — my shape-feels — in your head, you would likely be more confused, not less. And visual people putting their thoughts in my head? Like, could I even perceive visual thoughts sent to me telepathically? How would that work even?
Scientists doing the whole ‘mind-reading computer thing’ have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure.
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