Category: Visual Memory

No Visual Memory, Aphantasia?

Some time back I posted a link to a BBC news article on Aphantasia.

For me it describes what I have always called my lack of visual memory, that is, I cannot recall an actual “image” of anything. It happens as soon as I close my eyes. It’s not that I don’t remember what my wife looks like, I just can’t see a picture of her.

Even then that’s not quite true, like the Dyslexia I have, it’s not simple. If I try to see words they disintegrate into a jumble, however if I don’t try to see them I can read fine and often spell fine too, it’s almost like I have to catch my ability to process written words unawares. Ask me to spell a word and if I don’t think about it I’ll do quite well; if I pause, even for a moment, to think about it, I just can’t.

My visual memory is just like that. I am aware of it, just out of sight in the corner of my eye, but if I turn to see it, then it goes. So, as long as I trust it’s there I can function as if it is there, I just can’t try and visualise anything.

I know that Teresa’s hair is a brown colour, I know it’s curly and I know her eyes are blue, I know these as facts. However if I close my eyes, all I can do is imagine brown curly hair and blue eyes, I can’t see her face, other than the “facts” I have memorised, I can’t describe her to you at all. Yet, I know that I know what she looks like, I just cannot visualise it.

In general this is not a bad description of how my memory works, the information is all there, but the retrieval process needs a sleight of hand and an acceptance that impressions, a sense of what I saw or heard or read, is all I can offer. The stuff is there!

I often talk in autism terms about how neurotypicals seem to have an extra communication channel of which I have no understanding. In a sense the reverse of that feels true when it comes to my internal processing: I have this invisible communication channel to my visual and auditory memory which works “by magic” but I don’t know what it’s doing and I can’t see (or hear) what it sees or hears, and yet I can.

None of that makes sense, but then that’s my point, it doesn’t make sense if I try and explain it in words and pictures and yet it makes perfect sense to me, I just can’t explain why!

So, it is always a waste of time describing something to me hoping I will recognise it or asking me to describe it, it’s just not going to happen. No point asking me what was said in a conversation, I have no idea. And yet, I know that I know what was said and what I saw, I just can’t articulate and/or visualise it. I know I can use that information so long as I don’t worry about what I can’t do and focus on what I can. So I am very good at remembering a “sense” of something, even if I don’t outwardly recall it at all. My ability to remember that sense is often better than Teresa can achieve with her excellent verbal and visual memory and it is that sense that often helps me compensate for  that autistic inability to directly understand social communication.

So, put my “sense” of what happened alongside Teresa’s recall of events when we have been to the same thing (like our counselling course) and the sum of our recall is greater than either of us can achieve on our own. That sounds like a win-win to me.

Aphantasia: A life without mental images

Whilst it is not something to do with Autism directly, I have often tried to describe how I do not think in words or pictures, this article describes the second part very well. Note how he describes it NOT as a disability just as a difference and it is all part of the message that we are all far more different than people think and a world/society constructed around narrow definitions of “normal” is not healthy.