What can you see in your mind’s eye?

I recently read this New York Times article on aphantasia. Never heard of it? Me neither until now, but, like me, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept.

Aphantasia is the inability to form an image in your head and apparently somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of the world’s population falls into this category. The rest of us are on a spectrum with a very small group being able to go so far as to essentially replay an entire movie in their minds.

I’ve referenced this concept often in the past year as I’ve been building a home and constantly been forced to imagine spaces that don’t yet exist. I can see a lot in my mind’s eye. When I am grasping to remember a piece of knowledge, I’m picturing it on a page or even imagining the scene I was in when I learned it. I remember book plot lines by the scenes I created in my head. When I speak, I’m often picturing written words in my mind. This all feels completely normal to me.

Here’s where I get weird though: I can picture the faces of most people I’ve encountered—the lady who served me coffee this morning, a work acquaintance, my yoga instructor from last week—but I cannot picture the faces of the people I care about the most. I can’t see my mom’s face. I can picture photographs of her and I can get glimpses like choppy videos of her walking or giving me a hug. But I can’t see her face.

I’ve tried. Really hard. It’s a strange gap. But this weekend I was talking to my parents and it turns out my dad is the same way. (My mom, on the other hand, is mildly offended that I can’t picture her face.) My dad can also picture faces of other people, but not the ones he really knows and loves best. From what I can tell, science hasn’t dug into this part yet. (The condition of aphantasia only got its name in 2015 so we’re still early on this stuff.)

So, what about you? What can you picture in your mind’s eye? An entire room? A movie? Your loved ones? Now I’m so curious about where other people fall on this spectrum. It’s such an intrinsic part of how we all exist and we never talk about it. Anyway, now that small talk is returning (file under: Things I didn’t miss during Covid), consider this a good convo starter for your next cocktail party chatter.

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