5 Realities Of Life When You’re Born With No Imagination
Imagine, if you will, a naked Guy Fieri sitting on the toilet and going through his third bucket of spicy wings like a man (although now more like a beast) obsessed. Picturing that probably ruined your day. If only you had no imagination! Then you'd be immune to this kind of trauma. Well, be careful what you wish for. There is in fact a neurological condition called "aphantasia," and its sufferers literally have no imagination. We spoke to three of them -- Ashley Young, Emma Portus, and Ian Winter -- about what it's like to live in the opposite of a Reading Rainbow episode.
Aphantasia Means Your Mind's Eye Is Blind
Aphantasia was first discovered in the 19th Century, but wasn't seriously studied until last year when science finally announced to the world that some folks out there can be born outside the target demographic of John Lennon's "Imagine". Essentially, when people with aphantasia try to count sheep or imagine all the people living in harmony or whatever, they come up blank.
"To explain to someone what aphantasia is, I would ask the person to think of Homer Simpson -- his round belly, blue trousers, white shirt, black shoes, bald head with the two hairs on top and the zigzag hair, his round nose, and his stubble," says Ian. "Someone without aphantasia would have the image of Homer in their head. I, on the other hand, just have the words in my head that describe his features in some internal monologue." It's sort of like reading stuff off a checklist without "seeing" anything in your mind's eye.
And it's not just images. "I can't hear music in my head if none is playing. I can't imagine how things taste or feel unless I am actually experiencing them," Emma says. "I can't remember things as pictures, sounds, feelings, or tastes. I just don't see, hear, or feel anything in my head." Imagine (since you can, you privileged jerk) your brain not being able to remember that, say, kale tastes like yard trimmings sprinkled with dirt, and then being invited to a vegan restaurant. The horror ...
This brings us to our next point ...
Your Memory Will Suffer
Science still isn't totally sure how human memory works -- or at least, that's what we keep telling the judge. However, researchers have concluded that humans mostly rely on visual memory, essentially replaying home movies in our heads to help us remember stuff. You can see how that translates to memory problems for people with aphantasia.
"I'm pretty much useless at remembering people's names," Ashley explains, "or why/how I know them. I sometimes forget names of people I work with, and I've known them for years. Nine out of 10 times, I can't say what house number I live at accurately. Or I'll get the name of the road slightly wrong."
"Great job, uh ... Johnny Depp?"
That's probably why folks with aphantasia are so thin: they keep giving the pizza guy the wrong address.
But that memory deficit can actually be useful on occasion. Take, for example, terrible movies. "I have a higher than normal tolerance for plot holes, maybe because I don't clearly remember what is and isn't canon, or because I don't subconsciously predict how something is going to play out," Emma says, "but I either don't notice them or just don't feel that they matter."
"Wow, I can't believe Bond got out of that elaborate trap!"
But it does matter that Hermione performs the obliviate charm on her parents, and then later claims not to know how to do it, Emma, and if you read our thesis, you'd understand that ...
It's Hard To Lie Without An Imagination
Mark Twain once said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." It sort of works the other way around, too -- if you don't remember anything, you have to tell the truth. "One of my weird quirks is that I never lie about things," Ashley says. "It takes too much effort to remember lies compared to what actually happened." Being Ashley's friend is a mixed bag -- he might never remember your name, but you always know he's not making up some bullshit excuse so he doesn't have to help you move.
"I have to brush my iguana."
"OK, no prob."
At the same time, if Emma keeps asking you whether or not she's already helped you move, she's not laying a passive-aggressive guilt trip on you. See, it's still possible with people for aphantasia to dream, which gets confusing. "My brain doesn't normally have to deal with stuff from my mind's eye, so it often gets confused and thinks that dreams are real," she says.
That happens to everyone at some point, but a dream is the only time she's be able to see something that isn't real. "I've mostly gotten used to it, but it sometimes takes me a while to stop being confused, like having to check several times that it's the right day of the week, etc."
Imagine if you had to go to the Apple store every time you forgot your damn pass code.
She could try spinning a top, but she'll never be able to remember what it means when it falls down.
It's Impossible To Imagine The Worst
When you can't imagine the future, you're always living in the moment. That might sound great to the type of person who posts a lot of inspirational Facebook memes, but it turns out it can be a bad thing. Nobody likes worrying about the future, with all of its buzzkilling consequences, but it's quite useful as a sort of mental drill.
"I never pictured any of my family seriously ill or injured," Emma recalls, "so it was a massive, awful shock when my husband suffered a cardiac arrest after finishing a marathon and I arrived in time to see him being revived by the paramedics. I never pictured the worst, so when it happened, I was completely unprepared, and basically just stood there yelling incoherently until the race organizer kindly shepherded me into a tent and sat with me until the ambulance was ready."
Know how people say, "I never imagined something like this could happen"? With her, that's not figurative.
See, the worst thing about living in the moment is that if the moment happens to be horrible, your entire existence becomes a living hell. You literally can't imagine ever feeling any other way. Waiting for that ambulance was the beginning and end of Emma's experience, as far as she was concerned. She couldn't imagine he would be okay; he was stuck having a heart attack forever in the limbo of her mind, like an incredibly fucked up Groundhog's Day.
Emma's husband was fine in the end, and thanks to her aphantasia, she will never have to relive the experience in her head. But sometimes, you don't want to forget the painful stuff. "I think the time when this made itself so present was when I lost a very close friend to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease," Ian says. "I saw him a week before he died, when he was barely aware of his surroundings and had no idea that I was there. It was the sort of image that I can only assume would last with someone forever. I broke down in tears after I had left his home, but even then, I wasn't able to picture what I had just seen."
Imagine not being able to picture your lost loved ones. Now feel really bad about being able to imagine that.
With No Imagination, You Can Enjoy Things For The First Time Again And Again
That's not to say that aphantasia doesn't have some upsides. "I find it hard to hold grudges or stay angry, because I just can't hold on to the emotional feeling," Emma says. "This means I'm very pragmatic and forgiving ... I also don't get bored of rewatching or rereading my favorite stories, so there will always be certain books and films I'll enjoy again and again, forever."
"Holy shit, he was dead the whole time?!"
Aphantasia can also be very handy for an artist. "I'm a musician," Ashley says, "but I cannot hear music in my head at all. Even if it's a song I've heard a million times." This has helped him develop a rather unique sound. "While the genres I produce in are pretty much identifiable, the style itself isn't copying or imitating anyone else. I literally couldn't, even if I tried to."
And because aphantasia sometimes erases your memory of an event as soon as it's over like in an episode of Doctor Who, it can also be helpful if you're suffering from PTSD, like Ashley. "I actually have post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to a very painful event, but my aphantasia helps me deal with it, because I can't relive it in my head," he says. "Someone on the aphantasia forums once made a post about being an EMT and not suffering from burnout due to not having to deal with any horrific imagery."
Sure, you may forget the face, the voice, or the smell of a loved one, but at least you're not haunted by that time you walked in on your parents having sex. After a costume party. While still dressed as Mario and Luigi.
If you like techno make sure to check out Ashley's Soundcloud. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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