Think about an Apple

I first heard about Aphantasia a  bunch of years ago in a random news article and was fascinated so I immediately did the casual test for it.

The test, if you don’t know about it, is to establish whether you can bring a mental picture of something to mind and what degree of clarity it might have if any.

Here’s the gist of the casual test I did…

Think about a red apple. Can you ‘see’ an image of an apple in your mind?

You might close your eyes if it helps you to visualize. If you can hold an image of an apple in your mind, you can try changing the type of apple or try to move the image or ‘look’ at its details.

Whether you’ve visualized an apple at that point or not, the next aspect of the common test is to think of a horse and bring an image of a horse again to mind. The test continues again asking you to think of a horse of a different colour or possibly a horse galloping.

Honestly most people won’t have too much in the way of visual information about horses unless they have spent a lot of time around them or studying them. And many trained artists will say that they just avoid drawing horses if they can due to the complexity and specificity of their anatomy. But the horse aspect of the test is more to capture where people might sit in the scale

Two pages from the book Heidi’s Horse by Sylvia Fein, 1976. The book is a case study of one child’s representation of horses from preschool to high school age.

In my case, when I first tried the Aphantasia test, I was somewhat surprised that in my head I was ‘looking’ at the dark behind my eyes with its occasional afterimage shapes of recently seen objects fading away. I tried to ‘see’ an apple quite a few times and the best I could ever manage was a flash of the vague silhouette of an apple-like shape.

I say surprised because I have always thought of myself as deeply connected to visual imagery and even as a visual thinker. I’ve told a few people that know me about the test and my results and they have been shocked and ask almost immediately, “But how do you make art?”

That was pretty much the first question I asked too.

I read more about Aphantasia and learned that there is a loose scale or a spectrum from 1 to 5 with 5 being a complete absence of mental imagery even in dreams and for some people even the inability to recognize faces. The middle range of the scale is “normal” and a 1 represents someone with Hyperphantasia — those folks who can seemingly pull up and hold megapixels of visual data in their mind and examine it in real time.

A chart I made approximating the Aphantasia scale. Most people are somewhere between 2 and 3.

In my case, I’d say I sit at around 4.5 or so. I sure can’t really see an apple let alone switch a Royal Gala for a Granny Smith in my mind’s eye. And the horse, no, that’s a complete blank.

I do dream with imagery (though I can’t recall those images when I wake up) and I do recognize people’s faces but I can’t bring the image of a single person’s face to mind, not even Gayla, my partner of almost 31 years now. Interestingly she, who is also a highly visual person, has Aphantasia as well.

So, that question… how does someone that can’t think in images make art?

I’ve been a designer for various media for the past 30+ years. I draw quite a bit for work and I think of much of my arts practice as drawing. I can even draw things with a fair degree of realism. As I draw, I see the marks made and apply them against whatever sense I have of the object being drawn.

Without really knowing enough about image-based machine learning to say it’s exactly this… it seems something like a generative model trained on the properties of things. I can only reliably draw from the “data” that I have. Which would be true of anyone but there’s never any visual reference in my head. I have something more like the conceptual model of an apple for instance instead of a bank of images of apples.

So, applying the objects from the classic quick test, I can draw an okay imagined/remembered apple because I have seen lots of apples. Apples also have a lot of literal varieties in terms of shapes, sizes, and colours so the qualifiers of what makes a “good” drawing of an apple are fairly loose.

60 second imagined apple sketch

In the other common test case, a horse, I don’t fair as well. I can’t see a horse in my head but I also have seen and experienced drastically fewer horse than I have apples.

Most of my current art making is in abstraction anyway but even there I can’t have an image in mind or think ahead to a next visual step, I can react in real time to the marks I make and make choices.

But sometimes I draw objects, people, or places and they aren’t normally drawn from reference but purely from my imagination. Again, like an apple, I have seen and experienced all types of people and things in life so I have mental parameters for those things even if I don’t have an image I can call to mind.

All of the drawings of people above are purely “from my head” with no external visual reference. So they feel like they only exist somewhere between my mind and my hand.

I think it does mean that I’m not good at reliably drawing the same thing more than once in the same manner. I can form a drawn image of an imaginary person but if I were asked to draw them again from a different angle I’d struggle for them to stay looking like the same person.

Another aspect of Aphantasia that I’ve realized has affected me is the connection between sense and memory. Aphantasia is by name a lack of “imagination”. I wouldn’t say this is a good description but I have read that visual memories — even on the opposite end of the scale from me that people will often refer to as having a “photographic memory” or Hyperphantasia — are a dance between the mental pathways that store and recall our memories and the other processes that allow us to visually imagine. The mind does an amazing job of interpolating all sorts of visual stimuli. Our minds use imagination to fill in the gaps of memory.

I have both a great memory for certain types of knowledge and a terrible memory for experiences. Many of my experiences are just missing for me — blank like trying to see the apple.

When people recall something they’ve lived through there can often be “sense memories” that bolster the depth, detail, or intensity of those memories. But my other sense memories end up in a pretty similar place to my visualization. I can’t make my mind recall a scent or taste and I can’t ‘hear’ someone’s voice in my head. While I have no idea whether clinically those would be labelled Aphantasia, they certainly feel related. And they function the same way. I can recognize and describe tastes well but can’t conjure their sensation as some people say they can. I say conjure because it feels like a magic trick. Like those meditative and empowering visualization exercises some people thrive on.

Some people have expressed that this makes them sad for me. That I’m missing out. While some aspects have caused me frustration over the years (especially before I knew about Aphantasia) most of the time I think I’ve just adapted.

Like many forms of neurodiversity, this aspect of my mental makeup is just a difference and not a fault or a failing. So I’m not sad about my differences. I find them fascinating.

You can read lots more about Aphantasia here: