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Aphantasia – Imagining Beaches Through Concepts

By Georges Seurat - National Gallery, London, Public Domain,

Aphantasia is the suggested name for a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind's eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery (from Wikipedia).

This week I will stray from the purpose of this blog, that is, sharing aspects of my on-going research about the line and the trace. This is not a complete disconnection from my subject however, as it pertains to images and their formation in the “mind’s eye” – or their absence. Or, maybe, the presence of lines, ideas and words in lieu of images.

In fact, what propelled this exception to the rule was a newspaper article about the “mind’s eye” blindness, a condition with the enticing name of aphantasia. As the definition above states, aphantasia is the incapacity to stimulate mental images through words or any other potential trigger such as a smell or touch. Something at the extreme opposite of synaesthesia, perhaps. A sort of mental blindness. In other articles I read, a man explained that he could not remember the features of his girlfriend’s face. That he only read non-fiction. Another person explained how, for her, “imagination had always been conceptual”; nevertheless, and despite not being able to visualize her own daughter, she declared enjoying fictional books, even dabbling in science-fiction.

This means that once any element is visually recognised through repetitive experience and category identification by aphantasics, it becomes a concept with certain properties. In that case, things belong in the realm not of imagination, but of conceptualisation when it comes to conscious visualization. When asked to visualize a beach, aphantasics make lists of what they could potentially find in one – drawn from experience or abstract knowledge equally -, thus relying on language. A poet and graphic designer (as per her biography), who is perplexed at her own aphantasic condition, describes it in detail:

Okay, there is a beach, there is sand, there is water. A beach is made of sand which is made of tiny rocks. A beach leaches heat from the sun. Skeet shooting is better than hunting but only slightly because you’re still firing a gun. A beach, a beach, a beach. I am imagining a beach. If you ran in cleats on the beach you might shatter a seashell. If I lived on a beach it might have seashells but they would all be in shards. (…)

Notice how speculative her mind becomes, only to be drawn back to the purpose of the exercise. Many people who have aphantasia describe how they make mental lists when asked to visualise something, most of them oblivious to the peculiarity of such a method. For her, she suggests later, visualizing is a literal exercise, as the triple repetition of the word ‘beach’ denotes in the excerpt above. It is all about words, and the voice in her head shepherding them toward the instruction, failing to induce the action of visualising. It should be enough, she seems to say. This word triplet may be a reminiscence of Gertrude Stein’s ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ (the author does muse, inexplicably, upon Stein’s ability to visualise). This notorious phrase, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’, is an exercise in tautology, but also perhaps a dismantling of literality by literality itself. For what is repeated in the third word, the thing itself, or repetition? Can repetition be repeated? It can, via de sound of the words, rolling in and out of the mouth – this phrase has to be read aloud. If you try it, the past tense of the verb ‘arise’ will form and then disappear. Is it the proposition “a rose is a rose” that is “a rose”? Or is a rose that is a rose, which in turn is also a rose? This play with the sameness of the word taking away the possibility of there being three separate roses, or three images of different roses does beckon the question: are these visualized roses? Are these conceptual? Are these just words, or at best a voice in one’s head, like a lullaby? One thing is certain: there are images, there are concepts, there are words, but there is no rose itself, such as in René Magritte’s painting of a pipe there isn't a pipe.

Nevertheless, for aphantasics, there are no images of the tripartite rose; although there is a spectrum for aphantasics, from those who can almost perceive blurry images at times to those who do not get any images at all. Aphantasics can dream; the trouble seems to be conscious and voluntary imaging. There is still a connection to an image pile somewhere, but not on demand. For what is remarkable here is that visualising one, two or three roses would never have occurred to an aphantasic. Even less to spontaneously ‘see’ them, as most people do. There are two obvious questions here: what happens when one does not see what one reads? What kind of connections are happening? And also, how do aphantasics deal with real, physical, images?

I am one of such people. I cannot visualise anything on demand, but I can be assailed by one image, one memory of very familiar things or people. It is an anarchic and discombobulated imagination - blurry or instable. If asked to visualise something I have noticed I may be able to do it if it is familiar, albeit in a state of disquiet and sweaty concentration, only to find my efforts running to the tips of my fingers, urging to unveil what seems to be far away, behind an immaterial, dark and translucid membrane. Recently, I tested my father, my husband, my children and my mother: when prompted to imagine a beach they could all do it, real ones or invented beaches. When prompted to visualise a sunset, everyone could do it, except my mother. I tried objects, she shook her head as if this had already been tested, tried, failed. She knew. It clearly disturbed her. She nervously started to enumerate the memories she had of my children and old photos of them in detailed situations. She quickly fled upstairs to get a photo my daughter had asked her to bring from her other house and she held it up to me, asking, can you believe it. My father and my husband recognised that those photographs did not exist as she described them. Her ‘mind’s eye’ was able to compulsively retrace poignant situations recounted many times, perhaps conceptually, perhaps her last hope of having a stack of cherished memories somewhere. Can you believe it? Can you believe we have this technology that upholds what our brains cannot reproduce? Can you believe it? Can it really be possible that we are almost blind?

Learning about this condition prompted me to think about the aphantasic relation to real images, the ones that do not flicker and dissipate. Drawings, paintings, photographs, lithographs, inkjet prints, iPad finger drawings, frottages, reliefs, frescoes, friezes, patterns. But if aphantasics’ brains are not stimulated in the same way non-aphantasics’ are when trying to recollect images or picture things, how do they relate with images that are there, not moving, not recoiling from attention? Are our brains, eyes, bodies even capable of being captivated by them? Are we not more suited for conceptual endeavours? Is this why I am looking at lines? After the idea of a line shutting the voice in my head, my own voice, 15 years ago, with its sheer simplicity, its length without breadth, its potential of being a figure, a shape – an image – but not just yet?

I had opened up to a colleague a few years ago regarding this embarrassing inability to recollect images. Frustrated, I confessed that I relied on photos to go back to art works, paintings, installations, buildings, because I had trouble remembering them. She confessed to the same although I had refrained from describing the magnitude of my lack of imagination. We talked about graphic, muscular and conceptual memory. In the car, driving back home, I noticed that there were two very important picture books for me as child: one, buried in the endless editions of children’s books in whose images I remember meandering in, lost in the texture of pastels – of course, I have no visual memory of it, apart from the character (or is it because I found it a while ago and know that he wears a cap?). The other is one of those illustrated editions about art, a hurried view of art through selected periods, from the Renaissance to Pop-Art. Both books I spent hours with. Looking, looking and looking again. Loosing myself in the enigmatic faces, in the dark corners of terrible vengeance, in anachronic and perfectly rendered architectures, but more viscerally in the abstract quality of Max Ernst’s Rhino-machine Celebes, or the nervous stillness of Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières.

Images will always be an apparition to me. I need to be in their presence - I long for it. However, one cannot deny the playful quality of words that can sing something and say another. Concepts can dance too, if associated with the body, if one reads with the whole body, singing: a rose is a rose is a rose. But can you see words I asked my mother. She perked up. Yes, I always see words. You see, we see things after all I told her.

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