Monday 18 January 2021


I wrote this piece on aphantasia for the Guardian last year.

I thought I would reference it here and elaborate somewhat. There seems recently to have been an explosion of people realising this is how they are - I won't say that they "have aphantasia" as that makes it sound like an illness or defect.

One early report on the - again I won't call it a condition - state of being was on the BBC and demonstrated a profound lack of understanding. It included such statements as:

Ironically, Niel now works in a bookshop, although he largely sticks to the non-fiction aisles.

"I couldn't really imagine what it's like to not imagine, I think it must be a bit of a shame really."

I doubt that anyone who has read my books thinks I would stick to the non-fiction aisles or that I can't imagine...

The misunderstanding lies in the fact that visualisation is such a central part of most people's imagination. For many the seeing of images in their head is synonymous with imagination. But aphantasia isn't a disability or lack. Think of it in terms of taking a different path to the same destination.  

There's literally nothing that the majority of people can do that an aphantasic cannot. It's simply a matter of how they describe their own internal workings / experience when doing it. That's why it took so long to be recognised. Most aphantasics don't know that their internal experience is any different from that of the 98% who see mental imagery. 

Various thought-provoking questions have cropped up over the years when considering the matter of artificial intelligence. One of them is to consider a black box that when asked a lengthy series of question responds in a way that leaves you unable to distinguish its answers from those of a person. The question then is: is the source of those answers intelligent, irrespective of the manner in which they were generated? I.e it could contain a phone through which a person was responding, or a computer coded with an AI algorithm, or a cunning array of clockwork, or a trillion ants working collectively, etc. Most consider that if a device provides feedback indistinguishable in character and quality from that of known intelligences then it would in fact be intelligent.

The extension here is that if someone acts as though they have an imagination then ... irrespective of the mechanics behind it (or the subjective description of the experience generated alongside those mechanics) ... that person has an imagination.

I can't visualise a spade, but I know what one is and I call a spade a spade.

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1 comment:

  1. I just read this Guardian article the other day, and it actually prompted me to pick up Prince of Thorns. I discovered at the beginning of last year that visualize was not just a fancy way of saying "think about". Quite a shock to discover that most everyone else was watching actual imagery in their heads all day. The one that really gets me is that my husband says he "sees" a keyboard in his head while typing. Really can't imagine what that would be like.

    In any case, I wanted to pick up something of yours to see if I would notice a difference. Would a book that required no imagery to create, and I suppose also no expectation of imagery to enjoy, speak to me more as a fellow person with Aphantasia? I'm only a handful of chapters in, but there's definitely a noticeable difference. The level of descriptions for me is honestly just right. There's enough to give me an idea of the world and the people without feeling bogged down by details that I honestly wouldn't remember by the end of the story anyway. Jorg feels like how I think characters are supposed to feel - not a bunch of details put together, but instead just a presence.

    Anyway, I just wanted to write because I was very excited to find this. Thanks!