DATING AN APHANTASIC: RELATIONSHIPS AND NONVISUAL LOVE

When my girlfriend leaves the house and I think about her, I can’t see her face, all I see is black. Conjuring up an image behind closed eyes just isn’t possible. I still know that I know what she looks like but I can’t picture her. Weird right? My mind’s eye is blind and it’s called aphantasia.

I didn’t even know visualizing was an ability I lacked because I don’t remember ever having it. It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I found out other people could see actual images in their head.

***

There isn’t much info available about aphantasia yet, so I decided to share what I’ve learned about myself; because dating someone with aphantasia can be pretty hard to understand.

So wait a second… when someone asks you to visualize something, most people literally see it?

Uh, WTF?! That took me days to really wrap my head around. Memories started flooding in and things throughout my life started making a whole new kind of sense.

Now I get why guided visual meditation did nothing for me, I felt like I was just playing along. I’m confused when people asked how well I can see a drawing in my head before I started it. Counting sheep when I was a kid? No, I just counted black blobs jumping over a black line on a black background.

CAN YOU SEE THE RED STAR?

Like everything else in life, there are different degrees of aphantasia. The phenomena doesn’t only affect visualizing images but can also show up when imagining other senses. When I close my eyes, I can’t imagine the way my girlfriend looks, how she sounds, or even how she smells.

The Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz on the Aphantasia Network website can help you determine the vividness of your mind’s eye, but a simpler aphantasia test was posted on Reddit by u/aphanta. Imagine a red star, what do you see?

I typically see nothing unless I spend a few minutes focusing on creating the faint outline seen in the second panel. So I went out and asked my friends and family what they see with their eyes closed. They were surprised that I can barely see an outline but, what was more surprising was how detailed some other people’s inner imagery can be.

“It is like having another pair of eyes that watches whatever my brain is simulating.”

Reddit – u/deokkent

The opposite end of aphantasia is called hyperphantasia and it turns out I have a few friends who have that. Some said they can close their eyes and see a scene as accurate as if their eyes were open. One friend described being able to see a 3D object, rotate it in any direction, take it apart like an exploded parts diagram, and put it back together!

HISTORY: LET’S PAINT THE PICTURE

Most people have fairly vivid mental imagery. Some early estimates say that only 2-3% report a completely image-free mind. Although the phenomenon was described as early as 1880 by Francis Galton, it wasn’t until 2005 that modern studies were started by Adam Zeman, a professor at the University of Exeter.

Professor Zeman was approached by a man who had lost the ability to visualize after undergoing surgery. After some time, his case study was published in 2010. Zeman was then contacted by a number of people reporting the lifelong inability to visualize. Then in 2015, Zeman’s team published their new research on what they called “congenital aphantasia.”

A year later, Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox, published an essay about his own experiences with aphantasia. It was picked up by a number of news sources, spread on social media, and awareness of aphantasia entered the mainstream. More articles started popping up and others began sharing their own stories.

In collaboration with Zeman, The Aphantasia Network website was launched in 2018 and has some great resources. If you want to talk to other people about aphantasia, it’s worth checking out the r/aphantasia subreddit where you’ll find a whopping 12.4k subscribers.

RELATIONSHIPS AND APHANTASIA

After the initial surprise of finding out my mind’s eye was much different than most, I began reflecting on my own life. I started to wonder how aphantasia had affected my education, work and creativity.

Recently, my partner of 4 years left me and that got me thinking about past personal and romantic relationships. Did aphantasia play a part in the relationships that didn’t work out? Is that why sometimes she didn’t seem to understand or believe me? What if she had known, would she have understood?

We’re forced to experience the world differently without a mind’s eye and it can be hard to understand how different our modes of thinking really are.

I’ve had some seriously amazing partners throughout the years and most are still friends. It just didn’t work out and that was okay. When two people think in very different ways, it can be difficult to express yourself and equally difficult to understand.

If you’re dating someone with aphantasia and trying to find out more, thank you! If you have aphantasia and are looking for ways to talk to your partner about it, I hope to offer some insights and tips for better communication—so let’s get down to it.

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO DATE SOMEONE WITH APHANTASIA

Here are some things I’ve learned about having aphantasia that I wished my former romantic partners could have understood. They might not apply to all aphantasics but after reading other people’s stories, they seem to be pretty common themes.

Some of these things come with age, experience and maturity. When I was younger, it was easy to get stuck in my own head. My internal dialogue could run all night, thinking about a breakup or what I had to do the next day.

It would get overwhelming and I couldn’t stop it, leading to a lot of depression and anger. I had trouble with people telling me how and what I should think. Coupled with not being aware of how different my mind worked and my inability to explain it, growing up kind of sucked.

With all honesty, just giving way less fucks about what other people thought changed my life. Learning to meditate helped me quiet my internal dialogue and be more present in the moment. This is what it’s like living with aphantasia now and I think a lot of other aphantasics can relate.

1. WE’RE GROUNDED IN THE PRESENT

Not being able to see an image of the future or the past means we can’t really live in it. That doesn’t mean we can’t think about it, but we don’t relive our memories or imagine our future like others do.

A friend told me they daydream a lot but when hanging out with me, “It’s like you pull me into the present moment.” I was surprised because I thought they were a very present person until they expressed that’s not usually the case.

I’m present almost all the time, so I got curious and I asked a bunch of people how often they felt like they were. It lead to some very interesting conversations and on average, the response was about 35-40% of the time.

The low was 15-20% of the time for people who were daydreamers, depressed, stressed, or easily distracted. A few people with established meditation practices and comfortable living situations said 80-90%. The only responses that said 100% of the time were on a Reddit post I made and I have my doubts.

In no way was there actual scientific data being collected here. I asked for a percentage but if they were struggling to answer, I estimated based on what we talked about and asked if they thought it was close. Then I just estimated an average when I felt I had talked to enough people.

I defined my question as, “Not having the mind wander off, thinking about the past or future, unless you choose it to.”

Intentionally taking the time to plan out the next day or reflect on the past can be excluded. If your mind wanders to something else against your will, it counts as not being present.

Friends often tell me that they enjoy spending time with me because I’m engaging and being around me often means being part of some unique experience. They say it can also be weird for them because time might seem to disappear, slow down or go faster.

When we’re drawn back to the present moment, we don’t perceive time in the same way we typically do. If we’re usually future focused, we feel like it slows down. If we’re typically anchored in the past, it speeds up.

It can get lonely when everyone else is off imagining other things. We can’t daydream like other people do, so we like being active and can easily get bored if something isn’t happening. We like to keep busy and even in downtime, we typically want some kind of entertainment.

2. WE CAN READ PEOPLE BUT NOT MINDS

We’re not just present with you, it’s everyone. We’re so used to it that we can often read between the lines and know how people are feeling, even when they aren’t aware of it themselves.

I’m told that sometimes it can be quite irritating but it’s just because we are used to being observational. “How did you know that, what do you mean you can just tell?”

We’re so used to being in the present that we have a lot of experience reading people’s faces, gestures, and posture—knowing what they’re feeling in most situations.

People can sometimes get angry when their feelings are pointed out, especially if they are acting out or being irrational. It’s understandable to feel attacked and defensive but after calming down, they usually recognize we are just trying to help bring them back to the present.

We are so engaged with everything going on around us that it’s important to ask for your partner’s attention if you want it exclusively.

Let’s say I’m engaged in conversation with a bunch of people at a party and you’re feeling socially anxious. I might see you’re not having as good of a time as me but neither are the people awkwardly standing alone by the bar distracting themselves with their phones. It’s okay to tell me if you want me by your side or want to leave.

Whatever is happening right now is the most interesting thing to us. If it’s not, we’re probably going to head out and find something that is. When someone I love wants my attention, I give it to them. I have to know they want my attention though and just like everyone else, aphantasics can’t read minds either.

3. YES, WE DO HAVE EMOTIONS

Emotions are a strange thing. In an instant they can completely wash over you. Something happens and we’re immediately slapped in the face by an emotion. And it’s yelling at us, “Here I am! Pay attention to me!”

You don’t get angry with someone for breaking your favorite coffee mug. You get angry because you already asked them not to use it, they’ve broken things you cared about in the past, your mom just passed away and she gave you that mug—there’s usually some kind of history there.

Emotions are inherently reactionary and mostly rooted in past experiences.

Maybe your family didn’t have much money and you never got the coffee mug that you really wanted for your birthday. What if you’re angry because your siblings would always grab your favorite toy when your parents weren’t looking? Now that you’re all grown up, you’re very protective of your stuff and it pisses you off when other people use it without permission.

But not everyone reacts with anger when their coffee mug shatters against the floor. Someone might just get a little irritated and then move on. Someone else might immediately burst into tears. Maybe they’re just startled and afraid because of the noise and it has nothing to do with the mug.

But what if we aren’t even phased and just shrug it off? It’s not the event of a coffee mug breaking that makes us emotional, it’s everything leading up to that moment. Being grounded in the present means less emotional draw from past events.

Aphantasics can seem emotionless sometimes—but of course we aren’t really emotionless. Unless you’re dating a sociopath, there just aren’t as many things that trigger our emotions, so it can appear that we don’t care sometimes.

More than one partner has gotten angry with me for not having an emotional reaction to something she expected me to react to—it was really unhealthy.

One time I was pushed up against a wall really hard and held there. My girlfriend yelled inches from my face, “What’s wrong with you, show some fucking emotion. Show me some passion. Get angry at me for once! Come on, hit me or something!”

That was fucked up.

But to her, I was fucked up because I didn’t react in the way she thought I should. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t get sad, I just stood there looking at her face and said, “What are you doing right now?”

She saw me as not emotionally invested in our relationship, so she cheated on me with one of my friends and we broke up. I’m sure glad that’s over.

Another ex started to become paranoid that I didn’t love her because, among other things, I didn’t reflect her emotions. I’m still unpacking what was going on with her. Things would seem totally normal, everything seemed great and then she would “need to talk.”

It was always right before bed and our “talks” could easily go into the early morning. Things I did or didn’t do became some weird story in her head—some personal narrative far from reality. She attributed her own meaning to my words and actions that supported the narrative.

I didn’t cry when she cried. I didn’t spend hours thinking about the things she was thinking about. I was twisting my words, lying or didn’t remember what I said correctly. Eventually I was convinced that I had a terrible memory—which I don’t—and it wasn’t until we agreed to record one of our conversations that I started to realize what was really going on.

Most people can relive events in their head and that’s something that we simply can’t do.

That means they can also reimagine the past as something it was not and that memory is still very real to them. I think she may have had an entire imaginary world in her head. I now realize that, while we were together, she lived most of her life there.

I let my emotional connection to past experiences go pretty easily because I can’t revisit them in the same way other people can. For aphantasics, it’s like going back and reading the notes we took. For me those notes are mostly objective observations.

I’ve worked through a lot of my early childhood and I’ve gotten to know my demons. I have emotions but they rarely take control. I see that they are there, feel them, try to understand why they showed up and then I let them pass.

I feel other people’s emotions stronger than my own and do the same thing. I feel when my partner is sad and I feel sad too because they’re sad. Then it passes and I’m there with them but I don’t hold onto that feeling until they let it go themselves.

No matter how long they last or feel like they will last, emotions are transient. As I get older, everything but love passes faster and faster.

Having control over my emotions isn’t just because of aphantasia. It’s something developed from working hard at self-improvement and cultivating self-awareness. I do think that having aphantasia made the work easier though. Love is the only constant and that’s why I believe love is not an emotion but a state of being.

4. THE WAY WE REMEMBER IS DIFFERENT

People with aphantasia aren’t all the same, but these are some of the things I’ve noticed about how my memory works. Many people with aphantasia report the same or similar experiences. I’ll also make some suggestions about what you, as someone without aphantasia, can do to understand and to make communication easier.

I believe there are three primary ways that my memory works—an organized list of facts, a physical feeling of doing something, and a sense of being present.

We really like facts and notes. We do have good memories but they’re mostly objective observations. We can’t see a memory in our head like most people but still know what happened. I remember mostly in a list of details, like what was said, around what time of day it was, how I was feeling, and how I interpreted what happened.

Sometimes I can even remember lots of small details if they caught my attention in the moment. I might be able to tell you what you were wearing, what song was playing, what we both ate, or a number of other things. It all depends on if I wrote it down in my head.

I take mental notes of things as they happen and my memory is basically recalling a list of notes and facts.

I don’t really relive my subjective experience when remembering something. If my subjective experience was that a conversation made me agitated, I might “write down” that I felt the person was being condescending. I don’t feel the agitation again when I think about it, my memory of what happened is just another line in my mental notebook.

It’s almost like reading someone else’s journal, the only difference is that it says my name on the cover.

We like seeing and hearing examples when asked a question. We can recall things better when something or someone is right there in front of us. We might not remember who John is if you just ask, but if you show us a picture, we suddenly know everything we’ve ever learned about John.

You might ask if we know some actor or actress and we give you a puzzled look. You can describe what they look like, tell us what movies they’ve been in, and what characters they’ve played. Something might remind us that we do know that actor or actress because we’ve seen the movie you mentioned, but we still can’t see what they look like in our head.

It’s much easier for us if you pull up a photo on your phone—visual and auditory cues are incredibly helpful.

If you ask us if we’ve heard a song, it can be hard to answer if our aphantasia also includes sound. We can’t hear the song in our head but we might know all the words when it’s playing, so we do know the song. It’s really helpful if my girlfriend sings or hums a little bit of the song when she asks this question.

To give you an idea of why, I can’t hear anything but my own inner voice and even that’s pretty muffled. When a song gets stuck in my head, it’s my own inner voice repeating the lyrics or imitating the music. My voice might “mmmbop, ba duba dop” a melody but I can’t hear the actual music.

Next time you’re asking someone with aphantasia about something that they can’t imagine in their mind’s eye, consider pulling up an example. It’s not only helpful but saves a ton of time.

5. WE CAN HAVE A WEIRD SENSE OF LOCATION

Many people with aphantasia report that driving directions kind of suck, especially using landmarks. They certainly do for me and usually I just zone out. I think most people take a little imaginary drive in their heads when they get directions.

No we don’t know the statue of that guy riding a horse. All we want is the address so we can use our Maps app.

I’m going to be late if I’m only relying on landmarks and road names. If there is something exceptionally hard about getting there, I will write it down and reference it if I get lost. If I do know the landmark though, I will recognize it immediately when I see it, so sometimes it is helpful but not if I’ve never been there before.

The same thing as showing examples applies here. If you were to pull up a map on your phone and show me the route, I could probably remember it as a list of the turns I need to make and road names. I can’t imagine the drive just based off of verbal directions.

There’s something really interesting about location though. If I’ve already taken that drive before or walked that block of a city, I actually have a really good sense of direction. If I see something familiar, I recognize it almost immediately and get an intuitive sense that we are going in the right direction.

This might go back to the whole “being grounded in the present” thing and paying attention to details. I think it was a major turning point when I chose to consciously pay more attention to my surroundings and notate details, trusting that I had the memory capacity to store all that information.

I used to lose things all the time and have read that a lot of people with aphantasia also have that problem. Now I can easily remember where things are located and I regularly know things like where people put down their keys when they are visiting.

Having found many keys in my day, I also have a pretty good intuitive sense of what places they turn up in the most—and yes, your pocket is up there on that list. The reason I’m so good at finding people’s keys is that I’ve dated so many people who lost their keys all the time, so now I write a mental note when I see anyone put them down.

6. REMEMBERING THROUGH PHYSICAL SENSATIONS

If you were to ask me where the oregano is, I can tell you exactly where it is but without being able to see it in my head, how do I know? I get the sensation that I’m in front of my spice cabinet and then I feel like I’m reaching out to grab it.

Sometimes I’ll even make little micro movements with my arm in real life. The actual sensation I feel though is of my arm reaching out for the oregano and then I know it’s on the bottom shelf. It’s kind of like what I imagine the feeling of a phantom limb to be like.

Then I pull up my list of stuff in that cabinet. Typically I group herbs together and I know they are behind the raw honey on the right hand side. Since I usually put things back in the place they came from, I can be pretty sure that’s where the oregano is.

Many aphantasics report the physical sensation of doing something, like spelling a word, rather than visualizing it.

When I was a kid, I could memorize things like a hundred digits of pi (π) or how to spell long words like Antidisestablishmentarianism. I didn’t see the numbers or words in my head—even to this day, if you ask me how to spell a word and look down at my hand, you’re likely to see me making the motions as if I’m spelling it out.

Sometimes if it’s a word I haven’t written out in a while, I’ll actually close my eyes and make the hand motion in the air as if I were writing it on paper. I use my internal voice to say the letters based on my hand movements and then repeat them in my head until I say them out loud.

If you were to ask me to imagine hitting a baseball, I feel the sensation in my body like I’m actually swinging a bat.

This association with physical movements is very common with aphantasics. I’ve found that it also means I will remember something better in the future if I physically do it myself, instead of watching it being done.

7. THE FEELING OF BEING PRESENT IN A MEMORY

If I ask you about your house, what do you see? Most aphantasics don’t experience a mental image of our house, but rather an awareness of being there. I feel like I’m there but it’s like the lights are out and I can’t see anything.

A simple life rule that I adopted in my early 20’s made things much easier for me and helped me become more organized.

Everything has a home and when it’s done doing its thing, it wants to go back to its home.

Although I can’t see my apartment in my mind’s eye, I feel it in the same way I would if I were navigating to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I can virtually walk through my house in the dark and it’s as if I feel the presence of the objects around me.

That’s the first level and I think of it as a general awareness. For details, I have a list of locations and objects that I can pull up when I need to. Ask me what’s on the plant shelf by my door and instead of just feeling it’s presence, I “zoom in” and access my list of what’s there.

For me and most aphantasics, it’s all about lists and if things don’t go back to their homes, our lists fail us. We love facts and lists because those are ways that we remember best. Memory is processed primarily with language and internal dialogue but also through physical sensations and the feeling of being present in a memory.

8. WE”RE FORCED TO THINK DIFFERENTLY

The biologist Craig Venter attributed his academic success to an unusual way of thinking, using purely concepts with no mental imagery whatsoever. “It’s like having a computer store the information, but you don’t have a screen attached to the computer.”

It might seem like a terrible limitation but there’s no reason it can’t be considered a gift. The more we share with each other how we think, the more we are able to identify ways of adapting. That’s what humans do best, we adapt.

It’s a rare mind that works exclusively in concepts, not images.

People have asked me what’s going through my mind all day if not sights and sounds? It used to be all internal dialogue, all the time, but now it’s mostly nothing. When I’m intentionally thinking about something it’s usually abstract, conceptual or systemic.

I used to struggle in a world that so often expects everyone is able to think using images. It slowed me down to always be trying to grasp things in the context of mental imagery. It wasn’t until I embraced thought without images that I truly felt confident and comfortable in my own abilities.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

So even though I can’t see my girlfriend’s face when I close my eyes—or anyone’s face for that matter—that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss them. I miss people because I know that when they were with me, we always had a really good time. What makes me miss people is wanting to experience life with them when they aren’t there.

We all go through the same trials and tribulations of personal growth and self-improvement. People with aphantasia just experience the world and themselves in a different way. It may be difficult to understand but I hope I can continue to shed more light on what it’s like to have aphantasia and what it’s like to date an aphantasic.

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