The Countermarch

Picture This

Last year, just before his 21st birthday, my son Jacob learned of a condition called aphantasia.  In its strictest form, aphantasia is the inability to create mental images.  Like many such conditions, aphantasia affects those who have it to varying degrees.  In Jacob’s case, his mental images are very fuzzy and indistinct.  In my case, they are utterly nonexistent.  When I close my eyes and try to conjure up an image, all I see—all I have ever seen—is blackness.

I was a few months shy of 50 years old when Jacob made his discovery.  I had never heard of aphantasia, and my first reaction was disbelief—not that such a condition could exist, but that it wasn’t universal.  From the time I became aware of language implying that we should be able to create mental images (at will or involuntarily), I had always assumed that such language was metaphorical.  I had never thought that “Picture this” was meant—much less could have been meant—as a literal command.

The next several days were both disconcerting and exciting, as I experimented with family and friends and coworkers.  I discovered that the ability to make mental images is not consistent—while almost everyone else, it seems, can conjure up a vivid image to some extent, there is a range of detail, as the difference between my experience and Jacob’s had already indicated. ...

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