If I could see whatever I wanted just by closing my eyes, why would I open them again? (Image made with MidJourney.)
So yeah, I have aphantasia: The inability to visually imagine things. If you were to ask me to close my eyes and imagine an apple, then describe its size, shape, and color, I could not. I cannot imagine how things look. I cannot even remember how things look that I have seen repeatedly. But my brain can.
I dream in images. Pretty vivid images too. It is like being there, or even more so. And sometimes – not often, but it happens – I see flashes of images. But the moment I become aware that I am seeing them and try to focus on them, they are gone. If I try to imagine something or remember something I have seen, I can sort of sense it like it is “in the corner of my eye”, like something that is almost within sight on my right side. But if I try to move my physical eyes in that direction, of course there is nothing there, and I cannot move my “inner eye”.
I also cannot close my inner eye, and this is sometimes a different problem. I have been practicing a new skill at various points in my life: Touch typing, volleyball, and playing Black & White (the computer game). A while after long sessions of this, I start to see the images from my training overlaid on the real world. The movement of the typewriter’s hammers (this was a while ago obviously), the movement of the volleyball going back and forth, the small blobs of worship that rose up from the villagers. These images would play on my third eye as I was going about my life, constantly. I could not control them, I could not make them go away, and I could not focus on them. They were just there, moving and slightly distracting until they disappeared, usually after a good night’s sleep.
(Oddly enough, after watching water erode sand – for instance on a rainy day when water gathered into small streams and moved the sand – I would see the same intrusive images of this. It was as if my brain thought I was a river and moving sand was one of my skills. I wrote about this before I knew I was slightly autistic, and long before I knew that the first place to look for a missing autistic child is near the nearest river.)
Anyway, it is clear that my brain is able to not just recall images, but also create new ones. But I – the part of my psyche that I identify with – can not. It is just as impossible as flying by flapping my arms. You may say it is a bit strange to only have access to part of my brain’s abilities. But this is probably true for everyone. I don’t mean that we only use 10% of our brain, just that our brain’s operating system must pick and choose which functions to prioritize. I believe this happens very early in life, because you can often see in a grade school child what kind of person they will become. When I started school, I already excelled at reading but sucked at drawing, and that is still the case as I stumble into old age.
But people on the autism spectrum usually have an overgrowth of connections in the brain. This may sound great, but it seems to be entirely random which parts these extra connections appear in. They could be internally to some parts, or between different parts that normally are less connected. So every one of us may be different, even more so than normal people. And in my case, the connections associated with words may have taken up so many resources that the rest is left on the sidelines.
I have sometimes wondered if non-verbal autistic people have their mental “center of gravity” in a different part of the brain, perhaps the opposite of me. Maybe their inner world is so rich and full of detail that they prefer to stay there for the most part. And perhaps, much like I can vaguely sense the images but never really reach them, maybe to them the world we construct from words is there, just out of reach. Maybe our so-called “real world” is to them like a fog, and the people in it are like shadows. Just shadows in the fog.