Jae

Award-Winning Author of Slow-Burn Romances between Strong Women

Being a writer when you have aphantasia

Aphantasia

 

If you have read my newest novel, Just a Touch Away, you know that Hannah, the professional cuddler, has aphantasia, and so have I.

Like most people, you’ve probably never heard of aphantasia before reading Just a Touch Away. Aphantasia is the inability to voluntarily form mental images.

Up until a few years ago, I had never heard of it either, even though I’ve had it all my life! We all tend to assume that other people think and experience the world the same way we do. I assumed the same, so it came as a surprise when I discovered that other people can visualize things in their mind’s eye—they really do “see” sheep jumping over a fence when they are counting sheep, and apparently, picturing people naked to help with public speaking isn’t just a joke! Who knew?

As I found out, human minds are actually very diverse.

Like many other traits, the ability to visualize exists on a spectrum. If you’d like to find out where you fall on that spectrum, you can take the VVIQ (Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire). Most people can visualize to a certain extent. Some have crystal clear mental images, while others have images that are a bit blurry. A few people even have such vivid mental images that it’s hard for them to tell what is real and what is only in their imagination (which is called hyperphantasia)! On the other end of the spectrum are aphantasic people like me and Hannah from my recently published novel Just a Touch Away. They make up about 2-3% of the population.

If you tell me to imagine a beach, an apple, or my mother’s face, I’m not able to do it, no matter how hard I try. I know what an apple is; I can describe a beach; and I know what my mother looks like, but I can’t see any of it in my mind. Here’s how Hannah describes it to Winter in Just a Touch Away:

“So when you close your eyes and try to imagine something…let’s say my face…there’s no image? Not even a blurry one?” Winter asked. “You have no idea what I look like?”

Hannah closed her eyes as if going along with Winter’s experiment. “No image at all. But I know exactly what you look like—short, silver hair; blue eyes; striking cheekbones.”

It was interesting to hear Hannah describe her. So she thought her cheekbones were striking? Not that it mattered, of course.

Hannah opened her eyes, and their gazes met. “It’s like a list of facts, without an associated image. Same for your voice. I know it’s deeper than mine and a little husky, but I can’t hear it in my mind.”

 

If you know one aphantasic person, you know one aphantasic person

Not every person with aphantasia is the same, of course. The only thing they all have in common is the inability to voluntarily form mental images. Notice that I said voluntarily. About half of people with aphantasia dream in images (I sometimes do, but for the most part, I just know where I am and who is there instead of seeing places and people); the other half doesn’t dream visually, and some even say they don’t dream at all.

For some aphantasic people, only visual imagery is affected, while for others (including Hannah and me), it extends to all sensory modalities—they can’t conjure up sound, taste, smell, or touch in their minds either.

Each of these modalities exists on a spectrum too. As far as I can tell, most people have better visual and auditory imagery skills, while imagining smells or taste is less vivid, but there are people who can mentally add ingredients to a dish and “taste” it in their minds!

 

Aphantasia is not a disability, but it comes with some interesting challenges

Aphantasia is not a disability; it’s just an unusual variation of the human experience. It falls under the neurodiversity umbrella. Interestingly, recent studies show a link between aphantasia and other forms of neurodiversity such as autism and ADHD. People with aphantasia are more likely to be on the autism spectrum or to have ADHD, but, of course, that doesn’t mean that every aphantasic person is autistic or has ADHD or that every person with ADHD or every autistic person has aphantasia.

While aphantasia is not a disorder or disability, there are disadvantages that come with it, just like with every other way your brain works. Not having mental images affects how you learn and how your memory works.

Since there’s so much variety among aphantasic people, it’s not the same for everyone, but here are the challenges that are common among aphantasic people:

  • Poor autobiographic memory: Studies have shown that people with aphantasia are more likely to have poor autobiographic memory. According to a study by Zeman (2020), one-third of aphantasic people suffer from Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM), a lifelong inability to vividly recollect or re-experience personal past events from a first-person perspective. Even for those who don’t have poor autobiographic memory, it  seems to work differently. For people who don’t have aphantasia, recalling events from their past is like watching a video, complete with sounds and emotions. They relive the event, which consolidates the memory. Aphantasic people can’t relive past events; their memory of the past is often more matter-of-fact. If your memory were a book, it’s like having access to only the table of contents but not to the entire content.
  • Trouble recognizing faces: About one-third of aphantasic people have trouble recognizing faces since they have no mental image to compare a person’s face to. Studies even show an overlap between aphantasia and prosopagnosia (face blindness).
  • Bad sense of orientation: Since aphantasic people have no inner map and no mental images of landmarks, some of them have a bad sense of orientation. However, I know a couple of aphantasic people who are fairly good at navigation, and I think it’s because their minds have found other strategies that help them navigate that don’t rely on having a mental map.

 

Benefits of having aphantasia

There haven’t been any studies on the advantages of having aphantasia, but there’s one thing I have heard mentioned by so many aphantasic people that I think there’s a connection: The main advantage of having aphantasia seems to be that aphantasic people tend to live in the moment instead of being stuck in the past or daydreaming about the future. We can let go of things more easily because we don’t continue to replay unpleasant moments from the past.

 

Aphantasia and reading

I’ve discussed what the reading experience is like for people who don’t have aphantasia with the readers in my Facebook group, and what they described sounded like magic to me:

Many experience reading like having a movie playing in their minds. Some readers cast celebrities in the roles of the characters, while others have a clear image of the setting and the characters’ actions but only a blurry image for the characters’ faces.

Some people “hear” a voice in their minds when they read. For many, it’s their own inner voice. Some hear the voices of celebrities they casted as the characters. Some readers told me that if they have listened to the audiobook or have heard the author in an interview, they hear the narrator’s or the author’s voice reading the story to them. There are even readers who have such a strong association between a certain narrator and a certain author that they hear any book of the author as if it were narrated by that narrator, even if the audiobook hasn’t been released yet!

The vast majority of readers in my Facebook group reported being able to see and hear the characters and the setting. Most can also “taste” dishes that are described in a book, especially if it’s a dish they’ve had in the past. About half of the readers in my Facebook group can also “smell” any scents that are described in the book.

Here’s how one reader described her experience of reading my novel Backwards to Oregon: “I hear the creak of the wagons, smell the dust of the trail or beans and bacon cooking over the fire, the wood smoke, or hear a harmonica playing.”

For readers with aphantasia, that inner movie doesn’t happen when they read, and if auditory, gustatory, and olfactory imagery are affected too, they also don’t hear the characters or an inner narrator, and they don’t taste or smell any of the things that are described in the book. That might be the reason why many aphantasic people struggle with reading fiction and prefer nonfiction. Even if they enjoy reading novels, many aphantasic readers skip or skim long descriptive passages.

Personally, I have always been an avid reader and can easily lose myself in the pages of a good novel, even though I don’t get that 3D experience. I read for the characters and their emotions, which is probably why romance is my favorite genre. That’s why I enjoy novels more than movies: I care more about what’s going on in the characters’ heads than about what’s happening on the outside. Movies can’t give us that insight.

 

Aphantasia and writing

Studies show that aphantasic people are often drawn to jobs in science, mathematics, or technology and are less likely to work in creative jobs, but there are plenty of aphantasic artists and writers. A lack of mental imagery is not the same as a lack of imagination! I’ve been a writer for 30+ years and have published 23 novels, so I can say with confidence that good visualization skills are not a prerequisite for being a writer.

For writers who don’t have aphantasia, the writing process seems to be a lot like the reading process I’ve described above for readers without aphantasia. Many authors use their visualization skills when writing their stories; they “see” the plot unfold like a movie in their minds. Other authors “hear” their characters talk.

Writers with aphantasia can be just as creative as any other writer, but they will have a different writing process, especially if their aphantasia affects all mental senses.

You’ll find interviews with all the aphantasic writers of sapphic books I could find below, including a description of how having aphantasia influences their writing.

 

Sapphic books about aphantasic characters

People with aphantasia are still very underrepresented in fiction. I only know of two sapphic books (or any books in general) featuring a character with aphantasia:

Just a Touch Away by Jae

Write for Her by Kim Hartfield

 

A free short story sequel to Just a Touch Away

A Great Catch by Jae

Hannah, my aphantasic character, and her love interest, Winter, didn’t want to say goodbye, so I wrote a short story sequel. If you’d like to read it, you can download “A Great Catch” as a free ebook!

 

Sapphic fiction authors who have aphantasia

Click on each author’s name to read an interview with them:

Cheyenne Blue

Jae

Amanda Radley

Jacqueline Ramsden

Jade Winters

Chris Zett

 

Leave a comment

Where do you fall on the spectrum between aphantasia and hyperphantasia? Do you picture characters and setting while you are reading? Please let me know in the comments!

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27 thoughts on “Being a writer when you have aphantasia”

  1. Hi Jae,
    I love your books, I’ve read almost all of them (I have two more to enjoy before I’ve read them all). You are one of my favorite authors! I also have aphantasia, I’ve just learned about it over the past couple years. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s an inspiration.

    Reply
    • It’s only been the past 10 years that there was even a name for it! Most aphantasic people I know spent many decades not knowing they have it…or that other people actually see pictures in their mind’s eye.

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  2. This was so fascinating. I had never heard of aphantasia before. I have vivid mental images, but once had a student who did not. I always felt sad for him that he lacked imagination. Now, I see that he must have just imagined differently. Thanks for the insight.

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  3. Thank You. This was so informative and quite the eye opener for me. I’m a daydreamer and visualization plays a big role in it. But I didn’t realize that it could play a role in why I believe some things have actually happened when no, I just dreamed it had (whether a night or day dream). My oh my.
    Thank You.

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  4. I can so relate! Didn’t know I had it until I started writing more seriously. It’s still weird to me that a reader sees my character and I don’t. But somehow I manage to make up for not seeing by using photos to describe people and places. I can feel and smell and hear scenes well, which helps. I feel every one of my characters early on and I write them the way I feel them. Since I mostly write with my coauthor we balance out our strengths and weaknesses anyway. Thanks for sharing!

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    • I’m so in awe that my words can create pictures–entire 3D movies with surround sound–in my readers’ minds. I literally can’t imagine it, but I think it’s beautiful.

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  5. I am SO confused. This sparked a fascinating conversation with my wife. From when we first met 11 years ago, she has always said she is a very visual person. I always thought I was visual. When I was younger (I’m 55), I wanted to make movies and be a writer. I never liked to and didn’t think I could really do storyboarding. I don’t know how to tell the difference between knowing something and seeing something. When I read a book, I basically skip over the descriptive parts of characters or places. I always felt like this descriptions would be the hardest part for me to do if I wrote. I think I may be aphantastic. My wife is hyperphantastic, and I’m just bewildered. My dreams are very movie-like at least in terms of plotting, and I also have occasions where I can’t tell I’m asleep.

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    • I think “being visual” can mean many different things–you can respond to visual media without being able to visualize. The co-founder of Pixar and one of their top animators are both aphantasic, yet that doesn’t stop them from creating visual stories.

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  6. Hmmm, I am high functioning Asperger’s, which is the high end of the Autism spectrum. I also have ADD (without the hyper). I have always believed I had good visualization skills, i.e. I can look at a piece of wallpaper and imagine it on all the walls of a room. However, I thought I skipped over the descriptions of places, nature, etc. because I wanted to focus on the plot; and, because I had no idea what a certain tree or flower mentioned in the text actually looked like. Now, knowing about my Asperger’s, I try to understand the emotions of characters because I have difficulty with that. I do see movies when I read.

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    • My roommate is autistic and has ADHD, yet has good visualization skills. Interestingly, she doesn’t picture faces at all. It’s beautiful to see how everyone’s brain functions just a bit differently.

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  7. I probably fall between phantasia and hyperphantasia, colored by possibly being somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum. Curious if there may be a relationship between the two. Vivid mental imagery of places snd characters. May be why I prefer reading to movies. I enjoy creating my imagery from the descriptions provided.

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  8. I am dyslexic, I didn’t know it until 13 years ago when we found out my daughter had it. I’ve always loved to read even though I struggled. Writing is horrible for me still. Spelling is worse. We see in pictures. That’s one of the things I love the most about reading. The imagery is so vivid. Unfortunately with words I can’t always picture them in my mind. It makes spelling and writing a chore. Spellcheck is definitely my friend. When someone spells a word out loud or tells me a phone number I am unable to picture it. I end up having to write down letters or numbers as they tell it to me. Navigation is horrible for me, but for my daughter it’s not a problem. I am able to see a lot of situations more thoroughly, and I think outside of the box. I am also super creative. So there is definitely a good sides to having dyslexia.

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    • Dislexia is definitely a part of neurodiversity too. My own experiences are diametrical to yours (I think in words, not in images), and yet I can relate to what you’re saying.

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  9. What an informative and educational article. Thank you for sharing the info as well as being so transparent. You’re not only an awesome writer but also a caring person!

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    • Since it’s always assumed that everyone’s brain works the same, I think it’s important to talk about the fact that everyone is slightly different, and I’m happy to use my platform to do so.

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  10. I went through phases of visualization in my life. My earliest memories are first person. I remember running from my sand pile and sand bucket because a giant spider was on it. Thinking about the memory conjures up the fear I felt, the feel of the sand on my hands, the the grass I ran across to find my Mommy. But, then I have gaps in my memory where some are first person and some are third person perspectives. Early childhood trauma caused me to become dissociative and created a fractured personality (not split or multiple). I created a whole other world that lay over top of this one. It did have bad guys and bad situations (as I got older those situations grew more and more intricate, sinister, and life threatening). I fully believed that a portal could open where I stood and I could navigate between the two worlds. I could see, feel, taste and hear everything. In this other world, I envisioned myself as having super powers and I would fight the evil and protect the weak and it came to be so real to me that I thought reality was the nightmare and my other world was the real one. Psychologically, I fully understand where all this came from. It took me until I was 16 and my Mother begging me to stop “playing” that I forced myself to stop seeing the other world. It took until I was in my 20s to fully realize what I had created and why. I have been in counseling/therapy since I was 7. At the same time as learning the vocabulary for what I did, I also was diagnosed with ADD, and creative genius (didn’t know that was a diagnosis, but okay sure one more label to add to the mix). It took until I was 30 to start having first person memories again. I have been diagnosed with CPTSD, BPD, and the previously mentioned disorders. I still attend counseling regularly, but as a support system instead of intervention. I am pretty sure I am closer to the hyperaphantasic side now that I read your very in depth blog. Thank you so much for writing this! It was so helpful!

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  11. Thanks for sharing, I only recently discovered that this was a thing and was absolutely astounded to learn that other people could see things in their head! I am also a writer and really struggle to write interesting descriptions of people and places, it’s something I spend a lot of time practicing, but I also find it much easier to write dialogue and the emotions or thoughts of the characters than other writers I know that don’t have it. Maybe that is my brain is full of words rather than images?

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    • In a way, maybe having aphantasia even predestines us for being writers because our inner worlds are all words. While I don’t struggle writing descriptions, I definitely prefer dialogue and character interaction.

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  12. That’s really interesting, I took that test and while I can visualise it’s actually rather vague and certainly not photo clear and definitely not lively!
    Would notice about myself that I can recall the gist of a conversation but always found it amazing when others recall was ‘he said this and then he she said that’ etc

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  13. I first heard of aphantasia a handful of years ago (huh what do people who don’t have it imagine if I say “a handful of years”, that makes me curious). I’m near the aphantasia side of the spectrum, even though my mind is often a warbling mess of blurry images. I have some level of imagination, but everything is linked to trauma. I have severe PTSD (likely CPTSD but not diagnosed as such) and a dissociative disorder, oh plus 7 more DSM diagnoses. It’s a mess, that’s for sure.
    Most of my memory is gone, or rather severely repressed. At first I thought it was only severely traumatic that went missing, but anything where I experienced bad stress would end up repressed. I can however trigger old memories, often by reading descriptions I wrote of the event. This gives soft blurry images in the far distance, but it’s as if I’m paging through a photo book that has a couple snapshots of moments, and I try to look at it from a few metres away where it’s stored in a matte glass cabinet. Or I can trigger memories through external triggers, which gives me either flashbacks with a full sensory experience, or partial sensory flashbacks with for example only auditory or even only emotional experiences. For the last category I often don’t have a clue what trauma it could have been, flooding of emotions is not in any way helpful for that.

    I can visualise a bowl of fruit. Or well, I kind of can. I have one traumatic memory where I turned my head away in fear and my eyes landed on this bowl of fruit. A stone/ceramic bowl, painted beige with a few coloured lines on it, the few parts I can see being blue and green lines. There’s 2 apples, an orange net with tangerines, and 3 bananas on it, with vaguely more on the back a few walnuts with a nutcracker. If you ask me to replace the bowl itself with a glass bowl I have, I can’t. I can’t add a pear, or replace one of the apples with a mango. If I think of a bowl of fruit, I think of this exact bowl of fruit, in these circumstances. A snapshot of one specific traumatic memory.
    I can’t really imagine places I’ve been to unless there are severely stressful or traumatic memories linked to it.

    And while I have an extensive inner world which I often depict mentally while reading books, a character walking through a house always walks through the same hallway of that house, it’s just a white painted hallway from a bird’s eye view. Often blurry, little detail, but describing it with words is easier than describing the short photo-stills that make it up. That inner world is huge, and it contains places I’ve never been physically.

    Same with the other people I share my head with: they might not have their own body, but they look a specific way. If I have a photo, I can say “oh that’s Colleen, and this is Diede, and that would be Althea”. I recognise their faces, but often I don’t know which name goes with it. And so many are so blurry that I don’t even have a face to go with it, which makes it harder. Think depicting one inner voice is hard? Try depicting over two hundred inner voice, who almost all roughly sound the same. It’s rare to discern between people based on their voice but word choice is often easier. Styles of speech or other forms of communication used. If you don’t have faces or a voice to go with, you learn to recognise people in different ways, like how they feel if/when they’re around, or if they understand specific languages. I’ve fragments from books for all those situations with a question “can you read this and understand what it says?” as a way to confirm if people are not sure who they are. It’s been such a helpful thing to have.

    If I think of a forest, I mentally depict at least 3 or 4 different forests that all seem to be fighting for which can show up. All places I’ve been to, all specific moments, snapshots in time, that can’t be changed. If I try to depict a forest with a lake next to it, only one place remains, one moment, with a very traumatic memory. A forest with a lake and mountains behind it? Mental error, there were hills in the area, but they would be behind me and not in the exact place I’m facing. I can’t turn around and give them snowy peaks. I can’t even turn around, I’m just stuck in this particular area, in this moment: May 2008, Ireland.

    To end on a more positive note, my aphantasia is probably why I’m such a fan of the newer technology that lets a computer create images from what you write. If I’m working on a story, and I’ve trouble describing the scene in more detail, I describe what I have in a way the computer understands it, and have it generate a few different ways it could look like. I can then use that to describe buildings in the background that I would otherwise not have been able to.

    It’s likely why I’m so drawn to worldbuilding and researching based on existing areas/places, such as an old university building where a scene is taking place can actually exist and be known as a “nondescript greyish building”. But doing research to that level of detail means I can write descriptive scenes without being able to imagine the area myself: I’d have research to fall back on.

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    • I’m sorry to hear you had such a tough life. I can imagine it must be hard to figure out what is aphantasia and what is affected by PTSD and traumatic experiences. In the past, scientists assumed people with aphantasia would be protected from PTSD, but research has shown that’s not the case. People with full aphantasia don’t get visual flashbacks, but they have all of the other symptoms.

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