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I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella. I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

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MLA: Zisk, Alyssa Hillary. "Post Title." Yes, That Too. Day Month Year of post. Web. Day Month Year of retrieval.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia (1/2, not academia)

So I'm Autistic. I've seen all sorts of contradictory ways of thinking about autism. Somehow we both lack imagination and are lost in our own worlds? You kind of need to pick one, considering that making our own world involves imagination.

Well, about a year ago they gave a name to one of my other cognitive quirks. "Aphantasia" is now either an "intriguing variation in experience" (specifically stated not to be a disease!) which about 1 in 50 live with, or it's a "newly described condition" we'd like to investigate for insights into the imagination and ways to boost visual imagery (presumably in the folks who have such visual imagery) in order to "improve our memory, increase our empathy and even gain new treatments for conditions like addiction and anxiety."

The basic idea of aphantasia is that I don't have a mind's eye. (I do have a mind's ear, and absolutely get songs stuck in my head.) If you ask me to picture an object, I'll either sit quietly and then relay factual information about the type of object, or I'll bluntly tell you that I can't do that. Most creative exercises, there's a way around actually visualizing the thing. I can tell you this because I don't see images that are not literally in front of me, not when I'm awake. My mind just doesn't work that way. (So no, I don't think in pictures. I suspect that "no minds eye" and "thinking in pictures" is a combination you can't actually have in one person.)

And yes, I am interested in better understanding how my own mind works. I don't think that's unusual. Pop psychology exists, after all. And Tris, from Divergent, made her cooperation with Erudite's tests contingent on her getting to understand the results of the tests they were performing on her. She wanted to understand how her mind worked, and especially the ways her mind didn't follow the operating procedures she'd been implicitly taught were standard. But that's not why I'm following the discussion on aphantasia, really.

I'm watching the rhetoric.

Shortly after the publication of "Lives without Imagery -- Congenital Aphasia," a letter to the editor in Cortex authored by Adam Zeman, Michaela Dewar, and Segio Della Sala, we see a human interest story on aphantasia in the "future" section of We talk about one adult man who does not visualize, and we talk about the difficulty inherent in understanding the internal mental processes of another person. We see discussion of potential advantages of reduced or missing mental imagery -- not needing to re-watch disgusting or traumatic events, for one thing. It's mentioned that verbal and logical skills tend to get practiced more (hi, did you know that I'm a mathematician?)

This is also the article with the mention of treatments for other conditions -- anxiety and PTSD among them. Which ... well, I've got anxiety and already don't have any mental imagery. If reducing mental imagery helps some folks with anxiety, that's great but let's not pretend that will be a silver bullet, ethics around activating and suppressing cognitive abilities aside. (I think that it's fine to do so by the request/desire of the person whose head you're messing with, but there's a lot of space for coercion towards "typical" cognitive processes.) There's some talk about manipulating people's levels of mental imagery for various reasons, but it's in both directions. Despite calling aphantasia a newly described condition (as opposed to cognitive style/variant), this article is probably the furthest away from disability tropes of the BBC articles. (Which isn't that far.)

B percent live with, affects as many as X in Y. These are condition words, pathology words, but they show up in the article that calls aphantasia a variation and specifically states that it is not a disease. And the article's headline? "Aphantasia: I can't visualize my own children." It's in the "health" section. A professional describes the effect on memory more generally, and then three people give short descriptions. One talks about how he does things. Another talks about what he can't do. We close with another professional, speaking to medical history and to educational impacts. (As an aside, I hate mindmaps.) This article reads more like a personal interest story describing the experience of a disability than anything else. It wants to be a disability story, but this Adam Zeman guy who was first author on the congenital aphantasia study won't call it a disease.

Another piece in the health section discusses both aphantasia (not visualizing) and hyperphantasia (visualizing extra.) Zeman continues to insist that aphantasia is not a disorder, thank you very much. I'm sure he's seen enough of the discussion to realize that the way we talk about it is going that way. The discussion for aphantasia here is largely focused on what we can't do, though. His insistence reads as a bit incongruous with the way the rest of the article talks about aphantasia.

(If you want to call it a disability, or conditionally a disability, I'd give you that. The social model of disability, which recognizes interactions between people and their environments, is a thing. The insistence on visual methods of learning and things like mind maps is also a thing, and presumably just as inaccessible to other aphantasiacs as it is to me. Now we're bringing in ideas of neurodiversity, where a neurological type can be a disability without it being disordered. There's not just one right way for a mind to work)

Then there's the aphantasia forums. These started shortly after the first BBC articles, if I remember my timing correctly. I've got an account, and will probably be sharing my thoughts there too, but I honestly don't post much. There's places where people share articles about aphantasia, including ones they wrote themselves. There's crowd research. (I notice that one of the questions is about people having other cognitive disorders as well, which positions aphantasia implicitly as being a disorder.) I've seen general discussion where quite a few people talk about having trouble with mathematics, which is opposite what some of the published articles hypothesize (compensatory skills in logic, verbal stuff, and/or math.) That could be going in the direction of mutually contradictory stereotypes.

Blake focuses on the experience of realizing that the way his mind works is most definitively not how most people's minds work. It's almost an attempt to analyze the psychology of the visualizing majority from the outsider perspective of an aphantasiac. Which, I mean, if they're going to do that to how we think, yeah, let's do this. Let's add a wing to the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical. We've got an Autistic wing and a Dyslexic wing, why not an Aphantasiac wing?

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  1. Thank you for sharing a word I've been wanting!

  2. This is my first exposure to the word.

    I think this describes me. At least somewhat. I think I can visualize some things some times? But not nearly as much as I am expected to.

    Now thinking about the interrelationship between aphantasia, prosopagnosia and a general non-verbal learning disability/visual processing problem learning profile.

    1. The word was only coined about a year ago, in this paper: (If you don't have access but want it, you can email me and I'll send you a copy,

      The authors did hypothesize that aphantasia and prosopagnosia at least might be correlated, because of things they already knew about prosopagnosia.

  3. There are some interesting studies on verbalizers versus spatial visualizers versus object visualizers. Spatial visualizers are bad at object visualization abe object visualizers are bad at visual spatial visualization. Research has shown that physicists tend to be spatial visualizers and artisits tend to object visualizers. Humanities professors tend to be verbalizers.

    Temple Grandin seems to be the opposite of you (and me). She is great at visualization but by her own admission cannot do algebra.


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