A Blind Mind: Working With Aphantasia
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I recently discovered I've been living my entire life with a condition only given a name in 2015: aphantasia. It means I see my world a bit differently, especially when I close my eyes. Chances are, some of those reading this also have it and had no idea. It affects my work and how I perform tasks in rather unique ways.
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Imagine an apple (or any other fruit you're familiar with). Now imagine picking that apple up. What does it look like? Can you see the color, shape, and any imperfections? Can you turn it around to see it from different angles? Now imagine biting into it. Can you smell the fragrance and taste it? Do you hear the crunch as you bite in? Can you feel the texture as you chew?
Now that you've read what is normally an audible instruction, close your eyes and really take that exercise seriously. Spend a few seconds doing your best to thoroughly experience the above scenario.
How would you rate the quality of your vision from 0-10? 0 being you see, hear, taste, and feel absolutely nothing, you simply "know" that you're thinking about these instructions. 10 being your mental experience is just as vivid and sensational as real life.
If you rated yourself at 0, you probably have ...
Aphantasia has a lot to it and, like most things, exists as a spectrum. However, the short and simple answer for my own personal brand of aphantasia is this:
I have no "mind's eye". I can't visualize anything in my imagination.
If you tell me to close my eyes and "think about" or "imagine" something, I stare at the black wall that is the back of my eyelids and consider facts I know about the thing you describe. It sounds mundane at first, and it certainly isn't the biggest deal, but it does mean I navigate my world in a slightly different way. That world, of course, includes how I show up at work.
I don't know what my coworkers look like
I have met my Octopy coworkers numerous times, some in person and some just online. Regardless, we chat over Zoom multiple times a week. I regularly see their faces and hear them talk.
Right now, however, I am writing this and not actively looking at or talking to any of them. For that reason, I couldn't tell you what they look like because I don't see their faces. I don't know what they sound like because I don't hear their voices. All I can do is tell you certain facts I have remembered about them, like "She has brown hair." or "He has facial hair of some kind."
I can't picture them at all. If you showed me a picture, I'd be able to tell you whether or not is it them, but if I am not looking at them, I can't describe their face.
This is one reason why I am grateful for remote work. When I worked in a large corporate office, I regularly had a situation where somebody stopped by my desk looking for somebody I worked with. When that somebody later returned, I would tell them "Someone was looking for you. He said his name was Michael." They would remind we work with two dozen Michaels and would ask me to describe him. I would shrug and give vague details that might or might not describe all or none of said Michaels.
Often I spoke to someone in the hallways, but forgot to ask their name, then desperately struggled to describe them to my coworkers so I could hopefully figure out who I was supposed to follow-up with. I eventually learned to rectify this by writing down names on the spot or asking them to email me so the follow-up would be more reliable.
Thankfully, everything now is done virtually, where chats show names and calendar invites list email addresses.
Meditation sessions are awful
I have gone to many, many workshops at work to learn about mindfulness, self-reflection, relaxation and stress-relief techniques, and more. Many of these included a moment of, "Close your eyes and imagine this for a minute." For me, it's nothing more than sixty seconds of darkness waiting for it to be over. I can't feel the warmth of the sun, I can't see my wife's smiling face, and I can't hear a baby's laughter.
Worst of all, this was all long before I had any idea that aphantasia was a thing or that my experience was different than that of my peers. I felt guilty for not taking the session seriously, I felt bad that the instructor's techniques weren't working for me, and I told myself I was making the experience worse for everyone else in the room.
I never learned a workaround for this one, but it did open my eyes as to how radically different every individual experience can be, even if nobody is aware of it.
I tab back-and-forth ... a lot
Show me a picture, stop showing me that picture, and all I have is whatever facts I was able to jot down to memory while looking at that picture. This has presented some unique challenges in life and work. At times, I need to jot information down about some other paper or webpage or try to draw something I've been shown. No matter how simple, I need to constantly go back-and-forth between the two sources since I have no recollection of that original thing.
This has made many mundane tasks take much longer. I would regularly see a product logo, run to the other side of the building to check if we have it in stock, only to see multiple logos that look similar. Since I only know facts, I would have to run back to the original and try to figure out ways to identify it that didn't involve simply remembering what it looked like.
Taking a picture on my phone helps, but that still involves holding a phone up beside several products, glancing at one then the other repeatedly until I can confirm they are identical.
It's easier to "get over it"
While I often find myself wishing I could visualize things in my imagination, there is one key reason I am glad I have it: Trauma. Most people have experienced trauma of some kind and all of it is awful. Sadly, and one of the reasons Octopy exists, many people have been traumatized by their places of work - myself included.
Thanks to aphantasia, it doesn't affect me nearly as much as it would otherwise. If I describe a past trauma to you, I am not reliving it, I am just reading the transcript. I can tell you the facts and how I remember it making me feel, but there is no feeling attached to it because there are no senses tied to the memory. I can't picture the faces or hear the voices. I can't feel now what I did then.
Not only does this undoubtedly help me maintain my mental health, but it also enables me to approach things from a much more objective place. I don't have feelings tied to my memories of what happened. I can factually tell you how I remember feeling at the time, but recalling those facts won't make me feel that same way again. I can stay grounded and level-headed even when talking about my life's hardest moments. This is key when working up the chain of command and across the organization to resolve the very issues that caused those memories.
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