I only dream in words and feelings.
Aphantasia is a little-known condition that affects the mind’s “inner eye.” While most people are able to close their eyes and have real-feeling sensory experiences (visual, aural, and otherwise), I am without this ability. When I close my eyes, I see only darkness. And while others dream in full color and hear sounds, I only dream in words and feelings.
I used to think that my experience of darkness was like that of everyone else. We often use the same language to describe our thoughts and feelings, with there being no differentiation indicating our individual experiences like that in the mind’s eye. Once I learned about my difference of perception, I had vivid conversations with others who thought that my experience was foreign. For a while I felt broken and incomplete because I was missing out on something that was so basic for others, but these days, I do not feel so bad about it. It’s hard to miss what I have never had, and the idea of suddenly seeing pictures in my mind actually scares me.
Aphantasia exists on a broad spectrum. Although aphantasiacs experience a lack of sensory imagery in the mind, many with the condition still dream with full sensory imagery. Others experience face-blindness, struggling to recognize the most familiar of people. It is estimated that about 2% of the general populace are on the aphantasia spectrum. For me personally, I am 100% sensory-blind when both awake and asleep, but I do not have problems with recognizing faces.
It is widely accepted that aphantasia is a congenital condition, manifesting from birth onward. According to a study by Joel Pearson at the University of South Wales in Sydney, those without aphantasia have more activity in the prefrontal cortex in the brain. “The visual cortex is like a sketch pad; it’s where you create images,” said Pearson in New Scientist.
Given that the prefrontal cortex controls the visual cortex, this allows for what we call the mind’s eye, an ability to create visual images. Pearson’s same study found that electronic stimulation can enhance activity in the prefrontal cortex with technology called transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), which can potentially allow for an aphantasiac to experience imagery instead of darkness. He posits that science’s ability to manipulate the mind’s eye—increasing or decreasing its strength—could affect everything from learning new ideas and making “moral decisions” to potentially decreasing image-based trauma or hallucinations among those who are schizophrenic.
I am definitely a sexual person, and desire sex in my life. However, due to my complete mental darkness, I am unable to have any visual sexual fantasies about future and/or possible sex. I always have known that my approach to desire is different from others, but could never put my finger on it until discovering I have aphantasia.
In my teens, while my peers began discovering their own senses of their sexuality, I remained—quite literally—in the dark. I always wondered how people just “knew” they were gay, or “knew” what they liked sexually. When people talked of having fantasies, I could not relate because I had none of my own.
As a teen, I had my own crushes and senses of attraction as well—albeit in a unique way. I focused on intellectual capacity and creativity, and found people attractive in the way one would marvel at an excellent work of art. While I many pined after handsome faces, I fell in love with a British theater actor from “Topsy Turvy,” a film about the collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, a Victorian librettist and composer duo who wrote famous operettas such as The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. For me, creative expression and artistry are the bedrock of my sense of romance and sexuality.Due to my complete mental darkness, I am unable to have any visual sexual fantasies about future and/or possible sex. Click To Tweet
Yet as years passed, I still felt extreme anxiety because I had no sexual fantasies. I started to fear that I was gay because I did not fantasize about men, but there were never any thoughts about women either. I felt tremendously insecure in pursuing any sort of serious relationship. What if I choose a person of the wrong gender or gender identity?
Regarding my insecurities with sexuality, I have confided in close friends over the years, trying to gain perspective about what I really am. My friends always reassured me that whatever my sexuality is, it is a beautiful thing to celebrate and express. Yet it did not feel beautiful to me—it felt like a scary, gaping hole.
Beginning in 2015, I began browsing the online forums on the website of the Asexuality Visibility & Education Network (AVEN) to try and find answers for myself. It is a great place for me to visit when I have my questions about sexuality, where people are friendly and able to write without being under the influence of sexual excitement. It was not until 2018, at the age of 33, that someone mentioned that my lack of fantasies may be due to me having aphantasia. After briefly investigating the condition, I immediately realized that this was my experience and reality!
I inquired about aphantasia on AVEN, and some members professed having similar experiences to me. A casual poll in 2017 on AVEN asked members about having aphantasia, and 42.5% of 54 respondents said they were on the spectrum. This is far higher than the purported 2% in the general populace.
I then went on Facebook to join aphantasia groups for additional support, writing about how the condition gives me an experience similar to asexuality. Most people vehemently responded that they are absolutely not asexual, but that they experience sexuality in non-sensory ways. It appears there isn’t a reciprocal correlation—while asexuals may be more likely to have aphantasia, those with aphantasia are not more likely to be asexual.What if I choose a person of the wrong gender or gender identity? Click To Tweet
After discovering that I have aphantasia, I am now investigating ways for me to adapt and adjust. With my boyfriend—whom I find attractive both aesthetically and intellectually—I now keep my eyes open instead of closing them when we’re intimate. Seeing him visually helps me feel in the mood, and now I realize what my sexuality really is. I’m heterosexual, but also feel like I’m on the asexual spectrum by default. The term “demisexual” seems to suit me—I only experience attraction with someone I am profoundly emotionally connected to.
While my experiences are unusual, I do not believe my aphantasia is any sort of deficiency. Instead, I’ve grown to view it as something that makes me unique, and believe that my experience is just as valid as those of others. I also feel that my aphantasia allows for me to have heightened senses in other areas. I find joy in contemplating life and the people around me as philosophical fodder, all describable with florid language. I journal and write constantly, putting these feelings and observations down on paper. I like to imbibe my words with a rhythm and lilt that feels akin to music. I know that I approach writing in a unique way.
As I talk to people about my aphantasia, many people express intrigue about my condition. It can be a mind-bender for non-aphantasiacs to try and fathom my world of darkness, just as their vivid sensory imaginations are equally as foreign to me. Honest conversations allow for us to share our world views with one another, practice empathy, and celebrate our differences.