When I was eleven years old, my parents announced that in one month’s time, I would get to take a class on how to break the laws of physics.
That’s not how they phrased it. But that’s what it boiled down to.
This was, after all, a weekend course in which kids like me learned to heal people suffering from terminal illnesses, and all we had to do was think about it. We wouldn’t have to be in the same room with these people. We wouldn’t even have to know their names.
We would just learn to do something very special with our little-kid minds, and the healing magic would happen.
Most of the talk about this class didn’t focus on the playing-doctor aspect of it. The emphasis was mostly on the fact that we would also – wait for it – learn to move metal just by wanting to.
Why this always took the form of bending spoons, I didn’t know. I still don’t.
I did know that I was right to be excited.
My family was a large one and there was no money for anything that could be considered “extra.” We didn’t go out to eat. We didn’t see movies unless they showed up on TV. Summer camp? Music lessons? Vacation trips? Forget it.
Sending four of their children to this class was a huge financial sacrifice for my parents. But who could blame them?
I sure didn’t.
I don’t remember who described the upcoming class to me in these words, but I’ll never forget how I felt on hearing them.
They told me, “After you take this class, you will be able to use your mind to do anything.”
And I drew the very natural conclusion that holy crow: in one month’s time, I would be able to fly.
* * * * *
There are times when I look back at my childhood self and think WOW was I an idiot.
I have never once thought that about this particular incident.
I promise we’re getting to the aphantasia part and that this whole entire post will not be a jeremiad about my childhood innocence and dashed dreams.
But yes, I do think it’s important to point out that, dad gum it, this was not The Secret asking me to think really hard and then I’d get that raise, that promotion, or (more appropriate to my age and situation) that straight-A report card. This was not Norman Vincent Peale assuring me that I could improve my life and general outlook if I used The Power of Positive Thinking as described in his bestselling book.
The people teaching classes in the Silva Mind Control method said in so many words that one time, a man was suffering from heart disease until a little Silva-trained kid thought the right thoughts about the heart in question, and lo his heart did heal and his doctors were baffled.
These teachers pointed to Uri Geller and said, “Look! This grown man can bend metal just by thinking about it! He can bend every spoon on a restaurant table! We don’t know why he has it in for spoons specifically, but we do know that this means telekinesis is real! Anyone can learn to do it! Yes, little Deborah, you can move things with your mind!”
And little Deborah thought: I’m a thing. I would like to move me. Right up to the sky.
They said I’d be able to do anything.
They specifically did not say “within reason.”
They told me to throw away everything I’d ever learned about being reasonable, get in there, and learn to do the impossible.
I was ready.
* * * * *
Turns out there was a catch.
This was the late 70s. The people teaching this class might have been true believers who genuinely thought they’d be giving me the power! to do! ANYthing!, but they didn’t know that I would be neurologically incapable of following their instructions.
The class took place in a disappointingly ordinary-looking room. So far as I can recall, anyway, and yes you should bear in mind who’s telling you that. I do remember that there were desks and chairs and a lot of toys and games for us to play with during breaks. “Us” meant my sisters, myself, and about twenty other kids.
The first thing we learned was something called “going to level.”
“Close your eyes,” the teacher said. I did.
“Now, take a nice deep breath,” he went on.
I was still with the program.
“As you exhale,” the teacher said, “I want you to imagine the number 3 three times in a row. Each time you see it, say ‘three’ to yourself. Not out loud. Just think it.”
I felt a twinge of uneasiness.
I could think about the number three. Of course I could. And of course I could hear my own little inner voice murmuring the word “three.”
But the teacher had said to “see” the number.
And as had always been the case with me, I couldn’t see a darned thing. Not with my eyes closed, anyway.
Well. Never mind. Surely the idea of “3” was enough. Especially since we got to reinforce the number with the sound of the word.
* * * * *
I’ve always been able to hear things in my mind. I don’t recall a moment of my conscious life that I haven’t had music playing up there. Often I’ll wake in the morning fresh from a dream of a song. Usually it’s either a piano piece or a violin accompanied by an orchestra. Recently I’ve started recording myself humming the melody in my phone’s voice memo app. I hope someday to learn enough about musical notation to be able to write my “morning music” down. I really want to learn to play the violin and piano so I can bring these songs to life.
So far as I can tell, my mental ears work as well as my physical ones. Better, in some ways, since they never overwhelm me with unwanted material.
* * * * *
I can’t say that I am completely lacking a pair of mental eyes. I dream in pictures and in color. And every now and then, as I’m closing my eyes to go to sleep, I will be overwhelmed by a dazzling scene – a vision of golden flowers in bloom.
But it never lasts and I can’t call it up if I want it. That haunting field of blossoms, utterly unrelated to anywhere I’ve ever been, is a genie that lives in a bottle of its own making.
* * * * *
My friends and my spouse have told me that when they read a novel, they also get to see a film of the story, free of charge and effortlessly. They take this power for granted not the way sighted people take their vision for granted – absentmindedly until some event reminds them that what has been given can be taken away – but in a way that never reaches the level of consciousness.
It isn’t a gift if everyone has it.
* * * * *
Up until the Silva class, I’d taken my lack of inner vision for granted in the same thoughtless way.
“Going to level” set off a faint alarm bell, but I was still, so far as I knew, a common human being.
Then the teacher gave us another exercise.
This one was supposed to help us fall asleep. I think I rolled my eyes a little at this. Falling asleep isn’t something a child wants to do; it’s something our parents want us to do. Gosh, it’s as if they knew who was footing the bill for this class.
And when did the magic lessons start?
“Go to level,” the teacher said. “Now, imagine you’re standing in front of a chalkboard. Pick up a piece of chalk.”
“Now draw a big circle on the board,” the teacher said. “Inside that circle, write the number 100.”
“After you’ve written that, I want you to pick up the eraser. Erase the number verycarefully. Very neatly. Don’t erase any of the circle itself. Just the number you wrote inside it.”
No one said anything.
I didn’t have the nerve to open my eyes, but clearly this was a room full of perfectly calm, possibly bored children.
It was pretty clear that no one else was mentally screaming.
* * * * *
Up until this point, I’d honestly thought – though I didn’t have the vocabulary to say it in so many words – that when people talked about picturing something in their heads, they were speaking metaphorically. Same as when they talked about how you should try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
It was clear from context that this was no metaphor. We were supposed to be actually literally making pictures in our heads. Most of us were doing just that.
One of us was wondering why she couldn’t.
* * * * *
I only heard the word “aphantasia” a few years ago, in a report on the BBC Global News. A journalists who sounded far too amused for my liking told his audience that, yes, really, there were some unlucky souls who – can you believe? – could not see images in their heads.
I didn’t love his attitude, but I felt relieved. Even vindicated.
Finally, I had a word for who and what I was.
Words are important when you don’t have pictures.
* * * * *
By the time the Silva teacher got to the part where we learned how to get whatever we wanted, I was almost past feeling any excitement. Hope still lingered, but it was faint.
Even if there really was magic to be learned here, did I have any chance of casting that spell? It was looking more and more as if I was the only one who hadn’t been born with a wand.
The teacher picked one child and asked her what she wanted more than anything in the world. I held my breath.
This was it.
Please, please let her choose something wonderful. Let her say –
It’s a good thing no one was looking at me, because I’m sure my sneer would have gotten me kicked out no matter how much my parents had paid for me to be there.
Someone offers you the powers of the universe and you ask for a fucking toy?
“That’s great!” the teacher said, beaming. “Now, here’s what I want you to do. In a minute, we’re all going to go to level again.”
“When we do, I want you to imagine a trampoline in your yard,” he said. “And I want you to see yourself just jumping on that thing. Thinking about how happy you are to have your very own trampoline. You’re going to imagine that today. Imagine that every day. And I promise you, within a month – two at the most! – you will have that trampoline.”
The girl nodded, eyes bright and excited.
I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story finally getting that stupid decoder ring.
* * * * *
I’ve had plenty of time to think about plenty of aspects of this class.
I’ve thought about the fact that my parents thought going out to dinner – even at a fast-food place – was beyond our means, but somehow they came up with the hundreds of 1970s dollars it took to give us a single weekend that taught us nothing more useful than a glorified version of counting sheep.
I’ve thought about the fact that it’s very easy for a roomful of kids to “bend spoons with their minds!” when those children are left unattended for hours and encouraged to “loosen up” the handle of their cutlery by pulling and pushing as hard as they want with their hands. When they’re told that this isn’t cheating – it’s just making it easier for your mind to do the real work!
I’ve thought about the fact that this class planted the seeds of critical thinking in my mind. Even my overly credulous young self knew that the only way to test the hypothesis that you could get a trampoline just by thinking about it was to caution that girl never to tell her parents she wanted a trampoline. And even I knew that she’d probably mentioned this to them already.
But until recently – until the word “aphantasia” entered my vocabulary – I never considered the fact that this class taught me about the power I didn’t have. It taught me how different I was.
And thinking about it, I’d still rather be me.
Yes, I would like to see a movie for free every time I read a book. I would LOVE that. I would pay cash money to be able to do that just once. It sounds amazing. If you can do that – don’t take it for granted. Enjoy that ride. Every time.
But looking back, it seems to me that the other kids in that class had all the powers of visualization anyone could want, and no imagination at all.
Maybe having all that real-life magic power made them feel that playthings were the only things left to wish for.
I may not be able to fly, but at least I know enough to want to.