Blind Mind and the Elephant

I have to admit I’ve had a hard time understanding what’s so hard to understand about aphantasia. I mean, it’s the lack of an ability. Shouldn’t we be the ones peppering the neurotypicals with questions about what it’s like to be able to “see” in your head?

Some of us spend plenty of time doing just that, without ever having to leave the privacy of our own homes.

Me: …okay, so when you read a book, you get a kind of “movie” as the story unfolds?

Spouse: Yep!

Me: …so when you’re driving and listening to a recorded book…?

Spouse: Movie.

Me: How do you not crash the freakin’ car???

Me: That sounds like a lot to deal with!

Me: How do you mange to “see” all that and still get to work on time?


It’s never boring at our place, is what I’m saying. 

But I digress.

It’s still weird surprising to me that doing without is difficult for some to grasp. We’ve all shuddered sympathetically at the stories from those who’ve been lucky enough to survive COVID-19 but had to cope with the loss of smell and taste. But I haven’t heard anyone say, “okay but wait okay but wait okay hang on you HAVE A TONGUE how can you not taste the food just put the food on your tongue!”

Okay, maybe someone has said that. The human race has not exactly been setting records for intelligence and grace lately. But if they did, I think the rest of us would wince and shake our heads. What’s not to understand? A sense someone had doesn’t work now. That’s awful. It’s also brutally simple.

I’d assume that empathizing with, say, lifelong total blindness would also be the kind of stretch an able-person could make without too much trouble. That’s pretty bare-bones. And since blindness is a subject I’ve been interested in since childhood, rest assured I’ll be blogging about it soon – especially since I’m currently reading an autobiographical YA novel by and about a woman who lost her sight at the age of 14. Her ability to visualize even after she lost the ability to see was a huge help to her. It was mystifying to me the first time I read this novel, when I was 14 and didn’t know I had aphantasia.

Which brings me to my point, which is that neurotypical people have some perfectly legitimate questions about what it’s like to navigate the world when you have aphantasia. So I should really take that stick out of my butt try listening and understanding a little better. I could expand my own thinking. I could learn something. 

I might even enjoy myself, as I did while on the phone the other day with my sister Sid.

Sid: Okay, so I’ve been reading your blog.

Me: (as all good people should)

Sid: And here’s what I don’t understand.

Me: Yeeees?

Sid: When someone tells me to think about an elephant, I picture an elephant. I see it in my head.

Me: Uh-huh.

Sid: …so what do you do if someone tells you to imagine an elephant?

Me: (well, first I find some less bossy people to hang out with)

Me: (just kidding y’all)

Me: (you’re exactly the right amount of bossy don’t ever change)

Me: Okay.

Me: Well.

Me: I guess.

Me: I think of what an elephant is like.

Me: Like, okay, when I was young I went on an elephant ride.

Me: And elephants are so so sweet but their skin is ROUGH

Me: and that hair!

Me: I mean they don’t have a lot but what they do have is SO PRICKLY

Me: Also, my kiddo used to be WILD about elephants.

Me: That’s a pretty normal two-years-old way to be, I think.

Me: So: it was October and we all went to the zoo for a special elephants-get-to-eat-pumpkins day.

Me: my boo was also quite in love with pumpkins at this point

Me: We got there plenty early, and the people who take care of the elephants had laid out a lot of pumpkins. An elephant came out and surveyed the landscape in a majestic manner.

Me: He walked up to a huuuuge pumpkin, set his front foot on it, and just kind of leaned forward.

Me: That pumpkin did not stand a chance.

Me: The elephant picked up a great big piece of pumpkin rind in his trunk and brought it up to his mouth. 

Me: and the crowd went WILD

Me: seriously rock stars don’t get this kind of love

Me: needless to say, my boo was so excited by this juxtaposition of the two things they loved most in the world.

Me: for a minute, that baby couldn’t get the words out.

Me: they stammered: “elephants – eat – “

Me: and then they had to start the sentence over, because the excitement was just too much.

Me: but finally they managed to say

Me: “Elephants – eat – more pumpkins?”

Me: I assured my boo that this was indeed the case.

Me: and I’m telling you right now, no one has ever been happier than my kid was right then.

Me: my kid has never been happier than they were at that moment.

Me: It’s kind of sad that they probably don’t remember hitting peak happiness at the age of two.

Me: That’s the way it goes, I guess.

Me: Nothing else that happens can ever be quite as awesome as elephants and pumpkins.

Me: …so, anyway.

Me: If someone ever asked me to imagine an elephant, that’s what I’d do.

Sid: (dies of cuteness overload)

Just kidding. Everyone involved survived that phone call.

It gave me a lot to think about, too.

Like: okay, I would love to be able to imagine an elephant so hard that I’m (apparently!) in danger of crashing my car. I would love to be able to go to the movies without even having to buy a ticket, the way my spouse can.

But in a way, I have a movie of my own.

It’s more of a movie script. I think in stories. I think in words.

But just because I can’t visualize that day doesn’t mean I don’t get to remember it. 

So: elephants + aphantasia = not really missing out, so far as I can tell. 

As long as someone remembers to bring the pumpkins, of course.

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