PICTURE ME: seven years old, curled shell-like around a book, oblivious to anything beyond the borders of the page. For as long as I can remember, I have been unable to resist the immersive power of books, the promise of another world unfurling itself from words and paper. As a child I was always reading at what my family considered to be inappropriate times (at family gatherings or in the middle of the night), but I later turned that antisocial obsession into an occupation: I completed a BA, MA, and PhD in literary studies, and have since written academic literary criticism and taught undergraduates how to do the same. I always thought that I knew what it was to read.
That was until late one evening in April 2019, when I came across a newspaper article describing a condition called “aphantasia”: the inability to produce mental imagery, the total lack of a “mind’s eye.” As I lay staring at the shadowy ceiling above my bed, a whole cluster of terms that I had always taken to be metaphorical erupted into literality. Imagining, visualizing, daydreaming: I had never realized these terms referred—in a simple, descriptive, nonfigurative sense—to the mental capacities of around 98 percent of the population. I had never realized that the yawning blankness of my own mind was not the norm.
MY LACK of a mind’s eye hasn’t stopped me from enjoying books that are deeply imagistic—like Haruki Murakami’s novels, which are often set in fantasy worlds conjured through rich visual imagery. His Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World dramatizes the stark difference between the two realms of its title through alternating chapters. The Hard-Boiled Wonderland follows the narrator’s precarious existence in a magical realist version of Tokyo—a fast-paced, abrasive world laced with the neurobiological experiments of a morally dubious Professor, inhabited by humanoid subway- and sewer-dwelling demons called INKlings (Infra-Nocturnal Kappas, based on the Japanese folklore of the kappa, or riverchild), and violently seared by the bloody actions of two warring data companies, the System and the Factory. The End of the World, in total contrast, is an oneiric, walled Town where a thousand golden beasts graze, where the people live unburdened by shadows or minds or answers to the narrator’s many questions, and where the days fall as softly and incessantly as the snows that shroud the ground in winter. Counterpoint to the brusque intensity of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the End of the World has a dense, soporific atmosphere that graves the inhabitants deep into their assigned roles: the Librarian, the Gatekeeper, the Colonel. Upon arrival in the Town, the narrator is appointed as Dreamreader, tasked with spending evenings reading old dreams from the dusty beast skulls that fill the library’s shelves. And he soon learns of the power and perfection of the enormous wall that encloses the Town. “Nobody leaves here,” the Gatekeeper tells him.
From the outset both narratives are concerned with the shifting lights of perception, imagination, and memory, and the ways they influence how we apprehend reality. In the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the Professor experiments with “sound removal,” so that a raging waterfall and the voice of his pink-suited granddaughter are experienced as totally silent. In the End of the World, the Dreamreader suffers the Gatekeeper to plunge a knife into his eyes, endowing him with the special kind of sight needed to read old dreams. Meanwhile, the narrators of both story lines are faced with memories that cannot reliably be distinguished from imagination. And so the novel makes us aware that the mind is not an open window that allows the world in unchanged; it is instead a refractive medium that shapes and colors incoming signals, and can be tuned to different frequencies. The End of the World, we learn, is the beginning of the mind: the walled Town is a realm entirely invented, produced, created by a mind.
I had never realized that the yawning blankness
of my own mind was not the norm.
But this is not merely a Murakamian fantasy; it is also the condition in which we all find ourselves. Our brains give us the sense that the mind is in the world, observing it as objective reality, when in fact, the opposite is true: the world is in the mind, the world as perceived is entirely rendered and represented by our brains. As the Librarian tells the Dreamreader: “What resembles meat is not. What resembles eggs is not. What resembles coffee only resembles coffee. Everything is made in the image of something.” No light and sound penetrate the bony walls of your skull, no meat or eggs or coffee make it inside: your brain produces representations of the signals it receives from the world. And as neuro-diversities show us, these representations differ from person to person. “No two human beings have the same mind. At the same time, human beings have almost no grasp of their own cognitive systems,” says the Professor. Oscar-winning film and Nobel-winning literature are pale shadows of the audiovisual and narrative artistry of the brain, the most immersive and seamless virtual reality in existence, each mind an idiosyncratic auteur of personal reality, its signature style as invisible to us as air.
MANY APHANTASICS say they don’t enjoy reading fiction, and see their aphantasia as an explanation for why books have never held their attention. There is also evidence that aphantasics have a less visceral, emotional response to reading visually frightening scenes. I read one of the stories used by aphantasia researchers from the University of New South Wales—Marcus Wicken, Rebecca Keogh, and Joel Pearson—to measure the “role of mental imagery in human emotion” (although by “human emotion” they meant just “fear,” which seems a rather reductive extrapolation). It was a paragraph-long mini horror in which you find yourself the victim of a shark attack. Though I can’t measure the electrical activity of my skin during reading as the study did—it turns out fiction can be literally electrifying—I know that I didn’t feel particularly moved or scared by the story. So it seems that, like other aphantasics, I’m less susceptible to certain kinds of fear-inducing scenes in fiction. But to focus on such a response hardly encroaches on the affective power of a single book, let alone plumbs the teeming vaults of experience that reading is able to render. The absence of a visual element has never stopped me from enjoying books, nor from exchanging my immediate environment for the unfolding chambers of fiction and the many minds and movements traced within them. But, as became evident to me as I read more about aphantasia in the days and weeks after discovering the condition, the universes I have spent my reading life traversing must be quite different from those most people conjured. The place I found within the pages of a book was not the one other people—quite literally—saw.
I cannot really imagine what it would be like to read with visual images. It’s strange to me that, at the opening of this essay, you might have visualized me reading as a child when I can’t see it myself. Like many aphantasics, I also lack imagery in other senses: I cannot recall scents, tastes, or tactile sensations (although I do have faint mental audio, mainly with music). My memories are predominantly spatial, verbal, emotional: I’ll remember where I was sitting in relation to others, what they said and when, how I felt when the evening sun came thick through the trees and cast everything in honeyed light. I cannot resee that light or feel its warmth. I cannot recall the smell of the air or the sound of the birds, and yet I can remember these details somehow, robbed of their sensual qualities, but hanging darkly in space nonetheless. Thought and sensual experience are as different to me as novels and paintings—they’re made from different stuff, they make meaning in different ways.
When I tried to describe the spatial quality of my thought to a friend without aphantasia, he struggled to understand what I meant. He felt as though his sense of space was part of his visual imagination. But this is not the case, even in actual seeing. Visual information is divided by the brain into two “streams”: the conscious “ventral stream” that deals with the “what” of visual information (the cluttered table, the bulging bookshelf, the faded upholstery pattern of the sofa), and the unconscious “dorsal stream” that deals with the “where” (the position of these objects in space, and your dynamic relation to them). The two systems are so separate that it’s possible to damage the ventral stream and consequently feel as though one is entirely blind (that is, has no conscious experience of seeing anything), but still—incredibly—be able to navigate around objects without bumping into them, so long as the dorsal stream is intact. Whether or not there’s a link between aphantasia and these two different streams of vision is still uncertain, but I bring them up because it helps me explain how I remember or imagine things in my mind. I cannot picture my own bedroom, but I have a kind of dark 3D model of the shape of the room and the position of each piece of furniture.
The same is true of the realms I enter in reading. There are no visual images of golden beasts or pink-suited women, of unscalable walls or Tokyo supermarkets, but I can map their spatial presences and imagine the movement of characters through the story’s world. And I have no problem imagining any aspects of a book that are nonvisual: the weather patterns of human relationships, the melancholy weight of an unrememberable past, the weave of symbols and associations. I can feel the narrative tension rising in me like a tide, feel the undertow of the happy ending that will never come to be, and feel the lingering sweep of a good book’s afterglow that bathes my reality in its refractive light for hours after I have finished reading. And so a lack of visual imagery doesn’t feel to me like a weakened experience of the scenes cast by fiction, because the dark matter of my own memories has the same tone and texture: a landscape of speech and feeling walked on a moonless night.
THE TWO NARRATORS of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are clearly not aphantasic, both experiencing scenes of strong visual imagery:
I call up different images of the Town behind closed eyes. Here are the willows on the sandbar, the Watchtower by the Wall in the west, the small tilled plot behind the Power Station. The old men sitting in the patch of sun in front of my quarters, the beasts crouching in the pooled waters of the River, summer grasses bowing in the breeze on the stone steps of the canal.
Before I learned about aphantasia, I read this passage—like any other reference to mental imagery—as metaphorical, the “images” no more visual than those rendered by my own blind imagination. But that doesn’t mean that the words have no power of evocation for me. Willows, sandbar, wall, old men, river, grasses: I somehow know what these things look like, without ever being able to conjure them visually. I could say that I know that the pale green tresses of willows sway thickly in the wind, that old men have crinkled eyes and white hair, but this would suggest that what Murakami’s words do is call up more words for me. Which is true when I start writing about the text, but not when I’m reading it. While I’m reading, these associations remain preverbal, dark, and unformed, but their mood and tone are palpable, like the “vague hollows behind my vision” the Dreamreader senses.
Somewhere between my aphantasia and my years of loving and studying literature, I have also become deeply attuned to the materiality of language: the sounds and shapes of words, the fluid rhythm of sentences, the texture of consonants in the mouth. The Dreamreader’s experience of hearing the sound of a horn (that is used to herd the Town’s beasts) approaches the way that language moves in my mind:
I close my eyes and let the gentle tones spread through me. They are like none other. Navigating the darkling streets like a pale transparent fish, down cobbled arcades, past the enclosures of houses and stone walls lining the walkways along the river, the call goes out. Everything is immersed in the call. It cuts through invisible airborne sediments of time, quietly penetrating the furthest reaches of the Town.
The words move like transparent fish through the lightless world of the deepest sea: invisible but palpable in the dark water of my mind. The texture of the word cobbled beads the sentence like the paving it describes, the three syllables of “sediments” layered like verbal rock. We often think of language as something shared, a translucent medium through which meaning can be perceived unchanged. But what recognizing the diversity of mental imagery shows us is that reading or hearing language is also always a matter of translation, transformation, creation.
DESPITE THE FACT that Victorian polymath Francis Galton recognized differences in mental imagery strength in the 1880s, aphantasia was only named in 2015. The science is still very young, and much remains uncertain. It is unclear, for example, whether aphantasics have some kind of unconscious visual imagery, or whether a “cure” might one day be possible (or even desirable). It is currently estimated that around 2 percent of people are aphantasic. Roughly half of these people have “total aphantasia,” a lack of all forms of mental imagery (sound, taste, smell, touch), while the other half lack visual imagery but do have some mental senses. Many aphantasics will be drawn to careers in science or mathematics, but there are also some aphantasic artists and creatives. Most aphantasia is congenital (experienced from birth) and seems to run in families, but it can also come about as a result of physical or psychological trauma or mood disorders. More than half of aphantasics do dream visually, but some do not, describing dreams shaped by concept, narrative, or emotion. Some struggle with autobiographical memory, and some suffer from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.
Reading or hearing language is also always a matter
of translation, transformation, creation.
That is to say, aphantasia may be one end of the imagery spectrum, but it too contains multitudes. It has different manifestations, likely different genetic or psychological causes, and different cognitive implications for different people. Professor Adam Zeman, the scientist who coined the term aphantasia, says that a “common theme” among the aphantasics that have contacted him is a lack of interest or enjoyment in reading fiction. So what I have described here certainly won’t resonate with all aphantasics. But I hope it can provide insight into one variety of mental experience, and show just how readily we underestimate the diversity of forms of human cognition and imagination.
When I read that aphantasia can come about as a result of trauma, it made me wonder whether my own lack of a mind’s eye had really been from birth. At age three, the world as I had known it disappeared. My mother (a single parent) died, and I was brought to England to be raised by her parents: a new family, a new country, and a completely new language replaced the ones that had previously constituted my existence. I have a couple of memories from before that time, and it’s almost as if they are memories of memories, as if I am now recalling something nonvisually that once had a visual quality. Such a loss would fit in with the science, but given the recognized unreliability of memory, I know too that it could just be my mind constructing a narrative in which my imaginative blindness is not total: a story in which something was lost, and that, therefore, might someday be regained.
If I had never read anything about aphantasia, I would probably have gone on assuming that the mind’s eye was a metaphor, and gone on getting frustrated at the brushed velvet voice of a guided meditation telling me to visualize lying on a sandy beach as waves break gently on the shore. Even though there were plenty of these clues that my own cognitive capacities are not universal (that inappropriately frustrating meditation being a case in point), the instinct to interpret our own ways of “seeing” things as shared by others is usually strong enough to smooth over these discrepancies. In the 1970s and ’80s, the scientific community debated about diversity of imagery strength, and it later turned out that scientists’ assumptions about the supposed universal strength (or lack) of visual imagery were directly correlated with the particular cast of their own conscious experience. We all—including scientists who claim or aim to trade in objectivity—still tend to assume that “reality as it is perceived by me” is just plain unscented “reality.” But the reality is that there is no one reality. “The Town is sealed,” as the Dreamreader’s shadow says, “That’s why the longer you stay in here, the more you get to thinking that things are normal.”
We each walk a landscape of consciousness so familiar that—unless some neurological cataclysm befalls us—we take the texture of its soil, the contours of its horizon as the markers of a common reality. We do not realize that the people around us may live in other cognitive countries entirely, so far separated from our own that the distances between them are untraversable. “Two people can sleep in the same bed and still be alone when they close their eyes,” as the narrator of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland realizes.
But how is it even possible that such a spectrum of imaginative capacity can go unnoticed (or even uncontested) for so long and by so many people? The answer has to do, I think, with the shifting ground between metaphor and literality—the shifting ground on which language and literature are built. Just as I had always assumed that “visualization” and “mind’s eye” were figurative expressions, a friend who experiences synesthesia (a mixing of the senses) told me she had always thought that “feeling blue” was a literal descriptor. The same words—the same novels—will refract through cognitive prisms that have been forged by the sedimentation of genetics, fired under the heavy suns of culture and socialization, and engraved by language and trauma, by love and education. What exists elsewhere on the spectrum of possible perception and thought may lie beyond our own ability to imagine, but our isolation will never be absolute so long as we can meet one another via metaphor. Murakami’s Gatekeeper notes that “Only birds can clear the Wall.” Perhaps the flights we take on the wings of language can at least help us see (or in my case “see”) the worlds of others.