Recently, I was listening to the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and came across an episode on aphantasia, which really got me thinking about how we visualize our worlds. Mainly because I connected quite a bit with what they described. Aphantasia is where a person is not able to visualize imagery in the “Mind’s Eye.” As I write fantasy and science fiction, things that literally no one has seen before, I found it very interesting that I saw many aphantasic tendencies in my own visualization process. So, let’s take a look at what that means.
Like many neurological processes, the way we visualize falls on a spectrum from aphantasia—no visual images at all—to hyperphantasia—visual images in clear, vivid detail. I’m not aphantasic, as I can mentally visualize to an extent, but not always and when I do it is rarely with any clear detail. I tend to “see” mental images best through concepts, feelings, and movement rather than as a clear picture in my head.
For an example, at the beginning of the podcast they describe a scene for you to visualize. Among the images they mention were a beach and your mother. When I imagined a beach there was no detail, no sand or foam or color. What I saw was the division from a place to walk to water and the motion of waves. Likewise when they said to imagine your mother, I didn’t see a mental image of my own mother. I saw a female-person shape that felt of the concept of a mother rather than any single person.
What I find most interesting is how this has very obviously affected my writing. I hate description. I have always known that it’s the weakest part of my writing style. I can write an entire story and forget to describe anything about the setting or what the characters look like. I usually have to make a concerted effort to bring in elements of setting or details like color to make a general description more specific. Unless something is important to the plot, unique looking, or a character is interacting with it, I simply don’t think to mention it. To me a table is the concept of a table, not a specific one I’m seeing.
Case in point, in my short story “A Cure for Homesickness” I have four characters, three of which are aliens. I have no clear idea of what any of them look like, despite describing them. I can see parts of them clearly, but it’s set in a haze of the concept of alien, or in Krem’s case, an insect alien. Max, my human, has only one line of actual description, which is a metaphor and not detail. Other than that, I see Max as female shaped with the feeling I associate with Max’s personality.
What I can see is how each of them moves. Sovad has fluid motions, which is very different from Del, who has very strong movements. And when Krem and Max are running away from the scavengers, I can clearly see the way they duck behind a boulder for cover. The landscape they’re on, though, I don’t see really. I can see the boulder they hide behind, because they’re interacting with, and I can see the clearing where the ship is because that’s vital to the plot, but the rest of the world is the concept of an slightly barren alien planet.
I always felt that it was wrong that I struggled, and in fact, didn’t want, to describe settings and people the way other fantasy and science fiction authors do. That immense detail doesn’t appeal to me. In my head a tree is the concept of a tree and a dress is the concept of a dress. Telling me all the detail of foliage won’t improve that image, nor will describing the cut and color and trim of a dress. And I can see now why that is, and how it affects the way I write.
I’d love to hear how you imagine the worlds you create or the ones you read. Do you have picture perfect detail or do you strain to see any of it?