I can vividly recall the Eureka moment that I had when I found out I had Aphantasia-–the moment I could finally put a label on this thing that I’d always known I had but could never really describe. However, I can’t actually see it.
It was August 2015. It was hot, humid, and raining-–not like a grey British drizzle, but one of those fantastical tropical storms with lightning and thunderclaps so close it feels like they are right above you. I was living in a little beachside shack on the southern coast of Cambodia. I’d call it a bungalow, but with thatched walls and a thatched roof that leaked when it rained it was definitely more like a shack. I was absentmindedly scrolling through my phone when I stumbled upon an article about a still relatively unknown condition called Aphantasia.
Roughly defined as the inability to picture images (or anything, for that matter) in the mind’s eye, I remember rereading the article over and over again, looking up at the ceiling with its overlapping palm fronds, gazing out through the open door at the grey ocean and the dark stormy sky, and realizing that this was a turning point in my life. It was the proof I’d been looking for to justify the whispering voice I had in the back of my mind that told me I experienced the world differently to everyone else.
Even though deep down I already knew that my brain worked differently, I still wasn’t quite prepared for the sense of loss that I felt when the reality of it sunk in. That some of the things I struggled with, especially when I traveled–like learning languages and memorizing directions–were perhaps unique to me, or at least to the 2% of the world’s population who were estimated to also be Aphantasic.
And so, with my inner world imploding and expanding in equal measure, I began an introspective journey realizing that this was why I felt like the concept of visualizing myself on a tropical beach, for example, was more of a theoretical thing compared to something that people could actually do in their minds (even though I literally lived on one!). This newfound label could finally explain why I couldn’t picture my family’s faces or my childhood home, why my memories were so blurry, why I didn’t dream, and why I couldn’t draw without physical cues.
When it came to learning, this new knowledge justified why my dreams of studying Mandarin at university had been so short-lived, because no matter how hard I tried to memorize the Chinese characters, I just couldn’t get them to stick in my mind. It explained why my thinking patterns felt more like an organized system of words and information rather than a visual movie that some people can replay on-demand in their minds. Perhaps, it even led me here, to becoming a writer.
It also explained why my travel companions got so frustrated at the fact that I literally couldn’t stop taking photos of everything and why I couldn’t just enjoy being there “in the moment” with them. Whenever we visited somewhere new, I would feel compelled to take pictures in order to create visual reminders for myself of these amazing places that we’d been to, because I knew if I didn’t they would be gone from my mind forever.
Although most of the time photos don’t do the actual view justice, without that physical cue, I wouldn’t be able to remember how the world lit up when the sun rose from behind the mountains in Nepal or how the first rays hit the terraced hills in front of me in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be able to remember the ancient temples with their intricate carvings, or the sense of mystique, awe, and wonder that I felt walking in the footsteps of the kings and queens who had once lived there. Neither would I be able to recall how it felt to skip through the snow next to the canals in Amsterdam, or the way the bioluminescent plankton sparkled under a sky full of stars when we went skinny-dipping at night on the southern coast of Cambodia.
After reading that initial article and devouring everything else I could find on the subject (even emailing the director of the study) I then spent several years feeling alone in the world. I would go on long inner journeys, query all of my friends, write journals and make observations.I even took part in a silent Vipassana retreat in my attempts to understand and conquer the limitations of my mind. Now, while I still really struggle with non-Latin alphabets, memorizing maps and directions and fighting the constant desire to take a million pictures to capture the moment rather than being able to sit and enjoy it, I have learned to love the way I see the world.
It’s been just over four years since I first read that article, and yet, even now, learning about Aphantasia can still take me by surprise. I found out just the other day that other people have aural memories to remember sounds, and can recall tastes and smells and even how things feel–like the soft belly of a cat, or the way the ocean feels when it laps against your feet.
Still, I’ve never been someone to let anything hold me back. After six years on the road, and nearly 30 years of existence, I’ve proved myself pretty adaptable. Although I’ve learned that I can’t rely on my memory, I still go to all the places to see all the things–I just make sure I’m armed with my notebook and my camera. I also try to collect meaningful mementos when I travel, like postcards or prints that remind me of a specific day and place: scents, like Frankincense and Amber resin from Morocco and incense from India; fabrics, like silks and scarves; and tastes, like spices, coffee beans, and tea leaves.
While I miss my family and friends and sometimes wish I was able to see their faces and hear their voices in my mind, or wish that I was better able to read and write other languages and memorize maps, I feel very lucky to live in a time that my phone can be more of an aid to me than just a connection to the world. Unfortunately, though, this also means I feel like I’m more attached to my phone and reliant on technology than other travelers. I’ve had several phones stolen over the years. For most people, it is a bit of an inconvenience, for me, it feels like I’m losing my lifeline–my crutch.
It’s funny looking back now on the days when I used to travel before I had a smartphone and before WiFi. When I had a paper map and a guidebook and would send my parents weekly updates from the old computer at the one internet cafe in town. These days, my phone feels like a solution to everything I’m lacking. It is my way to get “home” with maps and a GPS, my ability to communicate with people in other languages, to see pictures of my family and friends, to call them and hear their voices like I’m right there in the room with them. It also doubles as my journal and my camera, meaning that even if I don’t have my DSLR and my notebook with me, I’m still able to capture those moments I don’t ever want to forget.
Header photo by Remi Yuan.