A couple of weeks shy of my 31st birthday I discovered that I have a rare brain condition. It’s not terminal, so don’t worry, and it doesn’t cause any obvious obstacles in my life. It wasn’t diagnosed with an MRI machine but through the act of self-discovery. It has changed the way that I think and see the world around me.
It all started with the simple practice of meditation. By now you’ve probably heard of all the benefits, how it can reduce stress, anxiety, and fear, to how the simple act of meditation can improve concentration and attention. Everywhere you turn new studies are showing how this ancient art of letting your mind relax possess outcomes that are good for you.
Perhaps you’ve even sat down at the end of a yoga class, or in front of a YouTube video and attempted to sit calmly and listen. There is no right way to do it. A little meditation is better than no meditation. Just relax and be one with your breath.
Variations on how to pay attention to your breath and scan your body are plenty, and many people will teach different methods on how to meditate, but from my years of practicing and learning, I’ve pinpointed two different kinds of practice.
The first way that I was introduced to meditation focuses heavily on watching your breath. Just sitting and inhaling and exhaling. Whether you concentrate on your nostrils or the little dent above your mouth, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to watch how you breathe. Feel the air move in and out. Pay attention to how your lungs begin to fill with air and where that oxygen goes. Be observant of how you breathe, until your mind inevitably wanders, and then your goal is to catch it midway through its ramble and bring the attention back to your breath.
The second type of meditation that you will likely encounter is the idea of visualizing different scenarios, this not only calms your mind but also allows you to draw upon previous experiences in your life to picture a story to go along with your meditation. For example:
Close your eyes gently and allow your body to relax. Take a long deep breath and slowly let it out.
Imagine you are standing in the middle of a dense green forest on a sunny day. Your bare feet are on the damp, moist, mossy ground. It’s like a bouncy house for your feet, plush and absorbing. The space around you is quiet, except for a lite breeze moving the tree leaves.
You are walking calmly through the forest.
You pause, and in the distance, is a soft rippling noise of water. As you move towards the sound, you come to a beautiful river. The water is smooth and clear.
You sit down at the edge of the river and put your feet in. The water is refreshing and cool against your skin. You sit and breath. Taking long rich inhales and exhales. You watch as a leaf floats down the river, slowly coming into your focus from upriver and then out as it drifts further away from you. This is what your thoughts are like. Take any thought that pops up, whether it be your to-do list or a fight you had last week with a friend, and place it on this imaginary leaf, allow it to be in front of you and then get carried down the river, and out of your mind.
I spend a lot of time listening to these guided meditations. They are mellow and calming, and I enjoy a guided walk through a relaxing scenario. And occasionally, I’ll find one that’s good, and I send it over to a friend of mine that I’m trying to get more into the practice of meditating.
A couple of back and forth discussions on what these visualizations do for us, and I started to notice a significant discrepancy between how the two of us experience them.
“Wait, what do you mean you changed the color of the grass and the trees?”
“When she says to picture the grass, my mind paints the trees purple and the grass yellow.”
“Okay … how does that happen?”
“It’s not something that I think about; it’s just part of the image that comes up for me.”
“That’s interesting; I can’t see anything in my mind when it’s described to me. Do you get a physical picture in your mind? Kind of like if you were watching a movie?”
To both of our surprise, we had completely different ways of interpreting the visualization instructions that were being offered. What I learned was that my friend could draw images up in her mind and that I have no way of doing so. I always thought people came up with analogies like “counting sheep” and “seeing a river” as the way to express themselves, vs. being able to see things in their minds.
“I can’t actually “see” anything; I remember things with words.”
“So, if I asked you to bring up an image of your brother, are you telling me you can’t picture him?”
“Of course, I can picture my brother, but what I will explain to you is how I remember him to look with the words that I’ve associated to his appearance, I can’t put a video reel of him forward in my mind.”
It was after a couple of these conversations circled around memory tricks, bringing up images in our minds, drawing exercises, that I started to wonder if one of us was experiencing something unique or whether or it was common to “see” things differently.
A little research, and the big reveal. I know it’s not smart to diagnose yourself from reading things online, but when you find a name for your condition, you can’t help it. I have a condition coined, Aphantasia. My mind works differently than the majority. Something I may have said as a joke before is now a reality set in medical records.
Aphantasia is the inability to see with your mind’s eye. As obscure as it sounds, it’s because most people never stop to think about what they see and how they see images in their mind and what the way of “seeing” could be called. I’m sure you can try to describe it if you try. When someone asks you to picture a soccer ball, can you bring up an image of that ball in your mind? What shape does it take, and what does it look like? That’s you using your mind’s eye to picture the black and white hexagons and pentagons.
My inability to “see” images is actually so rare that doctors assume that only 3% of the world’s population has the condition. Coming face-to-face with a description of something I cannot do, but that the majority of people can, has made me question a lot about the functions of my mind.
Now I can’t stop thinking about it. How different would this or that situation be if I could visualize things? Bring up memories, instead of thinking of everything metaphorically, if I could play out scenarios in my mind as if they had happened again.
Would a guided meditation transport me to the beach in Thailand to walk in the cool sand on a warm Summer day? I feel entirely cheated out of the whole experience. Denied a capability that comes so easily to everyone else.
For someone that considers themselves a creative person, I’ve become instantly resentful of the idea of visualizing. Mostly because I wonder what this means for me as a writer. Especially when so many authors describe an adventure in their mind, where they observe their characters come to life and report as they watch the story unfold. Creating a fictional character, hitting “play” and watching the entire story be told to them through their imagination. I have to wonder now, where will my story come from?
*Originally published on Medium