Questions we never ask
Some of you might have wondered how you can be sure others exist. What if you are dreaming and everyone else is a figment of your imagination? We intuitively know that we exist. But what about others? They act like they have minds, but do they really have a consciousness like you? This flavour of extreme skepticism is called Solipsism.
Most of us simply entertain this idea and reject it quickly. This is because we have a theory of mind which we use understand other humans, we reason by analogy that since others act like us, they must have an internal mind just like us. This means we don't ask certain questions to each other. We take it for granted that everyone else thinks like us. Have you asked anyone if they remember their past in 1st or 3rd person view?
But in fact there is a lot of diversity in how human brains work. There are some people with a very vivid mind's eye. They are on one end of the spectrum - these people with hyperaphantasia can perform wizardry within their head. On the other end there are those who lack a mind's eye - these people are said to have aphantasia.
How most people work
When it comes to thinking, for most people there is a clear visual component. When you think about or reason about an apple and how many apples you need in order to give two to each family member, you involuntarily visualize the apples and the family members. This is similar to how most of us can't stare at letters and not read the word.
We can look at a language we don't understand and just appreciate the symbol as strokes of ink but after we learn the script we read without any ability to drop to a lower level of abstraction.
This is also why most people consider it part of dining etiquette to not mention certain topics. Aphants are confused because if someone talks about periods or shit, images don't appear unbidden in their head. They can still enjoy the food while discussing gory or disgusting topics. Aphants can read very gory descriptive scenes in books and not react like most people.
Most people can also voluntarily visualize events, they can simulate the past and future, they can undress someone or imagine the audience naked. Aphants can only conceptualize ideas. This is very hard to explain because aphants are used to calling what they do "visualization" and normal people can't comprehend how it must feel like not to have a minds eye because they are so used to it.
It is like asking a blind person to imagine colors. Aphants lived their lives interpreting most literal statements as metaphors. They never actually counted sheep to sleep. They never thought "picture this" was literal.
Most people can't unsee something digusting once they see it. It haunts them and they resort to watching cute videos to "clean their eyes". Aphants have no need for such eye bleach. Most people struggle to get over the passing of a loved one or a beloved pet. The memories haunt them, smallest things serve as stimuli forcing them to recall painful memories. But aphants live in moment and can move on very easily from heart break, trauma, etc.
Out of sight, Out of mind.
It is hard for aphants to stay friends with people they don't see daily and can easily drift apart since they don't think about them unbidden.
A quick way to check if you are an aphant is to try a test,
So usually the test asks you to imagine something like a person riding a horse or a ball/apple rolling off a table. A set of questions follow after you finish doing the best visualization you can. Aphants will decide the details the questions ask for after hearing the specifics. While most people would have already visualized the imagary with extraneous details.
When I "see" a apple in my head, it is the idea of an apple. I have not decided on it's color, if it was hanging on a tree, if it was bitten. I think very abstractly assuming nothing that was not given to me in such questions. While my sister would see a red apple sitting on a wooden table and can "see" the texture of the apple, color and can tell me the direction the light hits the apple.
This is why aphantasia is associated with scientific and mathematical occupations, whereas hyperphantasia is associated with ‘creative’ professions. This ability to easily deal with abstractions gives aphants an advantage in such fields whereas they often need visual aids and use trial and error to even just draw.
If you can draw really well from memory then you are likely not an aphant. I can't even hold my parent's face in my mind. I used to wonder how eye witnesses gave police enough information to draw the sketch. But I can recognize faces when I see them unlike some aphants.
If you want to be sure if you have aphantasia you need to get a fMRI done when trying out a imagery task then you can get some physiological validation where exactly you lie on this spectrum.
Research indicates that a lot of aphants also suffer from SDAM. This is when you have Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory. Most people can vividly relive their past experiences. They can see/relive their memories in 1st person view while people with SDAM reconstruct their past in a 3rd person view using factual semantic memories.
Think about your memory do you rely a lot on semantic memory? - structured records of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge about the external world (very abstract and relational). I struggle to remember names in fiction and remember people using relationships to other people.
People with SDAM have weak episodic memory - first person view of times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge. They tend to remember traumatic memories in a matter of fact manner without the associated feelings, visuals, sensory information.
Most aphants might have it from birth but there are reports of people turning into aphants as they grew up, maybe it was a defense mechanism to some trauma or depression.
I think most people are nowadays obsessed about collecting experiences, they are humanists the way Harari described them, considering the human experience to be the source of all value.
Aphants are less likely to cherish such memories and more likely to live hedonistically in the momement. The lack of vividness of memories means they might struggle to learn from their past but they are also less burdened and have little if no baggage to carry.
Aphants might lack a strong internal monologue. But I am speculating when it comes to all of this, this field is very nascent and we still don't understand how diverse the human experience is. There are definite tradeoffs and this condition does not seem like a disability to me. Unless you also think it is a disability to be unable to involuntarily visualize.
We talked about mind blindness till now, but we have other senses not just our vision. Aphants are likely to also struggle to recollect touch sensations, smells, sounds and tastes. It sounds incredible to me that people can "remember" the taste of food. I just remember the fact that it was sweet, I can compare how sweet it was to other sweet things if there was sufficient difference. I can't feel my mom's hug using my memory. I believe I am a "total aphant".
Sometimes a certain song or smell can trigger memories. But that is rare and the memories are not as vivid as some people seem to claim. Comment below if you have a strong mind's eye, mind's ear, mind's nose, mind's tongue or mind's touch.
If you think you have aphantasia test your close relatives, since this has a genetic component it is likely some of them also have it if you have it. But people can live their wholes lives without realizing they are different in this way because it really does not make much of a functional difference in your life.
Monks spend years training to live in the present, to us aphants it comes naturally.