Aphantasia. That is an interesting word. What does it mean?
Imagine a scene for a moment. You are on your last vacation, sitting in front of the hotel or cottage and watching the sunset.
If you had to say how intense the image is that you see of this sunset in your mind’s eye, would it be blurry or even a moving movie? Or do you see no image at all?
There are all shades of experience. Certain people are transported back to the scene and almost can’t distinguish it from the event at the time, so vivid and colorful does everything seem. Others see shadows. I see – nothing.
This is aphantasia. A blind mind’s eye.
The word has nothing to do with the fact that I have no imagination, as my children could confirm.
But how do you live with aphantasia?
I have learned about my aphantasia only recently. After all, I can only infer the inner life of others from mine, and how could I know that others can see pictures and movies in their heads? Not a topic to talk about over dinner spontaneously.
I have found that I have a harder time remembering episodic events. While others remember the clothes and the room with its furnishings, I have a hard time even remembering that I experienced them, when I experienced them, and with whom I experienced them.
On the other hand, I have an excellent memory for factual knowledge.
It is difficult to explain how I think. I see no images, hear no voices, perceive no smells or tastes, and no touch except with my physical sensory organs. Very rarely do I hear music in my head.
I would best describe my thoughts like this: on the one hand, there are hunches and impressions, on the other hand, words. The words are absolutely in the minority.
What does this mean for my coaching?
I can think of one point in particular where my aphantasia could have an impact: the ability to put myself in your shoes.
Empathy happens through emotions. You empathize by feeling with the other. According to Lisa Feldman Barrel, emotions are sensory perceptions enriched by memories.
So I perceive my surroundings and my body, and interpret what that perception might mean by drawing on my memory.
She tells a story that illustrates this very well.
Although she was not attracted to a fellow student in college, she went on a date. During this date, she felt woozy, her knees gave out, and she had queasy feelings in her stomach.
She interpreted this to mean that she obviously did like the young man and had a nine-month relationship with him.
However, she disregarded that she was suffering from the flu for the next few days after the date. What she thought were romantic feelings were the first signs of an illness.
From this definition of emotion, I conclude that empathy has more to do with similar memories than a true ability to feel what others feel. Shared memories help to not only make conclusions from oneself to others.
But it also helps to be similarly knit. Similar cultural imprinting, history and personality structure result in similar interpretations of sensory impressions as emotions.
Sensory impressions here do not have to come explicitly from the environment or the body in real-time. The brain makes little – some say no – distinction between thought-play, memory replay and experience.
A strong imagination through the inner eye or ear, taste, touch can trigger the same emotions. By reliving, our memories are strengthened, more easily recalled, but also romanticized or amplified, in any case slightly altered.
These strengthened, altered memories then flow back more often into the interpretation of new events, along with any associations that the current situation triggers.
So, in summary, empathy works best when I have experienced a lot with the person I am coaching, they are similar to me, and I already know similar situations to theirs from my own experience.
However, the CliftonStrengths and Spiral Dynamics Tools show us how fundamentally different we are. It is precisely the realization of modernity and postmodernity how individual we are. Of course, we overlap in our humanity, which makes empathy possible. But how deep does this really go?
I cannot give this answer, because, with my aphantasia, I lack essential building blocks of empathy in particular. On the other hand, I am highly gifted and neuroatypical, which contributes to the fact that my experience is usually substantially different from that of others.
I had to find a different approach for empathy.
How about using my strength in learning, thinking, and knowing to understand other people better?
So I read everything I could get my hands on about personality and development.
When a person tells me something, I see how their strength profile, worldview, and Enneagram type might well interpret that event. This allows me to ask specific questions and empathize with that person much better.
A second important aspect arises from this. Because I am not wallowing in my own memories or picturing the often difficult situation very vividly, which can lead to great emotion, I am less trapped.
I can remain an observer, react less from my own conclusions, but also react less emotionally. This allows me to see ways out, solutions, triggers and misinterpretations much better.
Of course, empathy is not presenting solutions. But empathy is also not sitting wallowing in the problem with a lot of compassion and doing navel-gazing.
Coaching is about developing solutions yourself with the help of surprising, thought-provoking impulses from the coach. A compassionate yet analytical observer can be very helpful.
One more point: emotional reminders often create a sense of familiarity, accomplishment, and belonging. They make it much harder to disengage from a behavior, a worldview, and even a person.
Aphantasia, therefore, makes it easier to break away from certain thinking patterns. For example, when the hierarchy of one’s values changes, there is much less to hold one back.
But also, interestingly, new things can often be thought of more imaginatively. The memory of interpreted signals from our physical eye usually limits our inner eye.
Imagining the proverbial pink elephant succeeds because we only combine two concepts we know, even if the combination does not exist in the real world.
Now what if the imagination were not limited to the same extent because it would not automatically create an image of the mind games we make?
Of course, it becomes tricky when we have to explain, put into words or visualize these free thoughts and new concepts to share. But as a starting point or intermediate step, they can lead to imaginative and unexpected new concrete solutions.
I admit: aphantasia limits me. But at the same time, it expands the possibilities I have. I would not want to miss them.
I would happily put it at your service during a coaching session.