22 June, 2020

Blind Invidia

Recently, I learned that I have had a lifelong disability that I never previously realized that I had: aphantasia.

Aphantasia (meaning "without imagination") is a condition characterized by being unable to literally see objects when one's eyes are closed. People with aphantasia cannot visualize things.

Image is from Bebeflapula.
This relatively rare condition affects between 1–3% of the population, of which I am one. Yet despite writing a description of the condition in the preceding paragraph, I can't help but to strongly feel like my description is wrong. Of course I can visualize things; I've visualized things my entire life. Of course I can see objects in my mind's eye. How else am I able to enjoy fiction and dream so vividly and mentally rotate objects?

Yet I am definitely aphantasiac. The problem lies in my misunderstanding of how others have used words for my entire life. Every time someone has said "envision yourself relaxing on a beach," I've diligently closed my eyes and "imagined" myself on a beach. Except I put "imagine" in quotes here because I don't actually see anything at all; rather, I have a rough understanding of what it would be like if I really were relaxing on a beach. If you said to me: "are there any umbrellas on the beach?", I would respond with confusion, wondering if I'm being asked to "imagine" umbrellas on the beach or not. To me, I could say there was an umbrella there, or not, depending on what I might want. Either way, it would not be literally visual. Yet most people can apparently inspect the image in their brain to see whether an umbrella is there. If asked: "is there a cloud in the sky?", these people can just look, and then answer whether a cloud is there. But, for me, none of this is actually visible. I see only darkness when I close my eyes. When I perform what I have called "visualization" my entire life, apparently what I have actually been doing is not visualization at all, but just the listing of properties of things in relation to each other.

If you ask me to imagine a rainbow, I will close my eyes and see nothing. But I can tell you the basic shape. I can draw a curve, whether it is with my hand or by "drawing" in my "mind's eye". (But again I must use quotation marks, for what I mean when I say these things is apparently not what most people mean when they say these things.) I can list the colors of each band in order. I can say that it appears in the sky. But none of those features are inspectable. They're just lists of properties. Not written in text that I can see when my eyes are closed, just... knowledge of what a rainbow would look like, if one happened to be in front of me.

To me, this is what the word "imagination" has always meant. I never took seriously the idea that anyone could actually visualize things in their mind's eye. I never thought people were being literal when they said they could imagine a scene in their head. To me, it is just emptiness. I cannot trace the outline of my friend's body because I do not see their body when I "imagine" them. But I can quite easily draw the outline of their body at will. If given a blank sheet of paper, I cannot trace an outline, but I can move my pencil deliberately in a way that will cause an outline to appear. I am creating this outline, not tracing it. And, in the same way, I can draw a limited hazy outline of a picture in my head. When I close my eyes, it starts black and empty; but I can draw a square -- and it is still black and empty, but I nevertheless can know where its side would be if I had been able to make any marks on the blank sheet of my mind. It is like the pencil in my head does not leave marks, and yet I can still know the not-quite-drawn object's properties. I know how many sides it has, not because I can inspect it, not because I can count edges, but because I can trace where each edge would be.

It is fascinating to me that I could live so many years continuously thinking that people were speaking figuratively every time they talked about imagining things. But it is not just fascinating; it also feels...bad. It wouldn't feel this way if this lack weren't something that everyone else seems to have. After all, I don't have "incredibly stereoscopic" vision, like those 9% who absolutely love 3D media do; nor am I a super recognizer, like the 1% who recognize faces way too easily are; but I don't feel a lack with these in the way that I do with aphantasia, when 98% can imagine visually. This seems irrational to me. If I'm to feel bad about not being phantasiac, shouldn't I also feel bad about not having senses that post-singularity humans might one day have?

...Aaand this is where I start to feel really bad: after all, I've come to feel mudita in so many other areas, whether it's the compersion I've learned through being polyamorous, or the caring I've trained through watching My Little Pony, or even the attachment of fuzzies to utilons that I've painstakingly created through association over the course of my experience with effective altruism¹.

My blind mind's eye has become a source of envy. Jealousy washes over me, even when I no longer feel jealousy in other contexts. I feel bad about feeling bad, and then I start to feel bad about feeling bad about feeling bad, at which point I manually stop the cycle and try to figure out how I can come back to feeling mudita here. But it is just not natural for me. There's something about knowing that 98% of people have the good thing that I lack that makes me unable to intrinsically feel good about their having it. I don't have this problem in other contexts because, I think, it is a much smaller percentage of people who are privileged. Which makes me think: would I also feel this way for other disabilities? If I lost the ability to walk, or the capacity to talk, would I also feel these feelings that are verging on bitterness?

I don't like this aspect of myself. I'm not happy about this at all. I want -- no, I need to be a better person. Now I just need to figure out how to fix this new problem of mine.

¹ Fuzzies are separate from utilons. But if you want to pay more attention to utilons in a specific setting, you can train yourself pavlov style to feel the fuzzies when you do the utilon stuff. In my case, I wanted to feel good when I donated to EA charities. So I used the metric of how much it cost to save a life from GiveWell's figures, decided to donate in chunks of that amount to EA charities, and then mentally "imagined" myself saving someone from a burning building each time I donated that amount. I have an uncle who did this once, and I clearly recall the feeling I had when the story was told around the family dinner table decades after the fact. He was walking down the street, saw a burning building, heard someone call out from inside, and instinctively dropped everything to go in and save that person's life. Even though the story was only told to me decades after the event had occurred, I remember the mix of feelings I had: pride, strength, determination. I wanted to be able to be a hero like that. And so each time I donated a chunk of the appropriate size, I would sit and "visualize" just that. Eventually, I came to associate donating in these chunks with those imagined feelings of saving a life, and the fuzzies had become attached to the utilons.

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