Manabi Province, Ecuador — Today a precious young lad greeted me at his family’s gates, and after a 15-second introduction, he exclaimed, ‘You have the eyes of a cat!’ – much more amusing to hear in his own voice and native language when he blurted: “Ojos de gato!”
As I adjusted to his high-octane energy – and his mother’s expanded introduction/apology by saying that they sometimes call him, ‘Tarzan,’ I thought of my eyes and what he must be seeing.
After at least 40 years of beginning my day by putting in the corrective lenses/contacts, I can no more tell you or draw/paint what my eyes look like, than a stranger’s. There are times when I peer at my eyes while putting in the lenses, and I think, ‘Yes, my eyes do have unique colors…’ and sometimes those colors change. One day hazel; one day more green; another day more green with blue. But draw them or paint them or be able to know what others see – not a clue, unless I peer into the mirror and silently analyze what I see while looking at my eyes. Walk away, and the image vanishes. Close my eyes, the image vanishes, even four inches away from the mirror. Open eyes, the image is clear. Close eyes, the image vanishes. Black screen.
About a year ago out of idle curiosity, I followed a link about aphantasia. ‘What in the world is that?’ I wondered.
A few minutes into the description, I was dumbfounded. I was reading that most people can visualize things in their ‘mind’s eye.’
What? “Mind’s eye” is something real? Not a figment of speech? People can really ‘see’ things in the blank canvas of their mind’s eye when they close their eyes?
I see nothing. Dark. Nada and and assumed that everyone else saw nothing as well.
One often-used test is to ask people to visualize a red apple on a white plate. And maybe seeing someone cut that apple with a knife and expose the interior. Or visualize a sunset, and palm trees… an ocean. Maybe sea gulls over an idyllic scene.
For me, yes you understand – I see nothing.
It’s called ‘aphantasia.’
Oddly, many artists have this same ‘challenge,’ yet only recently are people realizing that there are many ways that people see – and process information.
For the past year I have attempted to analyze exactly how I process information for my art. For a long time I have shared with people that in order to remember a certain color, I talk my way through with narratives like this: “Start with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, mix one tablespoon of mustard, and a dash of soy sauce, and that’s the color of yellow for the petals of this flower…”
The byline on this blog is, “An artist’s eyes never rest…” and it’s as if a background computer is always at work, looking, processing, breaking things down into lines and geometry, analyzing how I would draw this or that, matching random colors and connecting those colors, all running in the background as I go through each day.
Then one day I realized – after reading about aphantasia – that some people can see an image or landscape, and it’s recorded as in a photograph? I still find that hard to believe, but it must be true. If so, I wondered, couldn’t all of those people have an easy ability to draw – if the image is ‘right there’ to see?
When I veer from my day’s tasks and read more about aphantasia, there are always new layers. In fact, one link led to a connection to the inability to remember names or – ahem, learn a second language. Down the rabbit hole we go!
I try to read with a neutral attitude, absorbing what is presented, digesting it, and eventually deciding what is ‘verdad’ and what is gray. I find myself asking, ‘This is a joke. People can REALLY see these things when prompted to imagine them?”
A snowman with a bright orange carrot and a sky-blue scarf and charcoal eyes? I immediately think about how I would draw it. Big circle, medium circle, go to the refrigerator and find a carrot, etc. But imagine a snowman? Nope. Blank page until I start scribbling with thoughts.
Heba Azmy discusses this topic in a new TedTalk:
For today I will stop with that and see how many of you might have a little or a lot of this inability to visualize – or if you’re like my friend Andres who has the total opposite. He, a master of languages, of data, of information – a walking encyclopedia – has almost a photographic memory and sees things in clear detail.
After getting your feedback I will write again and explain how I process visual information in greater detail than using mayonnaise and mustard and soy sauce!
Thanks in advance for sharing what you do or do not see when you close your eyes and visualize that snowman!