Episode 20

Published on:

30th Dec 2022

Aphantasia, When Your Mind Doesn't "See": A Conversation with Serena Puang

Do you visualize things in your head? How good is your "mind's eye?" Today we dive deep into aphantasia-- a condition that many people have without even knowing it's a thing. In this episode, we welcome Serena Puang, a Yale student and journalist with aphantasia-- and talk about the surprising ways it affects her life. If you've ever wondered (even outside of the holiday season!) "Do you see what I see?" then you'll want to join us for today's Baggage Check.

See Serena Puang's NY Times piece on aphantasia here.

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Here's more on Dr. Andrea Bonior and her book Detox Your Thoughts.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: If I tell you to visualize a shiny red apple or a hairy, grinning chimpanzee, what do you actually see? Does it appear before you in your mind? Or is it kind of fuzzy? Or might you see nothing at all? Today we're talking about aphantasia, a condition many people have without realizing it's even a condition, where they lack a mind's eye, the ability to visualize or picture something mentally. We're welcoming Serena Puang, a college student whose piece in the New York Times opened a lot of eyes about aphantasia, no pun intended. What do you see in your own personal mind? And might you be surprised to learn that's not what others experience? Join us for all of this in today's Baggage Check.

Welcome. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about who would win between a humidifier and a dehumidifier.

So on to today's guest. I'm pleased to welcome Serena Pueng, a Yale student, so, close to my heart, and a journalist whose own experience of aphantasia was something she lived with without knowing about it all her life-- until the startling realization a couple of years ago that this was a thing, and that most of the world saw things very differently than she did. She researched and wrote a piece for the New York Times about it, incorporating her own experience, and I have been looking so forward to talking to her about it. So, Serena, thank you so much for being with us today.

Serena Puang: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: So I loved your piece. You wrote a New York Times piece about your experience of aphantasia. A couple of years ago was when the piece came out. And I know in the piece, you said that when you were a kid, you noticed that maybe there were little signs that you saw things a little bit differently than other folks, but it wasn't something that necessarily you thought twice about. Can you say a little bit about that?

Serena Puang: Yeah, I think it's one of those things that you can really put it together in hindsight, but when it was happening, it was just kind of like, oh, whatever. So I remember my Dad is really good at directions, and my Momis terrible. She would get lost on the way home from church, and we would go every week. She'd be like, Oh, I found a new way home from church. And it was really just that she took a detour. And my Dad would always talk about these mental maps of the city that he was keeping in his mind. He'd be like, well, you just consult your mental map. And I mean, I didn't have a mental map, and apparently my Momdid not have one either. So I was just like, oh, that's just my Dad right or my friend would talk about how when he watched a movie, he could rewatch it in his head afterwards. And I just was just like, well, that's just him. So it's not that I didn't know that some people could visualize. I think that it's more that I thought the proportions were kind of slipped. So it's like two to 5% ish of people have asymptasia, can't visualize, can't see anything in their minds and the rest of the people can see something. It's a spectrum. But I thought it was that a very small percentage of people could see something and everyone else was just kind of vibing. And I think that as I grew up, the kinds of verbiage that you learn because just like, people will talk about things and we all assume that we're all talking about the same thing, right? I mean, I grew up in a time where everyone and their Mom was making a book to movie adaptation. There were just a billion of them. And so the first one I really remember was The Hunger Games was being adapted and they announced the cast and Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen. And so many of my friends were like, oh my gosh, Jennifer Lawrence looks nothing like Katniss Everdeen. And I was just like, I have never once thought about what Katniss Everdeen looks like. But everyone felt so strongly about it that I was just like, “Yeah, he doesn't at all. I feel similarly.” I didn't care, it was fine. But as I grew up, I kind of internalized these things that people would talk about and I would talk about them too, but I would think that I was on the same page as everyone, but it turns out that that's not the case.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes, it's so funny because I do think especially growing up, when you're a kid, when you're an adolescent, there is this element to just kind of assume or just tag along with what everybody else is saying and like, oh, they're just saying that and I guess I'll agree with it. And in reality, there was something kind of qualitatively different about how you didn't see anybody when you read the book in your mind, how you didn't actually have a situation where this is what I pictured of this person, but you're a kid, you're a teenager or whatever it might be. You don't actually really realize just how different it is. So the moment of truth came for you when you were studying Chinese characters, right? Is this right? And your roommate or your friend was kind of talking about how to help study basically how to visualize these characters, how to see the differences in them in your head. And it seems like that was something of an Aha moment. Although did you realize right away, okay, I'm going to Google this and figure this out, or did it kind of take you a while to realize that aphantasia was a thing.

Serena Puang: So I had a friend my first year. She's a genius. I think a lot of people are brilliant here, but not many people are geniuses. My friend is a genius. So I had placed into level three heritage Chinese. She had placed into level five Chinese non-heritage. She's White. And every day in Chinese classes we do this thing called the Shell Kaw, which is a little quiz, and they quiz you on the vocab words of the day. And it happens every single day in Chinese class where it's a Dictation quiz. Basically, they'll read you a sentence and you write it down in the classroom. And I studied for hours. I'm not exaggerating. I would just like, sit there and write the characters over and over and over and over again and would get to the class and I would hear the Dictation sentence and I would just be like, I don't know how to write that. And I was consistently getting like, C's maybe on the quizzes. It wasn't a huge deal, they're not worth a ton. But I was the first year, I'd never gotten a B in my life. I was scared. I was like, why am I getting C's on these Dictation quizzes when I am in fact, working really hard to do this? And my friend was getting like 100%, so I was just like, okay, what are you doing that I'm not doing? Because you don't study that much. Well, first of all, she's just good at, uh, learning languages. But she was just like, yeah, I just visualize the characters in my mind. And I was like, you do what with the who? And, uh, she was like, yeah, I just visualize the characters. She's actually the friend at the end of the piece. She visualizes every word that is spoken to her. So of course she just visualizes the characters. Um, and I told her that I've never visualized anything. I'm like, I don't really know. Like, I've heard people say things, but I've just never done that. And she just very casually said to me, oh yeah, so your mind's eye is blind. And I'm like, what? It just didn't make any sense to me. And she was just like, oh yeah, she talked to me about, um, this book by Oliver Sacks and, um, how he had studied aphantasia and all of this other stuff. And I was just like, okay, I guess. And I went home and I actually remembered that my other friend from home had sent me a video entitled “I Have Aphantasia and You Might Too and Not Know It” or something like that. And it was just like, what made me think of you? And I was being a bad friend that week and did not watch the video. I just was busy or something. I had not watched it. But then I like, kind of made the connection, like, oh wait, maybe these two things are the same thing. I should just go watch this YouTube video that's like, already in my text messages. And I watched it and I was like it basically runs you through that exercise where they ask you to close your eyes, picture an apple, and they ask you they describe this apple, right? They're like, it's shiny and red. It's got the stem, got a green leaf on it. It's a Fuji apple or whatever. And then they ask you, on a scale from one to ten, how vividly you can see it. One or the zero, I guess, being that you can't see it at all, it's just black and ten, being that you can see it almost as vividly as if you were just seeing it in real life. Mhm. And I just thought this was like, the most nonsensical question, because I'm like, well, obviously the answer is one, because no one can see anything. Or like, some people, I guess, can see something. But I didn't think of it as a spectrum. I was just like, what do you mean, most people don't see anything? Why is this a video? And then they were like, yeah, most people can see something. And I was like, Most people can see something. Like, that's crazy. And that kind of started it. Then I fell down the Google rabbit hole in which I was, like, looking through all of the videos and started googling these different things, asking people around me they saw something and just started realizing, like, oh my gosh, this thing that I've thought for my whole life was really niche is actually the norm. Most people can see something, and in a way that I didn't really understand it. And it was a journey.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, it's so striking too. And probably everyone is on a spectrum, and so there are people who probably see things that are outliers. They're so amazing. They're the tens, and it might as well be right in front of them, almost like a hallucination. And you were thinking kind of as you said before, that maybe it was flip-flopped that most people couldn't really have this mind's eye, and that it was maybe the ones that could see that would be more unusual. I'm so struck by it too, because I look back at my early career and I'm an anxiety disorder specialist, so I've always tried to help people with visualizations and all these different tools and mindfulness tools and cognitive behavioral tools of being able to calm the body and the mind. And there were several years of me doing visualizations with large groups, maybe, uh, speaking gig for stress management or these kinds of things, or with my students, or illustrating certain concepts, and me not realizing there are some folks who fundamentally cannot do a visualization. And I have to think to myself, what were they thinking during that time? If I'm walking through a class of 100 students, through some sort of calming visualization. And two or five or seven of them were thinking, I don't see the water. I don't see anything. It was probably pretty fundamentally useless, but they wouldn't speak up because maybe they just thought everyone was faking it.

Serena Puang: Yeah. I talk about in my article about counting sheep, which was always such a nonsensical thing to me. I was like, you just say numbers. You think about the concept of sheep and say numbers. That's super weird. But I've been in those rooms where people are like, oh, let's do a guided prayer, and you imagine that you're on a beach, or you imagine, uh, whatever. But when I did them, I felt okay about it, actually. I was just like, I'm thinking about the concept of being on a beach, or I think about the feeling of being on a beach, but I didn't realize that people were seeing the beach, that they could go there, that whenever we were doing this, we were having a fundamentally different experience. And yeah, since I've found out, whenever I do have different situations in which I'm either writing or when I have gone to therapy, like starting therapy with a new therapist, talking about, oh, yeah, uh, by the way, I do not visualize, cannot visualize, will not visualize. So if your strategy requires that that's not going to work because I don't do it, I, uh, think that's helpful information to know.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah. And for you to be empowered, too. And I imagine there might be some professionals that aren't familiar with aphantasia either. And so they're thinking what? And I think that's part of this larger issue here, because it's not spoken about that often. There are so many people walking around not realizing this. And I think that's something we can get to this idea of how should we educate people, how should we talk to people? I mean, I'm struck in your case, obviously, I can't imagine that it hindered you. You're obviously a very high achieving person. Do you think in some ways, maybe other cognitive skills developed even more finely for you, more significantly because you needed to compensate for this lack?

Serena Puang: I don't know about compensating or having other cognitive abilities be, like, above average or something, but I do think that I found ways to do it differently. So, for example, I find that I remember things audially way better than anything else. And so when I took AP Geography, we memorized continent maps. So they would give us a map that was of Africa, just the entire continent of Africa. And one of them was filled in, so it would show you, like, Egypt and Gambia and all of the countries. And then on the day of the quiz, they would show you the map, and then you have to fill it in with all the country names. And we did all of the continents, and I kind of just went through and would remember things about the shapes of the countries. So I would be like, okay, there are four Guineas in the world, so I would just be able to remember. Like, okay, there are four of them. Um, where are they? Or like I said okay. The top of Africa. If you take the first letter of every country, it spells out the word male, like M A L E. And so I would write in, like, male and then fill in the country name. And so I did this, like, really elaborate shenanigans in which I was like, okay, so first you have to remember this, then you have to remember this. And then, okay, like, little squiggly one over here is this one. And I would come up with all these different ways to kind of remember the countries. And then I remember a professor walking by and watching me puzzle out this whole map. And he was just like, wouldn't it be easier to just look at it and remember? And no, I don't know what that means. That would not help. But I think that it might be studied differently. And I just remember things in words. Which, again, kind of goes back to what you're saying about how it's really difficult to know because when I describe some of the ways that I learn or the ways that I study, people who do have a mind's eye that they see things, they would say, yeah, I do that too. They kind of view the way that they see the world as so inextricably leaked from the way that they're learning or the way that they're remembering that they can't conceptualize mhm the fact that somebody else would do it in a different way. So, yesterday, I was actually having a conversation with some friends, and they're like, well, how do you know what's in your kitchen? So I was facing away from the kitchen. They're like, if you don't visualize, do you not know what's in your kitchen? I'm like, well, of course I know what's in my kitchen. I put it there. We bought those things. And I know what's in there because I see it every day. And it's like, well, can you describe it? I'm like, yes, I know what's in there. Like, here is somebody who live. And then we have a little table, and we have a cart that was expensive, but we have no shelving. We have cabinets that they stop before you would hope that they do. Then we have a safe that has no garbage disposal because, of course it doesn't. We have a stove that's white and small. It's a little bit smaller than my last apartment. We have, like, a short fridge. I was able to describe it. He's just like, but if you're not seeing it, how can you know? I'm like, I think there's a difference between knowing and seeing the thing that he thought of ah, remembering and seeing the thing as the way that he remembers. And so to him, he's just like, how can that be? But to me, I'm just like, well, I've never done it any other way. Lots of people talk about me discovering aphantasia. Oh, you discovered that? You have no minds eye. I'm like, no, I've always known that I do not see things. Really the thing that happened is I discovered that most people do and tried to wrap my mind around that.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Right, exactly. Because how you didn't see things was your normal. It really was your normal. And I think so many of us there are people that have perfect pitch. There are people who can see extra hues of color. I think probably so many aspects of the senses are on a spectrum. There are people who are super smellers and all these things. And I think our reality is how we are used to it. And it's kind of mind blowing to imagine that other people are seeing things completely differently than we see. I mean, it brings to mind some of those things that always go around online. Is this dress blue or gold? Or is this voice saying laurel or yanny? In reality, there are so many differences in terms of our perception of the world that, honestly, I found it kind of beautiful in your piece, because you sort of ended it in the sense that we, uh, don't want to take for granted what we do perceive that maybe other people don't, and that we all are uniquely individual in terms of that.

Serena Puang: And I think that it really changed the way that I think about disability and accommodation. Because, um, I went through this period where I was just really hyper aware of the fact that I don't visualize and other people do. And I think that it made me feel upset for a while. I don't anymore. But right as, uh, I was finding out, it was like just starting Yale, it's like my second semester here. I was feeling kind of out of my element. And on top of it, I found out that this thing that my brain does not do, everyone else does. And I was just like, oh, my gosh, am I really missing something? And it was hard because it was just, Is that why I'm not doing well in my class? It was really easy to attribute all of those things. But as I reported the piece, I talked to Adam Zeman, who discovered aphantasia, and he's pretty insistent that it's not a learning disability. And I'm just like, but I am not learning. Well, I was just like I had this really intense conversation with him, and he was just like well, essentially, he was like, Serena, you're at Yale. Um, have you considered that maybe you're just not good at the things that you were trying to learn? And that was just a new thing and not an advantageous thing? No, I had not considered that. That was a bold little first. I was just like, no. Um, but when I thought about it more, I was able to go through my classes, and my professors were very accommodating and helping me do things, which I think was really helpful. Just like the assumption at Yale that if you are here, then you must be smart and you must be able to learn. And if for some reason you are not learning and you are doing your earnest best, there must be some other problem. It must not be that you're not smart, but that there's something else going on and we should work through it. My professors were really nice about that, mhm but at the same time, I had friends who were not at Yale, um, I think are smarter than me, honestly. And they weren't getting the same kinds of accommodations. And some of them do have learning disabilities that are registered through their university offices. And it really made me see that. I think that Aphantasia is not a learning disability, because we as, uh, a society, have decided that visualization is not something that is absolutely the way that you have to do it. Or at least in my experience, in my growing up, in my elementary classrooms, we didn't do visualization exercises. We didn't do visualization to learn learning. Like to learn to read, to learn a lot of these basic skills. And because society has decided that it's okay if you don't know how to visualize, it's not a disability. But for other people for whom their disability is something else, that society has decided, no, you must be able to do this, then it is a disability. And I'm like, well, that line is so fluid. I used to think that the line was, uh, there are people who have learning disabilities and there are people who are not those people. And I was like, I'm firmly not those people. And grappling with this whole advantageous thing made me realize this line is so arbitrary. If a line was drawn somewhere else, even if I just lived somewhere different, like if I lived in one of those school districts where they teach visualization as essential to learning, mmm, maybe I would feel very differently and maybe I would have not succeeded as much. Or if my professors were like, no, you have to do it this way, they're like, Maybe I wouldn't have. And I think that it's not the actual brain difference that disables you. It's society that disables you. It's society that makes you feel like the way that you're thinking, the way that you're learning, the way that you're being, is not good, because it's not the way that most people do it. I, um, feel really grateful that for the most part, I've had a really good experience. But there have been times where it was not great. But for the most part, it's been fine. And I've been able to thrive but I think it's a really big wake up call to just be like, oh, wait. It just so happened that we've decided that this is not a super important skill. And if it's not a super important skill, then it's okay. But I'm in a bunch of Facebook groups now for people that have aphantasia. And I think every other day there is someone who's like, I'm 50 years old, and I just realized that I have apnesia and my life is, like, crumbling around. I'm just, like, having this whole they're thinking through all of the things that they weren't able to do as kids or as students and rethinking the way that it was presented to them. And it's not to say if it's right or wrong. Some people will think that I would have passed geometry if I could visualize, or I would have been able to do that. And I think it's always easy to speculate or whatever, and it's easy to blame something else. Um, and I think that's part of why Adam Zemon was so insistent that, oh, it's not a learning disability. He didn't want it to be stigmatized. But I think the same way that we don't stigmatize, not being able to visualize is the way we should treat other learning differences. We should just treat it as something that is just like, oh, you got to learn a little different, but that's okay, right?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Because yeah, that line is so subjective about, okay, this is the category of learning disorders, and you're either in it or you're not. And in reality, I think so many of us are somewhere on various spectrums in terms of qualitative differences and quantitative differences about how we learn. In an ideal world, we would be able to really gear the individual learning to each person, and we realize, okay, so for the visual learners, here's this. For the people who learn better while moving, here's this. And I tell my students that all the time that when you're encoding the information, do it in different ways and see what works best for you. And honestly, encoding information in different ways is good for us individually. If we can each encode in two or three different ways. I say make a song about these symptoms or read these things out loud or draw a chart. Do different types of encoding, because I think there is so much stigma with learning disabilities in general. And maybe someday we'll have a different model where we can really just zoom in a little bit better on individual differences, that it's not this black or white line, you have this or you don't. Because everybody does have so many individual differences. I am curious, so does anyone else in your family then share this? I mean, it sounds like your father had always been like, hey, a mental map. Clearly he doesn't have aphantasia. But is there some thought that it's genetic? Do you see it kind of running in your family a little bit more extended?

Serena Puang: Yeah, it is thought to be genetic, and my sister has it also. Um, both my parents, they can visualize. And when I published in the New York Times, um, my family in Taiwan and Malaysia read the article. And so when I was on my gap year, I lived in Taiwan with my mom's family, and my aunt brought up the article to me. She was like, oh, yeah, I read your article in the New York Times. And she said, yeah. She's like, yeah. And I was, uh, talking to your cousin about the article because I didn't really get it. And I was like, Why not? She was just like, Because that thing that you wrote about, the thing that you think is like, isn't that just everyone? I'm like, no, you just have it too. They're just like, Why are you writing about this thing that's so normal? Because it's like, you also do not see the things. You do not stare at trees with slices of trees and hallucinate. Um, and welcome to the club. But for other people, it's like a real novelty, right? It's a whole thing. My cousin had told her that she can see the things, she can visualize the whole book that she was reading and just look at it in her mind during tests. And that's just a different thing that she can do that the rest of us.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: It's so funny the word hallucination, because, really, you get to a certain point, and, uh, I've had the experience sometimes of waking up in the middle of the night, and for the first split second when I wake up, oh, there's a shape on the ceiling because I'm half asleep. And I think at some point, we can almost start to view seeing things obviously become a problem at some point when somebody really is seeing something that's not there. And it's so funny that your aunt put it that way. “Of course I don't hallucinate when I’m looking at things.”

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And I just think it's so striking. Uh, it kind of reminds me of the therapy process in general, as in people coming in and talking to a therapist and realizing that the way that they have always known things to be true. Not everybody shares that. And I see that all the time with people who grew up a certain way. And their parents did this, and they assumed that this was how most families behaved, or they assumed that this is how everybody felt when they first woke up in the morning. Or they assumed that everybody had these cognitive things going on. And it's really illuminating and empowering to say, actually, let's look at the ways that it doesn't have to be like this, or just that it is different. And you can understand that. To be able to understand that the water that we're all swimming around since birth is our particular water, and we're used to that water. And then suddenly we say, whoa, somebody else's water that they're swimming around in is totally different. And it's kind of empowering. But I also imagine there's a sense of mourning a little bit, too, like the folks that you mentioned in the Facebook group, how I imagine it's kind of sad to think, hey, maybe I had difficulties in geography class and I never knew why, and now there's a name for this. And I wonder what else though I was having an unduly hard time with that nobody was there to help me and say, hey, maybe we should do it this way instead. That's sad to me.

Serena Puang: That's something yeah, I think part of it is when it's framed to you as super important. So one thing that people, um, talk about that I understand is that I didn't realize that people, when they had memories, they were seeing the memory for loved ones who had passed away or for people who different things that they're remembering. You can't go back to that memory. You can't see it again. Since finding out, I take a lot more pictures now. I think about it a lot. But I think that for me, it was that time that I was really hyper aware of it. Um, I'm a writer. I'm a journalist, and I was in a writing workshop really shortly after finding out. And, um, the person who was running the workshop, very nice guy, but he had this little handout about mixed metaphors. And this was back before I knew that metaphors were meant to evoke images. Like, that is the job of a metaphor. I guess we compare things to other things. Writing is basically just putting words to vibes. Okay, that's fine. And he said that the difference between a good writer and a great writer is attention to detail when constructing sentences. And that mixed metaphors are evidence that a writer is not carefully visualizing what they're writing. And if you're not careful, you write sloppy. And we went around and read this handout that held all these mixed metaphors in it, and people just thought they were so funny and they were all laughing, but I didn't know why they were funny. And I think it was because it was so shortly after I had found out, I was really aware of the fact that people were all doing this thing that I could not do. And so as they kept laughing, it made me just feel, like, really bad and really sad. And I ended up, um, excusing myself and crying in the bathroom because I was just like, if it's the case that people have to be really careful in their writing, and that the way to do that is to visualize. And if you don't visualize, you'll write sloppy. Does that mean that I, someone who never visualizes and cannot visualize, will always write sloppy? Because I can't do it. And I think that is not the right way to think about it. And since then, I have figured that out, um, and started to see how not visualizing can actually be benefit to my writing. Um, but mhm for a moment there was like a sense of like, oh, there's this thing that people are doing that I cannot do and that makes me very upset. And I think that, like I said, I kind of draw analogies to finding, uh, out that you have a learning disability. Whenever you do find that out, a lot of times it's not that you find out that you're having trouble with something, it's that society has made you feel like there is something wrong with you or that there is something that you are unable to do. But it might just be because they're not allowing you to do it in the way that would work for you. I would mention that I was a linguistics major for a hot second. In linguistics, you either take syntax or you take technology. You have to take both. But most people are either syntax people or phonology people. I wasn't either, which is why I'm no longer a linguistics major. But when I was taking syntax one, which is like one of the foundational courses for my major, um, not great at it, and that might just be a me thing because I'm sure people can do it. But one of the professors was just like, as you move on in syntax, you just learn to visualize the trees before you jump. And I was just like, shoot, I'm not going to be able to do all these trees. Diagramming sentences is just but I think that's partially like a grammar thing and not, uh, a visualization thing. But I just had the worst time and people were getting it. I was not getting it. And it got so bad that at the midterm, we were taking the midterm and I was hearing everyone flipping pages in the midterm or being done with the midterm and I was still on question one, not understanding what to do. And I never had that experience before. I think part of it also is like, when you're always a high achieving student, like, whenever you haven't really had to struggle with stuff and then you hit that brick wall. Like, I talked to a lot of students who aren't diagnosed with learning disabilities until like, high school or college. Like, you're able to skate path and then when you're not able to anymore, that is a devastating thing. And I had already talked to people before finding out about my aphantasia and I was just like, what if this is my thing? Like, what if this is my academic lot and I cannot do this? And it may be really upset. I think that, yeah, there is that sense of loss whenever you realize like, oh shoot, I'm not doing this thing. But that loss is not inevitable. That loss is something that only happens when people expect you to do things exactly the way that they do them, and then you realize you can't do them. Um, because I think it's actually really interesting. I took a psychology class last year, um, called Learning and Memory, and we were doing all these memory tasks and I found that I don't do worse than other people on, um, them, even when it's like a visual memory thing. So I don't know if you've heard of it, but there are those tasks where they show you like, a 3D shape that's made out of cubes, and then they show you a bunch of the shapes that look different. And then they ask you, like they're kind of rotated. And they ask you which of the shapes is the same as the first one. I can do that task. Um, and I don't do it slower than other people. And I was like, how am I doing it? And I did ask my professor, I'm like, I can do the thing you said. The way that we do it is like, you rotate it in your mind, but I'm clearly not doing that. I'm not rotating it. I'm not a scientist. I don't know how to do it, I don't know how I do it, but I do know that I can. And I think that's that that was comforting and that was like the way that I kind of came to terrible with my own aphantasia was just like, realizing the ways that people are like, oh, if you can't visualize, obviously you can't do that. And I'm like, and yet here I am doing it. Um, it's fine. And then on top of that, finding the ways that if it is kind of presented as something that you have to do a certain way, finding other ways to do it.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes. And meanwhile, to be honest, I'm your counterpart, because if somebody says picture of sunset, I've got every detail in my mind, but I have terrible spatial skills in terms of the representation, I'm the one who says, no, I think we need to go right here. And everyone else says, are you joking? We need to go left. The interstate is toward the left. And I've always had some kind of deficit in terms of really being able to say, oh, well, if I flip this image around in my head, here's the way or all those little tests, here's what the box looks. Like when it's flattened, which one is going to be an actual box when it's put together, or putting together furniture or those types of things. Even though I can completely visualize, and I most definitely don't have aphantasia, I have other visuospatial skill deficits that definitely get in the way, and I don't have a mechanical brain in terms of that. It's so interesting, once again, how we all have these different levels of everything and you can flip around that image in your head and be fine. And meanwhile, I can visualize it in my head, but there's some sort of blockage in the process of me actually flipping it around. I know you mentioned in your piece that a lot of folks that have aphantasia might also seem to have prosopagnosia, the sort of face blindness, as we call it. And I definitely have worked with some folks that have that. Not necessarily people with aphantasia as well. These people might just have prosopagnosia. That's the notion of not being able to really encode the details of faces. These are folks who kind of drive their partners bananas because they're watching a movie and they're saying, wait, why did that guy do that? And their partner says, that's Matt Damon, the other guy is Leonardo DiCaprio. What are you talking about? In your experience, and some other folks with aphantasia that you've met, do you tend to see some of those same deficits in other people? It doesn't sound like you have prosapagnosia, but do you tend to see that that does run together?

Serena Puang: Um, I am that person who is watching the movie and I'm like, who is that guy? What is going on? And I think prosopagnosia is, um, definitely more studied. More people are diagnosed with it. So I'm not about to armchair diagnose anyone with anything. But I will say that I did take a test online when I first found out that I have aphantasia and that it's highly correlated. And apparently college students are supposed to be able to, uh, get like twelve out of 25 of the faces because they show you little bags, basically, of people's faces in black and white. They ask you who it is. And baseline being twelve out of 25, I got one out of 25. So not great. Uh, did not recognize Donald Trump. Hey, maybe recognize Oprah Winfrey. The one I got was Barack Obama. So. Thanks, Obama. I was not super sure about that one, but I did pull that one out in the middle. But yeah, uh, a lot of people have trouble, right?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: It stands to reason that it would really be highly correlated because I'm thinking so much of encoding a face. There's such subtle differences in faces. It's not just like you're always encoding, okay, well, this person's face is very round and their nose does this. I mean, there's such subtle differences that it must really be some visual recall involved for most people. So it stands to reason that it would be highly correlated. But I think you're right. I mean, I knew about prosopagnosia years before Aphantasia, and I think there's probably a reason for that in that, uh, prosopagnosia really gets, in people's ways more overtly from the get go when it's really extreme. Like, okay, this person doesn't recognize their best friend who lives next door, who they play with every day. Something must be off there. Whereas just having a mind's eye or not is more subtle, I think, for people to realize that it's different than everyone else. How should we be talking about this, though, to younger kids? Because I'm thinking of all these kids that, uh, might not realize this or that, uh, most other people have this ability. I mean, should we be doing more for teachers to learn about this? Should we be doing more in the public space? I mean, I'm sure that's probably why you wrote about it, I would guess. How can we be advocates for helping people learn their individual differences and know that this is a thing so that they're not getting so stuck in geography class in 7th grade or whatever it might be?

Serena Puang: I was thinking a lot about this. I've thought a lot about this because people ask me lots of hypothetical questions like, would I want to have known earlier on or would I want to have not had aphantasia? But the question of, like, would you want to know as a kid? I don't know, because I did ask other people when I was interviewing for the piece who had aphantasia, like, what do you have wanted to know? And a lot of people said, no, they didn't want to know. And a lot of them were college students like me at, ah, small liberal arts universities or whatever. And they said, yeah, if I had known, I think it would have been easy to blame things on the fact that I can't visualize. But also, I think it's important to know to be able to know the differences. I think that, um, regardless, one thing is that teachers should be aware because 2 to 5% is substantial. Like, if you teach 100 students in four years, then you're almost guaranteed to have at least two, maybe more, that do have it.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah.

Serena Puang: And so it's definitely something to be aware of and to normalize and to make adjustments to make sure that people don't feel like they're just not smart because of it. After knowing I've had really great professors. So, um, one of my professors is also my writing tutor, also my thesis advisor, and my whole angst of like, oh my gosh, am I always going to write sloppy? This is terrible. He didn't know anything about Aphantasia before, but I was able to write in his class about it. I was in his class when I first found out. And on the last day of class, I kind of wrote this essay that eventually led me to start reporting on this phenomenon. And he really just I think about this a lot. Like, what is the difference? Why did this mean so much to me? I think that the practices that I would say would help people in childhood are just good teaching practices. He believed in me. He believed that I could be a good writer. He believed that I was already a good writer. Uh, I think that's how you should teach language. I think that's how you should teach everything right? Like, drawing on the resources that a student already has and then building on those resources, having people be aware that these strategies that work really well for one person, work really well for you, might not work well for everyone. And so having multiple points of entry for anything that you're doing. So like, if you're learning to read, you're learning a language, whatever. And then also taking students seriously whenever they say stuff and really seeking to understand. Because I think the reason why my writing tutor and I work really well together is because he has asked me so many questions about the way that I am conceptualizing things and the way that I'm reading, the way that I'm doing stuff. And so, uh, this is a conversation that I have with my professors whenever it's a new semester, not every single one, but a lot of them, I will kind of sit down with them. Right now, I'm in a TV screenplay writing class. I did go to office hours and he's like, is there anything I should know? I'm like, so I don't visualize at all. And it kind of took him aback a little bit. So when you read the script just happens in a big black box for you? And I'm like, yeah, it does. And I think that there's some, um, beauty to that. Like the writing kind of when it resonates with me, it resonates with me not because it's an interesting visual thing. It resonates with me because m, the writing is good or like, the voice is strong or whatever. And so I think I'm more attuned to this. And so allowing people to shine in the way that they do it's like, oh, this kid might not be able to write really strong visual scenes right away. So it doesn't mean that they can't ever. Like, lots of people who have aphantasia go on to do creative fields. Like, my sister has aphantasia. She wants to be a creative writer. She writes fantasy. And so clearly this is not hindering the ability to actually do these things. It just might come a little differently. And also, sometimes I tell people and they don't really understand it, they think it means that I can't see, which is a different thing. Um I'm like I'm not blind-blind. I am mind blind, which comes with its own set of things, like the kinds of accommodations you make for that are different. And so people are out here, like, acting like I don't see their faces or that I don't see the settings, but I do and I can recreate them. I can tell you what's down my street, even though I'm not looking on a window right now. I can do a lot of these things. And so a lot of times people assume that I can't. And I'm just like I do see things, but it's just I sometimes have to do it differently, or sometimes, if I'm not paying that much attention, I don't remember to remember. They're important. Yeah.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: So to clarify the whole black box thing, if I were to tell you, picture your childhood bedroom, you can know in a detailed way, hey, I have this poster up, and those types of things, but actually, visually, it will be blank, right?

Serena Puang: Well, I don't remember things in a visual way, and I don't mhm think about it that way. Think about your childhood bedroom. I know what was in my childhood bedroom. And I can describe it to you in ways that would make you think that we're the same, that we can both see things. Which I think is why it's so hard to pin down, because you're trying to describe something that is really just a vibe, like what no one can experience for you. Even the people who do visualize. I don't think I entirely understand what that means, because when they describe it, I'm like, that HM, sounds really weird. And I don't think I really understand it because when I say something, sometimes people are like, oh, I think you're misunderstanding. Like, we can't actually do this, or like, oh, now that we all have photographic memory, that's not even a thing. We can't do this. And I'm like, really wrong. Or people who are not on the super high end of the spectrum kind, um, of see, like, outlines, but not nothing and not everything. I don't understand that at all. I'm just like, oh, I don't know.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, I think you mentioned in your piece, right, that there was an elementary school teacher that had sort of trained herself a little bit to see little.

Serena Puang: Maybe fuzzy, uh, image streaming. So that's something that was brought up in the original YouTube video that I had watched that, like, some people can do this thing called image streaming and have trained themselves to see. I tried it. It didn't work for me. I talked to Adam Zemon. He said that it doesn't work for most people, but for the people that say it works, they don't want to discount that experience. I believe them when they say, now they can see stuff. Um, but for me, I was like, it was black before, it's still black now.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Well, I think you did such a service for people when you wrote that piece, and just you have such empathy for the full human experiences of individual differences. Because I do think that's kind of the driving point here, is that we're probably just scratching the surface in some of the differences that people have in terms of perception. And again, it's so much on a spectrum. I'm struck by the fact that my husband has this pair of pants that me and one of my kids are like, oh, those are green pants. Those are green pants. And the other three people in my family are like, Are you joking? There's no green in those at all. They're purely brown. They are 100% brown. And it's just one of those things. This isn't even any kind of specific deficit or specific, quote unquote, abnormality. It's just the perception that's different. And I think this whole discussion today really has resonated with me in the sense that people are living in very unique worlds of their own in some ways, and we can find commonalities, and we should find commonalities. But in terms of perception, I think the more that we can understand that people see things differently, then the more we can help other people be able to thrive. And the kid who's struggling in school, we can maybe have the teacher understand, hey, they just can't picture things this way. Let's do things differently, or the kid who has a different type of way of learning. Some kids learn really well when there's physical movement, and they'll remember everything that was said as long as they were playing catch, while they were, quote, unquote, studying for it. And I think the human experience is so richly unique for every individual person. And of course, we don't want people to get away from truth. That's a whole other aspect of, well, I see things this way. And actually, that's not fundamentally true, but in this perception way, I'm just fascinated by it. So I really appreciate you taking the time today to share your experience. And I can't help but think that there's somebody listening today who has, just like you always known that they didn't see things, but then never realized that other people really did. And maybe it's empowering to have a name for it and to be able to give it a label and be able to then use it to find other strategies that will work better since they can.

Serena Puang: Yeah, I definitely think that other people finding out, um, and writing about and thinking about it was helpful to me because then I was able to read those articles and feel like I've read all of them. Um, I do think that there is this thing I really appreciate, which you're talking to somebody who does have it, because a lot of times people, when they have media about something, it's kind of done from the angle of, oh, let's talk about this thing. It's like such a quirky little thing for other people. And so they have a writer who doesn't have it, and they talk to five ish people who do have it, and then they're like, Guys, I discovered this thing in which other people don't visualize. Isn't that crazy? And the whole thing is just trying to establish, uh, what it's like to not visualize to people that do visualize. And there was just, like, a dearth of articles. And when I found out a couple of years ago of people who did have it talking about what to do from there? Where do you go? How do you move on? How do you grapple with the fact that once something is gone from your visual site, you might not be able to see it again? And how do you deal with this learning piece? How do you deal with this interpersonal piece? What do people do? And I think that that's being hashed out on Facebook groups as, uh, we speak to people m, they talk about different things that they're experiencing. Like is this something that has to do with basement? Is this just me? Is this something, is that the conversation that people are actively having? But when we assume that one person's experience is uniform, like even people with Aphantasia, I've been trying to say very carefully, oh, this is my experience, this is what I do. Um, but that might not be what other people do because a lot of people will say like, oh yeah, this and this and that and the other. And I think it's important to be like, okay, like everyone's experience, even with aphantasia, it is a spectrum. Even with people who say like, oh yeah, we're the same, we both don't do this or we both do that, are still going to have variation in their experiences. And when we really just come open and are like, oh, okay, there are these commonalities, like we're both bad at special reasoning or like, oh, we're both good at ah, doing these other things like those, like oh, does this make a box when it's 3D? Like I also don't know how to do that, I'm just like, maybe. I think so, but yeah, I think that that's a really important point that you're highlighting. Yeah.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And that's why I'm so glad that you lent your voice to us today. Because what I didn't want to do is this sort of professorial here is a condition that let's all talk about and gawk at. I think it's so powerful to actually hear your experience and that's why I loved your piece too, because it wasn't just, here's my experience, but here's also how I can educate people about this idea and there is variation within it and here's what we're still learning. And thank goodness for those communities online where people can hash it out and people can connect. And it sounds like a really powerful thing to be able to connect. That's certainly an advantage of having social media groups that wouldn't have existed before is that people can feel less alone and they can understand each other better. And so I really thank you for taking the time today, Serena.

Serena Puang: Yeah, thank you for reaching out.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Thank you for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast to give your take on upcoming topics and guests. And why not tell your chatty coworker where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper cover art by Danielle Merity and my studio security is provided by Buster this dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.