On having no visual memory

I have aphantasia—no ability to create images in my mind, or to remember things in a visual way.

For well over half of my life I lived under the assumption that suggestions to visualize things were entirely metaphorical, and also that I was incredibly stupid in certain ways, finding things that everyone else seemed to find easy a challenge. I struggle to learn graphical interfaces, I’ve mixed up speakers and their talks at conferences, I spend a lot of time staring at icons on my phone—as far as I’m concerned every blue icon leads to the same app.

I store information as lists. For people I see a lot, I could probably draw a reasonably accurate picture of them, based on the list of data I’ve collected. However that information can never be as detailed as being able to recall an image could be. For example, perhaps you are someone I work with. I see you several times a week on video calls. I know lots of things about how you look, including that you wear glasses. However, your glasses were unremarkable to me and so I’ve not stored any particular information about them. You could dramatically change your style of glasses, I’d not notice. I’m not comparing a visual memory of you from a few days ago, I just know you wear glasses.

If I’m visiting a new place and I go for a run, I collect data points along the way to navigate back. I will not remember how the route looked. This means that I can be incredibly good at taking people somewhere that I’ve only been once, I’ve got turn by turn directions. However, if I am walking with someone and talking, or for some reason don’t actively collect information, I’m doomed. The other week I lost an entire car park, never mind my car, due to having been distracted by a message after leaving the car park and failed to collect any information about what it looked like.

I dream, but not in pictures. For example, I have a recurring dream where I’m back in a theatre, putting on pointe shoes. I know it’s a theatre because of the smell, I feel the roughness of the shoes as I put my feet into them, the creak of the leather sole as I roll through my foot. I can feel that dream as I write about it, but there’s no image involved.

When I learned about aphantasia about ten years ago, suddenly so many things made sense. It’s harder to remember certain types of things if you have no visual memory of them. I’m not an awful person because I didn’t remember that I’d met a person before, there was no way for them to look familiar to me. However, I also think it’s at the root of some of the things I’m really good at.

My lists of information, are closer to a relational database than just a set of lists. It’s no surprise to me now that I always enjoyed working with databases and could design a complex schema without needing to sketch out a diagram. I’m constantly making connections between these bits of information. Many of these connections are just amusing to me, but other times they bring up interesting paths to investigate.

I context switch very easily, I can jump between these information sets without losing my train of thought.

I can write entire articles, documents, or conference talks in my head while out for a run. It’s usually quicker for me to create content in this way than sit at a computer and think about it. I can come in from a run and type out 2,000 words, transferring what I’ve written in my head to the document.

Having discovered this about myself, I’ve found plenty of other people who experience the world in the same way, probably unsurprisingly as people with aphantasia tend to be drawn to computing and science. I find it fascinating that we are all experiencing the world so differently, and how that can so fundamentally impact the things we find easy, or difficult.


Adrianna Tan April 21, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew thank you! I have similar struggles and, it’s been hard to articulate them

Marcus Noble April 21, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew I was nodding along so hard while reading this.

I also learnt about this about 10 years ago and it completely opened my eyes. My partner is the complete opposite and when we talked about how we both perceive things we couldn’t understand each other at all. I’ve always described it to others that I think in “concepts” or “abstractions” but your example of a list / database really resonates!

Thank you for taking the time to write this. Very much makes me feel not so alone! 💙

Andrew Condon April 21, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew have you looked into any of the research that’s being done on aphantasia (people like Dr Joel Pearson)? It’s fascinating that there’s now more awareness of it, I hadn’t encountered another aphantasic person at all until maybe 15 years ago and now it’s much more widely discussed

Jonathan Yu April 21, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew This is a really fascinating read! Thanks for sharing your experience

Rachel Andrew April 21, 2024 Reply

@heresiarch I’ve read a few things, there was an article about 10 years ago that had me and a bunch of people I know suddenly realizing this was us. We all work in tech. I’m super interested in whether the things I’m good at, are in fact the flipside of not being able to visualize.

Andrew Condon April 21, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew I guess one thing which really surprised me was the degree of variation that exists amongst us aphantasics. Your description of your experience, for example, was very interesting and different from mine. Thanks for writing it!

Rachel Andrew April 21, 2024 Reply

@heresiarch Yes, I learned recently that some aphantasics can’t recall smells, touch, and tastes, whereas smell is very tied to memory for me, as are physical things, such as feeling the roughness of pointe shoes in my dream. It’s super interesting!

Paul Morriss April 22, 2024 Reply

I’ve heard about aphantasia before, but I’d not heard anyone say the strengths that have come along with it – so that’s really interesting. Thanks for writing this.

Eric April 22, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew Thanks for sharing this. I’m definitely coming to terms with having it as well, and how you describe thinking through information as lists is so dang spot-on.

zeldman April 22, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew Thank you your courage and honesty. You are brilliant. The fact that you have profoundly and positively influenced visual web design for over 20 years while having no visual memory makes you that much more awe inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story.

Bob Monsour April 22, 2024 Reply

@rachelandrew We run into trouble when we start thinking that others should think the way we do. Thanks for illuminating one of the many differences among all of humanity. And thanks for your tireless work on the ever-improving CSS.

Jon McLaren April 25, 2024 Reply


Amazing explanation of how your mind works. What’s interesting is your description lines up a lot with some descriptions blind individuals have about their own internal thoughts and dreams.

The remarkable impact you’ve had on front end dev/design is even more remarkable knowing this.

I don’t have any insights yet, but I’d wager there’s probably ways to improve a11y on the web or make educational content easier to learn for folks with aphantasia.

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