The pink elephant that changed my life

I tried Yoga for the first time a couple of years ago, after deciding to exercise a little more to cope with anxiety. As a fresher who stayed out too late, possibly drank a little too much and barely exercised at all at the time, I found 99% of the practice hard. However, I actually came to enjoy almost all of the poses. All but one. Shavasana. Better known as Corpse Pose, it entails laying down and being still, something I have always struggled with. As someone with anxiety, I fidget pretty much all the time. I found the stillness hard, but what I absolutely hated about it was being asked to picture myself in a happy place. Most people seemed pretty contented laying there doing that. But I just found it boring. I wrote that off as having to do with a short attention span more than likely caused by years of smart phone and social media usage.

Up until a few months ago, I wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that I couldn’t find my happy place whilst in yoga sessions. All of that changed when my NHS-provided therapist asked me to perform a mental exercise that illustrates intrusive thoughts – just imagine a pink elephant. No matter how hard I tried, I could not do it.   So there I was, wondering if I should mention to the woman I’ve told my deepest and darkest fears to that I was completely and utterly unable to picture it. This simple exercise totally stumped me. Eventually, after sitting in silence for a few minutes longer, I opened my mouth and told her, ‘I can’t do that’.

Of course, she quickly tweaked the exercise to fit around this inability to see it. But the incident played on my mind.  So much so that I mentioned it to a close friend. To my surprise, not only could my friend do it, but she could do it within seconds. At this point, out of everything that I could have thought of, my mind went straight to yoga. I thought back to the end of the many pre-Covid classes I attended over the years, and how calmly and contently people could lay in silence, realising that it wasn’t a lack of concentration that set me apart from my peers but the fact that they could, in fact, visualise their happy places in the same way that my friend could visualise the bloody pink elephant. That night, I proceeded with the only logical next step: I googled it and clicked on the first result that seemed to relate, from Reddit.

There, I found out that there was a word for people like me. Aphantasia, which has the description of being without a mind’s eye. To me, this sounded terrifying, like being without a soul or, if you don’t believe in those, an imagination. According to scientists, only 3 to 5% of the general population have it, or at least know that they have it. Like me, maybe there are many more people who are blissfully unaware that some people can visualise things. If you have yourself been through this realisation, you might have felt like something was taken from you, which is strange when you consider you never had it.  

The mind is something that is not widely understood or easily explored, and sometimes I think that we shouldn’t endeavour to understand why things like Aphantasia happen. If I am honest, I would rather not find out if one day I just suddenly lost the ability to visualise mental images or whether I was born without it. But I do think that it is impossible to not question how our minds affect our lives. Personally, my realisation brought me to a larger understanding of myself and society as a whole. For instance, terms that I thought people just said, like ‘he’s undressing her with his eyes’, made a whole lot more sense, and not always in a positive way. But alongside that understanding, I have also been left with a tonne of questions. As someone who has always been highly creative, excelling in creative writing and art and constantly engaging with a new craft project, I have always been able to think up original concepts for things, not visualising them but still knowing what I wanted out of them. So, I have been left wondering. How exactly has this condition affected my ability to create, and do I do it differently? Has my lack of a mind’s eye even affected it? All questions that are pretty hard to answer.

However, this does not mean that I do not still wonder about them. Not only do I wonder about myself and my creative process, but I wonder how other artists and writers have dealt with neurological disorders like mine. I want to know how the co-creator of Pixar who, like me, has Aphantasia, went on to create movies like Toy Story. Or how people at the other end of the spectrum, who can almost see things that are not there with Hyperphantasia, find that it affects their own creativity or their abilities in areas such as STEM. How do artists create worlds around them if they have Synaesthesia and can smell, hear, see and feel certain things linked to the world around them? These are all things worth asking and hearing about, and I plan to find them out.

[Anya Keiller – she/her – instagram: @anyakeiller, twitter: @keillermanjaro]

[Photo credit: Anna Shvets]

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