Falling asleep is a process I’ve found difficult for as long as I can remember. Until quite recently I thought counting sheep was an irrational metaphor used to describe an aid in getting to sleep. As a child I was often advised to count sheep in such situations, and in more recent times during a stay in hospital, I was also given the same advice. My response has always been “How?” No one has ever provided me with even just one sheep to count.
Whenever I asked “How?” people tend to be taken aback, and then in a manner that assumes I’m an idiot, carefully and with deliberate slowness, usually say something like
“Imagine a fence with a gate. Now imagine sheep jumping over the gate. Just count each sheep as it jumps over.”
“Imagine a flock of sheep in a hillside. Simply count the sheep starting from the nearest. If you run out of sheep, Imagine a different hillside and continue counting.”
Such explanations were of no help at all, and as I child, any further attempts on my part to gain a better understanding of how to imagine such situations usually resulted in anger or frustration on the part of the advisor. As I got older I learnt there is a limit on how far I should seek clarification, and it was often safer to pretend to understand the advice given, even when I didn’t.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I discovered why this process of imagining was such a mystery to me. I can’t. Well to be more accurate, I can’t imagine anything visually. I cannot conjure up a mental image in my mind. Until I discovered I have aphantasia, I never realised that most people can, to some extent, use their “mind’s eye” to visualise what they are thinking about.
When most people think of a loved one, or a sheep, they are able to to form a mental picture, sometimes quite detailed, of the person or object in mind. When I think of the wife, a family member or a sheep, all I can tell you is that I know I’m thinking of the person or thing, but that is as far as it goes.
Apparently, aphantasia, like prosopagnosia (face blindness) is more common in autistics than in the general population, but the two conditions don’t seem to be directly related. Most folk who have aphantasia have no problem recognising faces, and most folk with prosopagnosia are capable of forming mental images. I have both conditions. Are you able to create mental images, and if so, in how much detail?