23.12.2023

Picture This: I Got Something Wrong.

This is a bit of a personal howler, though it's been pointed out it doesn't really count as such, coming in under the get-out-of-gaol category: subjects not broadly known...

On becoming aware of the subject, or more accurately, subjects, being conditions of a neurological nature, I was presented with something immediately worthy of further investigation, not merely to explore for personal interest, but because it can profoundly link to writing. Since I have a book out at the moment and am engaged in my other—compulsory—job: book salesman, it occurred to me a gander ought be taken at what I've just become aware of. I thought I would, as it is often put: look into it.

Ahead of the subject's nitty gritty, and because we are well into that garlanded time of year, some contextualising might help to set the scene.

There are two elements, and the first to mention, briefly, is memory, for which a few personal historical snapshots might give some insight.

I have vivid memory reaching deep into early infancy, of many, many moments made up of multitudinous combinations of light and shadow, mood, movement, colour, texture, attachment, emotion, wonder, and curiosity; of faces, known and unknown including visages emerging from dark burls in the blonde veneer of a wardrobe; later, bronchial fevers by bedside light, sequences of action including night terrors and sleep walking—where I was headed under moonlight at five years-of-age when I let myself out of the house, then out of the yard gate into ten cleared acres surrounded by bush, with dams and creeks, nobody knows. My mother had appeared and turned me about. Memory of my innocent exploit commenced when her gentle, reassuring intervention ushered me back to bed. From early on, it was added to by highly-charged events including electrical storms that pushed water to stream through our leaky tar roof, bushfires that drove us to flee through smoke and cinder, as well as casual encounters with lizards and snakes in the summertime. In recall there has also always been the redolence of the household's European cooking: German cheesecake, strudel, Polish sausage, and cabbage - not upon the same plate, mind you; the family's dogs: two German Shepherds, a Dachshund, and Australian Terrier, two milking cows and calf, pink pigs in the pigsty, the raucous chicken coop, and a metropolis of rats that dwelled in their tunnels thereunder. There need not be anything mentioned about the spiders.

The second element is about finding myself surrounded by the abstract. Partly due, I expect, to the onset of self awareness, and for the fact a proportion of it being quite literally, abstract images. My third home had been the domicile and studio retreat of an artist, Jack Gunn. His humbly sprawling estate, made of round timber and packing crate boards, was left with thousands of items of his creative practice including a multicoloured, though fading, geometric mural upon a double set of garage doors, paintings and drawings from realist figurative work in pencil to a large cubist portrait of a man smoking a pipe; many boxes of large format glass plate photographic negatives of landscapes, and almost five decades of National Geographic Magazine dating back to the early 1920s. But in that summer of 1965, it was the boxes of commercial scale—department store-size—Christmas ornaments, in red and gold and silver, that had an intoxicating effect on this five-year-old. My parents hung them all through the house. It may also have been the year of the gift of a kaleidoscope, its tin and cardboard construction, its plastic coloured shards of summertime Christmas crystals turned, tipped, formed never-again shapes. Thereafter, anything that excited, extended, or amplified inputs to my propensity to imagine, became preferred activities. What may have assisted, was the complete otherness of our home, bearing no resemblance to any conventional suburban house I entered for years afterward. Three particular aspects often still come to mind. Our electricity came from a Buick car engine—sheltered under a corrugated iron sheet in the yard—that spun a generator for a single kitchen bulb an hour every evening; kerosene refrigerators; and lamps that burned bright white from silk mantles.

Partial image of a brightly multi-coloured kaleidoscope

I'm taking somewhat of a risk in this writing since, in order to illustrate the point of it, it's necessary to a large extent to speak of it in visual terms because visualisation is the particular method and execution of my brain's thought manifestations. That is to say, that when I think, I see in extreme detail, in colour, with the result that when thinking about, or describing what it is I see, in my mind's eye, as that old-timey term indicates, I am able to navigate, untethered, about all aspects of a visualisation, through three dimensions, turning, rotating, flipping: an object, place, or process, or, indeed, myself, to reposition the attitude of my imagined bodily location—as if in space, weightless—floating in suspension. My mental gymnastics can alter all facets of any visualised construct in any way: modify it, in any way, turn it translucent, or transparent, for that matter, remove, or substitute components, tint, texturise to granular fineness, make smooth as glass, or render to be dimpled in the manner of a golf ball, and while maintaining that texture, now have it be instantly animated into high speed rotating liquid, to glisten azure blue, expand it suddenly in all directions to become immense, and have the whole gargantuan sphere rise to blot out the sky like a water-covered planetoid, and then, just for fun, I transform it to become two-dimensional, its roundness stretched out at four points to have corners as if it has turned into a giant towering curtain of vertical ocean, with a gale battering it, causing its surface to be tossed by waves, then to plunge and drape itself like silk over an entire cityscape, covering... erm... Sydney Opera House, as if the icon's shells recline, asleep atop steps by the frozen chop of an inanimate gossamer ice storm veiling its emerald harbour.

But this all sounds, even to me—and no doubt to some of you—a big old skite. That I can create any mental projection of anything, any time, to the degree that I do, is by no means exclusive. It is, however, relatively rare.

What I had not known until a short time ago, is what I've had wrong my whole life: the certain thought that my own level of visualisation is, more or less, how it is for everybody. It has become evident that this is not so.

A friend brought this revelation to me as we progressively explored, over days and weeks, each other's experiences of how it is we all relate in communications of speech and writing. In her case, it turns out that her attempts to invoke a mental image returns, at best, an indistinct object, dark, blurry.

The dawning on me, that it is a fact for some people to experience life without vividly detailed mental imaging, is saddening to me, and also confounding. It was completely unexpected to discover that that is just how it is in my friend's world, especially and most profoundly because she is an artist, who draws and paints, and thinks about drawing and painting. One would naturally assume that the capacity for visualisation would be a prerequisite for an artist. Not so.

Despite the inability to even visualise colours in her mind's eye, it is the use of remembered values of pigments, her experience, and creative instinct, that allows her to accurately draw maps and images, blend colours for her paintings, and create an artwork of a single constructed subject that is drawn from multiple, disparate references. She can gain the desired result with her technical knowledge rather than, in the first instance, by relying for guidance on a mentally manifested visualisation.

I was agog so I went agooglin'...

The two states that I've referred to are called hyperphantasia: meaning to have extremely vivid mental imagery, and aphantasia: where mental visual imagery is not present. This makes me hyperphantasic (yes, at a glance it looks like fantastic... ), and my friend aphantasic. These mental states are at opposite ends of a spectrum, ends, which, extraordinarily, are as yet, only represented by limited knowledge. And these two ends of the spectrum make up a relatively small single-digit percentage of the population. Serious research had only begun to come to the fore in the last decade. Even though the phenomenon of aphantasia was first described in 1880, it wasn't even named until 2015, with further significant and major studies not conducted until 2021 and 2022.

For some at the extreme ends of these two states, there may be debilitating effects.

In further discussions with my aphantasic artist friend, she has referred to the old and oft-used saying that a picture paints a thousand words. For me, to remember is to 'see' the memory, and be able to explore it and become re-aquainted with it. For her, in order to remember the memory, she needs to 'see' - something - in order for the memory to be coaxed forth and enlivened. A photograph will do it. A painting will do it. A memento, something as plain as a coloured stone from a dry creek bed, will do it.

Near age five, one of my sons confidently told me that if I ever missed him, all I need do is to think of him, and he would be right here—with me. How brilliant. How easy for me to see him on a thought. Not so for my friend, she can't 'see' her late mother's face unless in a photograph.

It came to me that not all those that find they're compulsively driven to collect are unwell: to cover surfaces in every room with this, or that, or all kinds of other, in multiples of old news, or old shoes. It might just be they're missing someone, and need a prompt, in order they may see that someone. It's Christmas, and it might just be they're broken-hearted.

In writing or in conversation we may not always see eye to eye. It might just be we need to say it in a kinder way.

TA