I am a milliner and I have aphantasia.
It means I don’t have a visual mind’s eye, and I don’t see any pictures in my head. When I close my eyes to think about something or go to sleep it looks a bit like the black and white image above, although probably not so pretty. And sometimes it’s blurry black and and red dots, instead of black and white. In fact, I suspect I am looking at the light coming through my eyelids.
I found out that I had this in 2016 and it still fascinates me! It really is so utterly alien to me that most people have a mind’s eye and see pictures. My whole life I have never done that, although I do have visual dreams and sometimes hazily remember them. Unlike my sister I can’t remember anything about the wallpaper in the house I grew up in, or the clothes that people were wearing at memorable events.
“But… you make things?!” is the puzzled reply from most people when I tell them I have aphantasia. I do. I’ve always instinctively known how to make something – e.g. sculpting, working out how many parts a casting mold needs to be, carving in polystyrene. Sometimes, with the pressure of time as a deadline approaches, I have a sudden idea about how to problem solve and make something. The idea just pops in there and I know it will work.
I have worked as a professional milliner, making hats for stage, film and TV for over 10 years. My hats have been on Doctor Who, The Globe, English National Opera and Bridget Jones’s Baby. I love learning a new skill. I teach myself from video or picture tutorials online, or books with either just words or diagrams, as well as learning from a teacher on a course.
Aphantasia is not a barrier to creativity
So I want to pop the bubble of people thinking that aphantasia is a barrier to creativity. Are you a teenager and reading this because you’ve just realised that you have aphantasia and you think it means you can’t be creative? Don’t worry, you can have aphantasia and be creative. Think about it logically – if it did, then why isn’t everybody who can see pictures an artist?
I’ve been slightly obsessed with talking to people about aphantasia since discovering I had it, and the thing I have realised is that everybody has a very different visualisation process.
Everyone is different. Embrace what makes you, you.
Creativity is more than seeing pictures
I think there is an issue with people linking imagination and visualisation. They are two different things. I don’t visualise but I have a very active imagination and ability fantasize. Imagination and visualisation can exist independently of each other.
We are talking about the nature of creativity – and creativity is far more complex and nuanced than equating people who see pictures as creative, and those who don’t see pictures as being at a creative disadvantage.
There is an interesting area to discuss about how all artists record their ideas. You have a stream of ideas, and there will never be enough time to create them all. Some of the ideas are better than others. How do you record them? Thumbnail sketches? Photographed mock ups, toiles and maquettes? Ideas written down in words? I use a combination of all of those, and I’m sure other people do too.
For me, creating is a form of self expression. Sometimes with the act of making, you can feel an emotional connection, and you just know it feels “right”. Time disappears, thought disappears, and all that exists is you and the work. I’ve realised for a long time that making things with my hands makes me happy, and I feel very lucky to be able to earn a living doing it.
EXHIBITION – ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye’
Two of my headdresses will be part of the exhibition ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye’. The show will be at Tramway Glasgow from 10th January to 3rd March 2019 (free entry) and will then move to Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery.
Whilst in Exeter the exhibition will coincide with the first international conference for people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia. This conference will take place on the 6-7 April 2019, at the University of Exeter, UK. See the facebook page linked below for more information.
‘Extreme Imagination: inside the mind’s eye‘ is an exhibition that will feature works by people who cannot visualise, alongside works by those who have particularly vivid mental imagery.
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and curated by the artist Susan Aldworth, the exhibition is the result of research lead by Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health, and the Eye’s Mind research group: Fiona Macpherson (philosophy, Glasgow), Crawford Winlove (neuroscience, Exeter), John Onians (art history, University of East Anglia), and Matthew MacKisack (cultural history, Exeter).
❇️ A short clip of me talking about my aphantasia as part of the exhibition can be seen here (filmed and edited by Matthew MacKisack):
❇️ Find out information about the exhibiton whilst at Tramway Glasgow (including workshop days) here:
❇️ You can find more information about the research at Exeter University into aphantasia and hyperphantasia here:
❇️ And the facebook page for Exeter University’s research:
What do you think?
It’s pretty intriguing stuff isn’t it? What do you think? The human mind and creativity is such a wonderful thing.
Feel free to leave a comment below, or connect with me on social media. If you would like to hear about future exhibitions I’m in then I send out newsletters. The sign up form is here: https://clairestrickland.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=2c00db5453713744a178c26a9&id=5bba5ef1ec
Hello Claire, I can’t see visual imagery in my head either, but I have some very colourful dreams. I just can’t see a picture when I try to visual something, when I’m awake, but I can imagine it without actually seeing it, and then draw it. I recently started painting, and I love it. I think, though I didn’t know there was such a thing as Aphantasia, that I realised when I was younger, that my imagination was less visual than other people’s, and for a long time I thought art wasn’t for me, because of that. But I just decided to do it, and love it.
I find, now I’ve started painting, that I do it in a “stream of consciousness” way, which I also do when writing, there’s a bit of planning, but I just paint and see what happens, without a vision in my head.
Good to read your blog, very interesting.
I’ve been wondering why, when I look at a photo, I can paint almost anything. But to imagine something in my head and paint it, I can’t. I’m wondering if this is the same thing.
Hi Barbara, It’s really difficult for me to answer that, because I don’t know what it’s like to not have aphantasia. It sounds like maybe the same thing. Have you taken the VVIQ test? It’s all over the internet, but Exeter are the university who have been researching into aphantasia, so I’m sure they would love your response. I scored a ‘what on earth are you talking about’ on every question. http://sites.exeter.ac.uk/eyesmind/get-in-touch/