Blind in a Blindfold

A few years ago I discovered something strange: "Mental image" is a far more literal phrase than I had ever believed. It turns out that the majority of people really can "see" things that aren't in front of them. I cannot. It's a condition known as Aphantasia, and — although little is known about it — there are many people who have recently come to the same discovery.

Fortunately, people with Aphantasia seem to be faring pretty well. Ed Catmull, for example, was president of Pixar despite having Aphantasia. In fact, I would argue that limitations like Aphantasia can be beneficial in certain fields.

Imagine this...

Imagine, if you can, blindness of the eyeballs, not just the mind. A blind person must, necessarily, become a talented sightless navigator. Years of practice accumulate until a blind person can navigate nearly as well as a sighted one. They'll never be quite as quick at getting around, of course, but they can come pretty close.

But if you took a blind person and a sighted person and put them both in blindfolds, the tables would turn. The blind person — with years of practice — would be able to navigate quite well. But the usually-sighted person would struggle with even the most basic skills.

What Does it Mean for Me?

Aphantasia, I believe, is similar to the blindfold analogy. In the general case, I (and other aphants) will underperform in mental tasks. My reading comprehension of fiction, for example, is atrocious. But in certain cases everyone's mind is blinded, and my intense practice helps me in those areas.

I believe programming is one such occasion. Programming, as far as I can discern, is not a skill which is particularly aided by visual imagery. Almost everyone who is writing code needs to think in data, which can be a challenge for many. As a person with Aphantasia, I — like the blind in a blindfold — feel no less comfortable writing code than I do thinking about anything else.

The general principle, it seems, is that challenges and limitations can result in surprising benefits. I, for one, will be capitalizing on the good parts.

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