Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mommy I Can't Do Art

Danica has entered grade 4. It brings to mind myself in grade 4: the year when I learned, much to my chagrin, that I couldn't art.

So, let's back it up and unpack it a little (unpack being a newish expression that is probably being overused and will soon fade).

I don't often listen to the radio in the car, or anywhere else for that matter, but Danica does, and she had had me tune the radio to her music station. Later, instead of turning it off as is my habit, I flipped it over to CBC and became totally absorbed by this program about Aphantasia, which you can also hear if you click this link. The program is about 20 minutes in length.

So, what is this thing, this Aphantasia? And why did the program grab my interest so? And what the heck does it have to do with me and art in grade 4?

OK, time to back up some more and do some more unpacking.

Back in grade 4 art class, I became frustrated with the fact that I couldn't actually art. When the teacher said, "Let's draw this," or "Bring some soap to class so we can sculpt it," my results were pathetic. I didn't even want to art anymore. I complained to my mother who even mentioned it to the teacher on parents night, but she had no solution, so I kept on having to participate in the damnable class. In my own way.

My problem was that I couldn't draw from my imagination because there was something missing in my head although I didn't really know that for a long time. Oddly enough, however, there were times when I could draw, like that time in woodworking class in grade 7. We were instructed to carve out a ring toss toy. I didn't know what to do until I realized that I had a Mighty Mouse comic book with a picture on the cover. He had his arm extended upward, and I figured that would make a decent landing for a ring toss toy.

So, I got out the comic book and drew it. Yes, I did, and it was reasonable copy or at least good enough. It was one project that worked. How come?

I will get back to this, but for now, let us fast forward to the present.

It has taken me much of my life to realize that I don't have the same pictures in my head that others do. For example: when I take my afternoon siesta and see a strange face and want to examine it, I can't capture it. When I try to freeze the image and have a good look, I can't manage. It fades away.

Going back to Mighty Mouse, I was able to draw a facsimile relatively well because I could keep looking at the original which wouldn't fade away. But mention something to me, like a mountain scene with a babbling brook, and I will see a flash of something vague, but even the vagueness will soon fade.

When this program, Quirks and Quarks, came on the radio, I was hooked. I had caught it in progress with an interview with a fellow who was worse off than I, for he had no pictures — at all, ever! He was bright and successful but had no images in his head. I have dream images, and I have images when I read. They fade right away when I try to hold onto them, but I have them initially. That gentleman didn't have any images, period.

I learned that the condition is called Aphantasia. It seems like it would be a crippling handicap, but this man lives a successful and productive life. He even reads fiction and learned that one author that he reads, his friend, Michelle Sagara, also has this condition. Yes, she also has Aphantasia but is still able to write descriptive passages.

Certain famous people have identified themselves as having this condition: neurologist and naturalist, Oliver Sacks, for example; and Blake Ross (developer of the Firefox browser); and Craig Venter (known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome).

Dr Adam Zeman of Exeter University has identified two types or degrees of Aphantasia. There are those like the interviewee, John, who have no images at all: no mind's eye as it were. This, he terms as Involuntary Aphantasia. Many others can dream visually or experience images when they read; they/we experience Voluntary Aphantasia where they/we do experience images but can't summon images at will.

Obviously, this is a condition that affects a minority of people, especially those who experience Voluntary Aphantasia, but Dr Zeman has 10 000 subjects available for his studies, and I wonder how many more, like me, haven't been formally identified. I did read elsewhere that some degree of the condition may affect 1/50 people.

I have been saying that I have this condition although I can't officially verify if I qualify clinically, but the test at this website confirms to me at least, that I do. In fact, I can't force myself to finish it because it frustrates me, and I give up very quickly.
  • Conjure up an image of a familiar friend or relative. How clearly can you see the contours of their face, head, shoulders and body?
  • Still imagining that friend or relative, how strongly can you see the characteristic poses of their head and body?
  • How well can you envision the way that friend or relative walks, the length of their step, for example?
  • How vivid are the colors of that person's clothes in your mind?
  • Visualize a rising sun and look carefully at the details of that mental picture. How clearly do you see that sun rising above the horizon in a hazy sky?
  • Imagine the sky clearing and surrounding the sun with blueness, how vivid is that image?
  • Clouds appear in your sky and a lightning storm erupts. How well can you see it?
  • A rainbow appears in your sky. How clearly can you make it out?
It has taken me much of my life to figure out that I don't have the same imaging powers as most other people. I can remember my friend, Ron, drawing a cartoonish rabbit character out of his head for my daughter and me marvelling that he could do it, but life goes on and I didn't think about it much until recent years. Now I find that it is a recognizable condition and that I am in good company. Somehow, it helps to know that there's a name for it and that I am not unique or alone.

In short, I am Aphantastic kinda guy.


Ginger said...

Well, this was fascinating, AC. I'd never heard of it before. Thanks for the post!

Treey Stynes said...

Nice read.

Tabor said...

I never had heard of this, but as I age I find image conjuring is getting more difficult.

Kailani said...

I think I might have a tad bit of this myself. :o Thanks for bringing it to light!

Bernie said...

No I don't have this, I could imagine all of the above scenes but I still can't draw. Never could!

KGMom said...

Boo on your ending...but it is the appreciative kind of boo.
Walt Disney, of course, directed the movie "Fantasia." I wonder if the name was intentional?
I can do all those things you asked about. I dream in color! Or colour.
Do you?

Marie Smith said...

Interesting. I have known people with other conditions who are relieved to have a name for the condition too. It explains so much for a person!

Vicki Lane said...

Fascinating! I can hold images quite well -- unless it's the face of someone I just met. But when I tried my hand at painting, I did much better working from a photo than the real thing.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

This is really interesting! I hope I managed to make my art lessons simple for all. sigh. They all managed something, as I recall!

Shammickite said...

I usually listen to Quirks and Quarks but I missed that one. My radio is welded to CBC!!! I can conjure up most images, but it's hard to remember people's faces exactly, but I can always see the whole person, their body shape, their mannerisms etc.

Judy said...

How interesting is this?! I'll be thinking on it from here on out...
I have a grandson who can verbalize that he cannot retain an image for long in this mind. He likes to keep reminders of his favorite things close by him. I think I get it now.

Jim Flack said...

Thanks for sharing this, AC. Very interesting. Fortunately, I can see all the images you mentioned, and in living color. Too bad I couldn't see the Professor's images when I began college as an art major! Severe differences of opinion and, of course, his were "right." I changed majors, and lost interest in art. My wife encouraged me to take up my brushes, and start anew. I have found that the older I get, the more my artistic talents have developed. Weird, but I still have days when I stare at a blank page or canvas and "don't have a clue" what to put on it.
Thanks again for sharing this. Proof that we can learn something new and interesting every day if we just know where to look!

Hena Tayeb said...

that is so interesting..
my eldest also has trouble drawing from his imagination.

Mary Gilmour said...

Also a phantastic photographer.
I can image like crazy and do paintings from nothing. JG is also Aphantastic, unable to sketch but can copy a cartoon perfectly. And do drafting. There is, imho, need for both kinds.

Kay said...

Oh gracious! I must have the same condition. I used to love to draw, but could never reproduce what I saw only partially in my brain.

Ruth said...

Very interesting! I like Quirks and Quarks too but have to rely on the podcasts. I have never heard that word before either.