Aphantasia, Math and Me

Aphantasia, Math and Me

Have you ever heard of the condition called aphantasia? I had never heard of the condition until a couple years ago.  I saw a meme on social media that looked like the one below:

Which numbered star do you see?  I see number 2 and only for an instant. It disappears quickly and then I’m just thinking to myself “red star, red star, red star”. So, imagine if the red star is a number, let’s say 9. I see the 9 for an instant and then I’m thinking “9, 9, 9”.  

If someone asks me “what is the tip on a $96 dinner, and what will each of us pay if we split the bill?” (Which is something I am asked often, if they know that I developed a math curriculum),  I can’t visualize those numbers in my head. I am also dyslexic, which means that I may not even process those numbers in the right order in my mind. I must see it all written down.

Aphantasia traces back to Aristotle, who described a sixth sense of visual imagination called phantasia. Aphantasia, the absence of that imagination, is considered a rare condition with only 4% of the population afflicted with it.  But the term for it was just named in 2015 by a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology. There hasn’t been a lot of research on it, so this could affect more people than they know.

The experience of having aphantasia is difficult to describe. I know the imagery is there, but it goes as quickly as a blink. I can still describe things but not from an image but from a series of thoughts. When I first met my husband, he was wearing black converse, khaki pants, and a jean jacket. I can’t see an image of him dressed that way, but I know he was dressed that way.

As with almost everything I create, all of the  MANGO math lessons and the images that go with the lessons, are ideas I have but I must create it first to see it. I might have to search on the internet or go through books to spark the imagery that I can’t formulate in my mind’s eye. Then, to create the lesson I must sit down and draw it out. It can take a long time to get to where I want it to look like to help explain the math.

What does all this have to do with teaching?  A few years back I sat on a panel with three other women who each held a career in one of the STEM fields, I was the “math” in STEM. A special education teacher asked a question regarding how to help get his students to succeed in STEM.He felt they were having a hard time with the creative aspects  and thinking outside the box. I suggested that he make an example of what a finished project would look like, something the students could reference while they were creating. The other women on the panel said no, that would inhibit their ability to think outside the box and use their own imagination. I didn’t know about aphantasia at that time or I would have definitely brought it up. 

Reflecting back, I’m sure those other women saw images in their mind and couldn’t understand how someone might need something to see. I “imagine” that a lot of math teachers must see numbers in their heads, and maybe that’s why they liked math enough to teach it. I didn’t get into creating math games and activities because I found it easy. I got into it for the exact opposite, I got into math because I found it to be a challenge, yet fascinating, and I wanted to figure it out and help students do the same.

People with aphantasia have average to high IQs so it doesn’t affect one’s ability to learn. What it does affect, for me, is the ability to do mental math and to visually think through a problem. I have to write out a problem, most often in scribbles on a notepad. This is often frowned upon today when teachers are told to emphasize “mental” math.  (Mental math is defined as a group of skills that allow people to do math “in their head” without using pencil and paper or a calculator). Mental math is described as a necessary skill for everyday life, a skill that helps students understand math concepts better and to arrive at answers faster.  

When you work with your students, remember that there are some, like me, that suffer from aphantasia and may need a different approach to learning math.c

To learn more about Aphantasia click here