This post is a little different than my usual tech nonsense. It’s an aggregation of a few posts I’ve made on various social media about the way my brain works. Specifically SDAM and Aphantasia and their impact on my life.
This all started a few years ago when I read this post by mozilla co-founder Blake Ross about Aphantasia, or an inability to visualise in your mind and realised I related to pretty much everything he said. I don’t ‘see’ anything with my mind’s eye. Ask me to picture a ball and what I actually do is think of the abstract concept of a ball. There’s no image involved. If you then ask me what colour the ball is what I have done all my life is randomly think of a colour. Again, no image involved. Crucially, this is what I thought everyone did. I always thought that talk of picturing things in your head, or having a minds eye was just a metaphor. No-one actually ‘saw’ those things in their head, right?
Since then I have also discovered that I have ‘Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory’ or SDAM as well. This article gives a good insight into what SDAM is, but in essence it’s a complete inability to make (or retrieve?) actual, first person memories. I can retain information about things but I have no real memories.
The best analogy I can give of what my memories are like is post-it notes. Think of a memory you have, maybe one from a great holiday you had. or a major life event. Think about all the feelings you have with that memory. Maybe you have some sensations or smells from it. Now, take all that and reduce it to a couple of sentences that would fit on a post-it note and give it to someone else. That person now has the same experience of your memory as I do of all my own memories. As an example the birth of my first child? ‘I was there. There was a whiteboard on the wall with the nurses name on it. I scratched the side of my car in the car park’. No emotion, no images, no smells (luckily). Nothing.
I don’t have amnesia by the way. My life experiences and information are in there. I remember those post-it note things that happen to me. Learning to drive a few years ago wasn’t a problem. I just can’t recall individual memories of things I did.
As you can imagine, this has really driven my outlook on life. I think a lot about the future. Does anything really matter if I essentially don’t remember it? what’s the point of achieving anything? I had a great holiday a couple of years ago. I can look at pictures and assume I had a good time but it might as well be someone telling me about a holiday they had. And I know that nothing I do in the future will form any kind of lasting memory for me.
Another aspect to SDAM is an inability to compare my current state, mental or physical, to my past state. Eg: I stopped taking anti depressants a while ago. Am I less happy now? I have no idea. Was I happier last week than today? no clue. My knee is aching, how long has it been aching? Maybe…a year? 5 years? who can tell. The obvious answer to this is ‘just write it down’. Honestly though it’s surprisingly hard to get into this habit and to know what things to write down. By the end of a day most of my memories are either gone or reduced to those post it notes. How do I write down an emotion, or a touch, a feeling?
If I try to think about my life so far…I had a pretty normal childhood I think. My mum and dad were pretty good, we never really wanted for anything. I did okay at school (could have tried harder according to my reports) and then went to college. There’s a sister who I think I wasn’t that close to given a 5 year age gap but we got on okay. I have a few post-it note memories of playing on the computer together. She once had to take me to the cinema with her mates. As she got in to her teens I don’t think she had much time for her younger brother. And essentially that’s all I have from the first 15 years or so of my life.
In my 20s I started going out and found that making friends is really hard. Especially when you don’t remember the time you spend with them. I don’t retain those great nights out I had with people, or those long conversations into the night. Every time I spend time with someone it….well it’s not like the first time. I have some vague flashes of past meetings but not really enough to build friendships on. I mask a lot. Like, a lot. Honestly if we meet once and really get on then I don’t see you for a couple of weeks we might as well have never met before. Other than those few ‘post-it’ facts I’ll have.
I’ve had multi-year relationships that my entire memory of probably boils down to 2 or 3 brief sentences. Any kind of….body language cues or emotions we shared are gone. And believe me, those things are more important for building and maintaining friendships than you think. I have very few friendships that last, and although I am pretty anti-social I definitely think SDAM has a part to play in this. At my wedding I had 2 guests (and their plus ones).
Now I have children of my own I really start to miss the memories I should have of them. My eldest is 16 and when they were 2 I split up with their mum. We had years of weekends together, going to parks, baking, playing minecraft, taking holidays. And yes I have some pictures from that time and a few ‘memories’. How can a couple of pictures and a post-it note compare to an actual memory? I honestly don’t know how people with functioning memories get anything done. How are you not just constantly reliving the good times from your past? I imagine that actual memories are something like the black mirror episode ‘the entire history of you‘. Maybe it’s not actually like that? Maybe even the best memory is somewhere on a scale between actual recording and my SDAM experience?
Professionally at least this actually has less impact than you might think. Apparently the percentage of things I take notice of in a way that puts them on those post-it notes is higher at work than in life on general. There’s obviously missing experiences. And missing stuff that other people have in their memories. I compensate for that lack though by being really f**king quick at picking up new things and grasping problems. I’ve self-taught PHP, js, java, .net, python…even Ruby at one point. Could I do any of those right now? Maybe not…but give me a couple of hours with any codebase in any language (and Google) and I can pick it up again.