Imagine this: you are on a beach. You’re sitting in the shade on a long white beach chair, admiring the vast turquoise ocean in front of you. The sun is high above, illuminating the crisp blue sky with just a few small white clouds scattered around. You look to your left and see a small dock, and on your right is nothing but the coast line spreading miles and miles away, seemingly into infinity.
How clearly can you see the image? Do you feel the sun’s warmth as if you were there? Are you able to turn your head around and observe the scenery around you, or did you grunt as soon as you saw the beginning of this article- the words “Imagine this”?
If you saw everything we described so far- congratulations, your mind’s eye functions fairly normally. However, if you just read the description and weren’t able to see any of this in you mind, you may be amongst the 2% of the human population that has no ability to visualise imagery.
It’s called aphantasia, and Merriam-Webster defines it as “the inability to form mental images of real or imaginary people, places, or things”. It’s a condition that has been around for a long time, but it was only recently researched in more detail. Before 2015, the word “aphantasia” (a– “without, not” and Greek phantasia- “imagination, appearance”) didn’t even exist.
Total aphantasia is easy to describe, but hard to understand unless you suffer from it. A good description that’s been used to explain this phenomenon came from a biologist named Cragi Varner, who said:
“It’s like having a computer store the information, but you don’t have a screen attached to the computer.”
It literally means that you can’t see any image in your head, except of course what you physically see with your eyes at that given moment. When you’re told to imagine something, you see nothing. But obviously, just like everything in life, it’s not all black or white. It comes in a variety of different levels, and science is still having some trouble sorting those levels because they vary in a big way for every individual (and sadly, we have yet to come up with technology advanced enough to literally look into an individual’s head).
So, you may be wondering how a person with aphantasia functions in this modern world? Well, truth be told, unless someone points it out to them, they may go through their entire life without knowing that their mind doesn’t function normally. Because really, how often do people have discussions about what they see in their head?
Aphantasics may label themselves as unimaginative, they may skip the detailed descriptions when reading books, they may think that they’re simply bad at recognising faces, they may think that the phrase “imagine this” is simply a concept, or a metaphor. Because when they close their eyes and try to imagine an object, person, or space, they see nothing.
How does their mind work? How do they remember what their significant other looks like when they’re not around? How do they read books without being able to paint a picture in their head? Do they lack creativity?
Well, for a majority of the time, they just fill in the gaps from memory and facts. For example, while they can’t see an elephant in their head, they know it from memory, they know what it’s supposed to look like in great detail- the massive size, the rusty gray skin, the trunk with the two “fingered” tip, the big ears, the round feet, the slim yet lengthy tail, the white long tusks, etc. These are all facts drawn from memory, and even though they can’t see an image of an elephant in their head, they most certainly know what it looks like, and they may even be able to tell you the difference between the African and Asian elephant even though they’ve never seen either one of them in real life.
But apart from basic facts, like how an elephant looks like, how do these people remember any visual points if they’re unable to recall them visually in their head? Well, just like any other person, they have an active memory. They may not be able to see their living room in their head, but they spend most of their time in there, and they’re the ones who decorated it, so they can describe it without thinking about it too much.
It’s not that these people lack creativity though, because creativity has very little to do with it. There’s lots of artists who have aphantasia, just like there’s lots of accountants who don’t have aphantasia. Having one doesn’t cancel the other out.
In the case of close relatives and friends, if you look at anyone for long enough you will be able to remember the features of their face and body, and perhaps some other details such as posture, height, an unusual walking pattern, etc. Another issue aphantasics have is remembering someone they haven’t seen in a very long time- many report that they are unable to remember a loved one who has passed away, which leaves them feeling heavy-hearted.
Dreaming is also quite unusual, and it’s the only form of mental visualisation for lots of aphantasics. They do have a visualisation of their dreams as it happens, but once woken up they can’t see it (even though they do remember exactly what they dreamed), no matter how vivid the dream. But then again, other forms of aphantasia restrict even dreaming.
Even though it’s a newfound condition, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been around. The first recorded study of a kind of apantasia was conducted in 1880 by Francis Galton, and he did it in a fairly simple manner- he asked the participants of the study to describe their breakfast table that morning. Galton asked for a lot of details, including illumination, definition, and colouring of the table, as well as the objects on it. A majority of the participants had positive results, but a given few were stumped. His cousin, none other than Charles Darwin himself, said that some of the features were “as distinct as if I had photos before me”, which may sound normal to many, but to those with aphantasia it may seem abstract. It would take a few centuries before this was addressed appropriately by neurologist Adam Zeman, and even he wouldn’t have stumbled upon this “discovery” had it not been a recovering heart surgery patient who complained about losing the ability to see pictures in his mind. While it’s not known whether people with aphantasia are born with their condition or if it’s a result of a certain environment (such as a traumatic childhood), this patient’s condition was somehow caused by a minor operational procedure. And if he hadn’t spoken up about losing this ability, we most likely wouldn’t be aware of it today.
Zeman put the patient in an MRI and showed him pictures of the people he’d likely recognise, including Tony Blair, the UK prime minister at that time. The MRI showed distinct patterns, but when the pictures were removed and the patient was asked to picture him in his head, the patterns were not there anymore. What was interesting though, was that the patient was able to say Tony Blair’s eye colour without seeing a picture. After the research was published and the term “aphantasia” was born, many reached out to Zeman to thank him for putting a name to their condition.
Even though it’s thought of as an uncommon condition, here’s a few influential people have spoken up about their own view of the world with aphantasia:
Blake Ross– founder of Mozilla FireFox
Oliver Sacks– neurologist and best-selling author of many neurology and psychology books.
Ed Catmull– former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios
Glen Keane– Disney’s illustrator and animator of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Tangled (further proving the fact that aphantasics don’t lack in creativity)
If you suspect that you may have this condition, there’s an online test you can take to give you guidance (though it’s not a strict diagnosis).
All of this may be one aphantasic person’s point of view, but it doesn’t comply with the view of another. The issue is that it’s all quite subjective and it plays along with other characteristics that a person with aphantasia may have. Just as everyone’s mind is unique in its own way, their conditions are as well.