Aphantasia: Is A World Without Mental Images ‘Imaginable’?

by trupti soman

Aphantasia: Is A World Without Mental Images ‘Imaginable’?

January 12, 2021

In a visual world, how does it feel to have a 'blind' mind's eye? Aphantasia is a condition wherein the individual is unable to visualize mental imagery.

We rely upon our ability to make up images in our mind when asked to imagine something. A task such as adding up numbers requires a lot of mental gymnastics. Some imagine a chalkboard with numbers, while others might imagine numbers floating in the air.

Aphants, as they call themselves, do not have this ability. You might ask, is this even real?

It is very much real. A controversial psychologist by the name of Francis Galton first mentioned this condition in 1880. It took 135 years for the term ‘Aphantasia’ to come into mainstream usage. Adam Zeman, a scientist, delineated it for the first time in the journal Cortex. The word comes from the Greek word ‘phantasia’ and means imagination. 

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Heartbeat 1, Susan Aldworth, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London

What Causes this Condition?

Scientists have classified two possible causations for this condition – 

  • Acquired: Injury to the brain or possibly after episodes like a depressive or psychotic episode.
  • Congenital: By birth

Most of the analysis before the conception of Aphantasia took place through self-report measures such as questionnaires. However, it has been observed in brain scans that the areas of the brain that activate during visual imagination do not light up in people with Aphantasia.   

Wilma Brainbridge and other scientists researched with one hundred and thirteen participants. Sixty-one participants had Aphantasia, and the rest did not. Both sets saw photographs of three rooms. These were to be drawn once from memory and once by using the photo as a reference. The Aphants found it challenging to draw from memory. Their pictures were colourful and had more symbols along with texts.

Is it a Disability?

There is a debate going on regarding Aphantasia as a disease. Different Aphants in different chat forums, circles, and discussion groups have polarizing opinions concerning Aphantasia as a disability. Older Aphants, for example, those who are 50 years old, say that they lived a majority of life without this inability being a hindrance to their functioning. On the other hand, younger Aphants state that Aphantasia can often impair the learning process.

There can be some difficulties when you cannot imagine what you have to conjure up in your mind. Sounds complicated? It is complex to think of Aphantasia being a hindrance.  Let’s try out with an example. Describe an apple without visualizing it in your mind. You might notice it is difficult to do so without relying on how it looks in your mind.


Resonating Symptoms of Aphantasia

People with Aphantasia also report being unable to remember sounds, smells, and a touch of specific sensations. Some Aphants have prosopagnosia. This condition means an inability to recognize faces.  As frustrating as this sounds, Aphants face this frustration daily with everyday functioning. They find it frustrating to move around in social situations. 

When you are unable to fall asleep, people often suggest counting sheep. Aphants find this challenging. They cannot visually recollect someone facially or how they looked in their wedding dress.  The recall is challenging in everyday life. Some Aphants find it equally challenging to visualize while studying. Tasks involving complex analysis would be challenging alongside memorizing things that mostly have visual cues like maps. 

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Aphantasia and Dreaming

Dreaming is another complicated spectrum in Aphantasia. What do you mean by dreaming answers all the questions regarding Aphantasia and dreaming? 

Since Aphantasia is on a spectrum, some having no visual imagery to those who have faint imagery, dreaming is also on the same sphere. Some Aphants lucid dream while others can see silhouettes in black and white. Dreaming does not always have to be visual; it can also be verbal.

Aphantasia might have the classifications as a form of neurodivergence. Simply put, it is a different style of learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions.

Is it All That bad?

No, because it is not necessarily a problem. Aphants work in creative fields such as visual arts, film direction, and designing. Dr. Zeman calls it a difference in perception. 

Aphants compensate for the lack of visual imagery by relying on their other senses such as hearing, verbalizing, or using touch like,

  • Reading out loud to learn,
  • Using more physical motions like doing experiments, and, 
  • Study through making up mnemonics. These are simple cues like using VIBGYOR for remembering the colours of the rainbow.

The research mentioned above with Brainbridge found that Aphants are better at spatial ability. They are also better at verbalizing. People with Aphantasia perform on par with people who can visualize images in many tasks involving visual information.

One in fifty people is Aphants, according to Dr. Zeman. There are many notable Aphants such as Ed Catmull, Richard Herring, and Derek Parfit. These individuals are highly successful in their fields, proving a point that Aphantasia is not a disorder. 

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