Living without a Mind’s Eye: Aphantasia

Imagine that you are walking on a beach. The sky is blue, scattered with puffy white clouds. A gentle breeze blows against your face and brings with it the briny smell of the ocean. You hear the sound of gentle waves lapping the sand and seagulls crying in the air, but ouch! You’ve stepped on a broken shell, hurting your foot.

When you read that paragraph, how did it affect you? Did you see the beach in your mind’s eye? What about your other senses? Could your imagination conjure the scent of the water, or let you “hear” the sound of the waves and “feel” the pain in your foot?

No one’s imagination operates in quite the same way. Some people can picture a beach in vivid color and detail, while others envision something like a rough sketch of a beach instead. Some can access all their senses through their imagination. Others may have a hard time bringing up a smell or feeling of pain. It’s deceptively easy to assume that our ability to visualize and imagine is the same as everyone else’s, and as it turns out, there can indeed be massive differences.

In 1880, British scientist Francis Galton published a paper on the Statistics of Mental Imagery and uncovered one of these variations. In the pursuit of quantifying the range in ability to form mental pictures, he found some people who couldn’t see images in their mind at all. On the subject, he reported:

 Sir Francis Galton, painted in 1882. 

Sir Francis Galton, painted in 1882. 

To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words ‘mental imagery’ really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour. They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing.

He was the first to recognize this category of people who couldn’t form pictures with their mind, and found it surprisingly common among his fellow scientists. If his coworkers had read the first paragraph of this article, they could think about a beach, but wouldn’t be able to “see” it. As surprising as this discovery was, it was unstudied and generally forgotten about for over a hundred years. It wasn’t until the 2000s that people lacking visual imaginations would be recognized once more.


Aphantasia

In 2010 a paper was published by Dr. Adam Zeman and his co-authors. In this paper, they describe patient MX, a man who suddenly lost the ability to generate mental imagery after a minor surgery. His vision, memory, and mental facilities were otherwise unaffected, but it was apparent that a large change had occurred in the way his brain functioned.

 What color are Tom Cruise's eyes? Do you use your visual memory to help you remember?

What color are Tom Cruise's eyes? Do you use your visual memory to help you remember?

Zeman ran a number of tests on MX, trying to piece together the neurological basis of his condition. However, the test results proved enigmatic. When asked to identify celebrities based on photographs, MX performed well and the usual regions of the brain that process faces became active. However, when asked to imagine those celebrities’ faces later, those parts of the brain were silent. In most people, the same portions of the brain operate whether seeing faces or remembering them.

Perplexingly, despite his inability to “see” faces in his mind’s eye, he could remember facts about those faces, like the eye color of important politicians. He was able to perform a number of other tasks that would seem impossible to someone without the ability to visualize as well. He could list letters with hanging tails, like g and j, but how was he accessing this information without visual thinking? It was and still remains a mystery.


When the news articles regarding MX and his inability to visualize began to spread, it triggered revelations in a number of readers. There were more people out there who couldn’t see pictures in their minds, and they suddenly realized they weren’t alone. Some hadn’t even known there was anything strange about their condition until they read Zeman’s work, assuming that no one could literally see a face or a beach in their head. Zeman, previously having only one patient to study, was soon contacted in droves by people with similar experiences. What had initially appeared to be a one-time phenomenon was apparently a widespread one, and his research expanded to include these many new inputs.

In 2015, Professor Zeman published on his new data, now including 21 individuals. He suggested a name for the condition as well, calling it aphantasia, meaning “lack of imagination.” He noticed certain trends among his subjects. When he surveyed the group on the vividness of their mental imagery, they did indeed rate their internal images as less vivid than the control group. About half of participants reported difficulties with memory stemming from their lack of internal visuals, though about the same amount felt they could compensate with strengths in verbal, mathematical, and logical skills.

Some experienced mental imagery in uncontrolled flashes, like a sudden picture of a friend’s face appearing when their name was said, or disjointed images in dreams. While the 21 new participants shared many things with MX and his aphantasia, they had one important distinction: They had been unable to visualize since birth, rather than losing it after an operation as he had.

 People with aphantasia have reported on being very confused as children when their parents told them to count sheep to help them get to sleep. Art by William Watson.

People with aphantasia have reported on being very confused as children when their parents told them to count sheep to help them get to sleep. Art by William Watson.

There were other statistics that came out of his surveys. 19/21 of the subjects were male, and 5/21 had relatives with aphantasia as well. However, given the small size of the participating group, it would be premature to assign much significance to these correlations. Zeman suggested that about 2% of the population might experience aphantasia, but this number is equally tenuous. However, what is clear from this study is that there are more people who experience aphantasia than ever expected, and that there is still a lot to learn about this strange condition.

Now, instead of a beach, picture a simple red triangle. Though easy for many, this is impossible for some. There really are no human abilities we can take for granted.

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow