Aphantasia: Everything We Know So Far About Not Having a Mind’s Eye

It wasn’t until 2015 that Professor Adam Zeman first coined a term to describe the special condition of missing the mind’s eye. He called it aphantasia, and before it had a name, many who resonated with the description had no idea that others processed information differently. Now, almost a decade later, Zeman has published an overview of everything we’ve learned so far about this mysterious phenomenon.

More than 50 scientific studies are included, covering a wealth of findings about the 1 to 5 percent of people thought to be aphantasic.

“Coining the term ‘aphantasia’ has unexpectedly opened a window into a neglected aspect of the human experience,” Zeman said in a statement. “It is very gratifying that people without visual material are finding the term useful, while a significant wave of research is shedding light on the implications of aphantasia.”

It is almost impossible for people with visual imaginations to understand the experiences of someone with aphantasia, and vice versa. For 43-year-old Mary Wathen, the light bulb moment came when she was talking to other parents about role-playing with their children, and it became clear that everyone else could see images in their heads.

“This was completely mind-boggling to me. I just don’t understand what they really mean: where is this statue and what does it look like? To me, unless you can see something with your eyes, it’s not there,” she said.

But despite the starkly different ways people with and without aphantasia experience the world, Zeman emphasizes that the consensus among experts is that it is not a disorder and does not mean you have no imagination at all.

As research has progressed over the past decade, we have learned that there are sub-types of aphantasia. Some people have difficulty recognizing faces, while others do not; some have problems with autobiographical memory, the memory of your own personal history. In a small number of people with aphantasia, it appears to be related to traits common in autistic people.

The inability to visualize scary images means that people with aphantasia may not respond as strongly to scary stories. It can also be an advantage in the scientific world, while hyperimagination (a super-vivid visual imagination) can predispose one to success in the arts.

A recent case report even describes a woman who was apparently able to reverse her aphantasia by taking magic mushrooms. But without resorting to mind-altering drugs, the world of visual imagination isn’t a total no-go zone for people with aphantasia; research shows that the majority of them still have visual dreams.

The idea that having aphantasia is not always a disadvantage has become clear to Wathen. “I’m a very good written and verbal communicator. I think that’s because I’m not preoccupied with images, so I just focus on the power of the word,” she explained. “I’m also a deeply emotional person and maybe that’s my brain’s way of overcompensating.”

But there are some undeniable drawbacks, and Wathen especially wishes she could see her children’s faces when they weren’t in front of her.

Overall, and even beyond purely scientific interest, continuing this decade-long tradition of research is important because it highlights that not everyone’s imagination works the same way.

Wathen said: “I think it is really important to raise awareness that some people just don’t have this ability – especially as using visual imagination is an important way in which young children learn to learn and engage.”

“We need to make sure we cater for everyone and encourage different ways of learning and engagement.”

The study was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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