My Mind’s Eye is Blind, is Yours?
If someone told you that you have a brother you never knew about your whole life, your reaction might be:
- “Whoa, no way!”
- That’s impossible.”
- “How come I never heard about this before?”
- “Hmm, that explains some things.”
- “Tell me more.”
That’s how I felt earlier this year when I read Andrea Thorfinson’s post on My Stories Matter about aphantasia. My initial curiosity at this strange word turned to shock when I discovered I was an aphant. Months later, I'm still wrapping my head around this newfound knowledge about myself!
Visual imagery enables us to ‘see’ things in our heads. It plays a role in memory, daydreaming, and learning.
Having aphantasia means that my mind’s eye is blind. Ask me to picture an apple, or a face, or a mountain, and I just can’t. When I ask my friends the same thing, some will say they see a green apple, while others see a delicious red apple with a green leaf on its stem. All I see is inky blackness.
Are you also a member of this exclusive club? Aphantasia is a unique cognitive phenomenon that affects 3-4% of the population. It was discovered in 1880 by Francis Galton but was little studied until 2015 when neurologist Dr. Adam Zeman coined the term.
You may not know the word ‘aphantasia,’ but you probably know the classic Disney animation movie. “Fantasia”. The word ‘aphantasia’ is derived from the ancient Greek word ‘phantasia,’ which means ‘imagination,’ and the prefix ‘a-,’ which means ‘without’ (as in ‘apolitical’).
Simple Tests for Aphantasia
Aphantasia presents across a spectrum, from partial to total. The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, created by British psychologist David Marks is widely used to assess individual differences.
Here are some simpler tests to see (pardon the pun) if you or someone you know has aphantasia:
Test 1: Close your eyes and try to visualize something you know well, such as an apple, your mother’s face, or your room. If you can’t see any image in your mind's eye, even after trying for several seconds, you have aphantasia.
Test 2: Have someone describe their mental image in detail. The chart below shows where someone fits on the aphantasia spectrum.
It doesn’t matter what the subject is; all I see is pitch black (#5). I could stare at my laptop for five minutes, but the instant I close my eyes, no effort can coax it to reappear out of the darkness.
I can accept this fact, but I find it disheartening that I’m unable to visualize my Mum’s face now that 96% of people can easily do this with their loved ones.
These tests have become my latest ‘party trick.’ My friends are always amazed, just as I was, to discover the existence of aphantasia. And they learned something about me that they didn’t know before. (My other party trick is asking them to guess my blood type - hint: less than 4% of the population has it).
So far, I’ve found one friend who also has aphantasia - he was shocked. I also discovered that my youngest son is a member of this selective club. Research shows a genetic component to aphantasia, and there is a 21% chance your first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) will also have it.
Aphantasia and Memory
One of the critical ways that aphantasia can impact a person’s life is through its effects on memory. Memory is a complex process involving encoding, storing, and retrieving information. There are several types of memory, including:
Semantic Memory - our knowledge of facts such as your spouse’s birthday, how to use a phone, recognizing the names of colors, and knowing what a dog is.
Episodic memory - our recollection of events in our past. Examples could be a memory about playing with a toy phone as a child, reminiscing about a family vacation, or remembering where you were when you heard the news about 9/11.
Autobiographical memory - one’s personal history, a combination of semantic and episodic memory.
Episodic memory relies heavily on forming mental images often used as cues to retrieve information. Because people with aphantasia can’t create mental images, they have difficulty recalling past events and experiences. Aphantasia can also affect a person’s ability to imagine future events and remember faces, making social situations more challenging.
Aphantasia and My Stories Matter
Looking back, I believe my aphantasia subconsciously inspired me to create My Stories Matter. To help me recall my life's autobiographical memories, I included various features such as Prompts, Cues, Timeline, and Collaboration. I hope other users find these features helpful, regardless of whether or not they experience aphantasia.
Aphantasia and Learning
Rehearsal imagery is a learning technique often used by sportspeople to train. They simulate an experience by visually imagining kicking a goal or shooting a 3-pointer. Does that mean an aphant who cannot simulate an experience by visualizing it has a learning disadvantage?
Short-term memory task tests show that people with aphantasia still perform very well even though they don’t use visual imagery. They use different memory strategies to learn.
If you have aphantasia, you may need to experiment with different memory strategies, such as using photos, illustrations, or other visualization tools to fill the void. No wonder the Memory Palace technique never worked for me!
Somewhat surprisingly, aphantasia doesn’t interfere with creativity. People with aphantasia perform on par with people who can visualize images in many tasks involving visual information. A 2003 study showed that the benefit of mental imagery is surprisingly small regarding creative thinking. It certainly didn’t hinder Ed Catcall, the co-founder of Pixar.
Thinking in Concepts, Not in Images
Aphantasia is often described as a visual condition, but it's multi-sensory. Approximately 25% of aphants are like me. Not only is my mind’s eye blind, but my mind’s ear is deaf! Nor can I imagine the smell or flavor of coffee.
It’s difficult to explain how I experience the world. I can describe things but can’t ‘see’ or ‘hear’ them inside my head. I think in terms of concepts.
I just know what an apple looks like. I just know what my Mum sounded like (she spoke English with a Hungarian accent), even though I can’t hear her voice in my head.
That doesn’t sound scientific, but studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of people with aphantasia have shown differences in brain activity compared to people without aphantasia.
Another study at the University of New South Wales investigated whether people with aphantasia could not form mental images or simply recall images poorly. Using a technique called ‘binocular rivalry,’ they found that it’s not that people with aphantasia have poor recall—they have no such visual imaginings, to begin with.
Living with Aphantasia
Aphantasia is not a disease, so there is no ‘cure.’ It’s how our brains are wired and another example of human neurodiversity.
It may seem odd that I went decades before realizing I had aphantasia. I had assumed everyone was like me. When someone said, “Picture an apple in your head,” I took that as a figure of speech. I never imagined that other people could see something in their heads.
Also, people with aphantasia may not realize they have it because they’ve developed shortcuts and different strategies for processing the world.
Aphantasia has caused me some trouble over the years. My wife will sometimes bring up something I said many years before. To hammer home her point, she might mention the clothes I was wearing then. Because she can see such detail in her mind’s eye, she thinks I’m being recalcitrant when I profess my ignorance. I hope she’s more inclined to believe me now that I can’t remember.
Although my mind’s eye is blind, ironically, I have very vivid dreams. They are often in color and movie-like in quality. I’d be happy to see a grainy black-and-white image in my mind’s eye when I’m awake. Instead, I have an excellent working color TV in my head when I’m asleep and a wholly broken TV when I’m awake.
From what I’ve read, this might be explained by the different brain mechanisms employed for involuntary imaging (aka dreaming) rather than voluntary imaging.
Some people with aphantasia report having a heightened sense of other sensory experiences, such as hearing, touch, and taste. I can’t say I’m one of them, though.
Benefits of Having Aphantasia
While I would prefer not to have aphantasia, there are some benefits:
- Less likely to be troubled by negative memories or disturbing flashbacks
- Less likely to develop anxiety after experiencing trauma or suffer from PTSD
- Not having unwanted images, sounds, or music in one’s head
- Less likely to be overwhelmed by grief
- Good at processing information analytically and logically, which can be an asset in careers such as engineering or science
- Easier to be present and in the moment
- Higher ability to retain information in the face of distraction
- Less prone to daydreaming and, therefore, a better ability to focus on tasks requiring mental concentration
- People with aphantasia tend to have a higher average IQ (115 scores compared to 110 for the general population)
- Less affected by scary stories since they can’t be visualized
- Lower sensory processing sensitivity; weaker reactions to loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells. (High sensory processing sensitivity may be related to some mental health issues)
Some Mysteries Solved
Not all the supposed benefits ring true for me, but some do.
In my youth, I backpacked around the world and had the poor timing to end up in Iran days before the start of the revolution. I’ve always felt good about myself for remaining relatively calm and rational during a particularly fierce battle at the Air Force base, where I taught English. The situation was so dire that several of the military personnel protecting us broke down crying. That was not reassuring!
Perhaps my aphantasia helped me to logically analyze the situation despite the noise and chaos of bullets, grenades, tanks, and a helicopter gunship strafing the building I was in. Although it did take me a few years to decompress fully, my aphantasia also probably helped me deal with the trauma.
Knowing I have aphantasia has helped me understand why I’m a visual learner.
I often ask my staff to present drawings or prototypes to help me comprehend their ideas better.
During a backyard renovation project a few years back, I insisted that the designer show me 3D drawings instead of 2D ones. I even had her create a physical mockup for a large (and expensive) water feature. I must have seemed very demanding. In the future, I can explain why that extra work helps me.
I’m still discovering other ways that aphantasia may have affected my life. It just dawned on me that my peers could visualize the questions and possible answers when I was sitting exams in my school days. That would have been handy!
I read “The Lord of the Rings” as a teenager. In a conversation with a friend about aphantasia, I was stunned to hear she visualizes the fictional worlds created in books.
While trekking through Nepal's vast mountains and misty valleys during my round-the-world backpacking trip, I remember thinking, “This is what Middle-earth must look like.” Unlike her, I had to see something tangible to visualize what most people can do effortlessly.
Counting sheep can supposedly help you fall asleep. When I tried, I couldn’t visualize sheep, so I assumed this was a figure of speech. I still find it hard to believe that some people can picture sheep. I’m sure I will discover other things in the days ahead.
I’ve lived for many decades in blissful ignorance that I have aphantasia. I don't feel it’s impeded my life. However, I have to confess I’m pretty envious that most people can see and hear a loved one in their head. I wish I could do that with my Mum.
Try the above tests on people you know. Prepare to blow their mind - or yours!
Remember with My Stories Matter
My Stories Matter enables you to preserve your memories safely digitally. You can share them with others and even create a Life Stories Book as a keepsake or gift.
We are our memories. I hope that fellow aphants will find the many unique features of My Stories Matter helpful in overcoming the challenges posed by our condition. And, even if you don’t have aphantasia, I hope you will enjoy using our application.
Sign up today for free.
And let me know if you’re also a member of the club!