Aphantasia, simply explained as blind imagination, is a rare phenomenon that scientists, neurologists, and psychologists largely overlooked until recently. In short, people who have it can’t visualize places, things, faces, or sounds in their absence. I am one of them.
If, for example, somebody asks me to picture a cat trotting on the road towards me, I can’t do it. I’ve seen plenty of cats, I’ve walked on many streets, so I know how they look. I can put together the concepts of cat, road, and even a few cars passing by, but without combining them into a vivid, moving, realistic image.
The first documented cases of aphantasia date from the 1880s, when Galton investigated some of his time’s brightest minds and discovered that many mathematicians visualized the algorithms they were working on. Interest has recently risen again in the scientific community due to the technical development that allows a better assessment of this condition. In the following paragraphs, I will combine my personal experience with scientific information from the few studies regarding this subject.
How I found out there’s something wrong with my imagination
A few years ago, I was attending a seminar on psychotherapy techniques.
The lecturer started a guided imagery exercise to teach us about its benefits and how a specialist can guide the client through the process. She told us to find a comfortable position on our seats, steady our breathing, and imagine we were walking through a forest clearing. I understood the directions, I knew how a forest looked like, but I couldn’t see the trees, the grass, and hear the birds chirping. It was downright impossible to picture myself in that scenario.
At the end of the exercise, my fellow students gave positive feedback, saying they felt calm. Meanwhile, I had spent the entire time trying to visually build the damned clearing and failed.
Any subsequent attempt at guided imagery went as bad as the first one. I didn’t think much about that until I found out about aphantasia a few months ago while browsing the internet. It turns out that most people can conjure images in their minds whenever they want. Wild!
What does science sayabout Aphantasia?
Aphantasia can be congenital, meaning that the people reporting it have had it all their lives. Most of them aren’t aware that other people experience life differently. In short, aphantasia is not regarded as a neurologic or psychological disorder as long as it doesn’t negatively affect the person’s life quality (Keogh & Pearson, 2018).
Even so, aphantasia can manifest alongside a few disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and depersonalization. At the opposite end, visual imagery can be heightened by post-traumatic stress disorder and LSD use (Zeman et al., 2016).
Aphantasia doesn’t impair one’s cognitive or social functioning. The majority of participants in Zeman et al.’s (2015) study ‘identified compensatory strengths in verbal, mathematical and logical domains.’ In short, other abilities compensated for their visualization difficulties.
Fun fact about myself: I’m an amateur writer. Even though I can’t visualize my characters and their surroundings, I make up entire scenarios in my head before putting them on paper. How, do you ask? My mind operates with words linked to concepts instead of images. Instead of seeing my protagonist talking with her partner, I use their lines to establish the mood. I don’t see her crossing her arms; I simply state that she did. Describing the characters moving around works just fine for me, and it seems to work for others, too. A few readers praised my writing style, labeling it as very easy to visualize. The joke’s on them!
Aphantasia manifests in different forms, out of which I will describe the main three.
–Total aphantasia is the complete lack of visual imagery.
–Voluntary aphantasia is a deficiency of imagery that manifests when people try to imagine things. They can have quick flashes of images, and they can dream. In my case, I dream in vivid colors, I see places I’ve never been to and people whom I don’t remember meeting, but I can’t do the same when I’m awake.
–Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) is the inability to recollect or re-experience one’s past from a first-person perspective. This form can also be congenital, or it appears as a consequence of physical trauma to the head (Watkins, 2018).
While it’s hard to explain aphantasia to others, I hope the information I provided made you curious about it. Research is still scarce on this subject, but I will definitely follow any future developments. I’m glad I have found out that my peculiarity has a name, and I invite you to share your thoughts about it below. Can you easily visualize places and objects? Do your visions also include sounds or physical sensations? Or are you, by any chance, a fellow aphantasic?