Imagine…..The World of the Aphantasiac
People take so many things for granted. Close your eyes and picture your favorite memory. Maybe a lovely white sand beach complete with palm trees swaying in the breeze, and undulating ocean waves. Or perhaps a shiny new metallic red Mustang convertible. How about the image of a loved one, the contours of their face and the colour of their hair.
Sadly, there are many, many people who find this simple concept, one that we just naturally take for granted, to be out of the realm of possibility. To take it one step further, many of them do not even realize that they are missing this ability until some event or chance comment makes them aware.
– One such person is Lorinda Ramsay of Aldergrove, B.C. Canada. “I found out in grade eight, after I learned the provinces of Canada in order but when this order was mixed up on the exam I was unable to identify any of them. I am completely unable to form images in my mind’s eye. I can picture things when I dream but only rarely can I recall them later and then only through word association. I will pick up a hair brush and think, ‘Oh I dreamed about someone brushing my hair’, she explains. “In school I had my best friend read all our assigned reading and then cheated with her answers because I could not intake the information with no mental images to go by. The teacher would ask me to read aloud in class and I would read beautifully and with great flair as I loved acting, but once I was finished it was impossible for me to recall anything I had read.”
Aphantasia is the name for the condition wherein one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery. This phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 but has remained mostly unstudied since. Research on the subject remains scarce, but further studies are planned since the affliction has become more recognized.
In 2005 Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter was approached by a gentleman who seemed to have lost the ability to visualize after undergoing minor surgery. Introduced by Professor Zeman, the Vividness of Visual Imagery questionnaire is used to evaluate the quality of the mental image.
Lorinda explains further: “I never understood that people could actually count sheep in order to go to sleep, or never understood how a book could be better than a movie because I cannot read and see pictures when I read as others do. I have no sense of direction at all so find it very hard to get directions when driving to a particular place. I cannot visualize anything along the way so following the directions are extremely stressful.”
“My own doctor did not know it existed until I explained it to him. Researchers just recently began to realize that some people cannot picture things. Sometimes after brain damage or surgery they would awake to discover they had lost the ability to visualize so began to think maybe there are people out there that had the misfortune of being born with this malady.”
Aphantasia, or the absence of fantasy, is also explained by Ariel Rowah, a counsellor from Sydney, Australia. When asked to imagine a scene in his mind he says, “I cannot see a thing. It is completely blank. I have an imagination, just not a visual one.”
Although some aphantasiacs suffer from all their senses being affected, such as not being able to recall the smell of garlic, or recall a Scottish accent, his is only visual. Lorinda also suffers from the lack of sensory recall. Imagine her shock when she realized, just a short time ago that others could recall the smell of things when not right in front of them.
The sound of voices cannot be conjured up either. Lorinda explains, “I overcompensated for this lack while working as Promotions Director for a group of radio stations. While working at my computer I was always facing the wall of my office. However I learned how to recognize who was entering my office by the sound of their shoes on the tile floor.”
In 2016 the co-creator of Mozilla Firefox, Blake Ross, wrote an essay entitled “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.”
In his words, “If you tell me to imagine a beach I ruminate the concept of a beach. I know facts about beaches. But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional, or otherwise sensory experience.”
He also describes reading as a very different process for him than for others. While reading a descriptive novel, the average person would visualize the images in their mind. However Blake “finds the bones” of a descriptive sentence, that is he reduces the physical descriptions, sounds, and movements of characters down to the fact that “there is a character.”
The saddest part of this condition for Lorinda is that she is completely incapable of recalling what her friends or family look like when out of her sight. “I can’t picture a boyfriend, or my daughter, or my beloved grandmother. No matter how hard I try there is a blank space until I either see them again or see a picture of them. However, because I don’t have pictures that distract me, I overcompensate and am able to recall detailed conversations with people from years ago word for word.”
As in Lorinda’s case, these people are quite shocked when they learn that other people regularly experience vivid visualizations. Explains Dr. Joel Pearson, associate professor of psychology, “People fall into the trap of thinking it is a disability or a disease. Therefore we are doing a big project in which we look at the role of anxiety and neurological disorders in aphantasiacs. They are able to perform the same tasks fairly normally but just do it in different ways.” In other words, they have discovered a way to compromise.
When asked if aphantastic people can learn to visualize things his answer is no but he is working on it. “We know we can take someone who visualizes things on the low end and help them get to medium imagery by doing stimulation tests. But what we do not know is if we can go from nothing to something. That is what we are looking at now.”
Thankfully more and more light is being shone on this strange affliction. In December 2017 a book was published by Alan Kendle on this subject. Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions, and Insights and contains a collection of insights from people with aphantasia. However much more research is needed, firstly to find out early on if children have the disorder so that they may be taught differently and more effectively. Teachers are constantly attempting to find new styles of teaching disadvantaged children and this information would assist them tremendously.
There is now a website at http://aphantasia.com, which is an online community for people identifying as aphantasiacs. It is endeavoring to grow and develop to enable people with no mind’s eye to learn about aphantasia, keep up with the latest research, and be part of a journey of discovery. There is a community forum where sufferers can communicate with others by sharing their story and offering support to each other. Also, as the user base grows it will be able to assist the academics researching aphantasia to make progress in the understanding of this condition.
Since there is such a lack of research, it is imperative that many more come forward and tell their stories. It is to be hoped that one day, preferably in the near future, a whole new world will be opened up to those unable to conjure up images of this beautiful planet of ours. Imagine how very special it will be for them to enjoy reading books, remember images of special memories and people, and yes, count sheep to assist them in falling asleep.