Discovering I have Aphantasia

Recently, I discovered something that completely blew my mind. It seems most people can see well formed images play out in their mind’s eye.

But some cannot, me included.

“A mental image or mental picture is the representation in a person’s mind of the physical world outside that person. It is an experience that, on most occasions, significantly resembles the experience of perceiving some object, event, or scene, but occurs when the relevant object, event, or scene is not actually present to the senses.”

Wikipedia: Mental Image

I can’t believe I have never been aware of this before. It’s astonishing. I always thought this was exclusive to people with a photographic memory.

As with anyone who has just discovered this for themselves, I’ve been feverishly researching the topic trying to find out as much as possible.

What is Aphantasia?

Aphantasia is the suggested name for a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot visualize imagery.”

Wikipedia: Aphantasia

If you’re new to all this I highly recommend reading about the recent study1  by Professor Adam Zeman. There is also some fascinating info in a New Scientist article.

Professor Zeman describes aphantasia as not being a disorder or disability, rather “a variant of normal human experience”.

If you’d like to quickly test yourself now, try this questionnaire3  out.

Has this been studied before?

Aphantasia - Sir Francis Galton
Sir Francis Galton

The first time this was studied was by Sir Francis Galton over 135 years ago, who published Statistics of Mental Imagery4  in 1880.

There is a long section in the middle relating to statistics (which I glossed over) but it’s a must read, echoing familiar sounding accounts and astonishment akin to the recent day.

I can certainly relate to the reactions Galton received:

“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.”

The study clearly identifies varied degrees of visual clarity amongst the test subjects. It goes on to detail the perceived; quality of light / brightness, clarity of colour, and field of view. One account regarding the latter is quite baffling to comprehend:

“My mental field of vision is larger than the normal one. In the former I appear to see everything from some commanding point of view, which at once embraces every object and all sides of every object.”

An interesting fact: Galton was Sir Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. As you might expect, Galton sent his questionnaire to Darwin. On recalling his breakfast table, Darwin wrote5 :

“Some objects were defined, a slice of cold beef, some grapes and a pear, the state of my plate when I had finished, and a few other objects, are as distinct as if I had photos before me.”

Clearly, Galton and Darwin didn’t have aphantasia.

The ‘mind’s eye’ is not a metaphor?

Until now, I had absolutely no idea that the ‘mind’s eye’ was not simply a metaphorical term for how one perceives memories and visual ideas. In the next section I’m going to attempt to articulate how this happens in my head.

A general feeling I get is that most people seem to have a mind’s eye as described in the opening quote above. However –based on what I’ve learned so far, conversations I’ve had recently, and all the anecdotal comments I’ve read on various articles, videos, and social media posts– it’s abundantly clear there is a scale of capability and intensity.

One fascinating suggestion, mentioned in the New Scientist article2 , is there may be potential to somehow reactivate this sense if, in fact, the mind’s eye of some aphantasics may simply function but unconsciously.

  • Aphantasia - Vague Mental Imagery
    Vague Mental Imagery
  • Aphantasia - Vivid Mental Imagery
    Vivid Mental Imagery
  • Aphantasia - Mind's Eye
    The Mind’s Eye

Visualisation

When I think of someone I know, a friend or family member, I have a good sense of their appearance somewhere in my conscious thoughts. This includes their; face, build, eye/hair/skin colour, clothes and style, how they express emotion, walk and gesture, and how they sound.

It’s hard to explain exactly how this is all happening in my mind, so you’ll have to forgive the language I’m using and if this all sounds peculiar.

I do see them, but it’s not a striking visual experience such as looking at an image or film. There is no real detail, quality of light / brightness, or colour representation. It’s sort of like when Neo sees the real Matrix with shapes moving though a spacial dimension, but without all that vivid green computer code stuff (see the picture above).

Apparently, a good test for a mind’s eye is to recall how many windows are in your house. I can easily do this and for previous places I’ve lived in too.

I also correctly answered the shape test from the New Scientist article. For me, the answer wasn’t achieved by picturing the object and ‘twisting’ it in mental 3D space. I simply remembered the shape’s features and used logic to determine how the shape was at a different orientation.

Projecting a 3D object into my mind and manipulating it, seems to be something I definitely cannot do.

Some who identify with aphantasia have described their mind’s eye perception to be “black and white” and/or “fuzzy”. This rings true to me, I really grok these analogies.

A mental memory image

Imagine somewhere you used to live, or your childhood room. For me I sense the look and feel of the space, I can even sense objects in there, a bed, curtains, wall textures. It is an image, just not a striking photo-like image. It’s hard to describe but I do sort of see it all in place, but it feels to me like a perceptual form of seeing.

I can also sense how I may have moved around spacial areas in my memory. But these seem to be semantic mental constructions as opposed to the real film-like quality that many folks describe when referring to their memories.

Audio, touch, and smell

The brain is capable of creating other types of mental imagery, in addition to visual images, simulating or recreating perceptual experience across all sensory modalities, including auditory imagery of sounds, gustatory imagery of tastes, olfactory imagery of smells, motor imagery of movements, and haptic imagery of touch, incorporating texture, temperature, and pressure.

Wikipedia: Creative Visualisation

In terms of audio, I can hear music in my mind at will and often get earworms. If I think of a track, off my mind goes playing the sounds. This is by no means as rich in fidelity and spacial as actually listening to music, but it’s there. Everyone I’ve asked about this seems to describe this in the same way.

I’ve read some accounts from people with aphantasia who cannot seem to auditorily imagine. Try it now, think of a familiar song to you, maybe Superstition by Stevie Wonder. Can you hear it?

Personally, I cannot seem to mentally touch, taste, or smell anything and find this a bizarre proposition. I know that something I may eat or drink will be savoury, sweet, or sour, but I cannot pre-taste anything with any kind of real sensation.

On being a visual creative

For me the really ground shaking thing about this personal revelation is that I’ve always considered myself a ‘visual person’. I studied Art, Photography, Filmmaking, and Design. My vocation is extremely visual by nature, so this is the case, in an obvious sense. But do people assume a ‘visual person’ fundamentally means a mind’s eye visualiser?

I’m trying to realise if any of this may have shaped my creative work. As far back I can remember, I have never conjured up vivid images in my mind which go on to dictate something I create, or describe.

Aphantasia - Mandala
Digital Design

I’ve always excelled at creating in a more hands-on way, by using my eyes to gather data for processing, i.e, life drawing, experimenting with digital design on screen, physically manipulating, sculpture and layouts, etc. And by conceptualising concepts and ideas semantically.

Another big part of my working life involves the use of logic, i.e, web development / coding, which I really enjoy (most of the time).

Realising I have a mind’s eye which works differently shines a new light on these introspections.

It’s fascinating to think that some creatives completely see a design in their mind first, with colours and detail, then manifest these images as their starting point. There was a comment somewhere by a 3D artist who works in this way.

Clearly to imagine is highly subjective. In my case it seems to be more of a mental process, more of a sense or feeling about something built from experience and understanding of objective reality.

Things have suddenly clicked into place

Throughout life I’ve taken the mind’s eye thing as a metaphor and regarded everyone else to have the same understanding. For example, consider these common expressions:

“Can’t sleep? Try counting Sheep.”
“Imagine everyone in the audience is naked.”
“Picture this in your mind.”
“Are you daydreaming?”
“That’s exactly how I saw it in my mind!”
“Sorry, I just can’t picture it.”
“The book is so much better than the film.”
“It’s just your imagination playing tricks.”

Given the realisation a mental image can be far more literal, all these things suddenly make so much more sense. I’ve never been able to count sheep, not unless they are all standing in front of me.

It’s also made me realise why my recollection of watched films can be vague in the longer term, and why I don’t get the same realism from novels as many people report. While I read a fair amount of fiction as a child, I tend to be more drawn to factual books these days.

  • Aphantasia - Daydream
    Daydreams
  • Aphantasia - Counting Sheep
    Counting Sheep
  • Aphantasia - Dali
    Salvador Dalí

Daydreaming

Daydreaming is a short-term detachment from one’s immediate surroundings, during which a person’s contact with reality is blurred and partially substituted by a visionary fantasy, especially one of happy, pleasant thoughts, hopes or ambitions, imagined as coming to pass, and experienced while awake.”

Wikipedia: Daydream

I’m starting to realise that I’ve never daydreamed as people seem to define it. When I let my mind wander I may be thinking or imagining a hypothetical situation, future event, etc.

I can even project in my mind what peoples’ reactions may be, how they may act, vocalise something, or laugh, etc. This is what I thought daydreaming was.

“What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust.” – Salvador Dalí

To learn that some people can visualise so vividly while conscious sounds incredible. It certainly makes me feel I am missing out on something quite special about the extent of human consciousness.

Dreams

Throughout my life I’ve had countless dreams, nightmares, reoccurring dreams, bizarre surreal dreams, and even two frightening sleep paralysis experiences.

I remember dreams fairly often. If I’m consciously thinking introspectively during the day, my dream recollection seems far more frequent.

Interestingly, the recollection of my dreams is the same as with any other memory, in that it’s not the same visually as conscious seeing or the experienced dream itself, but when my dreams are happening they feel as real as waking consciousness – if that makes sense.

Of note, my dreams are always in the first person perspective. I read a comment where someone described their dreams as being third person. That sounds unusual, is it common?

“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh

If an aphantasic can dream, perhaps the mind’s eye is simply functioning unconsciously and for some reason there is no conscious access it. Or are these brains simply wired differently?

Are Aphantasia identifiers at a disadvantage?

I would say maybe there are disadvantages, especially when it comes to memory.

Personally speaking, my memory is okay but not great. This may be down to a number of factors, i.e, age, genetics, the sheer volume of new content modern life can subject us to, etc. But I can’t help wondering if perhaps aphantasia plays a role too. My procedural memory is very good, but I don’t consider extraordinarily so.

I’ve tried memory techniques in the past, like associating phrases or words to visual cues. This works for me, however I’ve always been curious how people can access a ‘mind palace’. I thought this was only possible by those with a photographic memory?

It would be interesting to find out more about these correlations.

Are there any advantages?

Aphantasia - The Scream
Hyperphantasia

From the extreme end of the scale, referred to as Hyperphantasia, then perhaps there are advantages to a blind mind’s eye. For example there are some accounts where people report never being able to “switch-off” their imagination which may be detrimental for concentration or getting to sleep.

PTSD sufferers’ constant recollection of disturbing memories is clearly incredibly distressing to live with. Are these people more prone to Hyperphantasia –or have their experiences actually caused hyper mind’s eye sensitivity?

How does it make you feel?

I think this revelation can leave one bewildered at first and feel lacking in a common human sense. Is this really how it is? I mean do people really have access to limitless clear and detailed images in their minds? It seems that way.

While it may be taken for granted by those who can visualise, those who have difficulty may naturally find it sobering and even a little depressing to be missing out on the fun, entertainment, and crucially – the practical uses this sense indubitably provides.

I’m still trying to get my head around all this, it’s the strangest personal revelation of my life.

Conclusion

After a couple of weeks of research and contemplation, I’ve come to conclude that I’m most certainly at the lower end of the visualisation scale. I absolutely have a ‘mind’s eye’, so I can visualise things. But it’s perceptual, the imagery is constructed semantically, being vague and absent in detail, colour, or striking similarity to actual vision.

It’s been fascinating to learn about other people’s amazement regarding this remarkable subject, on both sides of the coin. My interest in human consciousness has profoundly deepened and I’ll continue to pursue further enquiry at every opportunity.

I’d love to know of any of this is relatable. Please comment below or message me. And please let me know if you ever come by any interesting new info regarding aphantasia or vivid visualisation.

Cheers : )


References

(1) Can’t count sheep? You could have Aphantasia – University of Exeter
http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_467790_en.html

(2) My mind’s eye is blind – so what’s going on in my brain?
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2083706-my-minds-eye-is-blind-so-whats-going-on-in-my-brain

(3) Marks’ Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire
http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/MarksVVIQ.htm

(4) Statistics of Mental Imagery – Francis Galton
http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Galton/imagery.htm

(5) Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in art, literature, and music
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=0Vn0DAAAQBAJ


Definition & Pronunciation

Aphantasia /ˌeɪfanˈteɪzɪə /

The inability to form mental images of objects that are not present.

‘if counting sheep is an abstract concept, or you are unable to visualize the faces of loved ones, you could have aphantasia’.


Further info on Aphantasia

The Eye’s Mind – University of Exeter
http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/healthresearch/cognitive-neurology/theeyesmind/conference/

Aphantasia: A life without mental images
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34039054

When you visualize, do you see clear pictures and colors like in a photograph?
http://www.inwardquest.com/questions/50475/when-you-visualize-do-you-see-clear-pictures-and-colors-like-in-a-photograph


On Facebook

The Eye’s Mind – a study of the visual imagination
https://www.facebook.com/thevisualimagination

Aphantasia (Non-Imager / Mental Blindness) Awareness Group
https://www.facebook.com/groups/204603509580186/


Videos on Aphantasia

Aphantasia: A life without mental images [A short BBC News report feat. Prof. Zeman]
https://youtu.be/Rp6TfNXbJ4M

Aphantasia: Seeing the world without a mind’s eye | Tamara Alireza [TEDx]
https://youtu.be/arc1fdoMi2Y

Blind Mind’s Eyes: Aphantasia and Our Diverse Inner Lives
https://youtu.be/J1cEwBAJ03o

Can You Visualise This? (Aphantasia Explained) [PBS BrainCraft]
https://youtu.be/KuWSh4n5AiI

New Insights Into ‘The Mind’s Eye’ [PBS SciShow]
https://youtu.be/lpK6ZJea9fk


Related Info

Sir Frances Galton
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Galton

Professor Adam Zelman
http://psychology.exeter.ac.uk/staff/index.php?web_id=adam_zeman

Metal Image
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_image

Creative Visualisation
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_visualization

Fantasy prone personality
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_prone_personality

Counting Sheep
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counting_sheep

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17 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this post and links. A lot of what you’ve said rings true for me too, especially about the vagueness of the imagery in your minds eye.
    I have only found out about this condition this weekend after a discussion with my husband about him seeing words when people talk to him. He was amazed when I said I see barely anything.

    Reply
  2. This is a very interesting article and I have enjoyed the clarity of your experience of aphantasia which actually mirrors my own, my husbands and my daughter. ( Except I can’t hear music in my head either )
    I am finding it difficult to believe that visualisation is an experience for the majority of the population. Certainly I was having difficulty understanding the concept. Am I right to assume that to visualise one must have their eyes closed? Because I can imagine what my mother looks like whether my eyes are open or closed..it is a thought that is the same in both scenarios. Am I visualising or not? So then how many more people are confusing these two ideas and think they are visualising too?
    And finally the book is always far better than than the film!!

    Reply
    • “Am I right to assume that to visualise one must have their eyes closed?”

      From what I have read, no. (and the one person I asked) I can’t form a visual image with my eyes open or closed. The woman I talk with, I told her that I can’t “see” the color blue in my head. She was amazed. She is on the other end of the spectrum. She has PTSD. She has difficulty with what she sees, knowing what is real. I would rather be mentally blind compared to how she lives.

  3. Oh my gosh, yes. You have sparked so much in me this morning. I am quite sure I have this, and will be researching more to make sense of it all.

    Reply
  4. Thank you so much. I relate to everything you said. I hear music, can’t see images, experience tastes or anything. I only discovered aphantasia a few days ago when I watched a Ted talk on it. Now that I’ve seen this article, I have experienced exactly everything you’re describing.
    Thanks for helping me out with discovering that I have aphantasia.

    Reply
  5. I only discovered this last night. And it became clear this was me. I relate to your experiences in many, many ways. Layers of emotions and thoughts.

    As with you, I am a visual person. I got an MFA in painting and have a strongly developed visual sense. After thinking about this for the last few hours it occurred to me this phenomenon might partly explain why I am a visual person. I need to work things out in front of me. I never try to ‘see’ in my head what I will paint. I see it as it happens. So the doing is essential. This applies to many visual problems I face everyday. I like to see how things look in front of me before I decide.
    I hope your adjusting to your new reality. It is a reality curveball.

    Reply
  6. Thank you so much, this was a really interesting read. Learned so much! Like yourself, based on the examples I am on the lower end of the visualization spectrum but have a creative career as a graphic designer. What an interesting discovery, looking forward to discussing this with friends and family.

    Reply
  7. I feel exactly the same. It’s actually scary how well I relate to what you were saying. I almost felt like you were describing me. I’ve always thought of myself as a visual person like you and I also majoring in coding right now.

    I just found out that people can actually see images in my head and I haven’t been able to stop researching about it since. I always thought the mind’s eye thing was a joke or some spiritual mumbo jumbo. I never even considered that it was an actual thing. I’ve even tried to count sheep before to no avail and know I know why. This is pretty crazy and I enjoyed hearing that someone other than me has gone through the same thing.

    Reply
  8. Michele Wallace

    Hi there
    My experiences of aphantasia are more or less the same. I feel/know things when recalling.
    I do however have a very good memory, exception spatial circumstances such as maps/road names of town’s. (I have lived but lived in 15 different towns/cities so I put the no-recall down to overload).
    I enjoy analytical work with numbers and formulae, patterns, score well in IQ tests (except for the spatial sections, generally scoring zero in this as I cant complete rotations in my head, Ive never have been able to).
    I talk always self-talk and while others around me think it is strange I believe it helps with my memory, I recall most things by audio (like you I hear in perfect stereo) and emotional tags attached to required recall subject. I attach emotion tags to remember everything and recall the emotion tag that is associated with a memory. The tags I attach are current emotions, ie remember difference between psychopath and sociapath, I feel happy atm so Iĺl remember this feeling or something that has happened today and associate it to the answers, said out loud, if the room is louder than my stereo head and especially if I must not forget.
    It sounds complicated but its not really, it just reinforces the memory.
    I find it frustrating that some people do not believe that aphantasia is a real thing and add this emotion to their imaginary cuckoo view of me. Intellectually, Im superior to the Cuckoo claimer anyway, (of whom is a frenemy-ex) so haha to them.
    I suppose aphantasia has explained why I have these quirks.
    The lights turned on for me forever with the Eureka moment of understanding why I have to have my eyes wide open in all romantic situations, kissing being the tidiest to discuss. I did actually think I was slightly different because of this. Now I do not. Freedom of action emotion sound and thought.
    No assumptions of grandiose, “Cliff from Cheers”, know-all, nerdy, librarian, brainboxing judgement by frienmies, collegues, peers, family and friends.
    Aphantastia has freed me.
    Just don’t discuss meditation, I can not do what mediatation gurus describe observing random thoughts.. I can think of nothing with ease but alas have no interferring thoughts that need to be observed.
    To me nothing is nothing.
    Yet, with us aphants…nothing is everything. I find that extremely amusing?

    Reply
  9. Well that helped a lot. It felt like I could have written that. (Not quite as well, but you get my drift.) Except I still like fiction over nonfiction. But wow. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.

    Reply
  10. Thank you for describing this so well. I’m on the other end of the spectrum and just today learned that aphantastia is a thing. Like you, I couldn’t figure out what the other side was like. My thoughts were things such as: well how can they learn, are any of them artistic, do they dream? Plus other uneducated questions as well. I have detailed images dating from being 3 years old! I rarely ever go to a movie if I’ve read the book it was based on, as I already have a fully detailed movie in my head and the characters on the screen look and sound NOTHING like what I’ve already visualized. Ruins it for me! You’ve described what it’s like to NOT have those images well enough so that I can understand what it’s like. Thanks!

    Reply
  11. I have been having a hard time convincing those that don’t have this lack of mind’s eye that this is real. I do relate to what you have said except i am able to visualize somewhat. I do know that there are variations to aphantasia, but I was curious if you’ve come across any information on using memories to visualize in your mind’s eye. I am able to recall things from memory, with a very mild and fleeting picture if any, but am not able to congure up something I have never witnessed before. I have read how people with aphantasia find ways to function differently and wondered if this was my way of coping, or I might have a mental block. Just a thought.

    Reply
  12. I literally just discovered I have aphantasia- I can’t even wrap my brain around it. I always thought ‘picture this” was a metaphor… my mind is blown. I’m 50 years old – I started crying asking my daughter questions. I couldn’t articulate it But your article explains it better than I ever could. I do feel cheated. I watched a Ted talk about a man lost this mind’s eye after heart surgery. Has there been any research on losing/gaining the ability? All I see is darkness. It’s so depressing to realize I don’t see anything- my memories are more like I’m pulling data but there are no visual images, light or color- just darkness. Have you ever consulted a neurologist ? How rare is this? I mean how dense am I that I just realized this? I actually found out while completing a survey about my DNA sample with 23&me. It was a question they asked and I was confused by do lack visual memory? I wonder if there is a component within our DNA.

    Reply
  13. All I’ve ever seen my whole life when I close my eyes is black as black darkness. I have zero mental imagery abilities, and have to solely rely on memory which was very draining mentally during exam time while in school. Growing up I would laugh inside when the teacher would ask the class to imagine something, and the kids would comment on what they’ve seen. I thought they were all lying/ seeking attention. Lol I guess the joke was on me the whole time. I wish Aphantasia was in the DSM (diagnostic statistic manual) as I feel it is a disability. If it was in the DSM then it would be granted a code and would be able to be approved for government grant research funding. Like how can hoarding be classified in the latest DSM edition but not Aphantasia. Frustrating.

    Reply

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