Close your eyes and picture walking through a snowy forest with towering pine trees. If nothing comes to mind, you might have “aphantasia.”
Imagine reading the Harry Potter series without being able to form mental images of the fantastical world of witchcraft and wizardry. Researchers have discovered that some people just can’t picture images in their heads, a condition called “aphantasia” — essentially meaning their “mind’s eye” is blind.
The phenomenon was actually discovered centuries ago by Sir Francis Galton in 1880, but it remained largely unexplored until cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman revisited the concept. Zeman previously wrote a paper about a man who lost his mind’s eye after a cardiac procedure in the sixties, and science journalist Carl Zimmer covered the topic in Discover magazine. Zimmer’s story caught the attention of 21 individuals who realized they, too, had a blind mind’s eye. They reached out to Professor Zeman and serendipitously provided him with a new way to research the rare sensation.
A network of brain regions in the frontal and parietal lobes work together to generate mental images. The process is hinged on the basis of how our memories process the way things look. If an individual is unable to visualize, it could be because the links between these brain areas are somehow disrupted. People have described the effects of aphantasia after suffering major brain damage, but Zeman is adamant that aphantasia is not a brain disorder.
However, he does suggest that people with aphantasia experience life quite differently than those who can access their mind’s eye. So many of us spend time daydreaming (a little more than we’d like to admit) or revisiting memories of certain places and people. Being unable to do that can cause people with the condition to feel somewhat isolated or as if they’re missing out on a remarkable part of the human experience.
One of the responders to Zeman, Tom Obeyer from Ontario, Canada, said, “It had a serious emotional impact. I began to feel isolated — unable to do something so central to the average human experience. The ability to recall memories and experiences, the smell of flowers or the sound of a loved one's voice; before I discovered that recalling these things was humanly possible, I wasn't even aware of what I was missing out on.”
Obeyer said that the condition has severely affected his relationships since he can’t visualize his partner unless they’re physically with each other. He also struggles with the inaccessible memories of his mother who passed away. "After the passing of my mother, I was extremely distraught in that I could not reminisce on the memories we had together. I can remember factually the things we did together, but never an image. After seven years, I hardly remember her,” he said.
Neil Kenmuir from Lancaster, UK, also experiences the inability to visualize things. He’s an avid reader who works in a bookshop, but he says books with vivid descriptions bring nothing to mind for him. Kenmuir has quite a profound understanding of the condition: “The mind's eye is a canvas, and the neurons work together to project onto it. The neurons are all working fine, but I don't have the canvas.”
Interestingly, Kenmuir also believes that aphantasia could be responsible for certain facets of his personality. "I have never been ambitious, and wondered if an inability to 'imagine myself in a place ten years from now' as a concrete image has affected this,” he said. He does think he might be better at thinking abstractly than many other people, however.
Zeman and his research team at the University of Exeter coined the term “aphantasia” this year in a study in the journal Cortex. Zeman told BBC, “People who have contacted us say they are really delighted that this has been recognized and has been given a name, because they have been trying to explain to people for years that there is this oddity that they find hard to convey to others.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the condition is that people with aphantasia can’t voluntarily imagine things in their minds, but they still dream at night. It’s a peculiar phenomenon indeed, and Zeman intends to further research it to provide a better understanding of it. While aphantasia only affects up to one in 50 people, it’s important for scientists to discover why the mind works in certain mysterious ways to build a more comprehensive understanding of the human brain.
Learn more about aphantasia in SciShow’s short video: