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Aphantasia: When Your Mind's Eye Is Blank

aphantasia
Do you think "dog" and see no image of a dog in your head? "Butterfly" and see no beautiful winged creature? You may have aphantasia, a phenomenon scientists are still exploring. ballyscanlon/Getty Images

If Sophia Petrillo (of "Golden Girls" fame), or someone like her tells you to "Picture it ... Sicily ... 1942," but you simply can't, then you might be among the roughly 2 to 3 percent of the population who experiences aphantasia.

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What Is Aphantasia?

The term "aphantasia" comes from the Greek words a, which means “without,” and phantasia, meaning “a capacity to form mental images.” The phenomenon was first described by psychologist Francis Galton – one of the pioneers in the science of eugenics – in 1880. The term, which denotes the lack of a "mind's eye," or inability to visualize in the mind, was coined to describe the phenomenon in 2015 by neurologist and University of Exeter Medical School professor Adam Zeman.

While Zeman believes that heredity and environment both are likely to be relevant causes, the exact cause of aphantasia is still unknown. Aphantasia could potentially occur in different ways in different people. Neuroimaging has shown that mental imagery is definitely associated with the left temporal lobe and requires an extensive series of pathways in the brain to occur. Scientists are still studying why these pathways might work in different ways in different people. Zeman theorizes that, while people with a functional ability to see things in the mind's eye use visual circuitry, some people use non-visual paths to process visual data.

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Do Aphantasics Lack Creativity?

Don't fret too much if this issue hits close to home, however. The lack of a mind's eye doesn't doom a person to a life devoid of color and vision. Many aphantasics go on to be successful in visually creative spaces. In fact, Zeman notes that Ed Catmull, recently retired Walt Disney Animation Studios president and co-founder of Pixar, is aphantasic. "We recently organised an exhibition of work by aphantasic artists, and aphantasia is no bar to imaginative, creative lives," Zeman explains in an email interview.

Although this seems counterintuitive, the ability to visualize has no impact on imagination. "Visualisation enables most of us to picture things to some degree in our mind's eye: imagination allows us to represent, reshape and reconceive things in their absence," Zeman writes in a blog post. "Aphantasia illustrates the wide variety of types of 'representation' available to human minds and brains: visual imagery is by no means the only option."

Research does suggest, however that people with aphantasia are more likely to pursue STEM – science, technology, engineering or math – careers. In fact, Zeman's University of Exeter study polled 2,000 people with aphantasia and discovered that 20 percent of those with little or no visual imagery selected careers in mathematics, computing or science. This, compared with people who experience hyperphantasia (exceptionally vivid mental imagery), 25 percent of whom opt for careers in creative industries such as arts, entertainment or design. Still, Zeman insists that these numbers are no more than "statistical trends," so people shouldn't limit themselves based on the ability of their mind's eye.

Although there are some exceptions to every rule, aphantasia is not something that comes and goes. "The commonest form of aphantasia is lifelong and pretty constant," Zeman says. "Occasionally, people lose imagery for neurological or psychological reasons – in some cases, imagery returns. Many of us will experience fluctuations in imagery vividness with, for example, mood." Examples of sudden-onset causes of aphantasia include stroke, head injury or depression. If this occurs, it's important to figure out why in case something serious is wrong.

While aphantasics typically don't experience any deficits due to it, there are some potential, albeit rare, problems. "Aphantasia is associated with face recognition difficulties, impoverishment of autobiographical memory and – probably – autistic spectrum disorder. But each of these associations occurs in only a minority of people with aphantasia," Zeman notes.

Although professional success is rarely impacted, aphantasia can affect a person emotionally. "It seems to make quite a big difference to people's 'inner lives' – much less difference to their performance. Some people with aphantasia regret, for example, that they can't visualise the faces of loved ones ... on the other hand, failing to visualise a distressing scene could be advantageous," Zeman explains. "It seems likely to me that aphantasia and hyperphantasia have balanced advantages and disadvantages."

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