Aphantasia: Blind in the mind’s eye

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Max Kelly
Travel Editor

Max Kelly explores the condition in which people lack a mind’s eye, and its history.

Try to picture your favourite meal. How does it look? Or perhaps, try to picture a colourful sunset. Could you do it? For people who suffer from aphantasia this is not possible. This condition means that one cannot visualise in their head and one does not possess a functioning “mind’s eye”.

Francis Galton, a Victorian polymath, made the first reference to the phenomenon in 1880 when he published a paper on mental imagery. One of the experiments Galton conducted involved having subjects picture their breakfast table and describe and rate the colouring and definition of the table and the items on it. Many, including Galton’s cousin Charles Darwin, were able to distinctly visualise the items, but a number of subjects could not even begin to do it. Thus, the first research into what would later become known as aphantasia was established. However, for over a hundred years it remained largely unstudied. That was until the mid-2000s, when Adam Zeman, a neurologist who is now a professor of psychology at the University of Exeter, was presented with an unusual case. The 65-year-old patient, who was subsequently named “MX”, claimed that after undergoing a heart procedure he could no longer picture images in his mind. It is believed that “MX” — who had previously been able to conjure images in his mind’s eye — had suffered a stroke during the operation. The neurologist, along with a friend, coined the term “aphantasia” for the first time in 2015. It was taken from the Greek word phantasia — meaning imagination — which Aristotle used to describe the mind’s eye.

After Zeman’s case study was covered by LIFE magazine in 2010, 21 people got in touch with Zeman to share their experiences with the condition. He now has over 10,000 aphantasic volunteers helping him to conduct his research. It is estimated that around 2% of the population either suffer from this condition or have a limited ability to visualise.

The most intriguing aspect of the condition is that aphantasia experiences can vary massively. Some people are born with the condition, however many such as “MX” experience it after injuries to the brain or as a result of depression or psychosis. Moreover, the extent of this phenomenon changes from person to person. A good example of this was the subject of a viral tweet last month. If you close your eyes and visualise an apple, how do you picture it? Some respondents said that they could clearly conjure up a picture of an apple, being able to vividly describe the colours, as well as its size and shape. Others said that they could see only the shape or outline of an apple, or that the image they visualised was blurry and indistinct. While, of course, some could not visualise the apple at all — the true aphantasiacs.

Zeman points out in his paper “Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia” that the condition involves only voluntary visualisations, and that many aphantasiacs were still able to involuntarily visualise through dreaming. It may seem bizarre that those who cannot voluntarily visualise can still dream, but Zeman himself does not find it surprising. What the brain is doing when we are awake is very different to what it is doing when we are asleep. As Zeman explains, consciously visualising is a “top-down” process that is powered by the cortex, whereas dreaming is a “bottom-up” process which comes from the brainstem.

Joel Pearson, a professor at the University of New South Wales, has demonstrated that it is possible to influence the strength of people with aphantasia’s visual memory. This is achieved through transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involves using electrodes to deliver weak currents to the prefrontal and visual cortices. This can turn activity up or down depending on the direction the current is flowing in. Pearson hopes that this will help aphantasiacs to see with their mind’s eye. As well as helping those with aphantasia, this research could have a number of other benefits. It is believed that it could help those who struggle with intrusive thoughts, and the vivid and disturbing imagery that can come with them, as well as helping people who suffer from visual hallucinations due to schizophrenia. Furthermore, the research could also improve memory and navigational skills in those who do not have aphantasia.

As always, there are two ends of the spectrum, and many struggle instead with the much more common condition of hyperphantasia. These people can describe and recall images so distinctly and vividly that it is difficult to differentiate between what was perceived and what was imagined. Clare Dudeney, a hyperphantasiac artist, describes how at night she can often get “lost in an imagined world that feels real,” and that she can only decipher that she is not dreaming when she does something impossible, such as underwater breathing or flying through the air. Dudeney also explains that when someone describes an accident or an injury, she can visualise it so clearly that it can feel as though it is happening to her. However, the artist says that even if she could, she wouldn’t change the way she sees the world.