The Story Begins With Aristotle
Visualization has played a central role in imagination discussions for thousands of years, first by philosophers, then psychologists, and now neuroscientists. Knowledge of our invisible differences dates back to 340 BC. Aristotle stands at the beginning of this history when imagination was not an established topic of discussion yet.
Aristotle (c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C.) was an Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist who is still considered one of the greatest thinkers in politics, psychology and ethics.
He is best known for:
- Attending Plato’s Academy
- Tutoring Alexander the Great
- Founding his own school, the Lyceum in Athens
- His 200+ writings on Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Metaphysics, Poetics and Prior Analytics.
In De Amina (On the Soul), Aristotle examines human psychology. His writings about how people perceive the world continue to underlie many principles of modern psychology today.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.~ Aristotle
Phantasia and Imagination
Aristotle popularizes phantasia in De Amina (On the Soul), Part III, to describe a distinct capacity between perception and thought — a sort of ‘sixth sense.’
Phantasia is commonly translated to imagination and is often explained in the context of visualizing and dreaming. Although scholars have mixed views on the meaning and translation of phantasia, most would agree it is not ‘unrelated to the imagination.’ Aristotle uses phantasia to explain other cognitive processes like memory, thought, reasoning, desire, action, etc.
In a brief discussion in De Anima III 3, he describes phantasia as ‘that in virtue of which an image occurs in us.‘ Aristotle accounts for phantasia in thoughts, dreams, memories and even hallucinations. He makes a point to distinguish this capacity for creating mental representations from perception.
For Aristotle, phantasia ‘need never to have been actually perceived by the senses, nor ever really exist.’ In other words, what we perceive can be a product of our imagination. Phantasia can be false, often in fantastic ways. Perhaps that’s why it’s closely associated with fantasy.
During this period in history, however, it was generally believed that our thoughts required images. It was widely accepted that:
“…whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images.”~ Artistotle
Aphantasia proves Aristotle may have been wrong about that.
Phantasia was the world Aristotle used to describe the difficult faculties of imagination, such as visualization. The a in a-phantasia denotes its absence.
Brief History of Aphantasia
Aphantasia is the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free thinking.
Francis Galton, a British psychologist known for his pioneering studies on human intelligence, first recognized this natural variation as early as the 1900s, but it lacked scientific rigour and investigation.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, neuroscience has advanced enough to study this enigmatic condition.
Dr. Adam Zeman, a neurologist from Exeter, receives a patient who can no longer imagine — known affectionately as patient MX. MX goes blind in his mind’s eye after undergoing surgery.
News of patient MX’s experience attracted media attention, leading to many new discoverers who could relate to similar experiences, only they had been blind in their mind’s eye since birth.
Zeman coined the term congential aphantasia to describe the inability to visualize in 2015. This paper was picked up by media outlets, including the New York Times, which led to an outpouring of new discoverers who also identified as having aphantasia.
Watch the following video from Dr. Adam Zeman talking about the rediscovery of aphantasia, with a special appearance from MX himself.
The Opposite Extreme of Hyperphantasia
Hyperphantasia was later named to describe an extraordinarily vivid imagination. Individuals with hyperphantasia have a unique ability to generate mental images that are incredibly detailed, vibrant, and immersive. For them, visualizing is akin to entering a mesmerizing dream, where their mind’s eye can effortlessly construct lifelike scenes.
Exploring the Extremes
The discovery of aphantasia and hyperphantasia has significant implications for our understanding of imagination. It challenges this ancient knowledge and the pervasive assumption that thoughts require images.
These invisible differences calls into question many long-held beliefs about the role of imagination in our lives. Understanding how imagination works (broadly) and how it might work differently (individually) could be the key to unlocking many answers about memory, creativity, dreaming, and even consciousness itself.
- What is the role of imagination in our lives?
- Where is imagination formed in the brain? How is it different in the aphantasia brain?
- Can we measure imagination?
- To what extent does imagination shape or distort our memories?
- How do people with vivid imaginations distinguish between what’s real and imagined? Is it possible to manipulate the imagination?
- Can imagination be effectively harnessed to enhance learning, creativity, memory, and well-being?
- What is the relationship between imagination and the nature of consciousness?
Timeline of Extreme Imagination
Some emerging research into ‘extreme imagination‘ is already unravelling some of these mysteries. Over the last decade, many scientific insights, discoveries, and happenings have occurred. The following is a timeline of some of those events.
Phantasia is the word Aristotle used to describe imagination. Aristotle identifies imagination as a distinct capacity to produce images or ‘pictorial representations’ when there is no perception, as in dreams.
British psychologist Francis Galton was the first to report cases of individual variability in visual imagery. A study involving 100 people asks participants to imagine their breakfast table. Of the 100 studied, 12 reported very dim images or no mental imagery at all.
British psychologist David Marks creates the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) to measure individual differences in the vividness of visual imagery. Since its publication, VVIQ has been referenced in over 1200 studies.
Oliver Sacks publishes an article, ‘The Mind’s Eye‘ in The New Yorker. Sacks points to the huge variations in visual imagery. Mentions his mother’s accurate visual imagination. He describes meeting a man at a medical conference who had “no visual imagery whatsoever.”
A 65-year-old man and former surveyor, known as ‘patient MX,’ underwent heart surgery and reported losing his ability to imagine. Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter published a study and coined the term “blind imagination.”
Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 3-5% of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination. This figure served as the first population estimate of people living with blind imagination.
Discover magazine publishes a story about patient MX, only to discover that MX is not alone. Several respondents to this publication report no visual imagery, but unlike patient MX, they have been this way since birth.
Professor Adam Zeman conducts another study with 21 control subjects, revealing outliers on both ends of visual imagery extremes. The inability to voluntarily visualize is given the name congenital aphantasia, meaning from birth. Zeman later names the opposite phenomenon hyperphantasia.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter and Professor Joel Pearson from the University of New South Whales embarked on brain imaging studies of people with aphantasia to determine the neural basis for why some people cannot create visual images of people, places and things in their mind’s eye.
Dr. Joel Pearson and researchers conduct a study to measure sensory imagery in subjectively self-diagnosed aphantasics using the binocular rivalry paradigm, a more objective measure. The study finds that aphantasia is a condition involving a lack of mental imagery and not a lack of metacognition.
Tom Ebeyer, an early evangelist and one of the first 21 reported cases of congenital aphantasia mentioned in Zeman’s original paper, established the Aphantasia Network—a place to discover and learn about aphantasia and connect aphantasics globally.
The first international conference for people living with extreme imagination takes place at the University of Exeter, alongside an exhibition of work by aphantasic and hyperphantasic artists at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
In a surprising survey of his former employees (n= 540), co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, discovers that some of the world’s best animators are aphantasic — including the animator of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Glen Keane.
A study led by the University of Exeter finds that aphantasia has certain benefits when it comes to working in technical sectors. People with low or no ability to visualize mental images are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries than in creative sectors. The phenomenon is the opposite of hyperphantasia which is more common in creative professions.
Aphantasia receives its first mention in a major motion picture: Netflix original series Space Force with Steve Carell.
A study led by the University of New South Whales found that the strength of a person’s mental imagery is linked to the excitability of neurons in different brain regions. These shocking insights are the first clue as to what might cause aphantasia and hyperphantasia.
According to a study from the University of New South Whales, aphantasic individuals report decreased imagery in other sensory domains. However, not all report a complete lack of multisensory imagery. This discovery highlights the wide variability that characterizes our internal mental representations and the different sub-types of aphantasia.
Aphantasia Network hosts the second Extreme Imagination conference and exhibition in partnership with Dr. Adam Zeman and the Mind’s Eye team. The virtual event brought together over 400 people across 16 different countries.
The first physiological indicator of aphantasia is discovered. Researchers at the University of New South Whales investigate whether people with aphantasia have different pupillary responses to people with visual imagery. They found that the pupils of those with aphantasia do not respond in the same way as those with visual imagery. Pupil size could be used to measure the strength of mental imagery.
Aphantasia Network launches a new sensory imagination assessment. The Imagination Spectrum Questionnaire is the world’s first publically available test for multisensory aphantasia, hyperphantasia and all subtypes. The platform is in early stage development.
A study conducted by a research team from the University of Bonn finds no pathological significance of aphantasia based on evaluating criteria for mental disorders. In sum, although aphantasia meets the criterion of statistical rarity, the impact on activities of daily living and personal distress is too weak to justify classification as a mental disorder.
The city of Rowlett, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, declares the world’s first Aphantasia Awareness Day on February 21, 2023.
What will we discover next?
There are still many more questions than answers, and the research is far from conclusive. However, what is clear is that the discovery of aphantasia provides a stark reminder of the vast differences in our imaginative experiences. It prompts us to consider how diverse our internal worlds truly are, some devoid of visual thought.