Can Aphantasics Use Imagery to Heal or Improve Performance? 

From guided imagery to imagined athletic practices, are aphantasics disadvantaged because they lack a mind’s eye?

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Do self-improvement practices requiring visual imagery benefit aphantasics to the same degree as they do for people with a mind’s eye? Can aphantasics use imagery to heal or improve performance?

The answer to these questions wouldn’t matter to me, personally, because I have a mind’s eye. What prompted me to dig for answers? I began to wonder about three years ago when I first learned that some people lack a mind’s eye—they have aphantasia. I then learned that four of my six children have no mind’s eye, which I wrote about in this article, Learning from My Mistaken Assumptions About Aphantasia

The primary reason I’m asking the questions is because of my 43 years of experience as a lay minister (mostly with two United Church of Christ congregations). I developed and taught classes on positive, healing prayer. Also, I currently teach healing meditation. And, in some healing prayer and healing meditation, the individual mentally focuses on seeing images of desired good health. 

I’m a Healing Practitioner – Is It Possible to Adapt My Instruction for Aphants?

Right now, I’m preparing to teach a college-level class on “The Science of Healing Prayer and Healing Meditation.” So, understanding if aphantasics can use imagery to heal or improve performance is pertinent to the instruction I give to people with no mind’s eye. 

A quick aside here, the science of healing prayer and healing meditation is not about the role of a god or a religious belief in the resulting healing. The science is about the role of our own mind and our beliefs in effecting healing. It’s what’s called the mind-body connection. 

Dr. Herbert Benson, in his book Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, explains it this way, “People don’t have to have a professed belief in God to reap the psychological and physical rewards of the faith factor.”  He then defines “the faith factor” as “remembered wellness” and states, “It’s known in the scientific community as ‘the placebo effect.’”

Throughout history, people assumed that everyone can visualize, focusing on mental images that represent desired personal improvements. 

This assumption continues today because so few people know about aphantasia. All but one of the experts I’ve contacted about this topic in fields that utilize visualization—teachers, ministers, and athletic coaches—assume that everyone sees images in their minds. Or they assume that if a person can’t imagine pictures, their other senses will do just fine when they are imagining

A representative example is in Ben Jamison’s book, Church-Free Spirituality. Jamison is a spiritual counsellor with a master’s in spiritual counselling. In a section of his book titled Visualization is Not Necessarily Visual, he writes:

“When talking about visualization, the words ‘image, picture, see, etc,’ are often used. This can cause confusion and result in thinking that, in order to ‘do it right,’ you must actually see something. This is not the case. Some people, when they visualize, get a clear image in their mind, just like looking at a photograph, and some do not. I am one of those that do not… There really is no process of Visualization. You just do it and have fun with it. The more clearly you can see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and experience your visualization, the more powerful it will be… The way you do Visualization is perfect for you. Period.”

A second example is from Dr. Jennifer Cumming, researcher and professor in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. 

In an article entitled Sport Imagery Training, she writes:

“What is imagery? Imagery is also called visualization or mental rehearsal. Imagery means using all of your senses (e.g., see, feel, hear, taste, smell) to rehearse your sport in your mind… How do the best athletes use imagery? From studying how the best athletes use imagery, we know that imagery is most beneficial when it is: Vivid and detailed. Incorporates all senses (see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.).”

In an article entitled Easy Ways to Support Image Generation, Dr. Cumming also writes:

“The flexibility and unlimited potential for how imagery can be used is one of the many reasons why it is so popular among talented and successful individuals. However, some find it harder than others to create effective mental images. Like any intentional mental activity, it does take practice and experience before it becomes easier.”

Examples of Using Imagery to Improve Wellness

Here are five practices that use imagery to heal or improve performance:

  1. Healing prayer, healing meditation, and similar healing visualization using mental images of desired healing.
  2. Athletic skills imagery practice while not physically practicing.
  3. Guided imagery for physical and emotional improvement.
  4. Imagery in meditation.
  5. The HeartMath freeze-frame technique for improved emotional health.

And here are three examples of how visualization has been used to improve wellness:

  1. Deepak Chopra, in his book Quantum Healing, tells how radiologist Dr. O. Carl Simonton suggested to a severely ill 61-year-old throat cancer patient how to enhance his radiation therapy through the use of visualization. The patient “… was taught to visualize his cancer as vividly as possible. Then using any mental picture that appealed to him, he was asked to visualize his immune system as the white blood cells successfully attacking the cancer cells and sweeping them out of the body, leaving only healthy cells behind.” The patient said he “… envisioned his immune cells as a blizzard of white particles, covering the tumor-like snow burying a black rock.” The radiation combined with the visualization was surprisingly successful.
  2. Psychiatrist Karl Jung’s “active imagination” technique states, “In active imagination, a patient is instructed to meditate, remaining free of any goal or program. The person then invites images to appear and watches them without interference. If the person wishes, he or she can interact with the images by talking to them or asking questions. Subsequently, the patient discusses the visualizations with the therapist.” (Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, Mike Samuels, M.D., Nancy Samuels)

My son Daniel, who is aphantasic and who is a long-time student of Jungian practices, has struggled for years trying to achieve what Jung intended for people using his active imagination technique. When I asked him how, without a mind’s eye, he deals with Jung’s active imagination, he said, “It’s always been difficult for me.”   

  1. The HeartMath freeze-frame technique involves imagining breathing through the heart to involve the heart in bettering your emotional health. The focus is on recalling a positive emotional feeling from your past. The freeze-frame technique involves mental visualization— seeing a picture in the mind—along with remembering positive emotional feelings associated with the mental image. 

My daughter, Michelle, who has no mind’s eye, practices this technique and is enthusiastic about how helpful it is to her. When I asked her how she could be so enthusiastic about it without seeing images of breathing through the heart and picturing images from her past, she confidently said it was because she involved her other senses. 

When I suggested to Michelle that she might be even more enthusiastic about HeartMath freeze-frame and experience even more helpful results if she were also using a mind’s eye, a bit of her enthusiasm subsided. She conceded that without research results, no one could be sure.

Can Research Answer the Question of Whether or Not Aphants Can Use Imagery to Heal or Improve Performance?

So, do self-improvement practices requiring visualization benefit aphantasics to the same degree as they benefit people with a mind’s eye? Can aphantasics use imagery to heal or improve performance?

These questions need a science-based, researched answer. 

I approached psychologist and researcher Merlin Monzel on the topic. He is a leading aphantasia researcher at the Department of Psychology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany. 

Monzel noted, “There is much research that visual images can evoke stronger emotions than comparable verbal processes.” He added, “If meditation or similar processes work only via emotional mechanisms, functionality with aphantasics might be decreased. However, there is evidence that often a purely cognitive engagement with meditative content is sufficient to achieve effects, as in mindfulness.”

He cited preliminary data from a study from his group at the Department of Psychology, University of Bonn, entitled Imaginal extinction without imagery: Dissociating the effects of visual imagery and propositional thought by contrasting participants with aphantasia, simulated aphantasia, and controls.

Imaginal exposure treatment directly confronts feared thoughts and feared consequences by using a person’s imagination. This study investigated whether mental imagery or propositional thought—using abstract thoughts rather than visual imaging—is crucial for the success of imaginal exposure treatment for people with anxiety and panic disorders. 

In preliminary data from this study, Monzel noted, “We were able to see that imaginal exposure also works for aphantasics, probably because emotion processing is not necessary for results.” He added, “A single case study on meditative hypnosis could also show success with aphantasics, even though the mechanisms of action might be different here as well.”

“Overall,” Monzel said, “this topic is still largely unexplored, which is why further studies must follow.”

Monzel, M., Agren, T., Tengler, M., & Reuter, M. (2023). Imaginal extinction without imagery: Dissociating the effects of visual imagery and propositional thought by contrasting participants with aphantasia, simulated aphantasia, and controls. Psychophysiology, e14271. doi:10.1111/psyp.14271
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I wonder if the dichotomy between mental imagery and propositional thought is an incomplete representation of our mental processes. Why are these the only two possibilities? As a multi-sensory aphantasic, my sense is that there are other modes of “thought” going on in our brains.

I was in my mid-thirties when I became aware that other people saw stuff in their mind’s eye, while I did not. Before that, I’d had difficulty in various settings when I received specific instructions on what and how to visualize. I often felt frustrated, and nothing good happened.

Once I became aware that I was different from most other people, I started handling these types of settings differently. Instead of trying to follow the directions exactly, I knew that I needed to do something a bit different. For example, during years of yoga classes with guided meditations at the end, I didn’t try to picture anything. I took the input and thought about what it would feel like to experience whatever the described situation was. These thoughts were neither visual nor propositional. Other than the external words, few words and often none at all came into my mind. I just followed my feelings. When I didn’t feel like following along with the prompts, I simply focused on how I was feeling in the moment, both physically and emotionally. For me, that does not require images or words, unless someone else asks me to describe what is going on.

In order to engage other people more fully in these types of practices, it might be helpful for the practitioners to start from a broader set of instructions. Start with “thought” rather than “visualization” or other quasi-sensory modalities. We all think, even if we don’t know exactly how we do it. Individuals can explore what that means for them. Maybe for most it involves visualization or other sensory imagination. Maybe for others it involves words. Maybe for others it is something else entirely different. If there is direction needed, it should start with how the individual can use their understanding of their thoughts to get to the next point of the practice.

We don’t know what other people’s internal experiences are. It was reasonable for the author of this article to ask his daughter if she might experience more helpful results from HeartMath freeze-frame if she were using a mind’s eye. But I think it would have also been reasonable for him to inquire if she felt that she got more quickly and fully to a helpful state because she wasn’t distracted by visualization. Who is to say what the best route is for a helpful practice if a helpful result is achieved?

Me parece muy interesante el tema porque apenas me voy adentrando al mundo de la meditación y tener este tipo de desventajas son un gran golpe por no poder visualizar, pero voy a seguir intentando poder meditar a ver si surge algo.