Is Aphantasia a Disorder? I Think Not

What if instead of asking what the aphantasic brain can't do, we asked what is it built to do? Jim, a dad with a mind's eye, discovers four of his six children have aphantasia.
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Research Alert: New research on the pathological significance of aphantasia reveals "...although aphantasia meets the criterion of statistical rarity, the impact on activities of daily living and personal distress is too weak to justify a classification as a mental disorder. Watch the full interview (Monzel et al 2022)."

An article I recently read about dyslexia in Psychology Today posits that: “… dyslexia is not a disorder at all but a unique cognitive style that helps humanity thrive.

The same can be said of aphantasia. Is aphantasia a disorder? I believe that aphantasia is not a disorder but a unique mind style that contributes to humanity’s diversity and helps it thrive.

Learning from My Mistaken Assumptions About Aphantasia

I’m not aphantasic. I have a mind’s eye. I learned about aphantasia while writing my how-to-meditate book, Simply How to Meditate. I learned that four of my six children are aphantasic. They grew into healthy, successful adults who excelled in their careers.

More than 50 years ago, I wrote two books: Skill-Building in Advanced Reading and Mental Power in Reading. I put my Advanced Reading program in schools in the upper Midwest and taught teachers how to teach reading, and also taught students in reading classes.

When I first learned of aphantasia, though, I was embarrassed because I realized how I’d goofed up all those years with my instruction.

In teaching how to read and in writing the instruction books, I used the “picture in your mind” language when teaching reading comprehension. When I learned of aphantasia, I was sure I’d used that language in the Mental Power in Reading book. Sure enough, the book’s five pages of Mental Exercises instruction all assume the reader has a mind’s-eye, including:

  • In this game, you close your eyes and try to see pictures, just as you see pictures in movies or on television.
  • Project a picture of a colorful sweater in your mind. Try to see it clearly… precisely… vividly.

After learning about aphantasia, I started noticing how often other authors use the same picture in your mind language without noting that some readers may not think this way.

A Common Misconception That We Can All Visualize

In a cnn.com story from March 29, 2017, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta describes learning how to meditate from the Dalai Lama. He writes that the Dalai Lama instructed him on how to do analytical meditation. He writes:

[…the Dalai Lama] wanted me to separate the problem or issue from everything else by placing it in a large, clear bubble. With my eyes closed, I thought of something nagging at me. As I placed the physical embodiment of this problem into the bubble, several things started to happen very naturally. The problem was now directly in front of me, floating weightlessly. In my mind, I could rotate it, spin it or flip it upside-down.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

This description seems to imply that even the Dalai Lama assumed, as I did in my own writing nearly 50 years ago, that the mind’s-eye is universal.

Reflecting on My Aphantasic Children’s Successes

In this everyone-has-a-mind’s-eye world, did my four aphantasic kids suffer? Have they gone through life short-changed? Not at all. 

My four aphantasic children are proof to me that, at least for them, aphantasia is not a cognitive defect nor a disorder. They’re in their 60s, each has a unique mind, and they have been and still are thriving.

My daughter Michelle, about 35 years ago, taught herself Microsoft Access programming. She began her own company called 1st Contact Database Services, doing custom software development. She helps organizations all over the United States get control of their specialized data. Her creative outlet is poetry. You can read her imaginative poetry on her Woodland Spaces Facebook page.

My son Daniel recently retired from the State of Alaska as a data analyst. He began knitting as a teenager and became a master knitter. He creates his own detailed designs and knits them. His latest creation, a sweater, includes his initials in the finished garment, and it incorporates several repeating snowflake designs.

My daughter Rebecca was a center supervisor and teacher with Head Start. Today she is a children’s librarian. She has used her creative side in all her teaching positions. Currently, she is planning a science club to get kids, especially the girls, excited about science. Her favorite activity is quilting. An example is a lap quilt she made for me.

My chemist son Michael, along with co-author Mark Meyerhoff, envisioned a world in which complex patient blood sample measurements would be made right at the bedsides of critically ill patients. Their seminal article on the subject was featured on the cover of the April 1990 issue of the scientific journal Analytical Chemistry (see photo). This inspired several scientists to found a company that made the world’s first portable bedside blood gas measurement instrument. Thirty years later, all around the world, countless sample measurements are made every day at the bedsides of critically ill patients.

What Might the Future Hold for Aphantasics? Is Aphantasia a Disorder?

For the past 60 years, children and adults diagnosed with neurodiversities such as dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), have been treated differently. It could be said that, unknowingly, the same holds true for aphantasics.

Knowledge of aphantasia will continue to grow over the next few years. What if the medical and pharmaceutical research world began treating those with no mind’s eye as having a disorder, a disability, or worse, a pathological condition? This could result in discrimination against aphantasics, including students, job applicants, and more.

What if instead of asking what the aphantasic brain can’t do, we asked ourselves what is it built to do?

I want to see a world where parents, teachers, employers, and medical and research institutions view aphantasia simply as a difference, a neurodiversity. 

I want to see a world where easy adjustments and accommodations can be made for all neurodiversities, including aphantasia.

I want to see a world in which teachers and parents work cooperatively with children who have no mind’s eye. They will encourage aphantasic students to transfer creative thoughts to paper or onto their electronic devices. Instead of asking a child or adult, “Do you see what I’m saying?” they will ask, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” or “Show me you understand what I’m explaining.”

What the Psychology Today article says of society’s attitude about dyslexia applies just as well to aphantasia:

…instead of focusing so much on what people with dyslexia can’t do well, it may be time to ask what their brains are built to do, then guide them toward academic programs and careers geared toward their (many) strengths.

Psychology Today

My daughter Michelle, mother of three children and grandmother of five grandchildren, says:

If a child grows up experiencing that learning is flexible, that they don’t have to learn in rigid ways, then that child will adapt. They will figure out methods of self-learning that work for them. Just as I did.

Michelle

I say, let’s not medicalize the absence of a mind’s-eye and turn it into a medical condition. Life would be dull if everyone was right-handed. Forests and woodlands would be dull if every tree was a palm.

Monzel, M., Vetterlein, A., & Reuter, M. (2022). No general pathological significance of aphantasia: An evaluation based on criteria for mental disorders. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/sjop.12887
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