Originally published on lianamscott.com.
My pursuit to answer the question—is aphantasia hereditary?— was preceded by the discovery that I have aphantasia. I had never heard of it before. My inability to visualize—aphantasia… also known as image-free thinking—had a name! Fascinated, I immediately took to Google to search:
If you clicked the link on the history of aphantasia, you read that the term “aphantasia” was coined in 2015 by Dr Adam Zeman, a neurologist from Exeter University.
Emerging Evidence of Aphantasia in Families
In a video interview with Dr. Zeman in May 2021, when asked if aphantasia is hereditary, referencing a study he collaborated on in 2020 called Phantasia–The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes, he stated:
“We do have evidence that aphantasia is familial . . . If you have aphantasia, the chances that your first-degree relatives will have aphantasia are raised by about 10-fold.”
He mentions the likelihood of a “genetic story” as studies continue into the genes that influence imagery vividness and whether or not aphantasia is hereditary, adding:
“The chances are that there will be some [genes specific to aphantasia]—though we haven’t yet found them.”
Play the short video below to hear from Dr. Zeman directly.
With the understanding that scientific research is underway to find the genes associated with aphantasia, but that results may take a while, it was time for me to do some research within my own family tree to appease my curiosity about whether or not aphantasia could be genetic.
Families with Aphantasia
Parents with Aphantasia
I have one living parent, my father, who is 93. Keeping it simple, I first asked him if he could picture a red apple in his mind on command. He paused, thought about it, and said that he couldn’t. I asked if he could perhaps see the shape of the apple without color. He could not. I asked him to close his eyes and try the exercise again. We tried an apple, a rainbow, and a horse. He stated that all he could see was darkness. Like me, my dad is aphantasic.
As for my mother, who passed in 2016, I believe that she, too, was aphantasic. Allow me to explain.
Mom suffered cruel and terrifying circumstances during World War II, not the least of which was her escape from a Russian prisoner of war camp. As harrowing as her early life was, Mom didn’t have nightmares or flashbacks and always seemed relatively calm when remembering her ordeals. She recounted everything in great detail, painting the pictures of her recollections with language rather than from a place of traumatic visual memory. Despite what my mother endured and survived, she never showed any symptoms of PTSD.
PTSD and Aphantasia
I did some research and found emerging studies pertaining to PTSD in people with aphantasia.
In June 2020, Joel Pearson, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UNSW, Sydney, Australia, co-authored a research paper entitled; A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia. The researchers hypothesized that:
“…visual imagery absence might partially protect aphantasic individuals from experiencing some [PTSD] trauma symptomatology (such as vivid memory intrusions) in response to stressful past events.”
In January 2023, Joel Pearson co-authored a study entitled, Fewer intrusive memories in aphantasia: using the trauma film paradigm as a laboratory model of PTSD, concluding:
“Aphantasic individuals may be less likely to develop PTSD after exposure to an isolated traumatic experience compared to those with imagery.”
While it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that people who suffer the horrifying conditions my mother did would absolutely have PTSD, I think it’s plausible that she was perhaps a “partially protected aphantasic”.
Siblings with Aphantasia
My three older siblings and I are tight. We connect through Whatsapp several times a week, we live within a 45-minute driving radius, and we enjoy hanging out together. I feel as though I know each of them from a very unique perspective—that of the baby sister.
During a recent sibling video call, before explaining what aphantasia was, I asked them, “Can you visualize?” Three faces stared back at me from my computer screen. Appreciative of their patience, I continued. “Picture a red apple,” I said, “what do you see?” To my surprise, they all responded with something akin to, “I can’t see shit.” I told them about aphantasia, and we collectively experimented with eyes open, then eyes closed. Nothing.
To my utter surprise, all four of us are aphantasic. Seems plausible given my dad is aphantasic, and lends further credence to the speculation that my mom was, too.
Continuing my journey to answer the gnawing question—is aphantasia hereditary?—I asked if I could interview them individually to get their take on how aphantasia may have/has impacted their lives in both cognizant and subliminal ways. They all agreed.
Learning I Have Aphantasia
To put my siblings’ responses into context, I should first explain how I felt (in the past) about being unable to visualize and how I reacted to learning about aphantasia.
My inability to visualize came with a variety of emotions ranging from confusion and frustration (cognizant) to feelings of inadequacy, failure, shame, and even exclusion (subliminal). You can read my other posts about aphantasia here.
Finding out that my life-long (congenital) challenge with visualization had a name—aphantasia—and that it was the focus of a burgeoning field of scientific study, fascinated me. More importantly, it immediately lifted from me the burden of those (seemingly illogical) emotions. In a word, I was elated! I didn’t have to struggle anymore. There was nothing wrong with me. Is nothing wrong with me. Those things I couldn’t do that seemingly everyone else around me could had finally been explained.
I had flashes of insights (I call them a-ha moments) into myself and my experiences where having aphantasia explained so much. Understand, though, that perspectives vary among aphantasics. For me, I was off the hook. I didn’t have to try anymore. Rather, I spent time exploring new ways to adapt, and appreciating the ways I had already (unknowingly) been doing just that.
Similarities and Differences Between Siblings With Aphantasia
In preparation for interviewing my siblings to discover if aphantasia is hereditary, I crafted three questions that I shared with them in advance.
- What was your reaction when you learned about, and that you have, aphantasia?
- How do you feel it has impacted your life, if at all?
- Have you had any revelations (a-ha moments) since you learned about aphantasia?
When formulating an answer, I asked that they think about the implications of having aphantasia. Here is a summary of their responses in the order of how they were interviewed. I’ve included myself to demonstrate the complexity of perspectives.
Is Aphantasia Hereditary? – Personal Study Findings
|Me||At first—fascinated, excited. Later—elated.||Before finding out—Never wanted to admit couldn’t do it. Felt shame, frustration, exclusion. After finding out—relieved. A better understanding of aspects of self.||Loves to read/write; skips over long descriptions of scenery, wardrobe, etc.; can’t remember the story long after finishing. Writes fiction and non-fiction. Tried hypnosis; didn’t work until after learning about aphantasia. Bad at numbers and memorization. Partner is hyperphantasic.|
|Sibling 1||At first—amused (what’s the big deal?)Later—upset, angry, sense of loss.||Before finding out—None; didn’t think anything was wrong. After finding out—lowered self-confidence. Preferred not to know.||Rarely reads books. Tried hypnosis; never worked/helped. Can draw; wonders where that ability comes from. Good at math, detailed work though retention after the fact lacking. Partner is hyperphantasic.|
|Sibling 2||At first—found it interesting. Later—indifferent (meh, whatever).||None before or after finding out. It’s like having different hair/eye color. No biggie.||Rarely reads books. Tried hypnosis once; may have helped—doesn’t remember. Doesn’t get too worked up/excited about things. Uses inner dialogue to “imagine”. Remembers dates/times very well. Partner is hyperphantasic.|
|Sibling 3||At first—wow. Later—interesting, thoughtful.||Before finding out—Never wanted to admit couldn’t do it. Felt something was wrong. After finding out—better understanding of aspects of self. Filled in some blanks.||Loves to read; skips over long descriptions of scenery, wardrobe, etc. ; can’t remember the story long after finishing. Couldn’t do hypnosis. Terrible at memorization. No ability to draw/write. Good with picking up spoken languages. Partner also aphantasic.|
Sibling Reactions to Aphantasia Differ Greatly
I excitedly shared my discovery of aphantasia with my siblings, thinking that they would be just as eager to examine their uniqueness through the lens of aphantasia as I was/am. In my haste, I inadvertently bulldozed over Sibling 1’s self-esteem, leaving some psychological unrest in my wake. In direct contrast was Sibling 2 who was rather indifferent and unfazed (almost bored) by it all. After interviewing those two—diametrically opposed in their reactions—I was rather apprehensive about interviewing Sibling 3 who, as it turned out, reacted similarly to myself.
Summary of Revelations
As for the revelations, it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between us. It certainly demonstrated strong similarities, giving credence to the assumption that aphantasia is hereditary.
- Hypnosis, for instance. We’ve all tried it with little to no success, a well-known complaint among aphantasics.
- Regarding memorization skills, we range from “just ok” to abysmal.
- Two of us have some artistic/creative capability (drawing and writing) whereas the other two are self-professed to be very low on this measure.
- Two of us love reading but avoid superfluous detail, and are similarly unable to retain the details of the stories we’ve read beyond the fact that we enjoyed them. Begs the question—how, then, do we even remember that we did enjoy them? The other two seem completely disinterested in reading long-form anything, though can and do when required.
- We each possess a skill unique to ourselves; being good with numbers (Sibling 1), remembering dates and times (Sibling 2), picking up spoken languages (Sibling 3), writing fiction (me).
- A last (and very interesting to me) item noted was this; three out of four of us are partnered with hyperphantasics (people with extremely vivid mental imagery). I wonder what that could mean? Perhaps aphantasia has given a whole new meaning to this idea that “opposites attract”?
Final Thoughts – So, Is Aphantasia Hereditary?
The diversity of our perspectives upon learning the term aphantasia, how each of us reacted to being aphantasic, and how we each perceived it has impacted our lives, really surprised me. We (all) share the familial neurodiversity called aphantasia, but each of us has adapted to its limitations (cognizant and subliminal). We rely on and hone the talents we have, and develop strategies to overcome that which doesn’t immediately fall in our wheelhouse. Our reactions, impacts, and revelations, it would seem, are as complex as the [spectrum of] aphantasia itself.
So, is aphantasia hereditary? My conclusion—though obviously not a scientific one—is that (congenital) aphantasia seems to be genetic—at least, partially. I eagerly await what science has to say on the subject.