How Aphantasia Can Make You Seem Insensitive

We’re not — aphants don’t see the world the way most people do. Our brains work differently.
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Originally published on Medium.com.

I’ve written about aphantasia before (the short version is that people with no mental imagery, who are known as aphants, cannot create mental images), but I had another thought about it recently.

Aphants don’t ‘see’ the world the way most people do. This can cause us to appear insensitive at times, but generally speaking, we’re not – it’s just that our brains work differently.

How People With Aphantasia May Seem Insensitive

It’s because our mind’s eye is blind, as it were, that we seem to be more immune to the after-effects of distressing images.

If, for example, I see a photo of a dead animal or people who’ve been severely injured, it will upset me at the time. After that, it won’t pop back into my mind unannounced. I have no mental imagery, so I cannot recreate the original image inside my head.

My late wife, on the other hand, had an incredibly visual brain. Once she’d seen the sort of photos I’m talking about, they would randomly appear in her mind later on, which she found just as upsetting as she had the first time.

Now, the problem is that many people with no mental imagery don’t necessarily know they have aphantasia. Although it was first described in 1880, research only began within the last decade.

So, someone with aphantasia might show someone a photo that is upsetting without realizing that it could cause that other person a form of trauma for years afterward.

Why?

Well, not only did I not realize I had this unusual condition—which is believed to affect about 4% of people—until I was in my mid-40s, but I also didn’t know that there were people who could see very vivid mental imagery.

I’d read in books about visualizing things (e.g., when learning mnemonic systems, which are tools to help you remember things, such as dates and phone numbers at the age of eight), but I always thought it—visualizing—was just a figure of speech. It wasn’t until I met my second wife and we got to discussing how she could remember exactly where things were in the house that she’d not seen for several years that I realized most people do have visual brains.

That means that if an aphant shows you a disturbing photo, for instance, that most people (i.e. non-aphants) might find disturbing and have a long-term problem with, it’s not because they are insensitive or love shocking you. It’s because they don’t experience such mental photos the same way most people do after the fact.

People can also assume we aphants are cold and emotionless because we don’t react the way most people do. In my case, I know I have not been a particularly emotional person for almost all my life until the past couple of years. This makes me wonder whether this is another side effect of aphantasia or whether my lack of mental imagery and my apparent emotionless response are both results of some other trauma during early childhood.

One of the weirder things about my late wife’s visual brain was that, while she did not want to be shown photos that would haunt her ever after, she had no problem watching horror or violent movies. Maybe that was because she knew those were mere fiction, whereas photos of actual people or animals were real. I’ll never know for certain, of course, since she’s no longer here to ask.

My second wife, on the other hand, is not as visual as my late wife was. She doesn’t have full aphantasia. She, too, finds certain images disturbing, but they typically don’t reappear in her mind randomly.

There’s Still a Lot to Learn About Aphantasia

Aphantasia is still a little-known condition. Real research has begun, at last, but there are still few clues as to what causes it. For example, some are born with it (known as congenital aphantasia), and others it’s the result of brain injury or trauma response (known as acquired aphantasia).

Conversely, it could also be that some people start with the ability to see things vividly in their mind’s eye, only to lose it later in life due to age.

I have even read about a few people who have managed to improve their mind’s eye, primarily through various brain and sight exercises.

There is still a lot to discover about why some people have mental imagery, and others don’t.

We do know that there are degrees of vividness: some people on the lower end of the spectrum can create blurry grey-scale images in their minds, while others, including me, only see black when we try to visualize.

It can affect other senses too: for some, it’s only their ability to create mental images that are lacking—they can recreate other sensory experiences such as smells, touch, and sounds. For others, again, including me, it’s full five-sense aphantasia—called total or multisensory aphantasia—which means I have no mental imagery in any of my senses.

Aphantasia does have its pros and cons. As I said, I have no ability to recreate anything in my mind. It’s an ability I sometimes wish I had (it would have been a tremendous benefit when performing memory demonstrations such as this one called The Missing Card Stunt, for example), but on the other hand, I can see things without worrying about them causing upset later by the mere act of recollecting them.

Final Thoughts on How Aphants May Seem Insensitive to Others

Once I learned that I had aphantasia, I stopped thinking about all its possible side effects. I’m probably attributing far too much to it, but for now, it’s the most likely explanation I can come up with for why I may appear insensitive to others.

This thought was triggered by the discovery that my late wife had a highly visual brain—and I did not. It came as a shock to both of us. Once she told me that she could not help but have random images pop into her head, including those of upsetting subjects, it occurred to me that maybe aphantasia was why I do not suffer from that particular problem.

My hypothesis seems to make sense, so I would be interested in hearing of similar experiences from fellow aphants. Do you think aphantasia can make you seem insensitive in certain contexts? Share in the comments below.

Dawes, A. J., Keogh, R., & Pearson, J. (2023). Multisensory subtypes of aphantasia: Mental imagery as supramodal perception in reverse. Neuroscience Research. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2023.11.009
Gulyás, E., Gombos, F., Sütöri, S., Lovas, A., Ziman, G., & Kovács, I. (2022). Visual imagery vividness declines across the lifespan. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 154, 365–374. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2022.06.011
Dance, C. J., Ipser, A., & Simner, J. (2022). The prevalence of aphantasia (imagery weakness) in the general population. Consciousness and Cognition, 97(103243), 103243. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2021.103243
Bumgardner, A. L., Yuan, K., & Chiu, A. V. (2021). I cannot picture it in my mind: acquired aphantasia after autologous stem cell transplantation for multiple myeloma. Oxford Medical Case Reports, 2021(5), omab019. doi:10.1093/omcr/omab019
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery - Congenital aphantasia. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 73, 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019
Galton, F. (1880). I.--statistics of mental imagery. Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy, os-V(19), 301–318. doi:10.1093/mind/os-v.19.301
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Very interesting. I knew that people found me insensitive sometimes, because my mother once said to me, about something I had said. “Well, you may not see the joke, but your brother will be here later, and he actually has feelings!”