Is it possible to have “mild aphantasia”?

DiscussionCategory: QuestionsIs it possible to have “mild aphantasia”?
Jennifer McDougallJennifer McDougall Staff asked 3 months ago

I am often reading social media comments such as "I have mild aphantasia," and am curious, is this even possible?

Aphantasia is a variation in the human experience where one cannot visualize imagery (nor other senses) and does not possess a functioning mind’s eye. It is often characterized as "blindness in the mind’s eye" or #blindmind. Would this not suggest that you either have the ability to visualize in your mind or you don’t? That, your mind’s eye is either functioning or it is not?

It is my understanding that although the vividness of the visualizations or visual imagery in the mind may differ among phantasics, people with an ability to visualize in their mind, it is still visualization nonetheless. Therefore "mild aphantasia" is actually just phantasia, with low vividness abilities. Thoughts and other perspectives?

Kat KaneKat Williams replied 2 months ago

There is every indication that visualization is on a spectrum, and that you cannot apply the term aphantasia simply to those who have zero ability to visualize. That would be like saying that, because focus is challenging to all people in different measures, someone with mild ADHD doesn’t have it at all, or that while some people do struggle with non-verbal communication, social interaction and repetitive impulse control, if they have any ability to do those things, they can’t have Asperger’s or autism.

Even dyslexia exists on a spectrum, with some people having more difficulty in sounding out words or spelling than others do. There are very few neurological-anomaly-based conditions which don’t exist on a spectrum. Even when it comes to things like schizophrenia or disassociation conditions, people don’t simply “either have it or they don’t.”

My sister doesn’t have a complete lack of visualization, but it’s all hazy and shapeless, making what she sees largely unrecognizable as visual imagery. She also dreams sometimes with standard visual imagery. My son’s visualization comes and goes and at times is almost comic-book like. I’ve spoken to people who can see images but not hear sounds, hear sounds but not see images. Some have full visualization while awake, but none asleep, and vice versa. Where as I have absolutely zero ability to see, hear, smell, taste, feel anything, awake or asleep, within my mind. And I’ve been that way my entire life. But at the same time, I had one single moment of full visualization, which occurred several years ago, and lasted for maybe 5 seconds. Obviously having had that single moment where ‘the wires uncrossed in my brain somehow’ doesn’t mean I’m not someone with aphantasia.

And even people with full visual aphantasia have reported different variants of the experience. Some experience what is basically looking at a black or blank screen. I have no sense of any screen, of any color, or of any empty space where visualization should be. There is nothing, as if visualization within my brain is a non-existent concept. I doubt anyone would say one of those experiences is aphantasia and one isn’t.

Eventually the terminology may need to be broadened as aphantasia is very specifically about the visual issues – the etymology of phantasia is Greek for perception, impression, image, look and appearance – but the actual anomaly doesn’t appear to be limited to just visual sensory information. It is affecting different people in different ways, and to ignore the variations would invariably lead to missing possible research and treatment solutions. It’s also important to note that when this condition was first being recognized, it was thought to only occur in those with brain trauma. Then they realized it could exist congenitally. But even Zeman’s original study, and coining of the term, only applied to people who couldn’t voluntarily visualize but could still see images in their dreams. And it had no connection to a lack of other senses in your mind – that was added to the “definition” by the experiences shared by people who have the condition.

But again, this has happened with many forms of atypical neurology – ADHD began as “minimal brain dysfunction,” over time it became ADD, and now it’s actually ADHD-ph, ADHD-pi and ADHD-combo, because Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can present as primarily hyperactive, primarily inattentive or an mixture. PTSD has been carried out into c-PTSD, because similar symptoms occur whether it’s a single major trauma that was experienced, or a prolonged series of repetitive smaller traumatic experiences which causes the post-traumatic reaction. And I literally cannot tell you how many forms of synesthesia there are, but I recently found out I have one that I didn’t even know existed.

We finally have a top-level term to connect us to communities and information sources, something we’ve only had access to for about 4 years. It’s way too early to think we have a singular definition for what aphantasia is, when we don’t even have clear information on the physiological causes of it. There are people who are physically partially blind – some of us are even legally blind without our glasses or contacts – and there are definitely people whose “mind’s eye” does see something, but not to the degree than the average human mind does. Mild or partly aphantasia, either way it’s definitely not a binary condition.

Jennifer McDougallJennifer McDougall Staff replied 2 months ago

Thank you Kat, for sharing your perspective. You definitely helped to stretch my thinking on this one. I have heard aphantasia used in the context of a spectrum before. Mainly, as a spectrum between aphantasia and hyperphantasia, which I suppose "phantasia" would then be somewhere in the middle? Beyond this, I imagine it is much more multi-dimensional experience (especially when you consider how other senses may or may not be impacted in various individual cases) as you have mentioned. I can relate strongly to the comparison to the legally blind and partially blind examples you shared. There are even those with residual vision, colour blindness and many more. I have interacted with many, and have personal relationships with those where this is the case. I wholeheartedly agree that's it's too early for a singular definition as it relates to aphantasia and "blindness in the mind's eye," and that it is not a binary condition. Thank you for helping shape my perspective. I like that we have a platform for meaningful and critical dialogue.

1 Answers
Rachel CicconeRachel C answered 2 months ago

I think so. It depends on the person and other senses, too. Like touch, smell, or hearing. I’d consider someone with ‘mild aphantasia’ being only blind in the mind’s eye, but have other senses be in tact.

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