Aphantasia Guide

If you’ve just discovered aphantasia and feel lost in understanding it, we made this Aphantasia Guide just for you.

Shoutouts: A huge thank you to our community contributors, Neil Kimmelfield, Auri’An Lay, Liana M. Scott and Mike Swanson for their feedback on this guide! Thank you to Merlin Monzel our research ambassador for reviewing for scientific accuracy.

How To Get The Most Out Of The Aphantasia Guide

See the table of contents below for everything in the Aphantasia Guidebook. Here, you’ll find assessments and experiments to pinpoint your experience, answers to those burning questions, communities to connect with, and a treasure trove of scientific insights. Each section is a revelation, so embark at your own pace!

Table of Contents

So I Just Learned I Have Aphantasia

You know that great musical number “Does anybody else have this?” or the popular internet meme, “Can you picture a red apple in your mind?” Well, I just found out that most of you are seeing a juicy, shiny apple floating in your mind’s eye and my mind is blown. Yep, I have aphantasia. And if you’re wondering, “Aphant-what now?” keep reading.

What Is Aphantasia?

Aphantasia is the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free thinking. In simpler terms, if you ask someone with aphantasia to imagine a beach, we think of the concept of a beach. We know what a beach is and can describe it, but we can’t “see” it in our mind’s eye. It’s not just the visual sense that’s impacted. Aphantasia can affect all or some of the senses in your imagination. For example, can you “hear” the waves crashing against the shoreline, or smell the fresh ocean breeze? For someone with aphantasia, these sensory experiences in the mind are absent or significantly reduced. We understand and know what these senses should be like, but we cannot internally recreate or experience them.

what is aphantasia

Do I Have Aphantasia?

Here’s a simple and helpful test to determine if you have aphantasia. Imagine a red apple. Try to visualize it in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Some people will conjure up clear images of an apple, some might see blurry ones, and few can’t see anything at all.

The term “mind’s eye” often gets thrown around, but for many, it’s taken quite literally. When someone says they’re “counting sheep” to fall asleep or talks about their “imaginary friend” from childhood, they are actually picturing these scenarios. For those with a highly visual imagination, these aren’t just metaphors; they’re real mental images.

If you find yourself in the latter category, understanding that you’ve always interpreted phrases like “mind’s eye” or “counting sheep” as mere metaphors, you have aphantasia. To delve deeper into this, the VVIQ is a recognized test that can help you determine if you have it.

Red Apple Aphantasia Test, Apple Test, Red Apple Test, Aphantasia Apple Test, Apple Aphantasia Test, Red Apple Challenge

What's It Like To Visualize?

Experiment with the apple illusion to see for yourself. Keep your gaze focused on the center point without moving your eyes for about 30 seconds, then turn your gaze to the blank white space and blink several times. You’ll briefly see an afterimage of a red apple.

The apple illusion, while a product of perception, serves as a bridge to understanding visualization. For those with aphantasia, it’s a rare opportunity to “see” what visualization might be like for some visualizers.

What Do People Without Aphantasia "See"?

People’s experience of visual imagination can range from subtle to incredibly realistic. For instance, when asked to imagine a seashell, some might see a simple white or pink curve, while others might visualize a detailed, photorealistic seashell with intricate patterns lying on a sandy beach. This ability to form mental images isn’t just limited to objects; it can extend to people, places, events, and even abstract concepts.

The article “Visualizing the Invisible” delves deeper into the nuances of visual imagination. It highlights that the vividness of one’s mental imagery isn’t just about clarity or detail. Some people might only visualize things they’ve seen before, while others can conjure up entirely new images. The presence, arbitrariness, or controllability of these images can also vary. 

For example, some individuals can easily create, hold, or modify a mental image, while others might find this challenging. Emotions, recent media consumption, and even whether one’s eyes are open or closed can influence the type and clarity of our mental images.

How Do We Know People Are Actually Visualizing?

People have taken various physiological and behavioral tests in a research lab. Researchers have observed that people who report vivid imagery respond differently to these more objective measures than aphantasics. Although this doesn’t let us know definitively that they vividly see an image, it all points to the fact that something is truly different between people who claim to see vividly and those who don’t. 

We can also see activation in the visual cortex during fMRI studies, the area in the brain that processes images from the eyes, further suggesting actual visualization. For more on the known neurodifferences in imagery experiences, check out these shocking insights. For a deeper dive into how this brain activation can be used to decode mental imagery, you might find this study enlightening.

How to Tell The Difference Between Visualizers And Conceptualizers

While visualizers “paint” vivid pictures in their minds, those with aphantasia lean more towards conceptual thinking, diving deep into ideas and concepts rather than visual scenes. Discovering the differences between visualizers and conceptualizers can be both enlightening and entertaining. Want a quick and fun way to spot the difference? 

Try the Ball on the Table experiment. In under two minutes this playful experiment can shed light on the distinct thinking styles of visualizers and conceptualizers, offering a glimpse into the fascinating differences in our inner worlds.

idea of a horse, people with aphantasia

How Do I Explain Aphantasia To My Family And Friends

Breaking the news about your discovery of aphantasia to friends and family can be a daunting task, especially since it’s a topic that’s not commonly discussed. It’s natural for them to have questions or even doubts (after all, with ~4% of the population having aphantasia, it’s more likely that they can visualize). 

To help you navigate this conversation, here’s a sample dialogue that addresses some typical questions and concerns you might encounter.

Alex: Hey, everyone, there’s something I’ve been wanting to share with you. I recently discovered that I have aphantasia.

Jordan: Aphant-what?

Alex: Aphantasia. It means I can’t visualize images in my mind. You know when people say “picture this” or “imagine a beach”? I literally can’t see anything. It’s just… blank.

Taylor: Wait, so when you read a book, you don’t see the scenes playing out in your mind?

Alex: Exactly. I understand the story, the emotions, and the concepts, but I don’t “see” it. I think more in words, feelings, and ideas rather than pictures.

Jordan: That sounds so strange. Everyone can picture things in their mind, right? Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.

Alex: I used to think the same, that maybe I wasn’t concentrating enough. But after reading more about it and taking some tests, I realized it’s just how my brain works. It’s not about trying; it’s just different.

Taylor: So, if I ask you to think of the color blue or the face of a loved one, you see nothing?

Alex: Nothing. I know what blue is, and I recognize faces when I see them in real life, but I can’t conjure up an image in my mind.

Jordan: But how do you dream then?

Alex: My dreams are more about feelings, sounds, and sometimes abstract concepts. They’re not as visually detailed as most people describe their dreams. But I understand that many people with aphantasia have vivid visual dreams. We’re not all the same!

Taylor: This is so fascinating. I never realized that people experienced the world in such different ways.

Jordan: I’m still finding it hard to believe. It sounds like you’re making it up.

Alex: I understand it might sound strange, but it’s a real thing. There are many people out there with aphantasia. It’s just that it’s not commonly talked about. I hope you can trust my experience, even if it’s different from yours.

Taylor: I believe you, Alex. Everyone’s mind is unique, after all.

Jordan: I’m sorry, it’s just hard to wrap my head around it. But I trust you, and I’ll read up more on it.

Alex: Thanks, Jordan. It means a lot. I just wanted to share this part of me with you.

Common Questions About Aphantasia

When you first tell someone you have aphantasia, a flurry of questions often follows. “Can you dream?” “How do you remember things?” “Do you recognize faces?” Dive into this section to arm yourself with answers and insights to these common curiosities. It’s a journey of understanding, one question at a time.

Yes, we do dream. Many aphantasics report fewer and less sensory-rich dreams according to one study. However, there are some of us who experience a variety of imagery in dreams, ranging from full-color, moving images to stills in black and white. This is despite our inability to visualize while awake. Dream experiences are unique for everyone, whether you have aphantasia or not. For more on dreamscapes, delve into Liana M Scott’s captivating account of imagery experienced between wakefulness and sleep in her article Hypnopompia. Do you dream with aphantasia? Join the discussion.

Autobiographical memory, or the ability to recall past experiences, often poses challenges for many aphantasics. Research has indicated that we typically describe memories with less detail and express lower confidence in our recollections. This is thought to be related to altered connectivity in certain brain regions. Difficulty with memory recall in aphantasia isn’t always detrimental. For instance, having a “bad” memory can lead to benefits such as impartiality and resilience when confronting difficult past events.

Moreover, memory isn’t just about mental images. Most aphantasics can retain facts, details, and emotions. We may not “relive” our memories, but we understand what transpired. Additionally, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to aphantasics; non-visualizers and visualizers alike can face  challenges with autobiographical memory. Maarten Serneels explores the condition of ‘Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory’ in his article, Maybe You Have SDAM?

The thing to understand is that memory is tricky whether you have aphantasia or not. Some strategies for remembering are described in Learning And Remembering, With or Without Aphantasia written by biochemist Alice Grebanier. There are even certain types of events in our lives that can transcend the limitations of memory recall, as described in a story about Alice’s experience with the 1963 Solar Eclipse. These explorations and perspectives help us understand that memory, in all its forms, remains a complex and multifaceted aspect of the human experience.

Aphantasics can recognize faces. Research has shown that face recognition is not clinically impaired, and therefore there is no increased prevalence of prosopagnosia or face blindness. However, in some cases, recognition performance is slightly worse than for controls, though this is not face-specific. It is normal that non-visual strategies might not be sufficient for the recognition of complex scenarios. In science, this is called the “moderation effect.” Aphantasic strategies are sufficient in most cases, but in very difficult scenarios (e.g., a bus driving by, only allowing us a brief glance at a face), aphantasics might feel less confident whether they know this face or not. For an intriguing perspective on facial recognition and aphantasia, explore Moritz Dürr’s personal story on Memories Inside Schrödinger’s Box. Do you recognize faces? Join the discussion.

If the question begins with “can you picture it,” the answer will always be no for someone with aphantasia. We cannot conjure up visual images in our mind’s eye. However, recalling a loved one isn’t solely about visual imagery. Aphants often employ different strategies to remember precious moments, such as focusing on feelings, sounds, or other sensory experiences associated with that person. For many with multisensory aphantasia, taking photos and documenting memories becomes even more significant, serving as tangible reminders of cherished times. It’s a different, yet equally profound, way of holding onto memories. For master tips to up your photography game, especially in the context of aphantasia, explore this insightful article by Master Photographer, Chris Wooley on Photography and Aphantasia.

For many, it’s just a different way of processing information. It does not necessarily limit our potential. For instance, Diane Currie Richardson is an aphant, yet she was not only able to learn sign language but spent her life as a sign language interpreter. Read her story Interpreting in the Dark – Being an Interpreter with Aphantasia. And here are two more great articles: one by Laura Rincon called Embracing Aphantasia, and one by Mette Leonard Hoeg called Aphantasia Can Be a Gift to Philosophers and Critics Like Me.

The spectrum of imagination is vast and varied. Not everyone with aphantasia describes their experience the same way. Some aphants can’t imagine visual images but can imagine textures, sounds, or smells. Others can’t imagine anything sensory at all, commonly known as total or multisensory aphantasia. Here’s a great article written by Silicon Valley techie Steven Levithan on 3 Things I Learned Having Multisensory Aphantasia That Changed My Understanding Of The World. This article by Neesa Sunar describes her life as a musician with multisensory aphantasia: ‘When I am in tune, my body knows it’: playing with multisensory aphantasia.   

Most known cases of aphantasia are congenital, meaning individuals have it from birth. However, there are documented cases of acquired aphantasia like that of patient MX. MX was the first documented case of “blind imagination,” or what would later be named aphantasia.  Here’s a great article in the New York Times (NYT) reporting on the aphantasia discovery Many People Have a Vivid ‘Mind’s Eye,’ While Others Have None at All. Not a paid member of NYT? Here’s a video with Dr. Adam Zeman on the Rediscovery of Aphantasia featuring MX himself.

Researchers do have evidence that aphantasia is hereditary. If you have aphantasia, then it’s likely your first-degree relatives may also have aphantasia, indicating a possible genetic or hereditary link. Watch this interview with Dr. Adam Zeman, who coined the name aphantasia from the Greek word “phantasia,” which means “imagination.”

Common Misconceptions About Aphantasia

Understanding our cognitive differences is crucial, yet it’s all too easy to apply the “aphantasia stamp” to every challenge we face once we uncover this facet of our minds. But resist the temptation! Not every hurdle is tied to our unique way of processing. Let’s debunk some common misconceptions together.

Some aphants excel at navigation, while others don’t. A study found that even without visual imagery, aphants have intact spatial memory, essential for navigation. This indicates that mental imagery and spatial memory might be processed differently in the brain. Here’s a discussion on the r/aphantasia subreddit exploring different experiences around Orientation and Navigation.

While it may seem like a popular theme among aphants, there are many who not only love to read fiction but write fiction as well! Have a look at this Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association article written by aphantasic author Kim Zarins, Imagination Without Images: Aphantasia and SFF Readers and Writers.

There’s no known cure for aphantasia, and caution is advised towards anyone claiming otherwise. While there are a few reports of acquired cases regaining imagery ability, congenital and acquired cases differ. Having said that, aphantasia is a unique way some brains work, so, do we really need a cure? Some aphants find benefits in our image-free way of thinking! Here’s a thought-provoking science-fiction story about a man whose aphantasia is cured by a fictional technology. Only this “cure” comes at a deep cost. The piece was written by Dustin Grinnell, an award-winning author with aphantasia. And it gives us much food for thought.

There’s a misconception that people with aphantasia lack imagination, but that’s far from the truth. There is no limit to an aphant’s imagination; it just manifests differently. Instead of visualizing images, many aphants think in abstract concepts, emotions, words, and other non-visual ways. This unique approach to imagination can lead to innovative and diverse forms of creativity. Just as artists use different mediums to express themselves, aphantasics use their distinct cognitive tools to conceptualize and create. For inspiration, read Elina Cerla’s article on Visualization And Why We Don’t Need It for Visual Art or Peta Tranquille’s story on How a Visual Artist With Aphantasia Drew What She Couldn’t “See”. This article about Glen Keane, Oscar-winning artist for Disney, is also worth reading on The unusual creative process of the artist behind ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

Aphants unable to meditate? Quite the contrary! Many with aphantasia naturally lean towards a present-focused mindset, a cornerstone for achieving deep meditative states. Our unique way of processing can actually be an asset in mindfulness practices. That said, it can be frustrating to participate in an image-centric guided meditation when you can’t conjure images. Read Liana M Scott’s article Meditation with Aphantasia or check out this guided meditation for aphantasics (no mind’s eye required) by Auri’An Lay.

Aphantasia doesn’t bar one from the realm of hypnosis. While our experience might differ, many aphants can and do enter hypnotic states. It’s all about the mind’s journey, not just its imagery. For those curious in the topic, hypnotherapist Paulina Trevena wrote a great article Can Hypnosis Work For Those With Aphantasia? Yes!.  If you’re interested in exploring this research area you can join the Aphantasia and Hypnosis Research Lab on Facebook.

I’m Struggling With My Aphantasia Discovery. Where Can I Go?

It’s important to note that aphantasia is not a disorder. Yet, for ~35% of those with aphantasia, its discovery can be a significant psychological stressor. If you suspect you have aphantasia, it’s always good to read more about it. If you find yourself struggling with your aphantasia discovery, consult a mental healthcare professional to understand it better.

Be aware, however, that many practitioners have yet to learn about aphantasia. Here’s a resource on how to talk to a therapist about aphantasia, and a database of professionals we can vouch for.

Online Communities Where Aphants Hang Out

Discovering aphantasia can often feel like you’ve been handed a puzzle piece you didn’t even know was missing. Suddenly, you realize that many people around you have been secretly visualizing their entire lives! Those movie “flashbacks” that seemed so dramatic? They’re a real experience for some. And police sketch artists? They aren’t just a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. It’s undeniably a lot to take in.

The initial shock can be overwhelming, and it’s completely natural to have a strong reaction. But remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Once you’ve had some time to process this newfound understanding of your mind, connecting with an online community can offer support, insights, and a sense of belonging. We’re here to help you navigate this revelation and celebrate the unique way your mind works!

Venture Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole of Aphantasia

Aphantasia is more than just a different way of thinking; it’s a journey into understanding the intricacies of the human mind. For those intrigued and wanting to delve deeper into this invisible difference, there’s a whole world waiting for you down the rabbit hole of aphantasia.

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