The story begins with Aristotle
Aphantasia was first given a name in 2015, but knowledge of our invisible differences can be found dating back to 340 BC. Aristotle stands at the beginning of this history when aphantasia was not an established topic of discussion yet.
Aristotle coins the term phantasia in De Amina (On the Soul), Part III to describe a distinct capacity between perception and thought — a sort of ‘sixth sense.’
Phantasia is commonly translated to imagination, and is often explained in the context of visualizing and dreaming.
Although there is some disagreement among scholars as to the literal translation, most would agree that phantasia is not ‘unrelated to imagination‘ though it is used similarly by Aristotle to explain other cognitive processes like memory, thought, reasoning, desire, action and more.
In a brief discussion in De Anima III 3, Aristotle describes imagination as “that in virtue of which an image occurs in us”— in thoughts, dreams, and memories. His account of phantasia includes mental imagery, dreams, and even hallucinations.
Aristotle makes a point to distinguish this capacity for “creating mental representations”‘ from perception. For Aristotle, phantasia “need never to have been actually perceived by the senses, nor ever really exist.”
Put simply, our imagination can be false often in fantastic ways. Perhaps that’s why it’s often closely associated with fantasy.
During this period, however, it was generally believed that thoughts required images. That is, “whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images” (De Anima III 8).
Aphantasia, or blind imagination, proves Aristotle may have been wrong about that.
Fast forward to 2009, Dr. Adam Zeman a neurologist from Exeter University receives a patient who can no longer imagine — known affectionately among the aphantasia community as patient MX.
MX goes blind in his mind’s eye after undergoing surgery. News of patient MX’s experience attracted media attention, this led to many new discoverers who could relate to similar experiences, only they had been blind in their mind’s eye since birth.
Zeman coins the term “a-phantasia” to describe the inability to visualize mental imagery or blind imagination in 2015. The rest, as they say, is history.
See below for a complete timeline on the history of aphantasia and hyperphatasia and some of the more recent discoveries and scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of extreme imagination.
Timeline of Extreme Imagination
Phantasia is the word Aristotle used to describe imagination. Aristotle identifies imagination as a distinct capacity to produce images or ‘pictorial representations’, when there is no perception, as in dreams.
British psychologist David Marks creates the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) to measure individual differences in vividness of visual imagery. Since publication, VVIQ has been referenced in over 1200 studies, and has been given considerable attention in the domains of psychology, philosophy, and more recently, cognitive neuroscience.
Oliver Sacks publishes an article ‘The Mind’s Eye‘ in The New Yorker. Sacks points out the huge variations in visual imagery in the sighted. Mentions his mother’s accurate visual imagination. Describes meeting a man at a medical conference who had “no visual imagery whatsoever.”
A 65-year old man and former surveyor, known as ‘patient MX’, underwent heart surgery and reported losing his ability to imagine. Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter publishes a study and coins the term “blind imagination”.
Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 3-5% of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination. This figure served as the first population estimate of people living with blind imagination.
Discover magazine publishes a story about patient MX, only to discover that MX is not alone. Several respondents to this publication report no visual imagery, but unlike patient MX, they have been this way since birth.
Professor Adam Zeman conducts a study with 21 control subjects that reveals outliers on both ends of visual imagery extremes. The inability to voluntarily visualize is given the name congenital aphantasia. Zeman later names the opposite phenomenon, hyperphantasia.
Team of scientists led by Dr. Joel Pearson from UNSW and professor Adam Zeman from Exeter embark on brain imaging studies of people with aphantasia to determine the neural basis for why some people cannot create visual images of people, places and things in their mind’s eye.
Dr. Joel Pearson and team conduct a study to measure sensory imagery in subjectively self-diagnosed aphantasics using the binocular rivalry paradigm, an objective measure. The study finds aphantasia is a condition involving a lack of sensory imagery and not a lack of metacognition.
A study led by Rebecca Keogh and a team of scientists from UNSW found the strength of a person’s mental imagery is linked to the excitability of neurons in different brain regions. The first clue as to what might cause aphantasia and hyperphantasia.
According to a study from UNSW, aphantasic individuals report decreased imagery in other sensory domains, although not all report a complete lack of multi-sensory imagery; highlighting the large inter-individual variability that characterizes our internal mental representations.
Extreme Imagination conference is now an annual gathering of the world’s foremost thinkers, scientists and creatives challenging long-held beliefs about what it means to imagine and create. The conference is hosted by the Aphantasia Network in partnership with the world-leading scientists and proceeds from the event support the ongoing research into imagery extremes.