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History of aphantasia

History of extreme imagination started way before “aphantasia” came to be

Aphantasia was first given a name in 2015, but knowledge of its existence 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 (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 proves Aristotle was wrong about that.

Fast forward to 2009, Dr. Adam Zeman a neurologist from Exeter University receives a patient who can no longer imagine —  patient MX effectively 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 MX, 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 (it’s opposite, hyper-vivid mental imagery) and some of the more recent discoveries and scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of extreme imagination. 

340BC

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.

1800

British psychologist Francis Galton the first to report cases of individual variability in visual imagery. A study involving 100 people asks participants to imagine their breakfast table. Of the 100 studied, 12 reported very dim images or no mental imagery at all. 

2009
2018
2020

1973

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.

1800
2010
2019

2009

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.

2010

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.

2015

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.

2018

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.

2019

Founder of the Aphantasia Network, Tom Ebeyer is among the first reported cases of congenital aphantasia mentioned in Zeman’s 2015 paper. Tom creates the Aphantasia Network with a ‘vision’ to realize the full potential of the ~3% worldwide with blind imagination.

The first international conference for people living with extreme imagination takes place at the University of Exeter, alongside an exhibition of work by aphantasic and hyperphantasic artists at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

In a surprising survey of his former employees (n= 540), co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, discovers that some of the world’s best animators are aphantasic — including Glen Keane

2020

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.

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