New Research Alert: In the process of publishing this post new research on the pathological significance of aphantasia revealed that "...although aphantasia meets the criterion of statistical rarity, the impact on activities of daily living and personal distress is too weak to justify a classification as a mental disorder (Monzel et al, 2022)."
An article I recently read about dyslexia in Psychology Today posits that: “… dyslexia is not a disorder at all but a unique cognitive style that helps humanity thrive.”
The same can be said of aphantasia. I believe that aphantasia is not a disorder but a unique mind style that contributes to humanity’s diversity and helps it thrive.
Learning from My Mistaken Assumptions About Aphantasia
I’m not aphantasic. I have a mind’s eye. I learned about aphantasia while writing my how-to-meditate book, Simply How to Meditate. I learned that four of my six children are aphantasic. They grew into healthy, successful adults who excelled in their careers.
More than 50 years ago, I wrote two books: Skill-Building in Advanced Reading and Mental Power in Reading. I put my Advanced Reading program in schools in the upper Midwest and taught teachers how to teach reading, and also taught students in reading classes.
When I first learned of aphantasia, though, I was embarrassed because I realized how I’d goofed up all those years with my instruction.
In teaching how to read and in writing the instruction books, I used the “picture in your mind” language when teaching reading comprehension. When I learned of aphantasia, I was sure I’d used that language in the Mental Power in Reading book. Sure enough, the book’s five pages of Mental Exercises instruction all assume the reader has a mind’s-eye, including:
- In this game, you close your eyes and try to see pictures, just as you see pictures in movies or on television.
- Project a picture of a colorful sweater in your mind. Try to see it clearly… precisely… vividly.
After learning about aphantasia, I started noticing how often other authors use the same picture in your mind language without noting that some readers may not think this way.
A Common Misconception That We Can All Visualize
In a cnn.com story from March 29, 2017, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta describes learning how to meditate from the Dalai Lama. He writes that the Dalai Lama instructed him on how to do analytical meditation. He writes:
Reflecting on My Aphantasic Children’s Successes
In this everyone-has-a-mind’s-eye world, did my four aphantasic kids suffer? Have they gone through life short-changed? Not at all.
My four aphantasic children are proof to me that, at least for them, aphantasia is not a cognitive defect nor a disorder. They’re in their 60s, each has a unique mind, and they have been and still are thriving.
My daughter Michelle, about 35 years ago, taught herself Microsoft Access programming. She began her own company called 1st Contact Database Services, doing custom software development. She helps organizations all over the United States get control of their specialized data. Her creative outlet is poetry. You can read her imaginative poetry on her Woodland Spaces Facebook page.
My son Daniel recently retired from the State of Alaska as a data analyst. He began knitting as a teenager and became a master knitter. He creates his own detailed designs and knits them. His latest creation, a sweater, includes his initials in the finished garment, and it incorporates several repeating snowflake designs.
What Might the Future Hold for Aphantasics?
For the past 60 years, children and adults diagnosed with neurodiversities such as dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), have been treated differently. It could be said that, unknowingly, the same holds true for aphantasics.
Knowledge of aphantasia will continue to grow over the next few years. What if the medical and pharmaceutical research world began treating those with no mind’s eye as having a disorder, a disability, or worse, a pathological condition? This could result in discrimination against aphantasics, including students, job applicants, and more.
What if instead of asking what the aphantasic brain can’t do, we asked ourselves what is it built to do?
I want to see a world where parents, teachers, employers, and medical and research institutions view aphantasia simply as a difference, a neurodiversity.
I want to see a world where easy adjustments and accommodations can be made for all neurodiversities, including aphantasia.
I want to see a world in which teachers and parents work cooperatively with children who have no mind’s eye. They will encourage aphantasic students to transfer creative thoughts to paper or onto their electronic devices. Instead of asking a child or adult, “Do you see what I’m saying?” they will ask, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” or “Show me you understand what I’m explaining.”
What the Psychology Today article says of society’s attitude about dyslexia applies just as well to aphantasia:
I say, let’s not medicalize the absence of a mind’s-eye and turn it into a medical condition. Life would be dull if everyone was right-handed. Forests and woodlands would be dull if every tree was a palm.