Founder of Aphantasia Network
Describing aphantasia is no easy task, especially considering the fact that the phenomenon exists entirely in the privacy of our own minds. I like to use the example “think of a horse” when describing aphantasia.
You can read more about my approach here or check out my “Think of a Horse” episode on CBC Radio. Others use the red star or red apple examples.
How have you learned to describe aphantasia? What other examples have you seen?
Aphantasia isn’t limited to just visual imagination, it can impact all sensory imagery in the mind.
For example, when most people go to the restaurant and they see something on the menu they enjoy, they can (kind of) smell and taste it. Or if you think of your favourite song, you can hear the sounds of the instrument in your mind. Think of ‘famous words’ one of your parents or teachers said to you growing up, can you hear these words in their voice?
According to new research, aphantasia can impact all sensory experience. A study on the cognitive profile of people with aphantasia was conducted by the UNSW Future Minds Lab and found that the majority of aphantasics report decreased imagery in all other sensory domains – auditory, olfactory, gustatory & more – although not all will experience a complete lack of multi-sensory imagery.
Tell us more about your unique imaginative experience. Visual or all senses?
I always find this question so interesting. For most of my life, I didn’t realize that others were actually visualizing their thoughts and memories… I thought it was more of a figure of speech than a literal description of how people were thinking. I had such a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that visual representations were being created in someone’s “mind’s eye”. I still do, to be honest. How do you understand something you’ve never experienced? It’s almost like trying to explain the colour purple to someone who only sees in black and white… good luck! It was my second year in college when my girlfriend (at the time) opened my eyes. We were talking about a mutual friend we’d just seen, and how she was wearing the same thing she was the last time we saw her a year prior. I was amazed she could remember that kind of detail… “How do you remember what she was wearing a year ago??” I asked. “Well, I can just see her in my mind”… WHAT?! I then spent years obsessively asking everyone who’d listen about their imaginative experience. Helplessly searching for “learn to visualize” or “no mind’s eye” on google only led me to nothing… how can I be missing what seems to be a vital part of the human experience? To relive memories in my mind… see the people, places, and events that meant the most to me? To “picture” what it might be like to visit a destination or “imagine” a success. All the writing I found talked about the benefits of visualizing… even today, a google search shows that it’s still heavily weighted this way. This was years before aphantasia was coined by Adam Zemen at Exeter. Many discussions have taken place since then and I’ve come a long way in my understanding of aphantasia and the unique way of thinking it provides. How did you first discover your blind mind?
Give this a shot.. close your eyes and think a close friend or relative. Make sure they’re not in the room with you!
Think about the contours of their face, their happy smile, a time you remember laughing together. As you think about this person, are there any visual representations of them in your mind? It could be dim and vague, a little fuzzy; or it could go the other way and you see them bright and clear as if they are with you in this present moment, you remember both their smile and the happy emotion that goes with it.
What do you “see”?
People with aphantasia do not see any images at all. There’s no visual representation of people, places or familiar objects. We can’t experience something outside the present moment we only “know” that we’re thinking about them.
Using the example above, we can recall details of the person, biographic or physiological descriptors, and even remember events when they did smile brightly. But there are no visuals. It isn’t as bad as it may sound, it comes with many strengths – strengths we are only just beginning to understand.
You can take a more complete quiz here. VVIQ, the Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz is a proven psychometric often used by researchers studying aphantasia. It’s a helpful starting place for your own discovery, but keep in mind this is based on subjective reporting, there are other ways to measure aphantasia objectively and the research in this space is still in its infancy.
Here are some key readings/media to help you get started: