Is aphantasia linked to lack of motivation?

saadia hasan asked 7 months ago


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Do aphantasics find it more difficult to motivate themselves and see things through? Especially when it comes to long-term goals, such as losing weight or completing a PhD…?

Many people have a vision in their mind of their future selves, when working towards a goal. A lot of high achievers cite vision as enabling them to focus on their end goals and reach success. As an aphantasic, or poor visualiser, this strategy is not possible. Does this inability to picture the future hamper motivation levels and productivity and goal achievement?

I have very weak imagery skills, and am beginning to suspect there may be a link….would be very interested to know what others think!

Jennifer McDougall Staff February 25, 2020 09:18 pm

This is a very good question Saadia, thank you for asking. As a Foresight Practitioner, my work (when I am not working on building the Aphantasia Network of course!!!) involves leading individuals and teams through a process of "imaginging their preferred futures" and then working backwards from a vision in order to figure out how we might achieve this desired future state. I have a very vested interested in this question, as it greatly impacts not only my work but the work of all futurist/foresight practitioners — many of whom are unaware aphantasia even exists!
I, too, have read research and cases on high-achievers and high-performing teams that envision a future state are more likely to achieve end goals/outcomes, especially if they imagine all the steps it will take to reach success. That is, it’s not just the vision itself that’s important, but ‘imaginging’ all the work required to get there that matters equally. In foresight, we imagine the desired future state then work backwards from that vision – a process we call "backcasting."
I don’t have a clear answer yet on your inquiry, as I am only in the beginning stages of exploring this, what it means for people with aphantasia, and for the discipline of foresight as a whole, but I will say that there are many logic-based frameworks to "strategic" foresight.
Things like developing ‘what if’ scenarios using if/then statements are often used when exploring possible futures based on trends analysis (i.e. If x occurs, then XYZ are all possible). It seems reasonable to me, based on early evidence that aphantasics excel at more logic-dominated fields, that aphants would excel at the non-visual frameworks for creating future states. When you apply this framework to personal futures, "If I research and write everyday (even if only for an hour), then I will complete my PhD on time to graduate." Seems pretty logical, less "imaginative" if you will.
When it comes to "visualizing yourself graduating from your PhD," I can see how this might help someone bring this reality/desired state to life but is it necessary? Everything I am reading on growth mindset is based on the idea that believing something is possible is a powerful motivator. You must believe something is possible (for yourself, your community or organization), and those that believe something is possible are signficantly more likely to put in the effort and work to make it a reality. Something tells me you don’t necessarily need to "visualize" per se to believe that something is possible…?
That said, if visualization is necessary/signficant factor to achieving success — emphasis on "If" — then perhaps an even stronger case can be made within the evolving foresight discipline to artificially create the conditions of these desired future states, through technology or other means. In fact, there have been many advancements in recent years to bridge foreight and design. Some of my work has involved "bringing possible future scenarios to life," an emerging extention to the foresight discpline known as "experiential futures."
The premise is simple, give people tools to think and feel with in real time. You can check out a futures intervention project I worked on several years ago here and here, if interested.
I wonder what would happen if we artificially created visualizatons of the desired state for aphantasic individuals, and whether there was any signficant difference in levels of achievement…. I think I sense a research project coming on…. Thanks again for the question… lots to ponder on!

saadia hasan February 26, 2020 11:25 am

Hi Jennifer, thanks for your response, so many fab ideas to think about there!!

I agree, I don’t think that visualisation is a necessary factor for successful goal achievement, but I wonder if those people who are ‘natural’ visualisers have an edge or advantage somehow? Is it coincidence that so many of the ‘high achievers’ talk about the role of visualisation in their success? To me, it seems that if you do have a fairly concrete and easily accessible vision in your mind it would somehow be easier to stay focussed and keep going…..so if you are coupling the ‘IF-THEN’ strategy alongside visualisation, wouldn’t your belief that it is possible be more powerful? You are not just hypothesising your future state, you are experiencing it as a real state in your mind. The neuroscience evidence would also suggest that if you can imagine something vividly you are more likely to achieve it as you have already primed your brain for the activity by using much of the same neural circuitry. So are the more logical based frameworks ‘compensatory’ motivational strategies in the absence of vision/foresight?

Also, regarding imagery of the actual process….if aphantasic people can’t forecast or ‘backcast’ using imagery, is there a link to procrastination and taking longer to reach outcomes? I know it’s not that simple, but that was my original question, whether aphantasics find it harder to keep going and sustain the motivation in the long-term, as they don’t have that vision that people often say keeps ‘pulling’ them and keeps them going through tougher times….

The technology you mention sounds amazing, I don’t know much about this, I will definitely check it out. Thanks so much for all your ideas!

Rachel C February 27, 2020 07:23 pm

I’ve heard the other way around for this.

On Twitter specifically, I’ve seen a lot of non aphants that say they CAN’T focus because of their mental imagery. Maybe this is a different form of "motivation" that you’re talking about, but this is the most common form of "motivation" that I see people talk about. I’m the complete opposite of this. I can usually hunker down and crank out what I need to work on with little problems. Sometimes I lose motivation partway through, but most times I see the thing I’m doing to completion. Compared to one of my friends, who has visualization skills, and has executive dysfunction, where it’s harder for her to motivate herself to do things.

However, I do feel being unable to visualize my success in my future. I have an idea of what I want to do with my life, but I can’t actually "see" what I’m going to be like in 5 years. I know I want a master’s and PhD, but no, I cannot see myself graudating in my head. However, I know the general steps I need to do to complete this. So I don’t think it’s necessary, either, to have visualization skills to plan out your life. Maybe it helps others, but there are ways around it.

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