What is Aphantasia?

Aphantasia is the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free thinking.
Confused? Let’s break it down.

Think of a Horse.

Does an image of a horse come to mind? What color is the horse? What’s it doing?
For most, a lifelike image of a horse appears in their mind’s eye. For others, creating a dim, vague, or incomplete picture takes time and effort. Some can picture a horse with exceptional clarity.
People with aphantasia can’t create a mental image. Not of familiar objects, people, or places. Not for thoughts, memories, or images of the future.
We lack this “picture-it” system completely.

Invisible Differences

Visualize,” “See in the mind’s eye,” “Picture in your mind…” No, it’s not a metaphor!
Phantasia was the word Aristotle used 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. The “a” in a-phantasia denotes its absence.
The surprising fact that some people can’t visualize challenges ancient knowledge that ‘thoughts require images.’ It questions the pervasive belief that everyone visualizes. A belief popularized by media, education, and even mental healthcare.

The Discovery of Aphantasia

Aphantasia was only given a name in 2015. And yet we have known about this unique variation as early as the 1800s. British psychologist Francis Galton first identified ‘non-imagers’ in his Breakfast Study. But the phenomenon lacked further scientific investigation.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. Neuroscience has advanced enough to study this enigmatic condition. Dr. Adam Zeman, a neurologist from Exeter, receives a patient who can no longer imagine —  known as patient MX. MX goes blind in his mind’s eye after undergoing surgery.
Discover magazine reports the findings, leading 21 people to come forward. Only they have been blind in their mind’s eye since birth. Zeman coined the term congenital aphantasia to describe the phenomenon of blind imagination. Or what we at Aphantasia Network like to call “image-free thinking”.

Media outlets like the New York Times report the findings. This leads to an outpouring of new discoverers. 

Imagination is a Spectrum

Visual imagination varies from person to person, like a spectrum. While most people can picture images in their minds, there are some who experience it more intensely or differently. On one end, there are people with aphantasia or “aphantasics,” who can’t visualize at all.
On the opposite end, are people with hyperphantasia or “hyperphantasics,” who have an incredibly vivid imagination. Their imagination is so vivid that it’s almost like they’re really seeing it. In between, there are variations, those with phantasia and hypophantasia, experiencing low to moderate levels of vividness.

It's Not Just the Visual System...

It’s not just our visual system that’s impacted. Aphantasia can extend to other senses, such as being unable to imagine sound, taste, smell, movement, or touch.
Do you “hear” the horse galloping? Can you imagine what it would feel like to ride off into the sunset on horseback? This is called auditory and motor imagination.
Like visual imagination, our capacity to imagine will vary person to person. Imagination is a spectrum from aphantasia to hyperphantasia and everything in between. This spectrum exists in all our mental senses.

The absence of imagery in all senses is called total or multisensory aphantasia

Do I have multisensory aphantasia?

Impacts of an Image-Free Mind

Not seeing pictures in your mind can be both a strength and a weakness. Like most things, there are pros and cons. Aphantasics must rely on alternative ways to make sense of the world. It can impact our ability to recall memories, imagine future scenarios and even dream.
But you also don’t need mental pictures to excel at certain things.
In fact, aphants tend to be more analytical. We excel in fields like science, math, and engineering. Of course, there are notable exceptions in the creative industries.
This natural (and intriguing) variation in our brains can have an impact on everything from our education and career choices to PTSD sensitivity and even the reliability of our eyewitness testimony (but not in the ways you might expect). The more vivid your imagination, the more challenging it can be to distinguish what’s real from what’s imagined. Or what scientists call your ‘reality threshold‘.

All this to say… Our image-free way of thinking can have unique advantages. Often in unimaginable ways.

Aphantasics Are Imaginative

While this may seem puzzling at first glance, on reflection, imagination is a much richer and more complex capacity than the ability to visualize.
Visualization enables most of us to picture things to some degree in our mind’s eye: imagination allows us to represent, reshape and reconstruct things in their absence. Aphantasia illustrates the wide variety of types of ‘representation’ available to human minds.
While the word itself, a-phantasia might imply the absence of imagination, this is not the case. Imagination can involve other senses and abstract concepts.
In fact, being imaginative is about ‘having or showing creativity or inventiveness.’ This creative process involves a whole network of brain activities. Aphantasics can and do create and invent novel things. We just go about the creative process differently.
If you ask someone with aphantasia to think of a horse, we can still tell you what a horse looks like and what it might be doing. How? For the image-free mind, it’s the idea of the horse that matters. Not its visual or sensory details. This is conceptual imagination, which involves thinking about abstract ideas or concepts.

You may find (after reading this) that your imagination works more conceptually.

Aphantasics Make Brilliant Creatives, Inventors, Entrepreneurs & More!

Aphantasia is not a barrier to success. Nor is it a limit on our potential.
Aphantasics make brilliant creatives, inventors, authors, musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and more! Many have led or are leading successful careers.
Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Craig Venter, the biologist who first sequenced the Human Genome. Blake Ross, creator of Mozilla Firefox. Glen Keane, Disney Animator and Creator of The Little Mermaid. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. John Green, New York Times bestselling author.

All have aphantasia.

A Doorway to Metacognition

Discovering aphantasia is a doorway to metacognition, to thinking about your unique way of thinking. Whether you can create mental pictures or not, aphantasia makes you stop and think.
  • How do I imagine?
  • Do I imagine in pictures?
  • Just how vivid are my mental pictures?
  • Can I hold on to the image, or is it fleeting?
  • How much effort does it take to create them?
  • What if there are no mental pictures, then what?

It’s not uncommon to discover your imaginative experience falls outside the norm. Aphantasia is a unique variation in human experience; it does not limit our potential. Instead, it offers a unique opportunity to explore the potential of our minds. 

tom 1

👋 Hi there, I’m Tom—founder of Aphantasia Network.

In 2011, I stumbled upon a revelation that turned my world upside down: people can actually visualize images in their mind. Before this, I had no idea that when someone said "picture this," they were literally seeing images in their mind's eye. Now I share my thoughts to the largest newsletter of aphantasia enthusiasts in the world. If you're curious about aphantasia and how it shapes our thinking, join our newsletter. It's free to sign-up. We send weekly insights, from ancient philosophy to new ways to think about our internal experience. Join me on a journey that's as unique as each of our minds.

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