Not having a mind’s eye forces you to see the world differently, resulting in alternative modes of thinking

New Scientist

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to imagine

The existence of aphantasics, people with no mind’s eye, has been known for more than a century. In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment where participants were asked to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine. But a few individuals drew a total blank.

This phenomenon remained largely unexamined until 2003, when neurologist Adam Zeman received a patient who reported losing his mind’s eye after undergoing heart surgery. This event was followed by years of scientific study, and in 2015, it was medically recognized as aphantasia.

Imagine you’re on a beach. Picture the sun shining, feel the warmth. Now, what do you see in your mind?

The research shows that while the ability to imagine pictures in the mind’s eye varies widely among individuals, people with aphanastia can’t produce a mental image at all. This inability to produce mental images may be because of differences in how aphantastic’s brains function. Still, more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon.

An ongoing study on the neural basis of visual imagination is being conducted at the University of Exeter in the UK. It is being led by neurologist Adam Zeman and in collaboration with art historian John Onians. The first-ever conference, Extreme Imagination Conference and Exhibition, is set to take place at the University of Exeter in April 2019.

340 BC

Phantasia popularized by Aristotle

Phantasisa is the word Aristotle used to describe the power of imagination.

1880

Francis Galton’s “Breakfast” Study

A study involving 100 adult men was conducted; participants were asked to imagine their breakfast table. Of the 100 men, 12 were unable to produce mental images.

1973

VVIQ is Created

British psychologist David Marks creates the VVIQ. The VVIQ consists of 16 items in four groups of 4 items in which the participant is invited to consider the image formed in thinking about specific scenes and situations. The questionnaire has been widely used as a measure of individual differences in the vividness of visual imagery. The large body of evidence confirms that the VVIQ is a valid and reliable psychometric measure of visual image vividness.

2003

Patient MX

A 65-year old man (known as patient MX) underwent heart surgery and reported losing his ability to form mental images in his mind.

2009

The 2%

Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 2 percent of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination.

2015

Aphantasia Medically Recognized

Adam Zeman published the findings on patient MX, using the name “aphantasia” for the first time.

2018

Hyperphantasia

Jonas Schlatter of Berlin conducts a study with 121 control subjects, most of which showed a moderately good ability to visualize. But there were outliers on both ends. The above-average ability to create vivid images hyperphantasia was discovered.

2019

Extreme Imagination Conference and Exhibition

The first international conference for people with ‘extreme imagination’ took place on 6-7 April 2019, at the University of Exeter, alongside an exhibition of work by aphantasic and hyperphantasic artists at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

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