Think of a horse.
Does an image of a horse come to mind?
Most people, when asked to think of a horse, create a mental image in their mind; they create a visual representation of what the horse looks like, what it’s doing and the scenery around it.
For people with aphantasia, this is impossible.
People with aphantasia cannot create images of familiar objects, people or places in their ‘mind’s eye.’
Because they don’t have one.
It’s not just the visual experience that is impacted, it’s all sensory experience.
Can you hear the horse neigh? Perhaps smell the hay?
Aphantasia is the inability to visualize in the mind’s eye, hear sound in the mind’s ear, or imagine any other sensory experience outside the present moment.
An estimated 2% of the population lack this ability completely, yet this variation in human experience has only just begun to be researched.
Imagine that? Well, aphantasics can’t. Literally.
Not having a mind’s eye forces you to see the world differently, resulting in alternative modes of thinking
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, psychologist 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 cognitive and behavioural neurologist Adam Zeman received a patient who reported losing his ability to visualize in the mind after undergoing heart surgery. This event was followed by years of scientific study, and in 2015, it was scientifically recognized as Aphantasia.
Imagine you’re on a beach. Picture the sun shining, feel the warmth. Now, what do you see in your mind?
Perhaps you can see the clear blue of the ocean water, hear the calm of the waves crashing against the shoreline and feel the warmth of the sand beneath your toes, or maybe there is no sensory experience at all.
The research shows that while the ability to imagine sensory experiences in the mind varies widely among individuals – some are very poor visualizers while others are extraordinarily good visualizers – people with aphanastia can’t produce sensory imagery at all.
This inability to produce mental (visual), auditory (sound), olfactory (smell) and other sensory imagery may be because of differences in how the brain of an aphantasic stores and processes information. Still, more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the condition.
An ongoing study on the neural basis of sensory imagery and imagination is being conducted at the University of Exeter in England. It is being led by neurologist Adam Zeman. He and others across the globe; most notably Professor Joel Pearson from UNSW in Sydney, Australia continue to explore its neurological underpinnings.
Phantasia popularized by Aristotle
Phantasisa is the word Aristotle used to describe the power of imagination.
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.
VVIQ is Created
British psychologist David Marks creates the VVIQ. 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.
A 65-year old man known as ‘patient MX’ underwent heart surgery and reported losing his ability to form mental images in his mind.
Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 2% of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination.
Aphantasia is Coined
Adam Zeman published the findings on patient MX, calling the condition aphantasia for the first time.
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, known as hyperphantasia was discovered.
Extreme Imagination Conference and Exhibition
The first international conference for people with ‘extreme imagination’ took place in April 2019, at the University of Exeter in England, alongside an exhibition of work by aphantasic and hyperphantasic artists at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
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