What do you “see” in your mind’s eye? Is it as real as looking at a photo? Or do you not see any images at all? It turns out there are 3-5% of the population who don’t have the ability to form images in their heads. It’s a condition called “Imagination blindness” or Aphantasia, and it was only recently discovered.
Along with Aphantasia is the opposite end of the spectrum, Hyperphantasia, where the mind’s eye is so vivid, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagination.
It opens up a lot of questions about how we see and perceive our world.
I want to start this video with a little exercise. So if you don’t mind playing along with me, here’s what I want to do…
I want you to imagine a dog. Any dog. Just whenever I say the word “dog” what comes to mind? And then I want you to go into the comments and describe what you see in as much detail as possible. Go ahead and pause the video, take your time, just what do you see when I ask you to imagine a dog.
Go ahead. (wait a beat. Eat something)
All right, so some of you will have described a very specific dog, specific color, hair length, size, age, maybe it’s even doing something like panting or sleeping or running.
A certain percentage of comments might describe it exactly like looking at a photograph or a video.
For others, the description might be of a vague dog, no specifics really but still a dog.
And of course most of those comments will describe your mom.
But if recent studies are any indicator, there’s about three to five percent of you that weren’t able to visualize anything at all. Maybe didn’t even understand the question.
Because it turns out that some people don’t have a mind’s eye.
This inability to visualize in your mind’s eye is a condition called aphantasia. It’s also known as “image-free thinking.”
Those who have aphantasia are unable to create images in their minds of people, places, and objects.
On the complete opposite end is a condition experienced by 10 to 15 percent of people called hyperphantasia.
That’s when someone has extremely vivid visualizations in the mind’s eye.
Aphantasia = no ability to create visuals in your mind’s eye
Hyperphantasia = inability to turn off the visuals in your mind’s eye]
To be clear, it’s not simply that some people have one or the other and some don’t. It’s a spectrum.
According to Dr. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter in Britain, “This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”
And Dr. Zeman should know because he coined the term a-phantasia. Phantasia being the Latin word for fantasy or imagination. So, A-phantasia is someone who is without that.
He coined this phrase in 2015 after meeting a patient he named “MX” who could no longer imagine after undergoing heart surgery.
After telling the patient’s story to the media, people started coming out of the woodwork to say that yeah, they can’t do that either.
And this is when things got interesting because it turns out this is a relatively common experience, but people didn’t really talk about it because they didn’t realize their experience was any different than anybody else’s.
We just kind of assume that other people’s experience of imagining things is similar to our own, so we don’t question it. It kind-of took someone losing it for us to know that it was something you could be without.
Although it wasn’t totally out of the blue. British psychologist Francis Galton first reported similar cases way back in 1880.
He conducted a study where he asked 100 participants to imagine their breakfast tables. Twelve people claimed to have very dim mental images or no imagery at all.
But this research was practically ignored for more than a hundred years until Zeman came along with MX’s story.
Now even though the term “aphantasia” technically means “without imagination”, that’s not really what’s going on here.
People with aphantasia can still be imaginative and experience the world fully. They just don’t do it with what we might call a “mind’s eye”.
In fact, they’re probably really good at knowing facts, but struggle with episodic memory and remembering faces.
When asked to describe his fiancee, one person told the BBC in 2015 that he can think about her, that she’s brunette, and that she has her hair up at the back.
“But I’m not describing an image I am looking at,” he said. “I’m remembering features about her, that’s the strangest thing…”
In other words, some people with aphantasia can recall things they’ve seen, but it’s memory and not imagination.
Also, it’s not just visual images. Fairly recently it swept social media that some people have an inner monologue and some people don’t. That’s a kind of aphantasia.
For what it’s worth I don’t just have a monologue, I have a dialogue. Between multiple characters. My brain’s basically a Monty Python sketch. And I personally can’t imagine how someone could function without that, but a lot of people do and that’s super interesting to me.
Actually my writer Jason, when he was researching this topic, he found out that a member of his improv group has aphantasia.
He said that he kind-of has an inner monologue, but it’s just a string of words, unless he imagines it in like an actor’s voice, then it’s like his thoughts have a narrator. And as for images, he says he can remember a similar image and extrapolate from that, but to put it in computer terms, images are more like a database entry with various qualities of the image listed but the link to the image is broken.
And this is a common thing I ran across researching this, that people with aphantasia can recall various details of an image but it just doesn’t form an actual image in their minds. Now to switch to the other side of the spectrum for a second, someone with hyperphantasia might see pictures in their mind so vivid that they can have trouble telling the difference between imagination and reality.
In fact, for some people the visualization in their mind is more visceral and affecting than looking at an actual image.
The artist Clare Dudeney described this in an interview with Science Focus in 2019, saying, “When people describe some terrible accident, I visualise it so strongly that I feel it’s happening to me.” She added, “I can watch gruesome things on TV and be fine, but a passage in a book can bring to mind such vivid images that I faint.”
Honestly, I might be closer to that than I am to aphantasia. Sometimes I’ll be daydreaming and maybe I’ll imagine trying to catch something and I’ll knock things off my table. Happened a lot when I was a kid in school actually, I got stared at a lot.
[It’s not just a “some people have it and some don’t” scenario. It’s a spectrum and on one extreme is aphantasia and hyperphantasia on the other. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.
It was only given a name recently when (details in the TED talk) someone had a brain injury and they noticed they couldn’t visualize afterwards.
It’s not something that was understood to be a thing because people don’t question how they experience the world; we just assume everyone experiences it like we do. It took someone losing it to know what it’s like to not have it.
How people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia experience the world]
But like Dr. Zeman said earlier in the video, this isn’t a cognitive ailment by any means, there are pros and cons to both extremes of the spectrum.
Some of the positive traits for aphantasia include:
– High abstract reasoning
– Increased concentration skills
– Being more present in the moment
Some disadvantages include:
– Unable to dream in pictures
– Inability to imagine the faces of loved ones who have passed away
– Being lost when someone describes something you haven’t seen or experienced
For hyperphantasia, the pros may include:
– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Ability to plan things in more detail
– Resuming dreams after waking up
And the challenges may include:
– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Reliving situations over and over in your head
– Losing focus
In fact some have argued that people with aphantasia are better able to deal with traumatic experiences because they don’t recall it as vividly and immediately as other people do.
Whereas someone with hyperphantasia might be more prone to conditions like PTSD because every time they remember the trauma it’s like it’s happening all over again. So if you have aphantasia, you might be more likely to work in scientific or mathematical professions than other people, you might have a natural leg up in those areas.
Which might make you ask, where do you land on this spectrum, what natural abilities might you have because of it? Well, there are several tests to help determine that. British psychologist David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) in 1973. Researchers refer to it most often when they study imagery extremes like aphantasia and hyperphantasia.
The test includes four scenarios in which you’re asked to rank how vividly you can see them in your mind. The scenarios include imagining a loved one’s face, a favorite store, or a pretty landscape. The one-to-five ratings go from “no image at all” to “perfectly realistic.”
Another evaluation is the Spontaneous Use of Imagery Scale (SUIS), which measures general occurrences of imagery in daily life. It consists of twelve scenarios and uses a five-point rating scale. A Dutch version uses nine scenarios.
SUIS doesn’t measure the auditory part I mentioned earlier, the inner monologue thing, it only focuses on visual imagery. SUIS is concerned with the frequency and likelihood of mental imagery, compared to the VVIQ that focuses on the vividness and quality of mental images.
There’s also the Object-Spatial Imagery Questionnaire (OSIQ), which was created to evaluate individual differences in visual imagery experiences and preferences.
It has two scales:
– Object imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing colorful, high-res, and pictorial images of specific objects
– Spatial imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing relations among objects, spatial transformations, and schematic images
Binocular rivalry is another way to measure mental imagery. This process investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual awareness. Visual perception alternates between our eyes during binocular rivalry when we’re presented with two different fields of view. The back and forth of perception relies on the strength of inhibitory interactions between neuronal groups in the visual cortex.
Studies using binocular rivalry priming have shown that aphantasia is more due to a lack of sensory imagery and not a lack of metacognition. That was a lot of big words and I think it broke me. I’ll put links to all these tests down in the description if you want to go see where you lie on this scale.
Pros and cons of aphantasia and hyperphantasia
A few things that stood out was that it’s possible people with aphantasia might handle traumatic experiences better because they can’t visualize them whereas people with average or hyperphantasia relive bad memories over and over more vividly. However, being unable to visualize in your mind might make some types of work impossible (TED talk mentions architect)
Types of tests to see where you are on the mind’s eye spectrum:
But hold on a second, if we experience visuals in our “mind’s eye” so differently, does that apply to how we see things in general? Like how does our brain process visuals in the first place?
Here’s a brief rundown.
The optic nerve travels to two places, the thalamus and the superior colliculus, which helps determine where our eyes and head move. Visual input then travels to the visual cortex from the thalamus. The visual cortex is located at the back of our brains. It’s where the building blocks of vision are combined to produced perception.
Researchers believe that visual processing occurs through two information streams:
– Where Pathway – which deals with object movement and location
– What Pathway – which recognizes and identifies objects
But the visual cortex can be divided into several distinct sub-regions, with simple visual features located in lower areas and more complex features in higher areas. The primary visual cortex is at the bottom, and it’s sensitive to basic visual signals like object orientation and direction. The next area up responds to contours, textures, and if something is in the background or foreground.
After this area, the pathways carrying What and Where information split up into specific brain areas. For example, the inferior temporal cortex that represents complete objects is located at the top of the What hierarchy. There is even a part of this cortex called the fusiform face area that specifically responds to faces.
But this bottom-up approach to processing vision is slow. That’s why the brain also relies on top-down mechanisms to process visuals.
Since a lot of information gets lost by the time it reaches the brain, our brains construct reality for us based on past experiences and stored information. Top-down mechanisms affect things like attention, object expectation, scene segmentation, and working memory.
The entire visual pathway, except for the retina, is influenced by top-down mechanisms. Knowing this, how do we create images in our heads? In other words, how does imagination work in our brains?
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 helps answer this. The study’s researchers analyzed multiple patterns of fMRI data and discovered it wasn’t just the visual cortex alone that contributed to imagination.
There were twelve “regions of interest” also involved. Brain areas like the cerebellum, the medial frontal cortex, and the precuneus helped create a “mental workplace” to create imagined people, places, and things.
People with aphantasia who have difficulty imagining things may have had it their whole lives, or it was brought on by a medical or psychological condition. Another reason people with aphantasia might not be able to visualize may be due to cortical excitability.
In other words, how sensitive the neurons are in your frontal cortex. In a study published in eLife in 2020, scientists discovered that the less excitable someone’s visual cortex is, the more vivid their mind’s eye. “When we found that cortical excitability was negatively correlated with imagery strength, we were at first surprised,” lead researcher Rebecca Keogh told Aphantasia Network. “But as all of the other experiments started to line up showing the same trend, we became excited that we had found a potential underlying mechanism that explains individual difference in imagery ability.”
The researchers conducted further studies and arrived at a theory that those who have hyperphantasia either have a not-excitable visual cortex, an excitable prefrontal cortex, or both. And those who have aphantasia have a more excitable visual cortex, a less excitable prefrontal cortex, or both.
And I said before, this experience varies across individuals. And it’s not one or the other, it’s a whole spectrum.
[Any research into how we create visuals in our brains (Reticular Activating System?) and why on a physical level some people can’t do it
Inner monologue similar – some people have it and some don’t.
My own experience (might do one of these tests on myself and see what I get. I feel like I lean toward hyperphantasia)]
For me this is just further proof that how we see the world is unique in so many ways. I mean we’re literally over here talking about how we visualize the world differently.
And maybe now that we understand the “phantasia” spectrum, it can open up conversations about how we see things differently. Maybe this is the beginning of a new era of understanding and celebrating our different worldviews.
Any day now. Any day now that could happen.