Chances are that you have no idea what the term ‘aphantasia’ means. Until quite recently, neither did we. But one of our upcoming guests on our podcast is the fascinating Dr Paulina Trevena, who suffers from this herself, and talks in detail about what it’s like and how it affects her day-to-day life, and how this has wider implications for the field of psychology.
We thought that we would take the opportunity to shine a light on a little-known condition that, ironically, most people can’t imagine.
Picture walking along the beach, feeling the wind blowing your hair, seeing the waves break on the sand, seagulls wheeling and screeching, with the smell of salt and seaweed, and perhaps the taste of an ice cream. The likelihood is that most people can ‘see’ this with relative ease – we can visualise the scene, basing it on our knowledge and memories of what a beach looks and sounds like.
If someone suffers from aphantasia, that imagery doesn’t form in their mind. They do not have a ‘mind’s eye’, meaning their imagination is essentially blind. It does not mean that they have no memory of events or people – in all probability, they will be able to provide comprehensive details of significant events, or describe a particular object accurately. Taking the example above, they know what a beach looks like as well as anybody else - they simply cannot generate an accompanying image of it in their mind.
It's unclear exactly how many people are affected by aphantasia, but it’s estimated to be about 1-3% of the population, making it relatively rare. It’s considered a normal variation in human experience (rather like the difference ways in which people taste things), rather than a medical condition, and as such there is no treatment.
You might think it’s no big deal to lack a visual imagination, but it plays a vital role in memory, planning, learning, facial recognition and social interactions. As an example, put yourself in the daunting position of trying to navigate your way around a city with no ability to visualise a route. Or consider how distressing it may feel to be unable to picture the face of a deceased loved one. As mental imagery plays a key part in learning, it can also make aspects of education, such as exams, challenging.
Because it is usually something that exists for a person’s entire life (although it can occur after a brain injury), those affected by aphantasia often express surprise when they learn that others do see a complete mental image in their mind.
This realisation can leave people feeling isolated and alienated from what is perceived to be the ‘normal’ human experience. Not only are they unable to picture the faces of their loved ones, but they also cannot visualise the shared memories that unite them with their peers, which can leave a feeling of disconnection. You could also argue that it may leave life feeling a little less vibrant and colourful – would reading a good book be rendered less engaging if you can’t picture the scenes being described? One study found that those with aphantasia demonstrated less emotional response to scary stories, suggesting that it was less of a sensory experience that it might have been if they could imagine the associated imagery – although whether that is a negative thing is a matter of opinion!
However, there can be positives too – some people with aphantasia report being adept with facts and figures, and some credit their lack of mental imagery as highly beneficial in the world of science and mathematics. It also does not exclude creativity, as there are aphantasia sufferers who write novels and create art.
There has not been a huge amount of research into aphantasia to date, although it is a growing area of study. What is known so far tells us that there is much diversity in the human experience, and it is fascinating to understand the differences in the ways the brain works
If you think you might have aphantasia, and would like to find out more, the Aphantasia Network provides a wealth of information and support.