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On a summer Friday a few years ago, I collapsed on my living room floor in a transformative defeat. I sprawled out in the middle of the carpet, tightly clutched a throw pillow to my face, and squeezed my teary eyes shut before impatiently repeating the words, “BEACH. SAND. OCEAN. LIFEGUARD CHAIR. COME ON.” I said them out loud — with real feeling — in hopes that the sheer sounds would trigger my brain to do what I’d just learned it wasn’t capable of: creating a mental image.
Minutes before taking refuge on the floor I was scrolling through Twitter. (I know. Classic pre-anxiety attack words.) My timeline was its usual mess of memes and politics, but a tweet that linked to an experience piece from The Guardian, titled “I can’t picture things in my mind” caught my attention. “How sad,” I naively thought while clicking to learn what exactly the writer meant. By the time I finished reading the excerpt, however, I could tell this stranger was about to describe my own lifelong experience with mental visualization.
The article explained that a number of people go through life with “aphantasia,” a term coined by neurologist Adam Zeman in 2015 to describe a lack of visual imagination. When most people try to imagine a beach they likely conjure some sort of picture in their heads, be it fuzzy or crystal clear, of sand, water, and perhaps a lifeguard chair. When I try to imagine a beach, though, I close my eyes and only see darkness. I encounter the same frustrating block when trying to picture anything. My childhood home, the Mashable office, and the face of loved ones I’ve known all my life are stored somewhere in my brain as memories, but I can’t intentionally summon mental pictures of them no matter how hard I try.
“Aphantasia is a lack of a mind’s eye. By mind’s eye, I mean the capacity that most of us have to visualize things in their absence,” Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at University of Exeter, explained on a call. “Most people, if they’re asked to think of an apple, or their front door, or their best friend, can have an experience which has a visual field. It’s not usually as good as seeing the thing in the flesh, but they can usually get some of the way there. People with aphantasia can think about things just fine, but they can’t visualize them.”
You’ve likely never heard of aphantasia as it’s still not a widely recognized, everyday term. But an estimated 2 to 3 percent of people can’t form mental imagery.
Before seeing that tweet, I had no idea aphantasia existed let alone that my own imagination was something out of the ordinary. I simply assumed all people saw the same vapid, nondescript nothingness when they closed their eyes, and that the majority of language associated with mental imagery — such as picturing your happy place or counting sheep to fall asleep — was metaphorical rather than literal.
When I learned that wasn’t the case, I questioned everything.
Learning you’ve been living life in the dark
When I finally picked myself up off the floor on that August day, I returned to my laptop and descended into an aphantasia Google hole. I read numerous articles that described similar surprise realizations, and even watched half a TED Talk before reaching out to two friends for comfort. I hammered them with visual imagination questions, but each response only confirmed what I feared: People were living with a remarkable ability that I lacked.
I assumed all people saw the same vapid, nondescript nothingness when they closed their eyes.
I called my mom to break the news, but much like the mom detailed in The Guardian piece she was in denial and tried to reassure me that I have a wonderful imagination. “You’re telling me you can’t picture Barack Obama’s face?” she asked in a baffled tone. “I can’t even picture your face!” I sobbed.
My mind kicked into overdrive and hastily cycled through a series of concerns: Does a lack of visual imagination mean I’m not creative? How did I major in creative writing? Is this why I sucked at penning concrete details in poetry class? Should I even be a writer? Does this explain my struggle to focus when reading fiction? Is Lorde’s “Supercut” about a *literal* supercut in her head? Can people just direct personal short films and watch their wildest fantasies play out whenever they damn well please?
That last thought hit me the hardest. As someone who worships television and cinema to a borderline unhealthy extent, the realization that I was essentially missing a screen in my mind that contained endless possibilities — a place where I could project and replay scenes from my own life, envision an endless string of future scenarios, and visually conceptualize my most ambitious and outlandish ideas — was soul crushing.
How to tell if you have aphantasia
If my experience sounds at all like your own, you may be aphantasic, too. Welcome to the unique, albeit slightly stressful, club.
Since individual visualization can be difficult to describe, a tool I find helpful when explaining aphantasia is the below image of a person picturing an apple. I’m a hard five on this scale, but my friend who identifies as a one claims he can not only picture the apple on a black background, but he can rotate the piece of fruit, change the background to whatever his heart desires, and perform an endless slew of other impressive mental feats.
You can try to imagine an apple as a test, but Zeman suggests picturing a few different things before assessing your capabilities.
“Think of a scene: the sun setting over the mountains in a misty sky. Think of your breakfast table, or your mum. Once you’ve run through a few possibilities, if somebody says they see nothing at all you’ve got the beginnings of evidence that they’re aphantasic,” he explained. As part of Zeman’s aphantasia-centered research with the University of Exeter, his also includes you can take to help further assess your visual imagery.
It’s crucial to note that aphantasia isn’t a singular experience. A group of people who lack visual imaginations may also struggle with prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces). And though ordinary memory in those with aphantasia is fine, about one-third of aphantasic people have poor autobiographical memory, give less rich descriptions when recalling past events, and have trouble imagining future events. For some, it can affect the ability to imagine sensations associated with touch, smell, or sound, too.
“There’s a question about whether that lack extends to other senses, and that seems to vary between people with aphantasia. Some people say they have no mind’s ear or that they can’t imagine the touch of velvet. Whereas other people say that it’s just a visual limitation. They have quite vivid imagery in other senses,” Zeman explained. “But for most people with aphantasia it’s across the board. It affects imagery generally.”
“There’s a question about whether that lack extends to other senses, and that seems to vary between people with aphantasia.”
Though aphantasic people can’t voluntarily conjure mental images, some, including myself, are able to see pictures in their mind when they’re sleeping, because images associated with dreaming are called upon or unlocked involuntarily.
“There’s a group of people, maybe about 30 percent, who say they don’t [dream]. So it’s not everyone, but certainly many do. That’s really a quite interesting dissociation, isn’t it? The differentiation between wakeful and dreaming imagery,” Zeman noted.
There’s also that hallucinogenic drugs may allow folks with aphantasia to freely see imagery. But the research is scant, and taking a trip to free your mind may be illegal where you live. Even if you never can trick your mind into seeing what others see naturally, know that at least you’re not alone.
Why isn’t aphantasia more well known?
Everyone I’ve come across who has aphantasia came to the realization by reading an article, seeing a social media post, or chatting with someone about the mind’s eye. My editor, for instance, had no idea she was aphantasic until I pitched this piece. And if I hadn’t stumbled across that article in 2018 I might still be under the impression that my visual imagination is perfectly normal.
An estimated two to three percent of people have aphantasia, but because it’s still not a recognizable, everyday term it’s possible that people can go their whole lives without even learning it exists. So why isn’t a lack of visual imagination more well-known in 2021?
Zeman started researching aphantasia in the 2000s after a 65-year-old man who lost the ability to mentally picture things after undergoing a medical procedure . Prior to hearing the man’s story, Zeman had never encountered this particular symptom before, and though he isn’t aphantasic himself (he describes his visualizations as “very average”) he was intrigued by the new neurological phenomenon.
Upon researching blindness of the mind’s eye, Zeman discovered so little information on the subject that he dubbed the lack of attention a “historical oddity.” In 1880, Francis Galton, an anthropologist and eugenicist, touched on the topic after asking 100 men to recall the lighting, definition, coloring, and details of their breakfast tables. Galton, who was a relative of Charles Darwin, found 12 of the men lacked positive visualization and he reported their struggle to conjure mental images. In 2009, after administering a questionnaire to 2,500 people and determining that about two percent of people surveyed struggled to conjure mental imagery. But until Zeman really invested in research, the neurological phenomenon largely remained a mystery.
“I think the trick was to produce a name. That’s very useful. It kind of allows people to identify what’s unusual about them,” Zeman explained. Another reason he feels aphantasia is so difficult to discover is because “we all take our own experience to be the standard.”
“Until you have some moment of realization, we assume that everyone else is similar to us. And that reflects the fact that that visualization is a very private experience. It’s something in your head, not something that other people can inspect and kind of check against the norm,” Zeman explained. “And it’s quite easy to assume the language people are using to describe imagery is metaphorical… So it’s easy to persuade yourself that that’s the case.”
Don’t let aphantasia get you down
If you’ve made it this far and are now wrapped up in the same mind-blowing emotional spiral I experienced, trust me, I get it. But Zeman has some words of encouragement.
Since 2015 when he and his team based off questionnaires taken by 21 people, he estimates around 15,000 people have reached out to discuss the neurological phenomenon — either because they’re interested or have aphantasia themselves.
Aphantasia can occasionally be a symptom of something that’s happened to the brain, but it shouldn’t be regarded as a medical condition or disorder, rather “a variant of normal human experience.” Though you may encounter some mental imagery-related FOMO, having aphantasia isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“There are many ways of imagining which don’t require visualization. So I think you can be perfectly imaginative and aphantasic.”
“Although [aphantasia] makes a big difference to the inner experience, it doesn’t make much difference to performance. People with aphantasia get along fine… even possibly, in some ways, they get along better than the rest,” Zeman said, listing high-achievement individuals who have aphantasia, including Craig Venter, the geneticist who decoded the genome; Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios; Blake Ross, co-creator of the Mozilla Firefox; and neurologist Oliver Sacks.
“There are many ways of imagining which don’t require visualization. So I think you can be perfectly imaginative and aphantasic,” he said. “It’s just one piece of the big jigsaw. We’re complicated beings.”
Zeman, who’s also consultant for , a resource for people to learn more about aphantasia and connect with others who have it, plans to continue his research and data collection on the mind’s eye. He encourages people with questions or to partake in studies.