Aphantasia: When you try to picture something in your mind and nothing happens

This is a difficult topic to talk about, since it involves things that happen exclusively inside your (or my) mind, which by definition can’t be experienced by anyone else. So it’s hard to even describe properly, since different people are going to experience things differently, even if we are trying to talk about the same thing. But here’s a question: When someone asks you to picture something in your mind — a horse, a sunset, a shiny red apple — and you close your eyes, what happens? Most people see a visual representation of that thing hovering in front of their “mind’s eye,” and in many cases it is in full colour, like they were looking at a photograph but in their mind. For me, there is nothing. Literally. Just a blank space.

I obviously know what a horse and an apple and a sunset look like, and I can describe them in great detail. But if I try to think of what they look like with my eyes closed, I don’t see anything at all — not even a hazy representation of them. The best I can do is try to remember a photograph of a sunset I saw, or a horse, but even then it’s a memory of having seen something. It’s not just neutral objects either — this goes for loved ones, family members, pets, etc. I don’t see the person or the thing itself, in color, or even in black and white.

I’ve since learned that this is a phenomenon called “aphantasia,” a condition that was first mentioned in the 1800s but not really studied until relatively recently. I started reading about it awhile back, when I came across two things at about the same time: One was a post by a friend on Facebook that mentioned that he has this condition, and the other was a post from Blake Ross, a famous software developer who was one of the original developers of the Mozilla Firefox browser, in which he described his gradual realization that he had the same condition. In the post, entitled “When you are blind in your mind,” Ross says:

I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

Ross linked to a New York Times story about a man who had surgery and when he awoke from the operation he complained that he had lost his imagination. Eventually, they discovered that what he meant was he could no longer picture things in his mind. They did an MRI and watched when he looked at a photo of former British prime minister Tony Blair, then asked him to describe Tony Blair and looked to see if the same sections of the brain lit up as when he looked at the photo, and they did not (for most people, they would). And yet he could describe Blair without any problem, including details like the colour of his eyes. There’s more in this Scientific American piece. Scientists now believe that it’s not something you either have or you don’t, that there’s a spectrum in which some people see virtually nothing when they visualize things, and others see either imagery or in some cases rich, totally photographic colours etc. (called hyperphantasia).

What’s interesting is that I think I have a pretty good imagination, and I also draw and paint, or at least did when I was younger, and I like to think I was pretty good at it. But I was never (and still am not) good at drawing or painting things that weren’t directly in front of me — and now I think that’s likely a result of not being able to picture those things in my mind. I also wonder whether this helps explain why I (and at least one of my daughters) don’t do very well with directions and maps — I can’t visualize the map or landmarks or routes. And I also wonder whether this helps explain why I love photography so much, and why I take so many pictures of sunsets, etc. — because looking at those pictures is the only way I can experience those memories. I also don’t have vivid dreams the way other people describe them — things happen, but it’s more like I experienced a book. There’s virtually nothing visual at all.

What makes this especially frustrating is that my wife has what amounts to the opposite condition — she has something called “synesthesia,” which involves a merging of senses, including usually a sense of colour. So when she pictures letters and numbers, they are different colours (a number of musicians, including jazz great Duke Ellington and singer/producer Pharrell Williams see colours when they hear music). This gives her a “mundane superpower,” which is that she can remember almost every number, date, birthday etc. she has ever seen or even heard of. So where I am missing something, she actually has extra abilities. According to our daughter who is studying cognitive psychology, this could be a holdover from when she was in utero, when her synapses were initially forming connections.

It’s a fascinating topic — but it’s also extremely difficult to discuss, because how do you describe something that is (or isn’t) only in your mind? It’s like talking about colours. Do you and I see red the same way, or have we just agreed to call something completely different by the same name? That’s a question for another day!

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