Take a moment, close your eyes and think of someone you really love – in your minds eye what are they wearing? Do they have lockdown hair or have they made it to the hairdressers yet? If you can’t sleep have you ever tried counting sheep – what do they look like? Big and fluffy or recently shaun? Take a slow breath and imagine you’re in your favourite place – what does it look like?
Now tell me in your minds eye do you really actually see something??
What?? Genuinely you do?? You mean you actually see real images in your mind when you imagine things?
No – you can’t, not really… when people say ‘picture in your mind’ it’s just a phrase – you don’t actually see a picture do you??
Seriously you do???
Well I don’t. There’s nothing. It’s just blank. Completely blank. Not even a fuzzy sort of something. And I thought that was normal. I honestly thought when people talked about what they could see in their mind that it was just a metaphor, a visual way of speaking.
It turns out that I have Aphantasia. It’s estimated that it’s something experienced by about 2% of the worlds population. I’m fairly sure it’s something I’ve had all my life but I had absolutely no idea that anyone else actually saw images in their minds eye until I was nearly 40 years old.
A friend of mine shared a link to a BBC news story about a Ed Catmull retired President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. He discovered very late on in his career that he had Aphantasia when he was unable to complete the visualisation exercises for a Tibetan meditation he was undertaking. On starting to talk to several of his colleagues he discovered that many of them could see what they were imagining very clearly; for some they could still see what they had imagined once they opened their eyes. This made sense to him given the artistic work they were so evidently talented in. But having learnt that most people can see what’s in their minds eye even if only in a vague way he was surprised to discover that he was not the only one in his industry without this ability. For example Glen Keane who created the character Ariel in The Little Mermaid has no visual imagination either. To read more follow this link. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47830256
As I read about Ed’s experience, how he discovered he had Aphantasia and the implications of this neurological condition, I had this dawning realisation that I could completely relate to what he was describing. I started asking those around me what they could see and trying to understand what it was I was experiencing when I tried to imagine things – it certainly wasn’t an actual visual experience. It was baffling to me – how could it be possible that other people actually saw things when they were asked to imagine them. And how could I not have realised before now that they did and I didn’t.
The term Aphantasia was created in 2015 by Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter Medical School. His email details were on the BBC report with an invitation to contact him if you thought what was being described was you. I took the plunge and pinged off an email.
One of Professor Zeman’s research assistants got back in touch with me and gave me a number of questionnaires to complete. I was asked to imagine a close friend and describe what I could see, to imagine a sunrise and various other things and say how clearly those things were visually defined in my mind. I initially really struggled as I found I could imagine and describe these things but there was absolutely no visual image. I wondered if I was misunderstanding what was meant to ‘picture’ something and that I was right all along in assuming it was just language used to interpret how we recall things factually. When I went back to the researcher to clarify she replied that the fact that I was so confused was a classic reaction by a newly discovered Aphant.
I came to realise that I could describe these things because I just knew factually what they looked like, or how they made me feel or even a memory of movement but not because I was describing what I saw in my minds eye. Two years on I still find it baffling trying to work out how I can have a strong mental impression of something visual such as a map, or a scene from a TV show, or what someone looks like even though I actually have no visual memory of these things. And it still astounds me that most other people do actually have actual visual imagination and recollection.
For a short while I belonged to a Facebook group for people who have Aphantasia and it became apparent for a good number they have found the discovery that they lack an ability that most people have quite distressing; they want to find the cause and they want to be ‘cured’ even resorting to psychedelic drugs to induce a ‘vision’.
For me though it’s a discovery that’s baffling and fascinating. I don’t see the need to try and change it though I do wonder what it must be like to visualise and see. I am glad though I know about Aphantasia as the knowledge has given me a massive sense of relief. In years past I have suffered with poor mental health and at various points in counselling settings have been asked to do visualisation exercises – I tried so hard but I just couldn’t do it, I felt that maybe it was a symptom of my mental illness or maybe I was somehow being awkward and stubborn. I’d feel as though I was not cooperating with the medical professional who was trying to help me. I experienced the same stumbling block when in religious settings meditations involving visual imagination was used.
To discover that my brain is simply not wired to have a minds eye, that these visual imaginative tasks are neurologically just not possible for me was so freeing. I’m not a failure, I’m not uncooperative, I’m not deficient, I don’t need to try harder or be more open and receptive. My brain is a little bit different and simply just won’t do it however hard I try so I can stop trying! Hurrah!!
References to a lack of minds eye can be found in literature going back 2500 years yet until six years ago no one had really looked into it let alone give the phenomenon a name. They estimate 1 in 50 people experience Aphantasia but it’s hard to be certain because most people like me will have been completely unaware that there lack of a minds eye was any different to anyone else – they will have assumed as I did that it was just a metaphor not a real thing.
It highlights to me how much about life and other people we assume and take for granted. We can easily assume that other people experience life the same way we do, that they will think and react to situations in the same way we would. Medical science has gone so far in its understanding of the human body and mind and yet there is still so much we don’t know. Although we all have commonalities that define us as a human being we are all so incredibly diverse. Some of our differences are easier to see or pick up on but many are completely hidden and yet can have significant impacts on our lives and relationships with each other for good and ill. But recognising, celebrating and making the most of our diversity and human beings is such a valuable thing to do.
Even as I continue to be baffled by the concept that most of you reading this can actually see things in your mind I also continue to be amazed at the complexity of the human being, body, mind and soul. I can’t put it better than the writer of Psalm 139 in the Bible:
“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”
Psalms 139:13-14 NLT
(If you want to know more about Aphantasia or what I’ve been describing sounds familiar and you want to take a test then check out this website: https://aphantasia.com/what-is-aphantasia)