Imagine a tree sitting atop a hill and on that tree, a small yellow bird.
What do you see in your mind’s eye?
About 95 percent of people can visualise something, varying in detail from vivid to vague, depending on their natural abilities.
However, up to 5 percent of people — as many as 1-in-20 — ‘sees’ nothing at all.
They have ‘aphantasia’: a lack of all mental imagery.
While they might be able to imagine the sound of the wind or the feeling of grass between their toes, there is no accompanying image.
What it means to be aphantasic is examined in research that surveyed 267 people with the condition.
Mr Alexei Dawes, the study’s first author, said:
“Aphantasia challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the human mind.
Most of us assume visual imagery is something everyone has, something fundamental to the way we see and move through the world.
But what does having a ‘blind mind’ mean for the mental journeys we take every day when we imagine, remember, feel and dream?”
The researchers compared the experience of aphantasics with 400 people who have mental imagery.
Mr Dawes said:
“We found that aphantasia isn’t just associated with absent visual imagery, but also with a widespread pattern of changes to other important cognitive processes.
People with aphantasia reported a reduced ability to remember the past, imagine the future, and even dream.”
People were asked to recall memories and indicate how vivid their mental imagery was for that moment.
People with aphantasia tended to agree with the statement: “No image at all, I only ‘know’ that I am recalling the memory.”
Those with strong mental imagery agreed with the statement: “Perfectly clear and as vivid as normal vision.”
Mr Dawes explained the results:
“Our data revealed an extended cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of aphantasia characterised by changes to imagery, memory, and dreaming.
We’re only just starting to learn how radically different the internal worlds of those without imagery are.”
Among the aphantasics, one-quarter also had difficulties imagining touch, sound, motion, smell, taste and emotion.
Aphantasics also dream less, which makes sense, considering how important visual imagery is to dreaming.
Professor Joel Pearson, study co-author, said:
“Aphantasics reported dreaming less often, and the dreams they do report seem to be less vivid and lower in sensory detail.
This suggests that any cognitive function involving a sensory visual component—be it voluntary or involuntary—is likely to be reduced in aphantasia.”
Aphantasics find it harder to recall memories and they are, overall, less vivid.
Mr Dawes said:
“Our work is the first to show that aphantasic individuals also show a reduced ability to remember the past and prospect into the future.
This suggests that visual imagery might play a key role in memory processes.”
What aphantasia feel like
Aphantasia can be an isolating experience for some, researchers have found (Zeman et al., 2015).
Tom Ebeyer, 25, from Ontario, Canada, who has aphantasia, didn’t discover he lacked a common mental ability until the age of 21:
“It had a serious emotional impact.
I began to feel isolated — unable to do something so central to the average human experience.
The ability to recall memories and experiences, the smell of flowers or the sound of a loved one’s voice; before I discovered that recalling these things was humanly possible, I wasn’t even aware of what I was missing out on.
The realisation did help me to understand why I am a slow at reading text, and why I perform poorly on memorisation tests, despite my best efforts.”
All of Mr Ebeyer’s senses are affected.
He can’t summon up any smell, emotion, sound, texture or taste.
Mr Ebeyer said:
“After the passing of my mother, I was extremely distraught in that I could not reminisce on the memories we had together.
I can remember factually the things we did together, but never an image.
After seven years, I hardly remember her.
To have the condition researched and defined brings me great pleasure.
Not only do I now have an official title to refer to the condition while discussing it with my peers, but the knowledge that professionals are recognising its reality gives me hope that further understanding is still to come.”
Professor Adam Zeman, the study’s first author, said:
“This intriguing variation in human experience has received little attention.
Our participants mostly have some first-hand knowledge of imagery through their dreams: our study revealed an interesting dissociation between voluntary imagery, which is absent or much reduced in these individuals, and involuntary imagery, for example in dreams, which is usually preserved.”
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (Dawes et al., 2020).