When you close your eyes, what do you see? For me it was always a black screen, sometimes with the noise of a crackling TV. My dreams are a jumble of thoughts, but when I try to remember them, I can’t really see anything. I don’t have to pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming, because my dreams never resemble reality. I have a condition called afantasia, mental blindness. I can see clearly with my eyes, but not in my head.
When I think of a memory, I can conceptually understand and answer questions about it, but I cannot project it into my mind or imagine myself in it. I’ve got all the projector slides and all the information, but I can’t see the actual image. It is estimated that four percent of people experience addiction, but we can go our whole lives without knowing we have it.
I didn’t realize until I was 21, sitting in a coffee shop with my best friend. She talked animatedly about an article she had read about afantasia and how she couldn’t imagine what that would feel like. Suddenly I realized that I saw the world differently. I had always assumed that daydreaming, counting sheep, and seeing myself on the beach were metaphors. I couldn’t imagine what mental images would feel like.
After telling my family, we found out that my mom has it too. Afantasia is familial, with research showing that if you have congenital fantasy, there is a 21% chance that your first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) will also have it. At first it was hard not to see this as a loss, but over time I have developed a new appreciation and interest in how I learn and experience the world.
The concept of aphantasia dates back to Aristotle, who described a sixth sense of visual imagination called fantasia. Afantasia indicates the absence of mental images, but about 10% to 15% of people are on the other end of the spectrum with extremely vivid images or photographic memories, which is called hyperfantasia. Although knowledge of these invisible differences in cognition dates back to 340 BC, both terms were not mentioned until 2015 by Dr. Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in the UK.
Mental imagery, as a research topic, was considered taboo in the latter half of the 20th century due to behaviorism, which rejected introspection as a way of understanding behavior. Now, however: “It’s now being embraced by all kinds of scientists because we can measure it. People realize we don’t know much about it, and we shouldn’t,” said Joel Pearson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The experience of having fantasia is difficult to describe because it varies from person to person and there is no conscious equivalent. “People say they feel like the images are there, but they just can’t get to it,” Zeman says. “We know that in a way [people with aphantasia] must have a very detailed knowledge of how things look because [they] can recognize them. The sensory information is all in the brain [but they find it] difficult to use that information to produce a visual experience in the absence of the item.”
Afantasia is often described as a visual disorder, but it is actually multisensory. People who experience a lack of mental images may have a reduced ability to access other mental senses (imagining sound, movement, smell, taste, and touch). For example, I can’t imagine most of the senses. I can’t conceptualize the taste of my favorite meal or the feeling of a hug, but I have a strong inner voice and can hear and remember songs in my head. This makes me a multisensory dependent, as I have reduced mental capacity for more than one sense, but not all.
Some people experience a complete absence of mental senses, which Zeman calls global dependence. In a 2020 research study published in Scientific Reports, only 26% of participants in aphanasia reported no internal mental representations, showing that most dependents experience unique combinations of the other senses. Although people with afantasia share a lack of voluntary visual imagery, we cannot assume that everyone has the same experience.
Scientists have studied afantasia mainly in terms of visual imagination, rather than other senses, so much is still unknown. Even under visual imagination, people can have completely different experiences – some have no idea about visual images, but 63% can see vivid images in their dreams. “Most people with afantasia are pretty sure they dream visually. They only experience it in a brain state that’s involuntary,” says Zeman.
There are pros and cons to having fantasy. People with aphasia generally have a higher average IQ (115 compared to the general population’s 110 score) and are less affected by scary stories because they cannot visualize them. As Zeman explains, “It’s clearly not a barrier to high performance… You might have thought it would hinder creativity, but it clearly isn’t.”
Aphantasics experience lower levels of sensory sensitivity, overwhelmed by “sensory input which can be bright lights, loud noises or the smell of perfume,” said Carla Dance, a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex in the UK. Despite this, they have more difficulty with autobiographical memory and facial recognition.
People may not realize they have fantasy because they have developed shortcuts to process the world. “In visual working memory, we see that their performance is about the same [as the general population]† But once you start looking under the hood and seeing how people store this information in memory, it’s a different mechanism and a different strategy, even though the performance on everyday tasks looks the same,” Pearson says. “Most people with aphasia will have very good spatial skills … but they cannot place objects in that space.”
At work, in an exercise to investigate neurodiversity, my colleagues and I were once asked to draw our brains to visualize the way we think, but I couldn’t do it because I don’t think in images. I felt frustrated and self-conscious as there was no alternative for me to participate – I had to sit and wait while other people completed the exercise. I had to think of a way in which I am different from others, even if I don’t like to see that as a weakness. There are easy ways to get around this and be mindful of people who think differently. For example, my colleagues could have reformulated the exercise from drawing what our minds look like to simply representing how we think. That way I could have written a list of words or emotions to explain how my mind works, instead of trying to come up with pictures.
“Afantasia is just another way of experiencing the world. It comes down to finding out what learning style you have and what works for you, given your image profile,” says Dance. “If someone has really good auditory images, maybe” [they can use] that feeling like a portal to remember things.” We can all benefit from thinking carefully about how we think and what this tells us about ourselves.
This post What it’s like to be ‘mind blind’
was original published at “https://time.com/6155443/aphantasia-mind-blind/”