Aphantasia

Imagine you're on a beach

I’ve known for a few years now, thanks mostly to an experiment Sherwin and I carried out, that my ability to “visualize” in my mind, that is, to consciously or voluntarily pull up images of people, objects, places is fairly limited. Clearly, I remember visually, after all, I have no issue recognizing faces, or objects. But, ask me to pull up someone’s face, even a loved one, and I mostly draw a blank.

I have never thought of this “condition” as a big deal as it does not impact the life I know how to live. I have lovely and lasting relationships with many people, whose faces I don’t have to pull up to know that I love them. When I read books, I don’t need to visualize everything the author wants me to, the text sets the mood for me more than adequately. I am fairly successful professionally. In fact, many skills required for test taking, verbal/textual recall and comprehension have more than compensated academically, so I live on, pretty happily.

But wait, it’s 2015, and time to medicalize this condition. In a paper published June 2015 (pdf)1, Zeman, et al. wrote up results of a (flawed, they admit) study of people who profess anything from mild to severe inability to “see things in the mind’s eye”.

Study Origin and Design

The authors, based on publicity of their previous related work on “a particularly ‘pure’ case of imagery generation disorder, in a 65 year old man who became unable to summon imVisualization scores, particpants vs controlsages to the mind’s eye after coronary angioplasty”, were contacted by 21 people indicating similar issues since childhood. 19 out of the 21 people in this self-selected study were male. The authors surmise this rather extreme gender distribution was the result of where their initial study received most publicity, the science magazine Discover. The authors then sent them the visual imagery questionnaire2. When they received the results back, they saw a very clear difference in self-evaluated visual imagery ability between the people they sent the survey to (upper half of the graph), and 121 controls (lower half). The authors called this phenomenon Aphantasia. Most aphantastic people reported moderate to severe deficit in voluntary imagery, but would experience bursts of involuntary imagery, especially in dreams and around transitions to wakefulness.  Most subjects only reported mild effects on their life, relationships and life choices. So, clearly, these self-evaluated aphantastics were able to function just fine.

The authors understand that the study is limited and flawed based on the self-selection and self-diagnosis, proposing further study, especially involving better subject selection, evaluation and links with brain imaging to establish a biological basis.

I took the questionnaire and landed right in the moderate end of the scale. So, I am very predisposed to believe that this is real. So friends, if you tell me to “imagine you’re on a beach”, you’ll first get a blank stare, then a question: “Which beach?” If you ask me to draw something based on memory, I will flail rather amusingly.

For example.

Drawn map of Bharat's route from home to Spiral Café
Drawn map of my bike route from home to the Spiral Café.
  1. Zeman, A., Dewar, M., Sala, S. Della, 2015. Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia. Cortex. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019
  2. the linked paper has a copy

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