I want you to try a little experiment with me. Close your eyes, imagine that your crush is soaking in some sun on a tropical beach somewhere. Oh, and let’s make it more fun, they’re completely naked, and beckoning you over. See, wasn’t that a fun exercise? Most people were able to create that image in their minds no sweat (well, unless it made you sweaty). But for others, it was an impossible task.
That’s not because they didn’t have someone to think about. They also couldn’t think of the beach, the sun, the warm white sand, none of those images came to mind. That’s because these people lack the ability to conjure images in their “mind’s eye.”
This inability to create mental images is a condition known as aphantasia. It’s thought that it can affect one in every 50 people. It is literally the complete lack of even the most basic form of an imagination. No day dreaming, no replaying fond memories in your head … nothing.
Researchers are only just now trying to figure out if the condition is real. "People who have contacted us say they are really delighted that this has been recognized and has been given a name, because they have been trying to explain to people for years that there is this oddity that they find hard to convey to others,” said Adam Zeman,(pictured) a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology.
Originally, researchers thought that people who claimed they were unable to conjure an image in their mind had underdeveloped metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to control one’s own thinking and awareness about what you are thinking. They thought people who claimed they had aphantasia had images in their mind, but just couldn’t make them out.
Since what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye is subjective, it’s impossible to get a fully objective reading on what you’re actually picturing in your head. No one can actually know exactly what you’re thinking. But researchers came up with a relatively simple way to test if people actually suffer from aphantasia. A new study in Cortex determined to get to the bottom of it.
The experiment involved the binocular rivalry illusion. Participants in the experiment were given pairs of 3D glasses. One lens was a green circle with horizontal lines, the other a red circle with vertical lines. This illusion causes the perceiver to fluctuate between the different images (not being able to see them at once) Before putting on the glasses, the participants were asked to imagine one of the circles. If they can use their mind’s eye, the image they were asked to picture would be the dominant image in the glasses. The participants who couldn’t conjure images reported no effect.
So, this shows that it doesn’t come down to a subjective issue. These people are just not picturing “less” than the average person, they completely lack the ability to picture anything in their mind’s eye. There’s also another way you can test if you have aphantasia.
Psychologists uses the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire is used to test how well your mind’s eye can produce images. There is an abridged 12-question version you take for yourself here. The question ask you to imagine things like the face of a relative or friend and how clearly you can see their features. You then answer on a scale from “no image at all” to “As vivid as real life.”
Can you really imagine what it’s like to have zero imagination? Chances are you can’t because you’re probably imagining something in your head right now. But, people really live with this condition, and it can be devastating, especially when you can’t imagine the faces of your loved ones.
Niel Kenmuir from the U.K., recalls not being able to use his imagination from a young age. Having a large imagination seems like universal characteristic for any child, but that didn’t hold true in Niel’s case “My stepfather, when I couldn’t sleep, told me to count sheep, and he explained what he meant, I tried to do it and I couldn’t,” Niel said. “I couldn’t see any sheep jumping over fences, there was nothing to count.”
Niel cannot describe the face of his fiancée to you. When I think about my fiancée there is no image, but I am definitely thinking about her, I know today she has her hair up at the back, she's brunette,” he said. "But I'm not describing an image I am looking at, I'm remembering features about her, that's the strangest thing and maybe that is a source of some regret."
Niel isn’t overly upset about not being able to imagine things, but aphantasia is a source of great distress for some sufferers. Tom Ebeyer from Ontario, who took part in a study said that he felt “isolated” when he found out other people had imaginations.
“I began to feel isolated – unable to do something so central to the average human experience,” he said. 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.”
Another person said that he felt “extremely distraught” when he was unable to picture his mother’s face following her death. Could you imagine not being able to picture your mother’s face? Or to hear your children’s voices in your head? What actually goes on in the brain when it’s vacant of imagination?
The next steps for researchers and medical professionals is to figure out why this happens. The theory is that for some reason, the neurological pathways in the brains get disturbed. After a “why” is discovered, hopefully we can move onto a course of treatment.