The studies made so far predict that about 2 % of the population have aphantasia. In the US, that’s about as many as are named John.
Imagine yourself taking a bite out of a big, juicy apple. Focus on the apple. What color is it?
If you answered this question by "looking" at the apple, you imagined with your inner eye, your brain likely works like that of most people. If you were unable to answer it because you didn't see an apple, you might have what is nowadays known as aphantasia. Aphantasia is the inability of voluntary visualization. The blindness of the inner eye, so to speak.
Just to make sure, let's try some more stuff:
What do you see when I ask you to imagine a red triangle?
How about a blue circle?
Or a green square?
If none of these cite even the slightest visual element in your perception, then we can confirm it: you are most likely an aphantasiac. You are not alone though, the studies made so far predict that about 2 % of the population would get the same result. In the US, that's about as many as are named John.
For the other 98 % of us, the non-Johns, this is very surprising. Most of us would imagine that the ability to vaguely see things in front of you, when daydreaming or say, reading a work of fiction, is an all-embracing part of the human experience. Perhaps it is even more surprising for you, the non-visualizing 2 %, that the rest of us have this then seemingly super-human capacity. Maybe it is right now, through reading this article, that you come to realize this for the first time!
Many people with aphantasia don't discover that they have it until well into adulthood. It may seem absurd, but when you think about it, these kinds of things are not easily found out. We all live inside our own very private bubble of consciousness and naturally suppose that the bubbles of others are of a similar substance. It resembles the concept of color blindness – you won't discover it until it's a problem. This is mirrored in the fact that aphantasia got its name not until 2015! Its scientific history starts a bit earlier though, in the year 1880.
Perhaps the name Francis Galton sounds familiar? He was an English scientist, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, and is today mostly known for being the father of eugenics, or race biology. This has, of course, cast a shadow over the less horrible things he did. Some of them were utterly harmless, such as his study of the optimal method for making tea (very English, right?) or his quite interesting idea of scientifically measure the power of prayer (which he found was zero – his argument being, that since everyone was praying for a long life of the current King/Queen, their lives should be unusually long, which they statistically were not).
He also made significant contributions to the field of statistics and created the world's first weather map. Oh, and he discovered aphantasia. Amongst all his papers, you can find one titled "Statistics of Mental Imagery". In it, Galton asks people to visualize their full-of-food breakfast table as clearly as possible and describe how clearly they see it. To his surprise, he finds that "the great majority of the men of science" that he initially asks; find his query nonsensical since they believe that no-one actually can see things in their imagination at will. Like many with the condition today, they assume that the term "mental imagery" is just an expression.
When Galton talks to members of the "general society," the reception is entirely different. Of them, almost everyone gets what he means, and many announce that they can easily visualize their breakfast vividly and in full color.
Whether the inability of visual imagery has something to do with being a "man of science" or not should be unsaid. What is interesting is that Galton, already in the late 1800s, stumbled upon this quite astonishing difference in how we think about things.
Then 130 years passed.
In the early 2000s, neurologist Adam Zeman of Exeter University, England, got a highly curious case in his hands. He met a patient, later referred to as "MX", who had literally gotten his dreams taken away from him.
MX was at the time 65 years old and had lived a quite visualization-rich life up until that age. After a heart procedure he felt a little dizzy (it is likely that he had a minor stroke), and four days later he noticed that something was gone: His ability to visualize.
He could no longer picture the faces of his family as he usually would before harmonically going to sleep. When he read books, he did not enter the visual world of fiction that he, and most of us, otherwise automatically would do. And in his dreams were only blackness.
MX is a fascinating case in himself, but the real breakthrough was not the publication of his case in 2010, it was the reactions to it.
Zeman and his research team naturally just assumed that MX's inability to conjure mental images was a very rare one. In the MX case, it was the result of some sort of very improbable minor brain damage. However, soon the scientists had to change their minds.
After having read of MX's case, several people reacted in the same way as Blake Ross, co-founder of the web browser Firefox, who, in a very amusing facebook article, writes that he found the statement that MX "lost the ability" to visualize starkly odd. To him, the focus should naturally be on the fact that MX had this incredible ability to begin with because Ross did not. Furthermore, he never had any idea that anyone else did. He says reading about it was similar to finding an article about scientists finding a man without a tail.
This meant that Adam Zeman's scientific adventure suddenly was expanded from one exceptional case to 140,000,000 potential ones across the globe (if the 2 % estimation is somewhat correct). After the first 21 e-mails they got, Zeman's team made a second study. This one, published in 2015, is the one in which the term aphantasia is finally coined. Since the new cases had never in their lives been able to visualize, the full name of the condition is actually "congenital aphantasia," congenital meaning "from birth."
Interestingly enough, the brains of most of the new subjects were not wholly unable to create imagery. Out of the 21, 17 had visual dreams, and some of them sometimes could get visual flashes during the day. (Some, like Ross, did, however, not have a visual component in their dreams and could just recall a list of "plot points" when they woke up.) What they could not was voluntarily making the imagery appear.
Also of high interest is the fact that the lack of mental images didn't in an obvious way hinder them from successfully completing "visual" tasks. When asked to think about how many windows their houses had, they were able to answer it, not by seeing their house in front of them but by simply "knowing" the answer.
They would not be able to imagine the face of their friends but could still know details about it and would recognize it when they saw it just like the rest of us.
Two-thirds of the participants reported difficulties with autobiographical memory, but the same amount felt that they compensated by being unusually good at verbal, mathematical, and logical tasks. The same applied to Ross, who apart from being a computer wiz and co-creating one of the world's most popular browsers recalls that his memory for numbers was extra-ordinary (on an IQ test he could, at the age of 12, repeat 20 digits from memory straight away which without mnemonics is baffling).
You would guess that having a "blind inner eye" would at least make it difficult for you to become an artist. While Ross claims that he can't draw at all and it seems common for aphantasiacs to report that they can only draw if they have something to copy and not from imagination yet others seem to have no problem with this at all, such as the reportedly aphantasia-afflicted Disney animator Glen Kean, the main animator for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and adult Tarzan in Tarzan!
How this can be done without being able to see the image in front of you is fascinating, and more research on this would be of high value.
A slight problem with the concept of aphantasia is its subjectivity. We can't really look inside someone's brain and tell whether there is an image hovering around there somewhere or not (although we can get some indications of it). The test that Zeman sent to his subjects was a simple survey – one page, 16 questions – called the "Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire," VVIQ for short. It takes about five minutes to complete. You can find it here.
I tried VVIQ myself and got a total score of 55, slightly below the average in Zeman's nonaphantasiac control group.
What I found was that when you do it, it's very easy to start questioning the vividness of your images. Something may feel clear at first, but when you are asked about how clear the contour really is, you're not so sure. "Do I really see an image at all, or am I just feeling it?" "Where is it?" "It's clearly not in front of my eyes, is it behind them?" It isn't so easy to tell, right? At least not for me. The only thing I felt completely sure about vividly seeing was colors.
However, even considering this unexpected uncertainty, it is clear that there is a difference between me and the aphantasiacs, as can be seen in the graph below. I would never answer that I surely just saw nothing, and the same seems to go for the control group.
So how about memory techniques? The visually dense idea of a memory palace shouldn't match well with aphantasia, right? The answer is, I'm not sure. I haven't yet been able to find any research on the topic (in general, the research on aphantasia is very scarce). Actually, I have only been aware of its very existence the past month and done all my reading on it during this period.
My view of the importance of imagery in memory techniques has changed quite a bit in recent years. At first, you read about how the visual memory is superior to everything else and believe that that is the primary key to the techniques. However, after using them for a long time, it is clear that it is not the only thing that "holds it together." Nowadays, I would say that association is the principal part of the techniques and that the visual focus is there only because it most often is more practical to create visual associations than anything else.
The word aphantasia feels a bit unfortunate since it, at least to me, indicates a lack of imagination and with that creativity. This is, as the cases of Blake Ross, Glen Keane, and the majority of other fantastic aphatasiacs blatantly prove, very far from the reality of it. Imagination, although in itself a somewhat misleading term, involves so much more than just the visual aspect.
Therefore, it is just as possible for people with aphantasia to create associations as the rest of us, and I wouldn't be surprised if they can use memory palaces in an effective, although a slight bit different way. The only way to find out is, of course, to try it. So if you are reading this and feel that it is about you, please try one of our simple memory palace exercises here and let us know how it went!
I realize that I must have met hundreds of people with aphantasia during my lectures, and it happens from time to time that someone approaches me afterward and tells me that they don't think that the techniques will work for them since they just can't imagine things. I then usually ask them if they succeeded with the small memory palace exercise we did during the lecture, and the answer has always been "yes," which has led me to believe that they just think that they cannot visualize and that I then proved them wrong.
Now I feel a bit stupid. Hereafter I will, of course, be more careful with this. (Although I still believe that many adults underestimate their imaginative powers just because they don't use them that much in their everyday life and so believe memory techniques to be more difficult than they are.) To my defense, not many others seem to have realized this difference either.
While some people have found it out on their own (such as Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar and Disney, who realized that he was an aphantasiac after having tried visualizing a sphere for a week doing Tibetan Mediation) most don't get it until they read a scientific article about it. Moreover, such an article has appeared with a hundred-year interval lately.
On the question of how he could have gone through his whole life without finding out that most other people see visual imagery, Ross answered: "How could you go your whole life not knowing I don't?"
That pretty much sums it up. We cannot see what other people see without thoroughly and deeply talking to each other about it—investigating it—caring about it. Sometimes we can't even then. Besides, maybe it does not matter much. It is not such a big deal if I see purple where you see green, just as long as we both have the same word for it. Some aphantasiacs do feel left out not seeing visual imagery, but to others, it doesn't seem to matter that much.
Not many direct connections to aphantasia are made when it has to do with causes. It is not easy to pinpoint the correlation between physical characteristics and causes of aphantasia. Undoubtedly, the environment and the passing of genetically coded programs are at play first of all. Most genetically transmitted causes can make somebody more prone to exhibiting a characteristic of a "blind" inside eye. Since this is a "newly discovered" topic, the causes are yet to be set in stone. With that, what is set in stone when it comes to new discoveries, only ideas built on other premises can serve as a guide.
Physical or psychological traumas seemed to be the most sought for the reasoning behind aphantasia. Patients coming out of brain surgery have reported to experience signs of aphantasia. Factors that include psychologically affected traumas are also a significant cause. The imprint of extreme psychological disharmony leads to many pressing issues - the idea of recalling images or being able to envision something at call. Categorizing other issues into the focus of the sole cause leading to aphantasia is a bit extreme.
Though more connections can be made to build on other premises, diving deep into neurological connections enable our brain to function - begins the premises of observing the occipital lobe. This is one of our brain's significant lobes and primary visual cortex area. The processing of imagery is done here, in layman terms. Considering aphantasia has the main tie in the ability to envision, the occipital lobe will be necessary for playing out the scenario. The harm done with electrical trauma can have irreversible effects on the brain's ability to keep enablement of all functions. Electrocution at high voltage may cause extreme visual disturbances leading to exhibits of aphantasia.
Without much speculation and debunking research, the most common effect is a congenital one. They are passed down from the historical DNA lineage of the family. Patients exhibiting aphantasia are mostly having a "different" experience, in aspects of reality, not a congenital disability. Many other factors play into effect when visualization takes place. All other senses like hearing, touch, and smell can be used in a visual recall.
There is no "cure" yet, but perhaps there is nothing to be cured. Professor Zeman calls it "an intriguing variation in human experience" rather than a disorder. Already Galton noted that people "who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures could nevertheless give life-like descriptions of what they have seen and call otherwise express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination. They can also become painters of the rank of Royal Academicians."
Since most do not seem to realize that they do not have it, perhaps it's worst for those who have had it and then lost it, than to those who never had it at all. Too, if that makes you think of MX lying in bed missing the sparkling imagery of his black as death dreams, I can give you a reassuring update there. According to Scientific American, whatever broke in his brain has now fixed itself, and the images have made their comeback in his nightly voyages.