- I have aphantasia, a neurological condition that leaves me with a ‘blind mind’s eye’: the inability to mentally visualise my thoughts. While most people are able to ‘see’ images associated with stories and thoughts when their eyes are closed, I have never had this gift. When I close my eyes, I experience only darkness. I have no sensory experience.
- Neesa Sunar is a freelance writer on mental health. She works as a mental health advocate and runs a mental health discussion group on Facebook called What is Wellness? She is also the author of Memories of Psychosis: Poems on the Mental Distress Experience (2019) and a singer/songwriter with guitar. She lives in New York.
- When I first read this paper, I remarked that it was ‘not greatly enlightening’, presumably because I read it after watching "Aeon - Video - Out of mind".
- However, reading it again a couple of years later (July 2023), I found it much more useful and think it raises many interesting issues.
- There’s a reference to the introduction of "Galton (Francis) - Visualised Numerals" to do with visualising a breakfast table. Good to have a positive reference to Francis Galton. I intend to read this paper and consider the questions he asked his subjects from my own perspective.
- According to Adam Zeman, voluntary imagery is generated in fronto-parietal and in posterior brain regions.
- Aphantasia is usually congenital, but can be a response to brain injury. It affects 2% of people.
- Failure to be able to generate arousing images can cause sexual problems (asexuality).
- Those with aphantasia often don’t know they have the condition, using language as a substitute – concepts rather than images.
- Most people with aphantasia can still dream with images1, though the author cannot – dreaming in ‘words, ideas, feelings and verbal knowledge of circumstances’.
- Friends were shocked on hearing of her ‘condition’, saying visualizing was ‘a big part of their understanding of life’. The author – while having no understanding of having a ‘Mind’s Eye2’ felt she was missing a sense akin to sight or hearing’.
- Her ability to recall memories3 is diminished and she’s worried she’ll forget what her loved ones look like as she gets older. She takes photos to preserve her memories.
- She remembers ‘auras’ associated with particular people and places and is thereby able to describe them in the absence of visual imagery.
- For people, while she can’t recall ‘minute details4’ of what they look like she can recall their personalities well.
- She said that meditation was of no benefit to her as her lack of mental imagery left her with a clear mind. I was doubtful – mental images don’t thrust themselves upon you, though present worries and non-visual recollection of past events may do.
- She finds reading fiction difficult and just skips the descriptive passages lest she lose track of the narrative. I must say I do likewise, though it has little to do with the ability to conjure up the scenes the author is describing.
- She trained to be a concert violinist, but couldn’t hear the music in her mind, which meant her playing and application of teachers’ advice was less nuanced than needed at the professional level. I was surprised at this – does she really not hear music in her head? This is much more of a deficit than having no mental imagery, but at least it would protect you from earworms. Are auditory memories – and creative musical ideas – generated using the same neural circuits as visual ones?
- An advantage is a reduction in PTSD (caused by alleged childhood ‘emotional abuse’ by her father). Auras are less traumatic than mental images.
- She was also ‘diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder5, due to (her) past with psychosis and delusions’. The ‘voices’ – trains of thought which ‘identified themselves as outside entities’ were not audible so were ‘easier to discredit’. I’m not sure of any of this.
- Her condition makes her more ‘pensive6’ – contemplating ‘the meaning of life’ and free for ideas and ‘creative inspirations’ – without the interruption of images of the tangible world. However, she has to keep a journal as a substitute for memories.
- She references a couple of books recent, but they don’t seem to be up to much based on reviews on Amazon (which is how she came across them). There’s other material on-line – some of it therapeutic – including a TedX talk (Tamara Alireza – Aphantasia: can you see in your mind’s eye?).
- She concludes with thoughts about ‘neuroatypicality7’ and ‘cures’. She doesn’t view her condition as a ‘disability or disorder’. I think it probably is, but not as debilitating as many, especially as most people don’t realise they have the ‘condition’. Not having perfect pitch isn’t a ‘condition’ nor is the lack of any other special skill. But the complete lack of a facility that almost everyone has might be deemed to be a ‘condition’, unless it’s a matter of degree and the ‘sufferer’ just happens to be at the extreme end.
- As far as a ‘cure’ is concerned – if there was one – the author is unsure she’d take it even if – just maybe – it would make her smarter, help her understand others more easily, sharing in their perceptions or making her more creative. She says she’d find the prospect ‘scary’, though she might adjust.
- At least her rejection of a non-existent cure has nothing to do with wanting to be part of a ‘community’. This is a hot topic in the (so-called) ‘deaf community’ about refusing to have cochlear implants8 and insisting on communication by sign-language. To my mind, this shows a lack of gratitude in rejecting what is surely a godsend.
- Further reflection is probably required, but must await further reading on the topic.
Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 4:
Footnote 5: Footnote 6: Footnote 7:
- Who can? Reference the standard observation that many men can recall minute details about their cars but can’t remember the colour of their wife’s eyes.
- I did a Google, and Wikipedia: Neurodiversity came up, which distinguishes between Neurodiversity and Neurotypicality.
- I’m suspicious of all this ‘stuff’. Some ‘conditions’ are not just benign differences to be celebrated but real deficits. But, I don’t think aphantasia falls into this category – and (though the paper doesn’t discuss the possibility) may be a matter of degree (it surely is) so may fall into the class of other pseudo-disorders like dysmathia, dyspraxia and maybe dyslexia.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2023
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)