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Aphantasia: The People Without Mind’s Eye

by Gauri Kolhe

What is Aphantasia?

Someone say to you close your eyes and draw a picture of beautiful scenery in your mind. Are you able to see it in your mind?

If you are already seeing it in your mind then good but if you are unable to draw beautiful scenery it means you may have Aphantasia. Aphantasia refers the inability to voluntarily create images in your mind.

People having Aphantasia do not create a image of scene, person or object in their mind even if it’s very familiar to them.

The term Aphantasia comes from the ancient Greek words “A” means without and “phantasia” means imagination. This phenomenon coined by cognitive neurologist “Adam Zeman” in 2015.

The first case of this phenomenon was recorded in a study conducted in 1880 when Sir Francis Galton reported that in a group of 100 people some men found unable to create the image of their breakfast table. Still Aphantasia does not well understand.

The well known Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar and Blake Ross, the co-creator of internet browser Firefox are both reportedly to have Aphantasia.

The exact cause of aphantasia still unknown and needed more research. However, researchers have found using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that people having aphantasia exhibits different brain patterns than normal people.  Let’s look at whether aphantasia has a cure, and break down the latest scientific findings.

This article includes symptoms, possible causes and cure of aphantasia.

What are the Symptoms of Aphantasia?

People having Aphantasia are unable to create image in mind.

If you have doubt that you may have aphantasia than try creating a familiar object or the face of your acquaintance. If you are unable to create the picture or find difficulty in creating that, in this case you may be have aphantasia.       

Dr. Zeman first coined the term aphantasia in 2015 and examined some of the features of the medical condition by observing 21 people who keep experiencing since birth:

  • Out of 21 people nine had a substantial lack of ability to voluntarily create a visual image
  • 12 of the people had a complete inability to voluntarily create a visual image
  • 10 of the persons reported involuntary flashes of images
  • 17  of them maintained the ability to dream visually

Researchers also found that people with aphantasia might develop other strengths such as verbal, mathematical or logically some other symptoms people with aphantasia report:

  1. Decreased imagery involving other senses like sound or touch
  2. Experiencing Less vivid memories
  3. Less vivid ability to imagine future scenarios
  4. Having trouble in facial recognition

What causes Aphantasia?

However exact cause of Aphantasia is not known but some researchers said that it can be congenital, meaning it is present from birth, or developed later in life due to some brain injury or psychological conditions.

The normal human brain takes a lot to create the mental image and very complex process. This involves many of the areas f brain. The neurons responsible for aphantasia is not well understood but some researches gave hints brain areas involved in visual imaginary may be underactive.

According to a theory people having aphantasia experiences imaginary but they cannot express the image in their conscious thoughts.

In 2020 a case study explained that an architect developed aphantasia after an accident affecting the area supplied by the posterior cerebral artery.

This proves that aphantasia may be caused by an injury or accident.

However more research is needed to know the cause of aphantasia, some researchers explained that psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and dissociative disorders can also cause aphantasia.    

Is there a cure for Aphantasia?  

There is no more information accounted on aphantasia ant to date aphantasia has no cure. Thanks to a handful of studies and anecdotal reports information exist.

However many of the studies have been published over decades. According to some studies 2.1 to 2.7 percent of the population may have aphantasia but still there have not been large studies on   aphantasia.

Aphantasia is not condition that has to be cured. Professor Adam Zeman called aphantasia as a “fascinating variation in human experience” in interview with BBC radio 5 live.

In fact most of the people having aphantasia don’t even know that they experience the world indifferent way than normal people and they keep continuing living their lives as normal.   

Can Aphantasia be treated?

Treatment of aphantasia is not clear and chances of improving their ability to create image in mind are also not known. The best way of the treatment to aphantasia has been not established yet.  

Some of the techniques that used in his treatment are as following:

  • Computer activities requiring picture recognition
  • The card game “memory”
  • Afterimage techniques
  • Pattern block memory activities
  • Activities requiring the description of objects and outdoor scenes

Is there a Spectrum of Aphantasia?

Sometimes you experience that some people are very quick at imagining mental images than others. They tend to have good capacity of imagination. Some medical conditions also accompanied with this strong capacity to imagine.

For instance, people with schizophrenia can have hallucinations so vivid that they are unable to differentiate whether it is imagination or reality, While people with aphantasia are opposite with inability to create image in mind.

 Aphantasia has a spectrum because some of the people reported a complete inability of creating image while other people have substantial ability of creating images.

Hence there is no diagnosis available to diagnose aphantasia; many of the people did self diagnosis.

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