Close your eyes and picture a sunset: a glowing ball of fire slowly drifting down below the horizon, painting the sky in streaks of gold, pink, and crimson. Maybe a few clouds, colored violet by the fading light, drift by; maybe your sunset is over water, and the reflection shimmers in the early evening glow. This image is one you’ve seen thousands of times, and it is familiar, easy to recall and paint a picture in your mind’s eye—but not for everyone.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the term “phantasia,” referring to visual imagination, or, in other words, the ability to picture things in your mind’s eye. You do that every day—when comparing two objects, or recalling a familiar location, we use this skill. But research has also shown that there is a phenomenon called aphantasia, where those affected cannot “see” in their mind.

Research into this condition is relatively recent—throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, psychologists emphasized behaviors, or studying only what is directly observable. However, with the rise of modern technologies making it possible to measure such conditions, more and more has been discovered about aphantasia.

Aphantasia afflicts around four percent of the population; however, many with this condition never even realize it. They may go through their formative years thinking that the phrase “counting sheep” is simply a figure of speech, and that “picturing” something in their head isn’t literal. Moreover, each case of aphantasia is different. For some, closing their eyes invites a blanket of static, without color or detail; others experience multisensory aphantasia, lacking mental imagery in several senses. This unique variation is known as global aphantasia, and affects every sense—one afflicted with it may not be able to imagine their favorite song’s tune, or the taste of their favorite food. 

Having aphantasia can be a frustrating experience, as there is no treatment and very limited research. Unsurprisingly, those with aphantasia tend to struggle with facial recognition and autobiographical memory, or their memory of events in their life, as being able to picture key details is difficult, often impossible. Beyond that, there are concerns that aphantasia can affect education—mental imagery is crucial for a variety of subjects, and may limit understanding of difficult content. And its effects on reading are vast—can you imagine not being able to immerse yourself in a fantasy world? 

Despite this, aphantasia is not limiting. 64% of people with aphantasia report vivid dreams—imagery promoted by their subconscious, rather than their conscious mind’s visualization. On average, people with aphantasia score higher on IQ tests than the general population, and are generally less overwhelmed by large sensory inputs, such as bright lights or loud noises. Curiously enough, they are also less likely to be nauseated by scary or violent stories, as they cannot visualize them. And having aphantasia doesn’t impact job prospects or creativity—there are plenty of people with aphantasia in occupations such as design, architecture, and media arts, where imagery is key.

Research on aphantasia has only become prominent in recent years, so more and more will become known about this condition as technology improves and awareness spreads. But aphantasia isn’t necessarily a harmful disorder—it is simply a fascinating way humans experience and perceive the world around them, and within their minds.


Photo Credit: The Conversation