Imagining Without Images: What Living With Aphantasia Looks Like
Psychology explains what a day in the life of someone with 'mind blindness’ entails.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 23, 2024
When someone prompts you to imagine a sunset, you can likely picture the bright yellows, oranges and pinks of the sky and clouds on your mind's canvas. However, a small percentage of the population's canvas would be blank upon hearing this prompt. In fact, their canvas may remain blank for the entirety of their lives.
Those who fall part of the latter group have what is known as "aphantasia," a phenomenon where the mind lacks the ability to conjure mental images. While many effortlessly visualize scenes within their mind's eye, individuals with aphantasia navigate a realm devoid of visual mental imagery.
In a recent surge of public interest, psychologists have been exploring this phenomenon, shedding light on the complexities of the mind and the variations in how we experience and imagine the world around us.
What Is Aphantasia?
According to research from Cerebral Cortex Communications, the terms "aphantasia" and "hyperphantasia" were coined to describe the extremes of visual imagery vividness. On the one end of the spectrum lies hyperphantasia, referring to those whose imaginations are incredibly vivid and almost sight-like. However, most of the population would fall within the middle of the spectrum—where our mind's visual imagery is less vivid than genuine sight, but still comprises a distinct visual experience.
Conversely, aphantasia is a distinctive feature of the mind where individuals either completely lack or face considerable difficulty in conjuring visual mental imagery. Unlike the majority of the population, who can effortlessly visualize objects or memories in their mind's eye to the extent that it becomes a quasi-visual experience, aphants (by some estimates, around 4% of the adult population) find themselves in a unique position.
For those with aphantasia, the mental process of thinking about something doesn't translate into a visual representation; they are unable to "see" in their mind's eye what they are thinking about. This stark contrast in the ability to generate mental images sheds light on the intriguing spectrum of human cognitive diversity.
How Does Aphantasia Develop? And What Is It Like?
Research shows that aphantasia is a neurodevelopmental trait that is congenital in most cases. Individuals with congenital aphantasia will consistently lack voluntary visual imagery throughout life. Research reveals that congenital aphants' experiences range from a substantial to complete deficit in voluntary visual imagery.
However, some may report occasional involuntary "flashes" of images while awake or during dreams, revealing a spectrum of experiences within this unique trait. Intriguingly, some cases of acquired aphantasia have been reported, in which individuals lose their mind-visualization abilities later in life. The study outlines case studies of aphants developing mind blindness after surgery or even traumatic life events.
Further research published in Scientific Reports paints a vivid cognitive "fingerprint" of aphantasia. Beyond the absence of visual imagery, aphantasic individuals report decreased imagery in other senses, less vivid autobiographical memories and fewer, less elaborate dreams. Aphantasia presents a unique mode of cognition where the normative tools for mental representation exhibit significant variability. Despite the lack of visual imagery, aphants' spatial abilities seem unaffected, unveiling the intricate ways in which our cognitive processes rely on internal mental representations.
What Does It Mean To Have A Blind Mind?
Aphantasia prompts a profound reconsideration of how we understand perception and cognition. Picture a life with no picture at all—where memories lack the vibrant hues of visual imagery, where dreams take on a subdued quality and mental landscapes remain largely unexplored. In the absence of this ability to conjure vivid mental images, individuals with aphantasia navigate a world where the mind's canvas remains predominantly blank.
While research shows the visual working memory of those with aphantasia may appear similar to the general population, it's their underlying cognitive mechanisms and strategies that diverge. As most people rely on a vivid mental canvas, aphants may rely on their own unique and abstract tools to navigate existence.
For those without aphantasia, encountering this phenomenon sparks a natural curiosity about the diverse ways in which our minds construct reality. The contrast between aphantasic experiences and the vivid mental imagery many of us take for granted opens a window into the diversity of human cognition. It's not just a matter of seeing or not seeing; it's an invitation to explore the multitude of ways our minds perceive, interpret and engage with the world.
The exploration of aphantasia underscores a fundamental truth: each person perceives and imagines the world uniquely. When considering these varied experiences, the stark differences in mental imagery invite us to reevaluate our assumptions about the uniformity of perception and cognition. It becomes evident that every individual possesses their own set of cognitive tools, whether painting vibrant mental canvases or navigating the world through alternative mechanisms.
Aphantasia challenges us to appreciate the richness of cognitive diversity, inviting a shift in perspective beyond the confines of our own mental landscapes. Acknowledging the multitude of ways minds construct reality fosters a deeper understanding of the human experience, allowing us to recognize that the beauty of our shared reality lies in its inherent diversity.
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.