By Dawn Robinson-Walsh
Unnoticed by the rest of us, it seems that somewhere between 2-5% of the population has a condition called aphantasia, a lifelong inability to generate any images within their mind’s eye. It is hard to get one’s head around if you do not have it (I was going to say ‘just imagine that’) but it is very real, and imagining it is something that people with aphantasia cannot do. This known phenomenon was only recently recognised, termed “aphantasia” by the University of Exeter’s Professor Adam Zeman in 2015.
While there are advantages to it, such as not constantly visualising/replaying in one’s mind’s eye disturbing images of war or cruelty, there are also disadvantages. In, for example, a meditation scenario where you are asked to imagine/picture waves gently lapping the shore to encourage mental relaxation, those with aphantasia simply cannot do it. Nor can they visualise sheep to count if insomnia strikes. In a nutshell, they cannot generate visual imagery (like a nutshell!) in their mind, which can be a problem in a creative learning situation, such as where a student is asked to imagine life in Victorian England or to picture a scene in a distant country.
There is an interesting and informative ‘plain English’ article on it here with example drawings, which show very clearly how memory and perception differs in an aphantasic research participant and a control.
Bude foot health professional, Steph Jones-Giles, realised only in her adult life that she has aphantasia, and wishes to raise awareness for learning. She says:
I wish teachers had recognised this when I was a child as it would have helped in some subjects.
“Picture a …” “Imagine yourself…” “Recall a…”
If it involves accessing images in the mind’s eye, then it’s simply not possible.
When reading…I don’t build pictures in my mind of the scenery, architecture, character. When I visit an unfamiliar place it will take me much longer to memorise where I am and which way to go so I’m easily lost. When I walk in a shop in an unfamiliar place I often try to walk in the wrong direction when I leave.
When I meet someone for the first time I am likely to walk past them in the street the second! It takes me three meetings on average before I recognise them.
If I know you well, if you have had your hair done, or bought a new top, don’t expect me to notice.
Even my partner I couldn’t describe in any detail and, sadly for me, I can’t see my late dad.
However, I’ve adapted (I’ve had this all my life) and ALL my memories are logged emotionally, i.e., how that experience made me feel.
I also am able to pick and choose and only entertain the happy memories. I sleep like a baby and never fret about the day, or bring to mind distressing events.
I wouldn’t change it for the world … if I suddenly could experience the world the way most of you do, I’d be completely overwhelmed and would have no coping strategies to deal with it. I am open about living with aphantasia because at least one person reading this will have the ‘lightbulb’ moment I did when I realised that suddenly everything makes sense.
It happened to me when I stumbled across an article in 2015 and, literally, everything fell into place. You just don’t realise until someone describes it and you realise it’s you! Dickens was my biggest challenge at university…little wonder, SO much heavy description. I find it so boring, I skim past and, of course, miss half the book…
Steph stresses how useful it is personally to know about her aphantasia, but also for teachers to understand it.
Since I found out I have aphantasia, it has been so helpful. I think if teachers were aware then it would change aspects of teaching for the better. For example, I was told I was rubbish at art. I’m not gifted; however, during lockdown I started doing some pencil drawings copying an image and found I wasn’t too bad at all. I just can’t do anything from imagination.
Back in 2015, Professor Zeman said: “Our research indicates for the first time that a weaker connection between the parts of the brain responsible for vision and frontal regions involved in decision-making and attention leads to aphantasia. However, this shouldn’t be viewed as a disadvantage – it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Many aphantasics are extremely high-achieving, and we’re now keen to explore whether the personality and memory differences we observed indicate contrasting ways of processing information, linked to visual imagery ability.”
It seems that those with aphantasia are more likely to choose scientific and mathematical careers, according to 2020 research.
The link mentions the world-famous geneticist, Professor Craig Venter, a world famous geneticist who led the team reporting the first draft sequence of the human genome. He was pleased to find a term/label that mirrored his lived experience, and highlights the positives, saying:
“I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches. By understanding concepts vs fact memorisation, I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.”
Recounting his discovery that he couldn’t visualise, he said: “I discovered that I had it when I returned to college after getting out of Vietnam. My realisation came from competing in classes with then my wife who had a perfect photographic memory. By comparison, I discovered I had none.”
Just another one of those mysterious ways that our brains function.