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Aphantasia: Understanding the Mind’s Blind Spots

Close your eyes and try to picture your favorite food, animal or even a loved one’s face. Can you see it in your mind, clear and crisp as day? Or is your mind as dark as the night sky?

For many people, picturing things in their minds is easy and a natural part of life. But what if I told you that there are people who cannot visualize anything at all? No matter how hard they try to form mental pictures, they only come up with a blurry or blank slate. 

Welcome to a phenomenon known as aphantasia. 

What is aphantasia?

“Aphantasia is the inability to consciously form mental imagery,” said Briana Auman, PsyD, a neuropsychologist with Banner Health. “It is sometimes known as mind blindness because the condition makes it difficult or impossible to see something in the mind’s eye. 

Coined by neurologist Adam Zeman in 2015, the term “aphantasia” stems from the Greek words “a” (without) and “phantasia” (imagination). Since then, some researchers have expanded the definition to include at least one other modality of imagery, like being able to imagine sounds or tastes.

How well you can visualize in your mind is on a spectrum – with aphantasia on one end and hyperphantasia, an extremely vivid imagination, on the other. Dim or vague imagery affects around 4% of the world’s population, with less than 1% experiencing no imagery at all. 

What causes aphantasia?

“Usually, aphantasia is something you are born with – and there might be a genetic link,” Dr. Auman said. “If relatives have aphantasia, you are 10 times more likely also to have it.”

Some people can also develop aphantasia as the result of a brain injury or stroke, especially if the occipital lobe (the brain’s primary visual processing center) is affected. As well, some people with aphantasia may be more likely than people without it to have autistic traits. However, more research is needed in this area.

How can you tell if you have aphantasia?

Many people with aphantasia say they have a poor imagination and difficulty recognizing faces and details in memories or dreams. “They may think the idea of visual imagery is a metaphor and might not realize that others can ‘see’ objects, faces or scenes in their mind,” Dr. Auman said. 

If you still aren’t sure if you have aphantasia, Dr. Auman suggests a simple exercise: Close your eyes and try to picture something familiar, like an apple. If you struggle to see anything or only can make out a dim outline of an apple’s shape, you might have aphantasia.

“Conversely, if the apple is clear and realistic, just like seeing an apple with your eyes, then you may have hyperphantasia,” she noted.

The most widely used test for diagnosing aphantasia is the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). This assessment uses self-ratings to measure the vividness of images you see in your mind in response to different prompts.

Can aphantasia affect your life and creativity?

You may wonder, “How is it possible to live without a mind’s eye?” Believe it or not, people with aphantasia lead perfectly normal lives and may not even realize they have it.

“Some have likened aphantasia to being color blind,” Dr. Auman said. “You won’t discover you have it until it’s a problem.”

Living with aphantasia can present unique challenges, particularly in fields that rely heavily on visual imagination, such as art, design and memory recall. But it doesn’t appear that it limits creativity. 

While research is ongoing, some studies suggest that people with aphantasia may use different strategies for memory recall.

“Many people with aphantasia develop strategies to express creativity in different ways, such as with concepts and words, and are often more detail-oriented,” Dr. Auman said. “People with aphantasia sometimes report increased motivation to draw or paint to visualize an idea.”

Many notable people with aphantasia have succeeded in creative fields, such as Glen Keane, a designer and animator in Walt Disney Pictures animated film “The Little Mermaid” and Oliver Sacks, an author and neurologist.

Aphantasia may also have protective aspects. “People with more vivid imagery are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event,” Dr. Auman said. “People with aphantasia who experienced traumatic events report less intrusive imagery.”

Seeking support and treatment

While aphantasia can create some challenges, it isn’t a disease or disability. This phenomenon is not a condition that requires treatment. However, there are ways to compensate for it. 

“Since there is some evidence that memory functioning relies upon imagery, people with aphantasia may benefit from using other mental strategies to support memory, such as verbal association, mnemonics and creating a story rather than a mental image,” Dr. Auman said. 

The Aphantasia Network is an excellent resource for learning more about this phenomenon and connecting with others. In addition, participating in research studies can also help to advance our understanding of aphantasia. 

Embracing aphantasia

Living with aphantasia means seeing the world differently, without pictures in your mind. It doesn’t make you any less smart or creative. It’s just a part of who you are and there are many ways to explore and express yourself, even without pictures in your mind. 

If aphantasia is causing you stress, discomfort, anxiety or depression, it’s time to speak with your provider or a licensed Banner Behavioral Health specialist. It is a good idea to find someone who has experience working with patients with this phenomenon or neurodivergent and neuropsychological conditions.

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