Can't see pictures in your head or count sheep? It could be aphantasia
The ability to see scenes as you read fiction or play a dialogue in your head in Norman Freeman's voice isn't as common as you think
The sound of waves lulled her to sleep. Before she closed her eyes, Maria took in the blue sky, the white sand, and the lone kite flying at a distance. The sand felt warm and soft on her back.
Wait. Did you hear the sound of waves and imagine the warmth of the sand? Did you see a picture of a beach, the blue sky, and white sand? If you did, you have the luxury of visual imagery, the ability to conjure images in your head. Well, don't we all? Apparently, not.
Blake Ross, the founder of Mozilla Firefox, is one such person who discovered that he isn't like others. He happened to read an article in the New York Times about a man who lost his ability to visualize images in the head.
"What do you mean 'lost' his ability?... Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever had that ability?" he remarked on Facebook. Ross didn't realize he is one of 2% of the population with aphantasia: a condition in which a person cannot conjure images in the head or "see with the mind's eye."
The term was first coined in 2015 by a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology, Adam Zeman. It's based on the Greek word phantasia. A term used by Aristotle to describe the power to visualize images in our minds. The word also seems to correlate with the structure of an aphanitic rock: an igneous rock with grains too fine to be seen by the unaided eye. Perhaps, this could be a clue to what happens in the brain of an aphantasic. People with aphantasia see nothing when they close their eyes. They cannot imagine scenes when they read fiction, nor can they imagine a place or face of a person. They know the facts about the place and person, but they just can't recollect it visually in their head. It's like their mind's eye is blind.
Counting sheep metaphorically
Professor Zeman happened to discover this condition when he was treating a 60-year-old man, who lost his ability to "summon imagery visually" after a heart surgery. Since then, Zeman has been interviewing and studying thousands of people with that condition.
This is what Ross wrote about his condition.
"I have never visualized anything in my entire life...I can’t 'see' my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought 'counting sheep' was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind."
When he was asked to imagine simpler objects, like a red triangle, he responds,
"I can’t even understand the question. I can think about the idea of a red triangle. But it's blackness behind my eyes. Blackness next to my ears. Blackness in every nook and kindle of my brain."
When the mind's eye is blind
Professor Zeman thinks this could do with the neural networking in the brain and that, perhaps, it could be genetic. For some though, it can happen after a medical condition or surgery, or a traumatic psychological event.
Tamara, who discovered her condition when she was 23, gave a TedTalk nearly a decade later on "Seeing the world without a mind's eye." Her words give the rest of us a glimpse of what it would be to live inside an inner world that doesn't pop up images or any other sensory imagination.
"I'm fully aphantasic, including sight, smell, taste, and sound, unlike others who have low levels of imagery and do dream in images.... When I try to picture images, I might see some flashes of light, but nothing voluntary. It's like I'm interpreting the brain signals rather than processing them into an image, skipping out a stage but the end result is the same. "
While some aphantasic people cannot conjure any sensory stimuli in their head, others might struggle only with visual imagery. Zoe, unlike Tamara, is aphanasic in a different way. She says:
I can feel the sand between my toes and the warmth of the late afternoon sun on my skin. I can hear the gentle, rhythmic rush of the waves lapping the beach. I can smell the salty air and the tang of sun lotion. It's like I've just closed my eyes in a moment. That's far more useful to me than trying to make a picture.
According to Professor Zeman, "There's certainly a spectrum, and it varies according to whether it's just vision that's affected or whether all senses are affected."
The science behind it
The patient who lost his ability to visually imagine things after his heart surgery was studied by Prof. Zeman and other researchers. They found that when he was a picture of Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, an MRI showed that the stimuli activated a specific pattern in his brain. In most individuals, if they were later asked to visualize Blair, researchers found that their brain activated in the same areas. But this patient's brain remained unactivated in that region when asked to visualize Blair.
In an interview with the Daily Dot, Stephen Kosslyn, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Keck Graduate Institute’s Minerva Schools, explains how all our brains are wired differently. The brain forms different neural pathways, or tracks, to process visual imagery: one for form and color, and another for spatial location etc. For example, a person who is good at spatial-location imagery can easily recollect directions with actual landmarks popping up in their head or tell which hand holds the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Someone who is more adept with observing and imagining form and color will be able to pick the right color of fabric to match their decor at home or recollect distinct shapes of petals or leaves.
Is it a disability?
According to Kosslyn, aphantasia is not a disability for most people. “The brain is incredibly flexible. Most of the time there’s more than one way to do something,” he said. “Sometimes [workarounds] may require more effort, but the end result may be pretty much the same. I wouldn’t get too upset if I were to discover that I didn’t have mental imagery.”
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