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. 

Not everyone can imagine a beach in their head visually. Source: Pexels

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 brain is usually capable of imagining visuals along with processing words. Source: Pixels

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

Conjuring images of sheet and counting them isn't possible for aphantasics. Source: Shutterstock

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."
A red triangle can be understood and cognitively processed, but it cannot be conjured as a visual. Source: Wikimedia

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

Visual imagery allows you to see through the mind's eye. Source: Shutterstock

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.

Unable to see images of things and people isn't the same as forgetting memories. Source: Pexels

She says:

"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. "
People will remember facts about their childhood, past or friends, but just not be able to see these in their head. Source: Pexels