Picture a red apple. Eyes open or closed, it doesn’t matter. Go ahead – picture a red apple.
Can you picture it?
If you can’t – like me – you have aphantasia, also known as mind blindness or blind imagination. People with aphantasia are unable to visualize mental images.
Learning I Have Aphantasia
In a therapy session a few weeks ago, I was asked to “visualize” a train track as though I was looking down upon it from 500 feet up. I said to the therapist, “I can’t see it.”
“What can you see?” she asked.
“I can’t see anything. I see only greys and blacks.” (It was the first time I had admitted this to anyone).
“You have aphantasia,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“What, what, what, what?” I replied, surprised that there was a name for my inability to see images when I close my eyes. In fact, I was more than surprised. My mind was blown!
I’m 56 years old! My whole life, any time someone asked me to close my eyes and visualize something, I thought they meant figuratively, as in, close your eyes and remember it. Or, sense it. Or, perceive it. I had no idea that visualizing was a literal term and that people – most people – have the ability to literally “see” images when they close their eyes.
My Husband is Hyperphantasic
I immediately asked my husband. “Close your eyes and visualize a red apple.” <pause> “What do you see?”
“A red apple.”
“How about a rainbow?”
“I see a rainbow.”
“How about a horse?”
“I see a horse.”
“How about a horse running with a red apple in its mouth in a field with a rainbow overhead.”
He could see it all. In vivid moving pictures! This is known as hyperphantasia.
My Children Have Varied Visualization Capabilities
Now, not everybody can visualize as vividly as my husband can. For instance, when I asked my three grown kids if they could visualize a red apple, my son and one of my daughters said they could see the apple’s shape, contours, and some colour. Whereas, my other daughter said she could see the apple in absolute detail – just like her dad. This demonstrates that people with the ability to visualize do so on a spectrum, of sorts.
The graphic below depicts a very simplified version of this spectrum. My husband and one daughter can see the red apple as depicted in image 1. My son and my other daughter can see the red apple as depicted somewhere between images 2 and 3. I, on the other hand, can’t see the apple at all and so, I’m a 5 on this spectrum.
I immediately asked my three siblings. All four of us are aphantasics (people with aphantasia). I asked my 91 year old father. He too is aphantasic.
Clearly, there is some hereditary correlation here. Or, is there?
A Brief History of Aphantasia
This is all so new, in terms of scientific discovery and exploration. The term aphantasia itself was only coined in 2015! I am going to now direct you to a great article about the history of aphantasia.
Only 2-3% of the population are aphantasic, although I suspect this number will grow as more and more people, like myself, discover they have aphantasia and reach out to others with aphantasia – over social networks, in their families, by participating in research studies, etc. I invite you to join or visit the Aphantasia Network at aphantasia.com to learn more information. Follow them on Twitter and/or Instagram as well.
Learning that I have aphantasia was such a relief! All this time I had this subconscious feeling of – not failure, exactly – but, just this odd pressure to see things in my mind. Learning that my brain is simply wired a little differently has me, more and more, saying – “OHHHHH! So THAT’s why!” – about so many things in my life. Why I can’t remember faces or events very well. Why I’m less proficient at math and science – all those symbols and equations! UGH! Among many other realizations. I’m not saying that all “aphants” have these difficulties, but I sure do/did. The science is in its infancy and I can’t wait to SEE what the future holds.