Aphantasia

Is Aphantasia Hereditary?

My pursuit to determine if aphantasia is hereditary was preceded by the discovery that I have aphantasia. I had never heard of it before. My inability to visualize—aphantasia… also known as image-free imagination—had a name! Fascinated, I immediately took to Google to search:

If you clicked the link on the history of aphantasia, you read that the term “aphantasia” was coined in 2015 by Dr. Adam Zeman, a neurologist from Exeter University.

Emerging Evidence of Aphantasia in Families

In a video interview with Dr. Zeman in May 2021, when asked if aphantasia is hereditary, he states, “We do have evidence that aphantasia is familial,” referencing a study he collaborated on in 2020. Dr. Zeman said, “If you have aphantasia, the chances that your first-degree relatives will have aphantasia are raised by about 10-fold. ” 

He mentions the likelihood of a “genetic story” as studies continue into the genes that influence imagery vividness and whether or not aphantasia is hereditary, adding, “The chances are that there will be some [genes specific to aphantasia]—though we haven’t yet found them.” Play the short video below to hear from Dr. Zeman directly.

With the understanding that scientific research is underway to find the genes associated with aphantasia, but that results may take a while, it was time for me to do some research within my own family tree to appease my curiosity about whether or not aphantasia could be genetic.

Families with Aphantasia

Parents with Aphantasia

I have one living parent, my father, who is 91. Keeping it simple, I first asked him if he could picture a red apple in his mind, on command. He paused, thought about it, and said that he couldn’t. I asked if he could perhaps see the shape of the apple, without color. He could not. I asked him to close his eyes and try the exercise again. We tried an apple, a rainbow, and a horse. He stated that all he could see was darkness. Like me, my dad is aphantasic. 

As for my mother, who passed in 2016, I believe that she too was aphantasic. Allow me to explain. 

Mom suffered cruel and terrifying circumstances during World War II, not the least of which was her escape from a Russian prisoner of war camp. As harrowing as her early life was, Mom didn’t have nightmares or flashbacks, and always seemed quite calm when remembering her ordeals. She recounted everything in great detail, painting the pictures of her recollections with language, rather than from a place of traumatic visual memory. Despite what my mother endured and survived, she never showed any symptoms of PTSD. 

PTSD and Aphantasia

I did some research and found emerging studies pertaining to PTSD in people with aphantasia. In this June 2020 research paper; A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia, the researchers “hypothesized that visual imagery absence might partially protect aphantasic individuals from experiencing some [PTSD] trauma symptomatology (such as vivid memory intrusions) in response to stressful past events. ” Click the short video below for Dr. Zeman’s perspective on PTSD and people with aphantasia. 

My research also led me to two anecdotal articles: What PTSD Flashbacks Are Like as Someone With Aphantasia and PTSD, and Aphantasia – coming to terms with my own experience of post-traumatic stress disorder. Each of these stories presents a unique set of PTSD symptoms, neither of which even remotely describe my mother.

While it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that people who suffer the horrifying conditions my mother did would absolutely have PTSD, I think it’s plausible that she was perhaps a “partially protected aphantasic”. 

Siblings with Aphantasia

My three older siblings and I are tight. We connect through Whatsapp several times a week, we live within a 45-minute driving radius, and we enjoy hanging out together, COVID notwithstanding. I feel as though I know each of them from a very unique perspective—that of the baby sister. 

During a recent sibling video call, before explaining what aphantasia was, I asked them, “Can you visualize?” Three faces stared back at me from my computer screen. Appreciative of their tolerance (‘cuz they love me and my crazy convo digressions), I continued. “Picture a red apple,” I said, “what do you see?” To my surprise, they all responded with something akin to—“I can’t see shit.” I told them about aphantasia and we collectively experimented with eyes open, then eyes closed. Nothing.

To my utter surprise (after all, I’m supposed to be tight with these weirdos), all four of us are aphantasic. Seems plausible given my dad is aphantasic, and lends further credence to the speculation that my mom was, too. 

As any good writer (and annoying baby sister) might do, I asked if I could interview them individually, to get their take on how aphantasia may have/has impacted their lives, in both cognizant and subliminal ways. In that same tolerant (and always very loving) way, they all agreed. 

Learning I Have Aphantasia

To put my siblings’ responses into context, I should first explain how I felt (in the past) about being unable to visualize and how I reacted to learning about aphantasia. 

My inability to visualize came with a variety of emotions ranging from confusion and frustration (cognizant) to feelings of inadequacy, failure, shame, and even exclusion (subliminal). You can read my other posts about aphantasia here.

Photo by Thiago Matos from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-with-smeared-eyes-in-studio-4576085/

Finding out that my life-long (congenital) challenge with visualization had a name—aphantasia—and that it was the focus of a burgeoning field of scientific study, fascinated me. More importantly, it immediately lifted from me the burden of those (seemingly illogical) emotions. In a word, I was elated! I didn’t have to struggle anymore. There was nothing wrong with me—is nothing wrong with me. Those things I couldn’t do that seemingly everyone else around me could do had finally been explained.

I had flashes of insights (I call them a-ha moments) into myself and my experiences where having aphantasia explained so much. Understand, though, that perspectives vary among aphantasics. For me, I was off the hook. I didn’t have to try anymore. Rather, I spent time exploring new ways to adapt, and appreciating the ways I had already (unknowingly) been doing just that.

(Follow these links to read about my experiences with meditation and hypnosis with aphantasia). 

Siblings with Aphantasia – Similarities and Difference

In preparation for interviewing my siblings to discover if aphantasia is hereditary, I crafted three questions that I shared with them in advance. 

  1. What was your reaction when you learned about, and that you have, aphantasia?
  2. How do you feel it has impacted your life, if at all?
  3. Have you had any revelations (a-ha moments) since you learned about aphantasia?

I asked that they really think about the implications of having aphantasia when formulating an answer. Here is a summary of their responses in the order of how they were interviewed. I’ve included myself to demonstrate the complexity of perspectives. 

Study Findings

ReactionsImpactsRevelations
MeAt first—fascinated, excited. Later—elated. Before finding out—Never wanted to admit couldn’t do it. Felt shame, frustration, exclusion. After finding out—relieved. A better understanding of aspects of self. Loves to read/write; skips over long descriptions of scenery, wardrobe, etc.; can’t remember the story long after finishing. Writes fiction and non-fiction. Tried hypnosis; didn’t work until after learning about aphantasia. Bad at numbers and memorization. Partner is hyperphantasic. 
Sibling 1At first—amused (what’s the big deal?)Later—upset, angry, sense of loss. Before finding out—None; didn’t think anything was wrong. After finding out—lowered self-confidence. Preferred not to know. Rarely reads books. Tried hypnosis; never worked/helped. Can draw; wonders where that ability comes from. Good at math, detailed work though retention after the fact lacking. Partner is hyperphantasic. 
Sibling 2At first—found it interesting. Later—indifferent (meh, whatever). None before or after finding out. It’s like having different hair/eye color. No biggie. Rarely reads books. Tried hypnosis once; may have helped—doesn’t remember. Doesn’t get too worked up/excited about things. Uses inner dialogue to “imagine”. Remembers dates/times very well. Partner is hyperphantasic. 
Sibling 3At first—wow. Later—interesting, thoughtful. Before finding out—Never wanted to admit couldn’t do it. Felt something was wrong. After finding out—better understanding of aspects of self. Filled in some blanks. Loves to read; skips over long descriptions of scenery, wardrobe, etc. ; can’t remember the story long after finishing. Couldn’t do hypnosis. Terrible at memorization. No ability to draw/write. Good with picking up spoken languages. Partner also aphantasic. 

Reactions to Aphantasia Greatly Differ

I excitedly shared my discovery of aphantasia with my siblings thinking that they would be just as eager to examine their uniqueness through the lens of aphantasia as I was/am. In my haste, I inadvertently bulldozed right over Sibling 1’s self-esteem, leaving some psychological unrest in my wake. In direct contrast was Sibling 2 who was rather indifferent and unfazed (almost bored) by it all. After interviewing those two—diametrically opposed in their reactions—I was rather apprehensive about interviewing Sibling 3 who, as it turned out, reacted similarly to myself. 

Summary of Revelations

As for the revelations, it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between us. It certainly demonstrated strong similarities giving credence to the assumption that aphantasia is hereditary.

  • Hypnosis, for instance. We’ve all tried it with little to no success, a well-known complaint among aphantasics.
  • With regards to memorization skills, we range from “just ok” to abysmal.
  • Two of us have some artistic/creative capability (drawing and writing) whereas the other two are self-professed to be very low on this measure.
  • Two of us love to read but avoid superfluous detail, and are similarly unable to retain the details of the stories we’ve read beyond the fact that we enjoyed them. Begs the question—how then, do we even remember that we did enjoy them? The other two seem completely disinterested in reading long-form anything, though can and do when required.
  • We each possess a skill unique to ourselves; being good with numbers (Sibling 1), remembering dates and times (Sibling 2), picking up spoken languages (Sibling 3), writing fiction (me).
  • A last (and very interesting to me) item noted was this; three out of four of us are partnered with hyperphantasics (people with extremely vivid mental imagery). I wonder what that could mean? Perhaps aphantasia has given a whole new meaning to this idea that “opposites attract”? 

Final Thoughts

The diversity of our perspectives upon learning the term aphantasia, how each of us reacted to being aphantasic, and how we each perceived it has impacted our lives, really surprised me. We (all) share the familial neurodiversity called aphantasia but each of us has adapted to its limitations (cognizant and subliminal). We rely on and hone the talents we have and develop strategies to overcome that which doesn’t immediately fall in our wheelhouse. Our reactions, impacts, and revelations, it would seem, are as complex as the [spectrum of] aphantasia itself.

My conclusion—though obviously not a scientific one—is that (congenital) aphantasia seems to be genetic—at least, partially. I eagerly await what science has to say on whether or not aphantasia is hereditary.

Aphantasia

Understanding the Nuances of My Aphantasia

Do I, or don’t I, have aphantasia?

Just answering that seemingly simple question can be very confusing. How do I know if I have aphantasia?

I learned the term aphantasia a few months ago. I was participating in a hypnotherapy session where I was asked to visualize. Frustrated – as this wasn’t my first time being asked to visualize – I told the practitioner that I couldn’t visualize. Casually – as I guess I wasn’t her first client who couldn’t visualize – she told me that I have aphantasia. This word rocked my world. Firstly, because the inability to visualize had an actual term associated with it – aphantasia. Secondly, that people who can visualize, depending on their level of capability, picture things in their mind’s eye as though they are literally seeing them. Read more of my newest article on how I navigate the nuances of my Aphantasia on the Aphantasia Network.

Aphantasia, Hypnosis, Meditation, Spirituality

Hypnosis with Aphantasia

Close your eyes and visualize…

I recently wrote about meditation with aphantasia. Specifically, how guided meditation can exacerbate the (sometimes subliminal) states of confusion, frustration, shame, and inadequacy aphantasics feel when asked to visualize, which is how most guided meditations begin. My experience with hypnosis was annoyingly similar. Now… if you will… imagine a wave of relaxation washing over your body, loosening every nerve and muscle, and read on as I lead you through my journey of hypnosis with aphantasia. 😏… Read more of my newest article on Hypnosis with Aphantasia on the Aphantasia Network.

Aphantasia, Meditation, Spirituality

Meditation and Aphantasia

Close your eyes and visualize…

Seems super simple, right? A five-word instruction that, for most of the population, is easy to follow. Whether it’s for guided meditation, hypnosis, psychotherapy, yoga, classroom study, team-building exercises, self-help practices, elite sport/career mental coaching, childbirth coaching, etc., being asked to visualize is almost always at the top of the list for getting into the mood, spirit, zone, or state-of-being. Read more of my newest article on Meditation and Aphantasia on the Aphantasia Network.

Aphantasia

Aphantasia – “Mind Blindness” – The inability to visualize mental images

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.

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.

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.

MIND BLOWN!

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? 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.