Calling All Aphantasiacs

This week’s post may at first blush seem entirely unrelated to my research on monsters, mashups, and popular culture, but it has more to do with these topics than you might think.

It will also blow your mind.

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A number of years ago I discovered that a member of my immediate family could not visualise things in their mind, or bring to mind what something tasted or sounded like. We both assumed that this was a well-documented phenomenon, like colour-blindness or other altered perceptions. Last year, we learned that no one had actually bothered to study it before, and that it apparently affects a surprisingly large number of people – perhaps one in fifty. It’s called ‘aphantasia’, literally ‘without mental image’.

By far the most insightful (and humorous) piece I’ve read on the subject is ‘Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind’ by Blake Ross, one of the co-creators of the web browser Firefox. Ross describes his inability to create a mental image as follows:

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Ross’s writing process is equally interesting to those of us who are used to imagining a scene by visualising it. In the (rather lengthy) excerpt below, he describes how he imagines scenes when he is writing general prose:
First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there was a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he was scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?
If I don’t like the combination of words I’ve picked, I keep Mad Libbing until the concept piques my interest.
This has always struck me as an incredibly inefficient way to imagine things, because I can’t hold the scene in my mind. I have to keep reminding myself, “the monster is hairy” and “the sneeze-saltines are sitting on a teal counter.” But I thought, maybe that’s just how it is.
Later Ross describes how he feels about writing fiction:
Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.
Perhaps my favourite part of Ross’s account is where he explains how hard he found it to believe that a ‘mind’s eye’ actually existed:
Even after the Exeter study, I was certain that what we had here was a failure to communicate. You say potato, I say potato. Let me be clear: I know nobody can see fantastical images through their actual eyes. But I was equally sure nobody could “see” them with some fanciful “mind’s eye,” either. That was just a colorful figure of speech, like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
For Ross, it was the people who could picture things in their minds who were unusual. ‘Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news’, he writes. ‘WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well then what are you?’

U. Exeter’s Adam Zeman, who coined the term last year, remains adamant that aphantasia is ‘not a disorder’, though ‘it makes quite an important difference to their experience of life because many of us spend our lives with imagery hovering somewhere in the mind’s eye which we inspect from time to time, it’s a variability of human experience.’

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‘We have known of the existence of people with no mind’s eye for more than a century’, writes the New Scientist:

In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment in which people had to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine the table, including Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, for whom the scene was “as distinct as if I had photos before me”. But a few individuals drew a total blank.

Zeman’s speculation about whether the ‘mind’s eye’ is a key part of human experience is part of what interests me so much about the condition. What perception do we define as human perception, and how do we account for natural variability in that perception? Are the people who saw a gold and white dress somehow less ‘human’ than those who saw a black and blue dress? Ross comments on this question as well:

I think what makes us human is that we know we’re the galactic punchline, but we can still laugh at the setup. The cosmos got me good on this one. How beautiful that such electrical epiphany is not just the province of the child. And were the bee’s knees real, too? And have the cats worn pajamas all along?

Are people who can’t picture things ‘inhuman’ or ‘disabled’ in some way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking, but why does their existence (or ours, from Ross’s perspective) surprise us so much? Furthermore, how do they then consume popular culture, which is intensely reliant on familiar modes of phantasia, and what does a piece of art geared towards a person with aphantasia look like? For me the question immediately becomes: ‘How many people with aphantasia are working in the arts, and how many have sat before me in an English Literature classroom?’

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The answer potentially has huge implications for the humanities, and as someone teaching in English Literature I wonder how effective our current methods of approaching reading and meaning actually are. When I mentioned the condition to my colleagues at Cardiff University, many jokingly responded with something along the lines of: ‘What, you mean someone without an imagination?’A recent article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian explores the potential impact of aphantasia on education. He writes:

One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.

While Costandi’s article is fascinating, the title (‘If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?’) is poorly found. People with aphantasia still imagine things, they just do so very differently than people without aphantasia. Their experience is not inherently less rich, or less creative. It is simply rich and creative in a way the rest of us cannot imagine.

The article essentially concludes the same thing – aphantasia is not a disability in any traditional sense:

“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”

While it’s good to know that aphantasia doesn’t affect reading comprehension more generally, current evidence says little about how metaphorical language is perceived. Descriptive passages in novels may be out, but what kinds of description? My aphantasiac family member is an avid reader, and passages like this one, from the opening of Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone (1997), are no problem:

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So comparing things to ideas still seems to carry impact and emotion, while comparing things to other things, as in the opening passage of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985), becomes more problematic:

 

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

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Even more interesting to me (especially in the light of Tom Robbins’ prose) is the question of how aphantasiacs comprehend poetry and poetic imagery, which often relies heavily on a direct link between words and images, senses, or feelings, rather than abstract concepts. What poetry do aphantasiacs prefer, how do they make sense of the poetry they don’t? What does an aphantasiac make of Alison Croggon’s ‘The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop’, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or K. Schippers’ ‘Things You Only Need to Remember Briefly’? How can we teach aphantasiacs to read sensory images in an educational system where our most common response is ‘Just read until you feel it’?

Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop
Illustration © Maurice Vellekoop

This is part of what Adam Zeman’s AHRC project, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, aims to discover, but I suspect there’s enough work on this subject to go around for a good long while. I would be fascinated to know if any of you reading this identify as aphantastic, especially if you happen to work in the arts or creative industries. You can take an abridged version of the aphantasia test at this link.

Or, better yet, let me know if any of you are researchers at Cardiff, Exeter, Bristol or Bath, and would want to set up a GW4-funded project with me to explore these questions. (You can also contact Adam Zeman about his neurological research into aphantasia at a.zeman@exeter.ac.uk.)