Aphantasia: Living Without a Mind’s Eye
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Aphantasia: Living Without a Mind’s Eye

By Matthew Lee

Imagine that it is a warm summer day and you are sitting on the side of a swimming pool. The sun is shining, and children are laughing and splashing in the water. What images do you see as you think about this scene? If you are unable to visualize anything, you may have aphantasia.

Aphantasia is the inability to visualize imagery. Aphantasia is believed to be rare, affecting only 1% to 3% of the population. People with aphantasia cannot conjure an image of a scene or a face in their minds. It may be congenital—present from birth—or it may appear later in life as a result of a brain injury or psychological issues.

The term aphantasia was created in 2015, but records date its existence back to Aristotle, who described the ability to ‘imagine’ as phantasia. The cause of aphantasia is not yet fully understood, but research suggests that it may be linked to under activity in the brain regions responsible for visual imagery. When a brain region is underactive, there is a reduced blood and oxygen flow to the region, suggesting a decrease in neural activity. In the case of people with aphantasia, the reduction in blood and oxygen is consistent in regions like the parietal and occipital lobes, which process sensory and visual information and allow us to generate and manipulate mental images. These regions are responsible for our ability to imagine, remember, and plan for the future.

Aphantasia may cause lower sensory sensitivity and difficulties with facial recognition. It can also affect a person’s creativity, but it may help develop other ways to experience learning. For example, people with aphantasia may use verbal descriptions or written notes to aid them in understanding and remembering information. It is important to understand that a person with aphantasia still has the capacity to remember and describe their memories, they just simply cannot visualize them.

There may be some benefits. People with aphantasia have been shown to have higher levels of IQ, and are more resilient against trauma. They may also be better at focusing on the present, as opposed to daydreaming about the past or future.