STRUGGLING TO SEE THINGS USING YOUR IMAGINATION? APHANTASIA EXPLAINED
Have you ever been asked to imagine a beach, a sunset, or a loved one's face, only to be faced with a blank screen in your mind's eye? If this is the case, you may have aphantasia, a state of mental picture loss where one cannot fathom mental imagery.
In this article, we will explore what aphantasia is, its causes, and the impact it has on individuals, from creativity to memory recall. We will also discuss the link between mind blindness and other conditions, such as dyslexia and autism, and whether it can be cured.
What is Aphantasia?
Aphantasia is a condition where those affected struggle to see mental imagery or pictures in their mind.
This means that they cannot create mental images of people, places, or objects and cannot recall visual memories. These individuals may still have a rich inner world, but it is not visual. They may still have thoughts, emotions, and ideas, but these are not accompanied by visual images. Instead, they see a black screen yet may be able to perceive other sensations.
Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, first described Aphantasia in 1880. Galton asked scientists and distinguished men to remember scenes and explain what they saw in their minds. He found out that many scientists he talked to couldn't see pictures in their minds, which he called "mental blindness." This was the first time it was documented as a condition.
However, mental blindness was not officially recognized until 2015, when it was named by neurologist Dr. Adam Zeman. Since its discovery, there has been growing interest and research into aphantasia.
Types of Aphantasia
Further research has shown that not all people with this condition experience a complete absence of mental images. Some may only have a partial form of this condition.
The aphantasia spectrum has two main types: total aphantasia and partial aphantasia. These types can further be divided into two subtypes: object aphantasia and scene aphantasia.
Total Aphantasia: People with total aphantasia are unable to visualize any images or recall visual memories. Their mind's eye is completely "blind", and they cannot create mental images of people, places, or objects. This type of aphantasia is the most severe form, where individuals lack visual representation altogether.
Partial Aphantasia: Those with partial aphantasia can still visualize images to some extent but with limited clarity or detail. Common subtypes include:
- Object Aphantasia: People with object aphantasia can imagine scenes and places, but they find it challenging to imagine objects. For instance, they can think of a beach but struggle to picture specific things at the beach, like a chair or an umbrella.
- Scene Aphantasia: This type refers to individuals who have difficulty visualizing scenes or places. They can see objects on their own but struggle to imagine a whole scene or place.
These types are based on theories and may not include all possible variations of the condition.
Preliminary evidence suggests that some forms of aphantasia may extend beyond the mind's visual capacity. Those with aphantasia can also struggle to imagine sounds, motion, textures, or other sensory experiences. These findings highlight the overlap in brain regions used to imagine sensation, which broadens the scope of the condition considerably.
Further research is needed to fully understand the different presentations and underlying mechanisms central to being unable to mentally picture things.
How Common is Aphantasia?
It is difficult to know the prevalence of mental blindness because it is not easy to detect. Those with it might not even know they have it until they realize they cannot imagine things.
It is estimated that around 2-5% of the population may have the condition. Some sources show a prevalence as high as 8.9%, with a male predominance.
What Causes Aphantasia?
The exact cause of aphantasia is still unknown.
Neuroimaging has shown that mind blindness correlates with reduced connectivity between brain areas responsible for visual processing and imagination. Affected brain regions include the visual cortex (processes visual information) and the default mode network (facilitates self-reflection and imagination).
Reduced brain connectivity in aphantasia is hypothesized to occur for many reasons, including:
- Lack of Synchronization: A lack of synchronization between brain areas involved in visual processing may interfere with conjuring mental imagery. Brain waves are synchronized electrical impulses that form 'waves' generated by neuron clusters in specific brain regions. This synchronization allows for efficient communication and information processing between different brain regions.
- White Matter Deficits: An inability to picture mentally may also be associated with lower density or integrity of white matter tracts in the brain. Like brain waves, white matter is responsible for transmitting information between different brain regions. Disrupted transmission may affect the ability to form mental images.
These theories are still speculative. More research is needed to understand the neurological mechanisms of aphantasia. However, they provide valuable insights into how the brain may be involved in the inability to visualize mental images.
Is Aphantasia Hereditary?
Mind blindness can be both hereditary or acquired later in life.
Congenital aphantasia refers to individuals who are born with the condition. The exact genetic causes are not fully understood. It is known that those with the condition are more likely to be related to a family member who has it. More testing is needed to confirm the potential genetic causes of aphantasia.
Acquired aphantasia can develop later in life due to events or exposures that limit visual processing in the brain. Some risk factors for acquiring aphantasia include:
- Head injuries, neurosurgery, or stroke that affect the visual cortex.
- Neurological disorders, such as dementia, multiple sclerosis, or epilepsy.
These risk factors increase the likelihood of being unable to see pictures in the head.
How Does Aphantasia Affect Individuals?
Individuals may experience a range of limitations caused by mind blindness that they may not be aware they have. The condition may have an impact on:
- Autobiographical memory: Without the ability to visualize memories, individuals may struggle to recall past events in detail.
- Imagination: Mind blindness can make it challenging to imagine future scenarios or create mental images of fictional worlds.
- Spatial reasoning: Visualizing objects in space can be difficult for individuals with aphantasia. Tasks such as navigation or assembling objects may be more challenging.
- Facial Recognition and Social Skills: Being unable to visualize objects is related to having a worse memory and difficulty in identifying faces. These people may be less able to interpret facial expressions and socialize.
- Difficulty with binocular rivalry: Binocular rivalry is a reflex where the brain alternates between two different images presented to each eye. This could be lacking in those who are unable to picture things in their heads, as these are required for image recall.
While the above points are drawbacks, there are also advantages to aphantasia:
IQ and Emotional Control: The IQ of people having aphantasia may be slightly higher than average (115 vs 110). They are more inclined to choose a scientific or mathematical profession. They may not feel as stressed or strongly emotional when reading a scary story or provocative literature.
Sensory Overload Immunity: People with the condition may not feel overwhelmed by strong sensations as much as others. This includes bright lights, loud sounds, or pungent odors.
Mental Health: People with aphantasia may have a lower chance of mental health problems or may have less severe symptoms because they cannot picture things in their minds. Examples include major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorders like anorexia.
Can People with Aphantasia Dream?
Most individuals with aphantasia can still dream normally and see imagery in their dreams. Some of them can daydream as well. However, they may have difficulty recalling their dreams due to their inability to visualize them.
Aphantasia and Other Conditions
Aphantasia appears to be related to several other conditions that are often found to overlap, such as:
- ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder typified by persistent patterns of inattention and hyperactive and impulsive behaviors that can interfere with daily functioning.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a complex developmental disorder that impacts social skills, expression, and behavior.
- Dyslexia, a specific learning disorder that affects reading and language processing. It is characterized by difficulties in decoding and recognizing words, spelling, and reading fluency.
- Synesthesia, a phenomenon where two or more sensory or mental associations are experienced simultaneously, such as seeing colors when hearing music.
- Dyscalculia, a specific learning disorder that affects mathematical abilities, characterized by difficulty with comprehending mathematical concepts.
People with these conditions are more likely to have mind blindness than those without them. Many of these conditions are related to differences in brain connectivity that could promote the occurrence of mind blindness. All of them are known as neurodivergent conditions, including aphantasia, as they diverge from conventional standards of "normal" cognition.
If someone is mentally blind, it can make certain signs of ASD or dyslexia more noticeable. For instance, facial recognition might become more challenging for a person with ASD, or visualizing words could be tougher for someone dealing with dyslexia.
Having aphantasia does not mean any of these conditions will be present in an individual. More research is needed to understand how aphantasia and other conditions are connected and how it affects people who have them.
Is Aphantasia a Disability?
Aphantasia is not currently recognized as a disability, as it does not significantly impact an individual's daily functioning. It might enhance symptoms of other learning disabilities. In the absence of other conditions, a mind blind person tends to find ways to work around a lack of mental imagery. For example, they often gravitate towards work that does not require as much visual imagination.
How to Know if You Have Aphantasia
You might wonder if you have aphantasia if you struggle to visualize mental imagery. As it is not an established diagnosis yet, it is unlikely that you will find a doctor who can diagnose you.
If you are unsure whether you have mind blindness, there are a few simple tests you can do to find out.
The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ)
The VVIQ is the most common aphantasia test that people take to see how well they can fathom imagery.
The VVIQ is a self-report questionnaire that measures an individual's ability to visualize images. It rates the vividness of mental images on a scale from 1 to 5. Scoring 1 means you don't see an image at all, and scoring 5 means you see a perfectly clear image.
If you score low on this questionnaire, it may indicate that you have the condition.
The Binocular Rivalry Test
The binocular rivalry test involves looking at two different images presented to each eye and reporting which image you see. Individuals with aphantasia may not experience binocular rivalry as they cannot visualize the images.
Can Aphantasia Be Cured?
Currently, there is no known treatment or cure for mind blindness. The condition might be improved through techniques such as meditation and visualization exercises.
There is also ongoing research into the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the visual cortex and potentially improve visualization abilities in those with the condition.
Aphantasia is a condition where individuals are unable to visualize images in their minds. It can have a range of effects, including difficulty with memory, imagination, and spatial reasoning. Although there is no cure yet, there are methods that could help people enhance their ability to visualize. It is important to note that aphantasia is currently a subject of ongoing research, and further studies are needed to fully understand the condition and its underlying mechanisms.
If you suspect you have aphantasia, some simple tests might help you find out. With more awareness and research, you can continue to learn about aphantasia and its impact on individuals.
-  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mila.12432
-  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32446532/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8438787/
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9614338/
-  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810023001046
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