Picture this: why some people can’t

“Imagine a steady stream of warm sunshine flowing down through the head into the body…”, says Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace meditation and mindfulness app, during my visualisation meditation at the end of a tiring day. With my eyes closed, I can visualise in my ‘mind’s eye’ a beam of sunlight passing into my body through the top of my head, as if someone just switched on a powerful lamp right above me. I can ‘see’ it, all bright and yellow, flowing into my body and melting away any tension as it spreads through my limbs. But some people might not be able to ‘see’ any of it in their mind’s eye. If so, they may have a condition called aphantasia, a rare phenomenon affecting about 2% of the population. Those who experience it have however expressed mixed feelings. For many, it is a way of experiencing life, just like being able to create mental images; but some individuals have found it isolating it at times. 

The experience of mental imagery varies widely; some individuals may be aphantasic or unable to see images through their mind’s eye, while on the opposite end of the spectrum some may have hyperphantasia which, as you may have guessed, is like ‘super-visualisation’. Aphantasia is usually inherited, but it may be experienced after trauma. 

A personal account of someone with aphantasia. Credit: TEDx Talks.

For example, patient ‘MX’ had endured open-heart surgery, and possibly a minor stroke, only to wake up and realise he had lost his mental visualisation ability. Adam Zeman, a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology, conducted a study on patient MX where he used a brain imaging technique called functional MRI (fMRI). This imaging technique can show different brain regions lighting up as and when specific tasks are performed. When patient MX was shown famous faces, a region of his brain called the fusiform gyrus lit up on his fMRI scan. This region is activated when we try to recognise faces. However, when patient MX was asked to mentally picture a face, the frontal areas of his brain lit up far more than a separate ‘visual network’ known to be involved in facial imagery. The frontal regions of our brains are mainly used when we make decisions and execute certain tasks, so patient MX’s fMRI scans suggest that his mental imagery may be a result of a different network of brain regions.

This 2-minute video features two individuals, one experiencing hyperphantasia and another aphantasia, describing their mental visualisation ability. Credit: University of Exeter.

So, does this mean aphantasic individuals develop different strategies that give them their unique experience of mental imagery? Another study led by Wilma Bainbridge, Assistant Professor of psychology at The University of Chicago, showed that this was indeed the case. More specifically, the study reported aphantasic individuals had intact spatial memory despite not being able to create mental pictures. 

If you were shown a photograph of a room and asked to draw it from memory, how would you do it? This is what they examined in the study. If you are not aphantasic, maybe viewing the photograph in your mind’s eye and then drawing a replica of it sounds like a plan. But aphantasic individuals instead seem to rely on their spatial memory to complete the task. The study found that their drawings were much simpler compared to those who could mentally visualise images, and the different items in the room were usually labelled (for example, ‘bed’ or ‘window’). This ‘verbal-coding’ of objects also meant aphantasic individuals made fewer mistakes in recalling details, compared to the other group. Those without aphantasia sometimes had false memories of seeing something in the photograph that was not there.

Awareness of the existence of such a phenomenon only grew after the study by Zeman and colleagues had been published; possibly even more so after famous personalities got on board. For example, Firefox co-founder, Blake Ross, published an article about the grand revelation it had been discovering he was aphantasic. A questionnaire called VVIQ (Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire), filled out by those who experience aphantasia, also revealed that most individuals only realised during adolescence or early adulthood that they cannot summon up images like others. Aphantasic or not, it is a great conversation starter. All you need to do is ask if they have ever counted sheep before going to bed…

By Shamini V De Silva

Header image: Unsplash