Try closing your eyes and imagining yourself on a green meadow, sitting under a big tree. You are looking at the sun going down across the hills in the distance. All of a sudden, a yellow butterfly lands on your right shoulder.
Can you picture it in your mind? Good. That means you do not have aphantasia.
How Does It Work?
Some people cannot do what you just did. They can't visualize themselves under that tree in their minds, and they cannot see the butterfly. The name for that condition is aphantasia. It describes a neurological condition in which a person cannot visualize images in their mind. They try to think of a loved one or scenery they read in a book or a movie, but they cannot picture it in their head.
There still isn't much research available on the topic of aphantasia. Nevertheless, we do know that it mostly comes with birth and that cognitive functions in such people are developed in a somewhat different way than those who have grown accustomed to freely call out pictures in their mind's eye.
Who Discovered Aphantasia?
Francis Galton initially discovered this peculiar neurological condition in 1880, but it was the neurologist by the name of Adam Zeman that gave this condition the name aphantasia. The name came from the Greek word 'phantasia,' which stands for imagination or appearance, and it literally means "without imagination."
In the year 2003, Adam Zeman encountered a case of a sixty-five-year-old man who said that he lost the ability to imagine pictures in his "head" after a minor operation. Zeman, of the University of Exeter, published a work based on this particular case, and soon after that, a case study based on the experience of several people that had a similar condition since birth. Zeman was interested in the causes and frequency of this neurological condition and also on the difference of cognitive behavior between people with aphantasia and the rest of the world.
How Are People With Aphantasia Different?
Try to imagine an abstract concept like love or hate. Even though such concepts may provide some imagery in our heads, it is undoubtedly harder to imagine them in our mind's eye as opposed to an image of a horse or a boat. The concept of mental images has its roots in the philosophical concept of other minds and qualia. It has been researched extensively in the context of language, especially the relationship between the mental image and the object at hand.
People with aphantasia are not noticeably different; they just cannot imagine things like the rest of us do. They know the concept; they might experience a stream of words, but not the image itself. It might help to think of aphantasia as having a cellphone without a screen, the information is all there, but there is nothing to help them visualize all the data held inside. Even though it might be painful not being able to imagine the face of a loved once, people with aphantasia still know information about them and the emotions those people made them feel.
We shouldn't think of aphantasia as a disability, but more like a different way, some people's brains can experience the world around us.
About the Author
Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.
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