In this guide, we will discuss ‘How common is aphantasia?’ and what is exactly understood by aphantasia. Moreover, we will discuss what seems to happen in the brain, are people with aphantasia able to dream? and what could potentially cause aphantasia. Finally we will talk about some of the implications of living with aphantasia.
How common is aphantasia?
If you are wondering ‘How common is aphantasia?’ Let us tell you that unlike depression or anxiety, it is considered very rare. It is believed that approximately 1 to 3 percent of people have aphantasia but some neurologists believe approximately 1 in 50 people or 2- 5% of the population are non-visual imagers. Since this is a recently discovered condition, little is known still and research still needs to be done to understand it.
Some people are not able to visualize the face of their loved ones or even their own house but why is that? Well, researchers, who still know very little and are still unraveling the mysteries behind it, have called it ‘aphantasia’ and it is basically the lack of mind’s eye. If we were to ask someone with aphantasia to picture an orange or the last place they went on vacation they will tell you it is not possible for them. However, let’s see more in depth what aphantasia is and what is known so far about this condition.
However, many people don’t really know they have aphantasia since their entire life they haven’t known what ‘visual imagination’ means. How necessary is it to visualize landscapes and characters described in novels? Or the faces of loved ones? Sure, if you were the only eye witness of a crime and the police asked you to go back to that moment, close your eyes and describe the scene then that would be a problem but what are the real chances?
What is aphantasia?
According to Lucy Maddox from sciencefocus.com, “Aphantasia is the name given to the inability to call an image to mind. The name was coined in 2015 by Prof Adam Zeman, a cognitive and behavioural neurologist at the University of Exeter. Zeman first became aware of the phenomenon when he was referred to a patient who had ‘lost’ his visual imagery after a heart operation.”
Before the cardiac procedure this patient had a vivid imagery and used to get himself to sleep by picturing his friends and family. Following the procedure, he couldn’t visualise this or anything at all. This condition goes way back to the 1880s when Francis Galton reported a small number of people that couldn’t visualise.
However, it seems that not all people experience aphantasia the same way. Some of them are born with it and others have acquired it after brain injury or as Maddox indicates, sometimes after periods of depression or psychosis. Moreover, “Some individuals don’t dream in images, like Zeman’s first patient, but others can, even though they are unable to visualise while they’re awake.”
Even though this patient scored poorly on questionnaires assessing the ability to produce visual imagery compared to control subjects, he was still able to accomplish tasks that usually involved visualization such as saying which is a lighter color of green, grass or pine trees. He correctly chose pine trees as being darker than grass but he insisted he did not use visual imagery to make the decision he just “knew the answer”.
What happens in the brain?
Scientists have used imaging techniques to determine the network of brain areas that are involved in visualisation. These include:
- The primary visual cortex and an area in the fusiform that’s close to a region involved in facial recognition.
- Parts of the frontal and parietal lobes (usually those involved in decision-making, working memory and attention).
- Memory areas such as the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe.
However, aphantasia doesn’t seem to compromise their creativity. It is believed so far that many people with aphantasia are successful in creative professions and have their own ways and methods to compensate for their lack of mind’s eye.
Can I dream if I have aphantasia?
It depends on what you understand by dreaming. If it is buying the house of your dreams or graduating for college, sure, people with aphantasia can actually have them. Moreover, as indicated by Rebecca Turner “identifying with aphantasia does not mean you can’t lucid dream…lucid dreams can come sporadically and “naturally” in people with aphantasia.”
The scientific explanation here seems to be that how our brain works when we are awake involves different processes when we are asleep. Zeman describes how dreaming is part of a ‘bottom up’ process that’s organised from the brainstem, in contrast, visualising is a ‘top down’ process that is driven by the cortex. He believes this is the reason why there is a dissociation between people’s visualisation abilities while they are awake and when they are sleeping.
What causes Aphantasia
There is lack of information and research about aphantasia but researchers believe what is happening at a neural level does seem to be heritable to some extent. People with aphantasia are more likely to have a close relative (i.e. parent, sibling, child) who also struggles with visualisation.
One of the main reasons why this condition is lacking research or has gone unstudied for so long is the fact that people don’t actually perceive it as a problem, or it hasn’t been a fundamental ability to live their lives to some degree.
As indicated by Maddox, “while it makes drawing objects from imagination impossible, and visualisation strategies cannot be used for memorising, there are other ways to mentally represent information. Some people use words or symbols, others report having a good ‘mind’s ear’ or ‘mind’s nose’ instead of a ‘mind’s eye’, or say that they have kinaesthetic (movement-based) imagery.”
Moreover, as we have mentioned, some people get to acquire aphantasia due to brain injury or a disease that affected the areas involved in visualising.
Implications of living with aphantasia
Although it is not considered as a disability, it comes with certain difficulties. For instance, Rebecca Turner indicates how “Some sufferers have reported feeling alone and isolated after learning that they can’t see things that most people can, and that they feel distressed that they can’t picture friends or relatives.”
One of the implications of living with aphantasia has been a serious emotional impact. People can feel isolated and unable to do something that is part of the human experience. The ability to recall faces, memories, experiences, smells, the sound of a loved one’s voice, etc., is not possible for people living with aphantasia.
However, living with aphantasia as we have discussed, doesn’t mean you lack creativity, though there could be some exceptions. As Maddox indicates, “There are aphantasic artists, who either depict objects they see, or use images they make on the paper as a stimulus to engage with.”
Subsequently, living with aphantasia doesn’t mean you have a disability or you are not able to live a normal life. Moreover, some scientists believe there is no need for a diagnosis or treatment for this condition since it is not classified as a disorder. It is simply a different way to perceive or see the world and some people with aphantasia even indicate that this condition has been useful in so many ways.
Why is this blog about How common is aphantasia important?
Aphantasia seems to be an uncommon condition, however, this could be due to the fact that we know so little about it and many people living with it don’t even know they have it. More people have been coming forward during the last couple of years in an attempt to understand why this happens. As we mentioned, there could be a hereditary component, meaning you are born with it but there are actually some others that acquire it due to brain injury or perhaps a disease that affected the areas involved in visualising.
However, as we discussed, this is not categorized as a disorder nor needs treatment. It is simply considered a different way of seeing or perceiving the world around us. Many people live their entire lives without even realising they have aphantasia and won’t interfere with their day to day activities as many other conditions will, such as depression or anxiety.
Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about How common is aphantasia
Is Aphantasia genetic?
The cause of apantasia is still unknown but experts indicate that there might be two likely causes of aphantasia and they are heredity and environment. It seems you are more likely to have aphantasia if a close relative also struggles with visualisation.
Is Aphantasia a disability?
Aphantasia is not considered a disability, it is simply a different way of experiencing life. While most people can easily conjure images inside their head, also known as their mind’s eye, some are actually unable to visualise mental images.
How do you know if you have Aphantasia?
If you want to know if you have aphantasia, try closing your eyes for a few seconds and try to picture an object in your head, in your mind’s eye. If you are unable to see anything at all, even dark shapes, you do not have aphantasia. However, if all you see is darkness or the ‘void’ as scientists like to call it, then you may have aphantasia.
Can you be born with Aphantasia?
You can be born with aphantasia. This is the inability to picture images in your head or an inability to visualize them. For instance, if you are unable to count sheep before going to bed or you can’t imagine the faces of loved ones, you could have aphantasia. This is a recent and newly defined condition that is still being researched.
Is there a test for Aphantasia?
There are tests that can help diagnose aphantasia such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire or VVIQ. This is considered the go-to psychometric measurement for researchers studying extreme imagination. According to aphantasia.com “It has been proven to be an accurate test of the intensity with which you can visualize settings, people and objects in the mind; and is often used to identify aphantasia.”
Maddox, L. (2019, Nov.) Aphantasia: what it’s like to live with no mind’s eye. Retrieved from sciencefocus.com.
Pultarova, T. (2017, Dec.) Hard to Imagine: What Is Aphantasia? Retrieved from livescience.com.
Clemens, A. (2018, Aug.) When the Mind’s Eye Is Blind. Retrieved from scientificamerican.com.
Turner, R. (n.d.) Can’t Visualize? You May Have Aphantasia. Retrieved from world-of-lucid-dreaming.com.