Close your eyes and visualise the face of the person you love the most. The colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, the detail of their skin. Can you imagine it? Philip can’t.
Although Philip, a 42-year old photographer from Toronto, is happily married, he can’t conjure up his wife’s face because he has no images of any kind in his mind’s eye. When he thinks about a face, it comes to him as an idea, as an intellectual concept, rather than a mental picture.
This newly described condition is called aphantasia and has prompted scientists to reexamine an experience that we so often take for granted – our imagination. What’s more, studying it is offering new insights into how we all might boost our visual imagery to improve our memory, increase our empathy and even gain new treatments for conditions like addiction and anxiety.
Aphantasia was first discovered in 1880, but has recently attracted much more attention thanks to a 2015 study by Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter and colleagues, who investigated the claims of 21 people who were unable to summon images to their mind’s eye.
Some of Zeman’s case studies reported the occasional flash of involuntary imagery during wake and sleep, even though they claimed to not be able to produce images on demand. The majority also reported problems with remembering things that happened in their past, possibly compensating for their lack of imagery by having a tendency to be good at maths, logic and verbal tasks.
Philip is a prime example. When he is asleep, his dreams are made up of the same visual images that we all experience, but during waking hours he finds it impossible to conjure up a mental picture of anything. “When I close my eyes I see my eyelids. It’s just blank,” he says. “I never realised that people could see images in their mind when they were awake. When they said ‘imagine this’ or ‘count sheep’ I thought they just meant figuratively.”
If you are able to generate internal images, it’s very hard to imagine what life is like without them. To understand the blind mind’s eye, it may be helpful to think about an abstract concept such as ‘peace’. There are no obvious – literal – images that are drawn to mind (apart from a metaphorical image like a dove perhaps) yet you are able to understand and imagine what peace is.
When Philip tries to picture a face, he knows intellectually what structures it involves, but he can’t visualise it in any way. “It’s very hard to explain what happens when I think about things like that,” he says. “If I try to picture my father’s face, for example, I would know that he had blue eyes or the size of his nose, but I wouldn’t be able to describe it in any more detail than that – I can’t bring his face to mind. I see nothing.”
To understand the differences in each of our mental images, we have to be able to measure them – but it’s inherently difficult to analyse the private goings on in someone’s mind. Joel Pearson at the University of New South Wales has found the answer: not only can he objectively measure our imagination, but he can manipulate it too.
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