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Can You Picture This? Some People Can’t

You may be surprised to learn that some people can’t visualize with their mind’s eye. Equally shocking to these people is the fact that most of us can.

A daydream solved an important problem in the 19th century. Chemists were trying to elucidate the molecular structure of benzene, a petrochemical that is now used in the production of styrene and nylon fibres. It was in front of a fireplace that chemist Friedrich August Kekulé dozed off and was rewarded with a vision of a serpent biting its own tail, a mental image that nudged him in the direction of benzene’s ring-like structure. This image was not voluntarily conjured up by Kekulé; rather it came to him in a dream. But can you voluntarily imagine a serpent biting its tail? How about an apple instead?

A recent tweet asking people to imagine an apple and choose which representation on a scale from 1 to 5 best fit the resulting picture blew many people’s minds, mine included. Some responders reported not being able to see anything in their mind’s eye and were shocked—SHOCKED!—that the rest of us were able to, “conjuring images from the ether like sorcerers” as one person put it.

While news that some people are mental sorcerers while others are not isn’t, well, new as it turns out, it’s a subject that has received surprisingly little coverage over the years. But when it has been talked about, the phenomenon has generated its share of incredulity. Sir Francis Galton is widely credited as the first person to put ink to paper on this issue. He was Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, a scientist in his own right but also a eugenicist. He chatted with his scientist friends and was astonished to learn that most seemed incapable of mental imagery. They thought it “fanciful.” In a larger sample of scientists, Galton reported that 6% had no experience of visual imagery. (The prevalence of this phenomenon is hard to pin down as the handful of studies on it have been limited in scope, but it seems to affect a small minority of people.) Behaviourist John B. Watson himself was unconvinced by all this talk of mental images, calling them “bunk”: in fact, over the years, researchers who couldn’t visualize tended to believe this was the norm and vice versa. Talk about having a blind spot.

I was recently asked, “How do people even figure out that they can or cannot visualize?”, that there is even such a thing as the haves and the have-nots? The stories are quite funny. A guided meditation asking you to picture a sphere can be a revelation. Being told to count sheep to fall asleep can also lead to a double-take. A commenter on the forum of a website dedicated to the phenomenon tells the story of his girlfriend who remembered what an acquaintance was wearing a year ago. How could she possibly do this? She could see the friend in her mind! But how?

Adam Zeman and his team, who are currently studying the phenomenon, gave it a name in a 2015 paper: aphantasia. As “phantasia” means imagination, the Greek negating prefix “a-“ implies an absence of it. But aphantasia is not technically the absence of imagination but something quite peculiar. People can be born with it or they can acquire it, as reports have emerged of rare cases of sudden aphantasia following a stroke or a medical procedure. People with aphantasia are referred to by scientists as “aphantasics”, although I have seen “aphantasiacs” in the popular press and must admit it sounds delightful. Many of them do see images when they dream and they can be hit with the odd mental picture if someone mentions a place they’re familiar with, but these images are all involuntary. The difference arises when they try to voluntarily conjure up an image in their mind’s eye. To some, it’s fuzzy; to many, it’s all black. The idea of the object is there but its shapes and colours? Nowhere to be seen.

Skeptical scientists have argued that some or all of these cases might have a psychological origin. They bring up historical cases that may (or, as it turns out, may not) have involved psychiatric conditions. Others have hypothesized that aphantasics might actually be able to picture things in their mind… but that they are not aware of it. Now try to imagine that! But scientists came up with a way to test for this. You show a series of green vertical lines to the left eye and a series of red horizontal lines to the right eye. The brain can only register one of these and has to choose. You can influence this choice by priming the participant’s brain beforehand (“think of a series of green vertical lines”). It’s a little bit telling someone to imagine the cutest Corgi and then asking them to choose between a real-life Corgi and a German Shepherd. You’ve already primed the brain with the Corgi so this should influence choice. When aphantasics were asked to visualize these lines beforehand (which they thought they couldn’t do, but maybe they could but weren’t aware of it), there was no effect on the test. The priming didn’t work. It seems these aphantasics really cannot voluntarily see in their mind’s eye. Scientists are starting to map out the differences in the brains of aphantasics using functional magnetic resonance imagery, but these studies to date have been quite small.

You may think people with aphantasia are at a disadvantage, that they have a disorder; but the recent publicity around the phenomenon has highlighted some counterintuitive truths. The first modern case of aphantasia reported in the literature (a 65-year-old man called “MX”) showed no impairment on a range of standard tests of visual imagery, including evaluations that normally involve rotating objects in one’s mind. Unless the test is particularly hard, aphantasics can also perform just as well as controls on memory challenges, which makes us think there may be multiple ways to succeed in these tasks. Indeed, it was quite a shock to read about Ed Catmull, the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, admitting that he has aphantasia. Many animators, including the Oscar-winning man who created Ariel the Little Mermaid, also can’t visualize. And yet they succeed at their job. Visualization, as it turns out, is not synonymous with creativity.

A physicist relating his experience admitted to having feared coming out of the pitch-black closet of aphantasia. What if his colleagues suddenly thought him less competent? But when you’re in the company of Pixar animators, the founder of the Firefox web browser, and biotech scientist Craig Venter (listed more than once as one of the 100 most influential people in the world), aphantasia looks more like a compensable quirk of the brain than a terminal illness.

Take-home message:
- Some people are unable to see things in their mind’s eye, a phenomenon known as aphantasia
- Aphantasia seems to affect a small minority of people but it hasn’t prevented many famous creative people from being successful


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