Arts, Entertainment & Media

A Blind Mind’s Eye: Aphantasia

Aphantasia, a condition which renders the mind’s eye blind. Image: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Picture this, a toad wearing a tweed suit, flat cap and driving gloves.

You can see him can’t you?

Isn’t he quaint?

The hat suits him down to the ground, don’t you agree?

Many people can summon even the most preposterous of images in their head with little or no effort.

But what if you find it impossible to visualise in your mind?

Then you may have a condition known as aphantasia, which renders the mind’s eye blind.

For Jenny Olley, she never knew that she was even missing out on anything.

Jenny Olley with her dog, Archie. Image: Dave Olley

She assumed that expressions such as, ‘imagine this’, or ‘picture that’, were simply turns of phrase as opposed to an active instruction.

As she says, ‘a lot of what people say isn’t real it is? It doesn’t always mean literally’.

It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Jenny discovered that she had aphantasia.

I know everybody experiences the world differently, but to find out you’ve experienced the whole of your life so differently to the people around you and you never realised… but why would you?

It took 8 years before she met anyone who was similarly afflicted; she was desperate to meet anybody who experienced the world in the same way as she did.

At the time, she struggled to find any information on the Internet and increasingly frustrated, she drew constant blanks.

The reason it was so hard was that there had been, until recently, very little research on the subject.

The term itself was only coined in 2015 by cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman and his team at the University Of Exeter when they published a study in the science journal Cortex.

However, the concept of people who cannot visualise is not a new one.

It was first identified by Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton in the 19th Century with very little study since, except a survey conducted by American psychologist, Bob Faw, that suggested it may affect 2-3% of the population.

Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton was the first to identify aphantasia. Image: Wiki Commons (Public Domain)

Professor Zeman believes that aphantasia affects 1 in 50 people.

He told the BBC,

People who have contacted us say they are really delighted that this has been recognised and has been given a name, because they have been trying to explain to people for years that there is this oddity that they find hard to convey to others.

These experiences echo those of Jenny.

So what happens inside Jenny’s head when she is asked to picture something?

To put it simply, she thinks in words.

She breaks down objects into lists of descriptive words, which enables her to conceptualise objects without actually visualising them.

Within the short radio feature The Secret Photographer, produced by Jack F Jewers, Jenny tells of her reliance on photography to supplement her visual memory.

As with many conditions, aphantasia and its symptoms are not exactly the same for everyone.

Some people with the condition struggle with having a very bad memory and find it difficult to recognise people, however these aren’t the case for Jenny.

Although the condition affects how she learns and remembers, she doesn’t consider it to have any debilitating consequences on her day-to-day life other than being bad at giving directions.

Having a definition of what occurs inside her head is very comforting and has enabled Jenny to come to terms with her aphantasia.

She can’t picture life in any other way.

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