phantasyPeople who cannot form mental images? ‘Aphantasia’ is an extraordinary new discovery; Carl Zimmer and Adam Zeman seem between them to have uncovered a fascinating and previously unknown mental deficit (although there is a suggestion that Galton and others may have been aware of it earlier).

What is this aphantasia? In essence, no pictures in the head. Aphantasics cannot ‘see’ mental images of things that are not actually present in front of their eyes. Once the possibility received publicity Zimmer and Zeman began to hear from a stream of people who believe they have this condition. It seems people manage quite well with it and few had ever noticed anything wrong – there’s an interesting cri de coeur from one such sufferer here. Such people assume that talk of mental images is metaphorical or figurative and that others, like them, really only deal in colourless facts. It was the discovery of a man who had lost the visualising ability through injury that first brought it to notice: a minority of people who read about his problem thought it was more remarkable that he had ever been able to form mental images than that he now could not.

Some caution is surely in order. When a new disease or disability comes along there are usually people who sincerely convince themselves that they are sufferers without really having the condition. Some might be mistaken. Moreover, the phenomenology of vision has never been adequately clarified, and I strongly suspect it is more complex than we realise. There are, I think, several different senses in which you can form a mental image; those images may vary in how visually explicit they are, and it could well be that not all aphantasics are suffering the same deficits.

However that may be, it seems truly remarkable that such a significant problem could have passed unnoticed for so long. Spatial visualisation is hardly a recondite capacity; it is often subject to testing. One kind of widely used test presents the subject with a drawing of a 3D shape and a selection of others that resemble it. One is a perfect rotated copy of the original shape, and subjects are asked to pick it out. There is very good evidence that people solve these problems by mentally rotating an image of the target shape; shapes rotated 180 degrees regularly take twice as long to spot as ones that have been rotated 90; moreover the speed of mental rotation appears to be surprisingly constant between subjects. How do aphantasics cope with these tests at all? One would think that the presence of a significantly handicapped minority would have become unmissably evident by now.

One extraordinary possibility, I think, is that aphantasia is in reality a kind of mental blindsight. Subjects with blindsight are genuinely unable to see things consciously, but respond to visual tasks with a success rate far better than chance. It seems that while they can’t see consciously, by some other route their unconscious mind still can. It seems tantalisingly possible to me that aphantasics have an equivalent problem with mental images; they do form mental images but are never aware of them. Some might feel that suggestion is nonsensical; doesn’t the very idea of a mental image imply its presence in consciousness? Well, perhaps not: perhaps our subconscious has a much more developed phenomenal life than we have so far realised?

At any rate, expect to hear much more about this…

27 Comments

  1. 1. Hunt says:

    It may be that this is just another capacity that rates on a spectrum, like musical or mathematical ability. It doesn’t surprise me too much that there are some people with very diminished abilities, since there are people with super-ability. Nikola Tesla claimed to have been able to visualize complex machinery in his head, rotate it, take it apart and reassemble it, and even set it in motion and then examine wear on its parts (he was a bit of a showman). Given his accomplishments, no reason not to believe him for the most part.

    I agree it’s surprising this hasn’t become more noteworthy until now.

  2. 2. Callan S. says:

    Really good theory! I wonder what steps could be taken to test it?

    Some might feel that suggestion is nonsensical; doesn’t the very idea of a mental image imply its presence in consciousness?

    Their argument is based on the assumption that the mental includes everything the individual has access to. This might be quite the example to suggest that the mental includes things the individual doesn’t have access to!

    Also on a side note on the Scott Bakker’s blog one poster reported that she has no sense of inner dialog. She can read, obviously, but she doesn’t hear a voice in her head when she reads (IIRC she was surprised to find others do). It may be a similar thing to this lack of visualization.

    And I do find it shocking this is only being discovered now? How much do we project that others are doing the same thing as us in their noggins?

    Great post! 🙂

  3. 3. Hunt says:

    And I do find it shocking this is only being discovered now? How much do we project that others are doing the same thing as us in their noggins?

    Same thing seems to be true of a deficit as overt as prosopagnosia, at least in its less severe forms. Many people who have it are surprised to learn how easily most people recognize faces.

  4. 4. Juan says:

    Good article. Incidentally, if I remember correctly, the great moral philosopher Derek Parfit suffers from this exact condition, as detailed in his New Yorker profile. That was written five years ago, so I find it a bit surprising this hasn’t received a bit more attention since then.

  5. 5. David Duffy says:

    The original survey Galton did was pretty interesting. He asked everyone at a school about their experience of visual imagery, and found they ran the whole gamut. In some cases the same mental problem can be solved using an equally efficacious alternative strategy: a friend of mine reported visualising the written shopping list, where I would use a verbal strategy – I suspect our chess playing was underpinned by quite different faculties; lots of studies of male and female map reading and navigation.

  6. 6. Tabitha says:

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I am interested by your comments about 3D rotation of shapes. I am apparently aphantasic, I think in words, cannot visualize, etc, and I have always SUCKED at 3D rotation of shapes and anything involving 3D imaging. I have to trace the images on the table with my finger, and try to “see” them that way.
    It stood out insofar as that was something I couldn’t do, but there are many people who say they are bad at tasks like rotating 3D images. I wonder if the aphantasics just get lumped into the people who struggle with the task for other reasons, and that is why they never stood out.

  7. 7. micha berger says:

    Are we talking about people who either really or consciously think they
    1- do not experience qualia,
    2- cannot recreate qualia without the simultaneous input sensory input
    3- cannot use qualia to reason their way to a conclusion.
    4- do not experience VISUAL qualia,
    5- cannot recreate VISUAL qualia without the simultaneous input sensory input, or
    6- cannot use VISUAL qualia to reason their way to a conclusion?

  8. 8. James says:

    So Daniel Hutto and Eric Myin have aphantasia? I knew it all along!

  9. 9. howard says:

    I am fantastically aphantasic- there are times say when writing a story (I’m an MFA student) when the words pull up images or it is easy to describe things familiar. But these are NOT explicit experiences
    It may be related to a brain disease, (psychiatric) that I’ve had, and seems slowly to be fading- the condition- not the images
    Your blindsight theory has plausibility to it.
    Francis Galton conducted tests on mental imagery in the 19th century
    I had no clue the condition had a Latin name and no clue I had such a condition till an exercise in a college psych class

  10. 10. Peter says:

    Micha,

    I don’t think it is about qualia. Aphantasics seem to have normal vision and presumably normal visual qualia. Their mental images don’t have qualia just because they don’t have mental images at all!

    I do think the exact phenomenology would benefit from clarification, but that’s easier said than done.

  11. 11. micha berger says:

    Thanks Peter. That still leaves my 3, 4, 5 and 6.

    What I am trying to say is that it is *about* qualia… The difference between “mental images” and qualia is that a “mental image” is a set of qualia that create one consistent whole. No? Not that their lack of mental images means a lack of things that would otherwise have qualia, but the lack of mental images IS a lack of qualia.

    Which is why I asked (a) whether we’re specificially talking about all qualia not generated by sensation (2-3) or specifically visual qualia (5,6)? Can they think in sounds? Can they decide that X is higher pitched than Y by internally recreating the experiences of X and Y?

    And I asked (b) whether they lack mental images or all mental qualia in general (2,5) or can generate them but cannot reason with them (3,6)?

    The name a-phantasia is imprecise anyway, as “phantasia” (at least among Greek and Medieval Philosophers) would include the qualia caused by perception.

  12. 12. Hunt says:

    Totally offhand an inexpert speculation, but… I wonder if this could be another of the left-right brain miscommunication disorders. The right brain visualizes but can’t communicate it to the left brain, which give it vocal description. Blindsight could be a form of left brain blindness, while the right brain still perceives images. Face blindness could be something similar.

  13. 13. Callan S. says:

    That’s a difficult one to consider the ramifications of, Hunt!

  14. 14. Cognicious says:

    Callan S. wrote: “Their argument is based on the assumption that the mental includes everything the individual has access to. This might be quite the example to suggest that the mental includes things the individual doesn’t have access to!”

    I’m convinced that most of the mental at any moment lies beneath (or outside) consciousness.

    And “Also on a side note on the Scott Bakker’s blog one poster reported that she has no sense of inner dialog. She can read, obviously, but she doesn’t hear a voice in her head when she reads (IIRC she was surprised to find others do).”

    Well, doesn’t forming auditory thoughts that correspond to what you’re reading slow you down? A text given in visual form is there all at once, and it can be understood in less time than listening to someone speak it would take.

  15. 15. Callan S. says:

    Cognicious,

    Yeah, but over there Micha is saying there’s an absence of qualia (or asking questions towards that end). He’s not talking about something like ‘undetectable qualia’

    Well, doesn’t forming auditory thoughts that correspond to what you’re reading slow you down? A text given in visual form is there all at once

    Well, sequentially it is – I don’t know of anyone who absorbs text in parallel – everyone reads sequentially AFAICT, the same way everyone hears speech sequentially.

    Anyway, one might say there is speed reading where no normal rate of speaking is heard in the head. But this poster was saying she didn’t choose to hear nothing, she just didn’t hear anything in her head as she read.

    Am I talking about the same thing you are? Or is it your experience to hear nothing internally (when reading at a leisurely pace)?

    I think if I see a stop sign (note I say ‘see’ rather than ‘read’), I don’t hear a word. But that’s because it’s keyed to an action rather than someone making a proposition. Possibly some people are more kinetic learners and may assign words directly to actions far more than other people. Which is less of a radical difference, I guess.

  16. 16. Cognicious says:

    Callan,

    I think Peter addressed Micha’s questions correctly. People who lack a mind’s eye aren’t without qualia in general, they’re only without qualia of that one kind.

    When I said a text presented visually is there all at once, I didn’t mean you can read different parts of it at the same time. It’s only that you can go faster than if you had to wait while someone spoke the words. Children learn to read by associating what they see with sounds. (I don’t know how deaf children learn to read.) For a practiced reader, however, the stage of translating the visual stimulus into sound can drop out, so that the sight of a word, or a larger unit, a clause or sentence, directly produces its meaning. If I slow down and stare at a few words set in type, I tend to hear them, but this isn’t necessary for understanding.

    Stop signs work in almost the same way as traffic lights. The whole appearance of the sign, including color and shape, is a *signal*. There are other situations that might make the idea of “soundless reading” clearer. Suppose you’re looking for a particular book on a bookshelf. You glance at the spine of one book after another, searching for the desired title or author’s name. This process is faster than if you mentally pronounced the words on the spine, right? Or is that just me?

    Visual imagery comes in different varieties. Tabitha (#7) says she’s poor at mentally rotating 3-D objects. I am too, but I very easily – in fact, involuntarily – visualize words that I hear. Words are flat.

  17. 17. Callan S. says:

    Cognicious,

    People who lack a mind’s eye aren’t without qualia in general, they’re only without qualia of that one kind.

    What if they aren’t without it? What if they have qualia they cannot detect?

    For a practiced reader, however, the stage of translating the visual stimulus into sound can drop out, so that the sight of a word, or a larger unit, a clause or sentence, directly produces its meaning. If I slow down and stare at a few words set in type, I tend to hear them, but this isn’t necessary for understanding.

    I’m going off topic in saying this, but this is probably where the ‘illusion of semantic exhaustion’ (as I’ve heard it called) comes from. For myself, I hear words when I read because I only hear claims made by someone else (in ink or pixels). The words don’t translate to meaning, only a rough sketch of what the other guys perspective might be. That or it’s just the dyslexia. Or the dyslexia leads to just seeing claims. Certainly in survival terms it might be beneficial to ‘just perceive the meaning’ as that’s faster. But when the meaning perceived is false (ie, the illusion of semantic exhaustion) it can be very problematic.

    Suppose you’re looking for a particular book on a bookshelf. You glance at the spine of one book after another, searching for the desired title or author’s name. This process is faster than if you mentally pronounced the words on the spine, right?

    True – if I want a word I think of it and can do a rough look to potentially find it without really reading all the other words. Then again for whatever reason sometimes this process fails and I have to go systematically from title to title. I’m still not sure this is what she was refering to, but I may be wrong.

    In terms of visualising words heard, for myself I don’t do that. For whatever worth that disclosure has 🙂

    Hopefully the poster (going by the handle ’03’) turns up on the three pound brain blog again as this conversation has raised some more questions to ask her.

  18. 18. Cognicious says:

    Callan,

    “What if they aren’t without it? What if they have qualia they cannot detect?”

    Huh? I understand detectability to be intrinsic to qualia.

    “I hear words when I read because I only hear claims made by someone else (in ink or pixels). The words don’t translate to meaning, only a rough sketch of what the other guys perspective might be. That or it’s just the dyslexia. Or the dyslexia leads to just seeing claims.”

    I can’t fathom what you’re saying here. How did claims take center stage? Not nearly all material that is read consists of claims. People read the news and personal messages and shopping lists and instructions on medicine bottles. If the label on a jar says “peanut butter,” I don’t have to hear a little voice speaking those four syllables to make sense of the marks. The visual stimulus, the written phrase, suggests the idea of peanut butter in less time than uttering four syllables. So if you’re reading about peanut butter rather than about someone’s claims, do you still interpose sound between sight and understanding?

    “In terms of visualising words heard, for myself I don’t do that.”

    How do you know how to spell words when you write? Do people who don’t read words on a mental screen have to memorize the letter sequence for each word?

  19. 19. Callan S. says:

    Cognicious,

    Huh? I understand detectability to be intrinsic to qualia.

    Well, why? Why has that come to be a significant element? Maybe only because we treat what is detectable as the only thing there – simply for being unable to detect anything else? Clearly some people who have no minds eye image (and yet can sort objects quite well) have to face that there are things that affect their lives but are undetectable, and yet others can detect the minds eye image/they are qualia for others. These people have to face the idea of undetectable qualia.

    If the label on a jar says “peanut butter,” I don’t have to hear a little voice speaking those four syllables to make sense of the marks. The visual stimulus, the written phrase, suggests the idea of peanut butter in less time than uttering four syllables. So if you’re reading about peanut butter rather than about someone’s claims, do you still interpose sound between sight and understanding?

    To me it’s a question of why don’t you see it as a claim? It doesn’t say peanut butter and some small amount of crushed roaches/misc insects, but that’s part of the product (in manufacturing terms it can’t be helped, really). Why doesn’t the ‘fact’ of the label say that … because it’s a claim made by men, not raw fact.

    Maybe you’d say ‘well it can’t be helped so why get into that when the meaning is clear…’. But that’s hitting hard heuristic – why take words at their face value when life is more complex than that in its details?

    I mean try it from my perspective and see it as a word of written claims. Wouldn’t you want to know who made the claim? And in wanting that, maybe you start putting a voice to the words?

    How do you know how to spell words when you write? Do people who don’t read words on a mental screen have to memorize the letter sequence for each word?

    Muscle memory, probably. The same way I can touch type without really guiding each of my finger tips – my fingers just know where to go for each letter. Spooks me at times. With spelling, the next letter just comes to my fingers, either as I use pen or at a keyboard.

  20. 20. ihtio says:

    Hunt,

    I wonder if this could be another of the left-right brain miscommunication disorders. The right brain visualizes but can’t communicate it to the left brain, which give it vocal description. Blindsight could be a form of left brain blindness, while the right brain still perceives images. Face blindness could be something similar.

    I don’t think so. The speaking (usually left) hemisphere visualizes just the same as the non-speaking (usually right) hemisphere.

    I, as most people, can’t simulate smells and taste sensations very well. I can’t really recollect them as easily as I can visualize visual stuff. Maybe aphantasics are similar in this respect – they act normally, think mostly normally (they use “visual representations”, albeit differently), but have a harder time visualizing visual images just as we have a hard time simulating odours.

    Or maybe there is another bifurcation in the brain, akin to the two visual streams (ventral and dorsal) (search for “Two-streams hypothesis” on Google).

  21. 21. Cognicious says:

    Callan: “Why has that [i.e., detectability] come to be a significant element [in qualia]?”

    I believe it’s definitional. Qualia are basic elements of experience. Whatever isn’t experienced isn’t a quale. By the way, how do you get italics around here? I can try [i]bbcode, [/i]but . . .

    “To me it’s a question of why don’t you see it as a claim?”

    Because the topic is what happens mentally when someone reads, and not everything that’s readable is a claim – as if propositions were the only kind of language use and debate were the only form of discourse. Where’s the claim in these texts? “No Trespassing.” “Open other end.” “Hello.” “I’ll have the club sandwich, please.” “Which way is north?” If I see a sign that says “Danger, high voltage,” I don’t treat it as a claim and try to evaluate its veridicality and argue with it (“Hmm, maybe it’s just a prank”).

    “[How do you know how to spell words when you write?]

    Muscle memory, probably. The same way I can touch type without really guiding each of my finger tips. . . . With spelling, the next letter just comes to my fingers, either as I use pen or at a keyboard.”

    It seems to me that some things that are called muscle memory aren’t really in the muscles, they’re in the brain. I can produce a word in visual form in different ways: writing it by hand in lower-case, printing it by hand in capitals, typing it, arranging Scrabble tiles, spelling it out by setting rocks on a beach (useful when shipwrecked; some recent sailors used palm fronds). These procedures use rather different muscle movements. They all have in common that I remember the letter sequence in the word. That’s the feat of memory I’m asking about. People perform it to greater or lesser degrees. Some go through life making homonym errors every time. Perhaps those are the ones who have no mind’s eye for words?

  22. 22. Callan S. says:

    Cognicious,

    You want pointy brackets for italics.

    Sigh, I thought I had a real gateway idea with undetected qualia – opening the door to the idea of potential layer upon layer of the brain responding to stimulus without conscious perception of it, just as much as those with no mind eyes image still respond to images that are presented in RL. A real gateway to breaking the idea of ‘All I experience is all there is of me’. But I’ve been beaten simply by the definitionally true ‘Whatever isn’t experienced isn’t a quale’. I tell you, it just seems a moth like gravitation to the ‘light’ of what is experienced and ignoring the dark as if what isn’t experienced isn’t there.

    Because the topic is what happens mentally when someone reads, and not everything that’s readable is a claim – as if propositions were the only kind of language use and debate were the only form of discourse. Where’s the claim in these texts? “No Trespassing.” “Open other end.” “Hello.” “I’ll have the club sandwich, please.” “Which way is north?” If I see a sign that says “Danger, high voltage,” I don’t treat it as a claim and try to evaluate its veridicality and argue with it (“Hmm, maybe it’s just a prank”).

    Why not?

    I’d say everything that is readable is a claim. It’s just a question of how little we want to think about the text. For example right now you’re treating what I’m saying as a claim rather than a fact, while the high voltage sign you treat as a fact and not a claim. How did that distinction come about? When did you sift one text into the claim pile and the other text into the fact pile? Twilight zone question – is the point at which you sifted each currently inaccessible to you? It happens as fast and reflexively as a martial artist might block a blow directed at them? Bam, claim! Biff, fact!

    On muscle memory, yeah it’s a crap name – it’s all in the brain. Call it kinetic learning – each letter involves an action, even if it’s a small one. If you drag a stick along the ground you leave a line – letters are just a series of lines or curves near each other. Nothing more. Even as they, right now in front of you insist they are nothing more (performative contradiction? Hardly – just processing that happens in the brain we don’t know about – thus why I wanted to engage the idea of undetected qualia! Ta da, I’ve tied in everything! Someone pass me a beer!)

  23. 23. Mitchell says:

    I don’t see distinct images. Cannot remember ever seeing images. I thrive on reading a lot. It hasn’t hampered my ability do anything. In fact I’m a jack of all trades. It’s only this past week that I’ve discovered aphantasia. For me everything seems normal without imagery. I’m very interested in discoverying exactly how my brain has got around this issue. I’m sure this condition started very early in age. I suspect I shut off images due to certain unpleasant home issues. Thanks for highlighting this condition.

  24. 24. Douglas Gibb says:

    I definitely have this. I am able to ‘imagine’, for instance a scene when reading a book, but it is not visually present in anything like the same way it would be in a dream. I read somewhere a theory about the way that dreams seem to dissipate so immediately on waking having evolved because it is important to make a clear distinction between dreams and reality. My feeling is that similar mechanisms are involved, ie. there is something in a sense actively ‘blocking’ visualisation, a natural barrier between the conscious and unconscious, the nature and extent of which varies from one individual to the next. I can also think of a couple of times when I have drawn a good likeness of someone not present while doodling, which I could not have done deliberately. Same sort of thing I think, I have a picture of the person in my unconscious mind which I can’t access consciously.

  25. 25. Michelle Hall says:

    I am unable to see images, and unable to do the rotation of objects in spatial tests.

    I also have issues with memories, I have no visual memories, .

    I suspect that it is trauma related.

  26. 26. Gintare says:

    Hi, I am a 4th year student at the University of Edinburgh. My dissertation involves thinking about scenarios and objects, and the part aphantasia may play in this. If you are interested, please take a look at my questionnaire (should take less than 10 minutes!) and share it with anyone else who may be interested. You can find it here: https://edinburghppls.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_7aphPJ3t0Xb76sd

  27. 27. micha says:

    See this https://www.newscientist.com/article/2124400-when-i-try-to-imagine-my-girlfriends-face-i-draw-a-blank

    Jean-Pierre Mooney (pictured) knows the colour of his girlfriend’s hair and eyes, but he just can’t picture her face. “If she went missing and the police asked me to draw a sketch, I wouldn’t know how,” he says. “That’s like sorcery for me.”

    The revelation helped to explain his poor sense of direction and tendency to forget where he had parked his car. “Floor numbers were made for people like me,” he says. “I can’t remember landmarks.”

    On the plus side, Mooney rarely feels anxious. He believes this is because he struggles to imagine bad things happening in the future or relive negative experiences from the past. …

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