People 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…