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Aphantasia: when your mind's eye draws a blank

Creatives are generally thought to have an ability to think, imagine and construct elements of a composition mentally and with some level of ease. Creatives in a visually dominated vocation often encounter others – colleagues, clients, friends who don’t have the same keen ability to make the “mental leap” or see images in their “mind’s eye”, requiring further explanation of ideas or concepts that exist mentally.

It’s generally difficult to keep up with anyone who has mastery in an area where we do not. However, recent research indicates that lacking the capacity to visualize images in the mind may be physiological. Researchers led by Dr. Adam Zeman, a neurologist at the University of Exeter Medical School have coined a name for this condition: aphantasia.

“φαντασία, phantasia, is the classical Greek term for imagination, defined by Aristotle as the ‘faculty/power by which a phantasma [image or mental representation] is presented to us’ (Aristotle, 1968). We propose the use of the term ‘aphantasia’ to refer to a condition of reduced or absent voluntary imagery.”

The studies by Dr. Zeman’s team were based on 21 individuals who contacted the research team after learning about their study of reductions in visual imagery. The research isn’t conclusive, but points to the possibility that the ability to visually summon images or concepts varies between people. A link to the study can be found here.

The beginning’s of this research can be traced to 2005, when a building surveyor in the UK suddenly lost his ability to visualize mentally. This patient, referred to as “MX” sought the counsel of Dr. Zeman, who was intrigued enough to raise the issue with neuroscientist, Sergio Della Sala.

The story of patient MX and an explanation of the quirkiness of his affliction was told in the March 2010 issue of Discover Magazine:

“Scientists have long speculated that the act of seeing things in our mind’s eye employs some of the same brain circuits that we use when seeing with our physical eyes. A number of brain scan studies have supported this view. When you look at a person up close, for example, a particular network of brain regions becomes active, including areas that process raw signals from your eyes as well as more sophisticated regions that recognize individual faces. When you close your eyes and conjure up a face, the parts of the brain that receive signals from the eyes are dormant, but the regions that recognize the features defining an individual again light up.

MX gave Della Sala and Zeman the chance to test two ideas about the role of the mind’s eye in our inner life. Some scientists have argued that the mind’s eye is constantly at work whenever we look at our internal simulations of the world. Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard psychologist, goes so far as to argue that we rely on the mind’s eye to make decisions about what we should do in the future. When we start driving home from a friend’s house, for example, we envision the different routes we can take in order to decide on the best way to go.”

Conclusive data isn’t yet available to understand if the opposite is true – whether some people have a stronger sense of visualization, but the study illuminates the disparity in perceptions by certain people and exposes the many ways in which people perceive ideas and concepts differently.

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