Imagination has been called “the mind’s eye”; the ability to visualize something in one’s mind that is not before one’s eyes. Nearly all humans can picture an image in their mind, but at least one percent – and by some estimates as many as three percent – are ‘blind’ in their mind’s eye and cannot picture anything at all that they aren’t currently looking at. This condition is called Aphantasia, from the Greek word phantasia (imagination). It translates as ‘without imagination’ – meaning to be without the ability to visualize.
Those with the ability can close their eyes and ‘see’ their loved ones, as well as other people they know, places (such as their homes), objects, and events from their past. They can also conjur up things that don’t yet exist, creating things in their minds that they are the first to ‘see’. Mentally, they can create new inventions and see how they would work before the idea ever leaves their mind. Or, they can visualize art and how it would look once it is painted on canvas, or sculpted from rock, or how performance art might be perceived by an audience. Those with Aphantasia can do none of these things. That isn’t to say they can’t be creative, it’s just that visualizing it before it becomes real is not something they’re able to do.
In 1880, psychologist and polymath Francis Galton was the first to describe the ability to see with the mind’s eye. Yet, the inability to see with the mind was not identified until 2005: a man who had suffered a minor stroke during coronary angioplasty surgery could no longer mentally visualize afterwards, and sought help from University of Exeter neurologist Professor Adam Zeman. Zeman published his findings in 2010, after which several people reported to him that they had never had the ability. This life-long condition was designated “congenital aphantasia” and prompted another study. Zeman published this report in 2015. A website called the Aphantasia Network was established to help people learn about their condition.
This is a brand-new area of study with more questions than answers. Fortunately, there are excellent articles available on the subject. Lastly, a woman with congenital aphantasia describes what it was like to discover she was different than most people: it’s a good read.
Question of the Night: If you were given a lifetime subscription to one magazine of your choice, but could never so much as look at any another magazine, what magazine would you choose?