general column graphic

Take a second to close your eyes and picture someone pushing a ball down a table. Yep, close your eyes, for real, and make the visualization of this simple scene.

Now to the questions: What was the table made of? What was the gender of the person pushing the ball? What did the ball look like?

When I tried this experiment, I made up my answers on the spot, as I always do when I am told to imagine – this is aphantasia, life without the ability to visualize. If you have the ability to bring up memories, pictures or anything similar in your head, don’t worry — you visualize normally.

If I knew prior to viewing a short video on Twitter that my life perspective would be different, I probably would have chosen not to watch the clip. I had no idea that it was normal to be able to make mental pictures or visualizations.

I always thought the idea of “counting sheep” to fall asleep was metaphorical; I never knew that individuals could actually picture sheep. Instead, I thought of the idea of sheep jumping over a fence, without visuals.

While it may sound scary, it’s not any serious medical condition or life-threatening disease. It just simply changes how you remember.

I find it fascinating that people have varying levels of visualizing capabilities. Some may be able to picture parts of scenes in their head in a blurry picture while some can practically play out full movies in their heads. My friend even told me they play out full movies before bed to fall asleep. 

I sadly lay in the level of nothingness, which at first was hard to accept. As a very creative person, I always need references to be able to paint and draw. I wish that I could imagine what I wanted to paint or draw and just do it from my head, but I never could, and now I understand why. 

My memory is both bad and good — I am awful at connecting names to faces but am very good at remembering facts. Instead, my brain works sort of like code, creating word associations to what should be the visuals.

Today, aphantasia remains widely unresearched. I believe this could partly be because there is no access to the mind’s eye, instead only through the reports of the individual. The first report of this was actually from Francis Galton in 1880. 

In a “breakfast study,” he asked 100 adult men to talk about the table at which they ate for breakfast each morning. He asked about the lighting, sharpness and color of the images in their head.

From the website NewsScientist, “Much to his astonishment, 12 of his subjects were unable to tell him much: they had assumed up to then that the phrase ‘mental imagery’ was not meant literally.” 

I related to this exactly – “mental imagery” was never a request I took seriously. According to NewsScientist, only 2-3 percent of the population experience this lacking ability.

Since, there have been a few experiments looking at aphantasia. MRI brain scans are able to show neural patterns when you imagine a picture of an object. These patterns usually are just a bit weaker than what your brain would do if you were to actually see the object.

Take this case: Adam Zeman, of the University of Exeter, showed a patient a photo of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. When looking at the photo, the brain patterns were as expected. But when the photo was taken away and the patient was asked to envision Blair’s face, these neural areas were silent.

Our ways of thinking are unique. Though I cannot visualize things, my brain has adapted by creating pathways and connections around aphantasia — and I didn’t even notice until I saw this measly tweet.

If you're interested in submitting a Letter to the Editor, click here.