The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 but has since remained relatively unstudied. Interest in the phenomenon renewed after the publication of a study in 2015 conducted by a team led by Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter. Zeman's team coined the term aphantasia, derived from the Ancient Greek word phantasia (φᾰντᾰσῐ́ᾱ), which means 'imagination', and the prefix a- (ᾰ̓-), which means 'without'.
The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 in a statistical study about mental imagery, describing it as a common phenomenon among his peers. It remained largely unstudied until 2005, when Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter was approached by MX, a man who seemed to have lost the ability to visualize after undergoing minor surgery. Following the publication of MX's case in 2010, a number of people approached Zeman reporting a lifelong inability to visualise. In 2015, Zeman's team published a paper on what they termed "congenital aphantasia", sparking renewed interest in the phenomenon.
Zeman's 2015 paper used the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) to evaluate the quality of the mental image of 21 self-diagnosed and self-selected participants. He identified that aphantasics lack voluntary visualizations only; they are still able to have involuntary visualizations such as dreams.
In 2017, a paper published by Rebecca Keogh and Joel Pearson, researchers at University of New South Wales, measured the sensory capacity of mental imagery using binocular-rivalry (BR) and imagery-based priming and found that when asked to imagine a stimulus, the self-reported aphantasics experienced almost no perceptual priming, compared to those who reported higher imagery scores where perceptual priming had an effect. In 2020, Keogh and Pearson published another paper illustrating measurable differences correlated with visual imagery, this time by indirectly measuring cortical excitability in the primary visual cortex (V1).
In 2021, a study that measured the perspiration (skin conductance levels) of participants in response to reading a frightening story and then viewing fear-inducing images found that participants with aphantasia, but not the other population, experienced a flat-line physiological response during the reading experiment, but no difference in physiological responses to fear-inducing stimuli was found when participants perceptually viewed fearful images. The study concluded the evidence supported the emotional amplification theory of visual imagery.
Notable people with aphantasia
- Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Catmull surveyed 540 colleagues from Pixar about their mental visualization and found that the production managers tended to have stronger visualizations than the artists.
- James Harkin, British podcaster and television writer
- Richard Herring, British comedian and podcaster
- Glen Keane, animator, author, and illustrator
- Mark Lawrence, fantasy author
- Yoon Ha Lee, science fiction author
- Derek Parfit, British philosopher. His aphantasia may have influenced his long interest in photography.
- Blake Ross, co-creator of the web browser Mozilla Firefox. In April 2016, Ross published an essay describing his own aphantasia and his realization that not everyone experiences it. The essay gained wide circulation on social media and in a variety of news sources.
- Michelle Sagara, fantasy author
- Zelda Williams, American actress, director, producer and writer
- Creative visualization
- Engineering and the Mind's Eye
- Number form
- Prefrontal synthesis
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- "To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour." (Galton, 1880)
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- Keogh, Rebecca; Bergmann, Johanna; Pearson, Joel (2020-05-05). "Cortical excitability controls the strength of mental imagery". eLife. 9: e50232. doi:10.7554/eLife.50232. ISSN 2050-084X. PMC 7200162. PMID 32369016.
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- Wicken M, Keogh R, Pearson J (March 2021). "The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia". Proceedings. Biological Sciences. 288 (1946): 20210267. doi:10.1098/rspb.2021.0267. PMC 7944105. PMID 33715433.
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- Zeman A, Dewar M, Della Sala S (January 2016). "Reflections on aphantasia". Cortex; A Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior. 74: 336–7. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.08.015. hdl:20.500.11820/b67449c9-1804-4a8f-95ee-c320928c7eeb. PMID 26383091. S2CID 206985920. Archived from the original on 2017-08-28.
- Gallagher J (9 April 2019). "Aphantasia: Ex-Pixar chief Ed Catmull says 'my mind's eye is blind'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 9 April 2019. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "No Such Thing As A Jigsaw For The Queen". No Such Thing as a Fish. January 19, 2018.
- "Warming Up | RichardHerring.com". February 8, 2020. Retrieved 2020-07-01.
- Lavelle D (April 10, 2019). "Aphantasia: why a Disney animator draws a blank on his own creations". The Guardian.
- Lawrence M (April 1, 2020). "'I have no mind's eye': what is it like being an author with aphantasia?". The Guardian.
- "Raven Strategem author Yoon Ha Lee on how his spaceships became bags of holding". SciFiNow. 2017-05-31. Retrieved 2020-07-02.
- Appleyard B (6 June 2018). "Derek Parfit's quest for perfection". NewStatesman. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
- MacFarquhar L (29 October 2011). "How To Be Good". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
- Cabral-Isabedra C (27 April 2016). "Mozilla Firefox Co-Creator Says He Can't Visualize Images: What You Need To Know About Aphantasia". Tech Times.
- "Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind | Facebook". www.facebook.com.
- Cabral-Isabedra C (27 April 2016). "Mozilla Firefox Co-Creator Says He Can't Visualize Images: What You Need To Know About Aphantasia". Tech Times. Retrieved 25 June 2019.
- Clemens A (1 August 2018). "When the Mind's Eye Is Blind". Scientific American. Retrieved 25 June 2019.
- "Aphantasia: when the mental image is missing". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. June 24, 2016.
- "Seems like a lot of folks have questions about aphantasia (the inability to visualize mental images), which I’ve lived with all my life. I personally believe people don’t talk about the drastically different ways we all think often enough, so please, ask away below" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- Kendle A (2017). Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions, and Insights. Bennion Kearny Limited. ISBN 978-1-911121-42-8. (foreword by Adam Zeman)
- Faw B (January 2009). "Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research". Journal of Consciousness Studies. 16 (4): 45–68.
- Cassella C (4 January 2021). "People With This Rare Brain Condition Can't 'Count Sheep' in Their Mind". Science Alert.
- Media related to Aphantasia at Wikimedia Commons
- "Aphantasia: When The Mental Image Is Missing". Quirks and Quarks. Episode Part 1. CBC Radio. 2016-06-25.
- Aflalo P (2019-09-14). "Can you picture things in your head? Well, this guy can't". The Doc Project. Episode Part 1. CBC Radio.