Aphantasia is a mental condition characterized by an inability to voluntarily visualize mental imagery. Many people with aphantasia also report an inability to recall sounds, smells, or sensations of touch. Some also report prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.
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, which also coined the term aphantasia. Research on the condition is still scarce.
The term "aphantasia" is derived from the Greek word "phantasia", which translates to "imagination", and the prefix "a-", 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.
In April 2016 Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox, 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.
In May 2018, in collaboration with Zeman, The Aphantasia Network was launched to create a community of people exploring life with aphantasia, and share stories and strategies to learn more about its effects.
In Zeman's original paper, the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) is used to evaluate the quality of the mental image of 21 self-diagnosed and self-selected participants. This questionnaire invites the person to visualize a series of images (a relative, a rising sun, a shop they know, etc.) and rank how vivid the image is, from "perfectly clear and lively as real seeing" (5 points) to "no image at all, you only know that you are thinking of the object" (1 point). A total of 20 or less across 16 questions qualifies as aphantasia.
Another study posited that frontal engagement driving feedback connections activates sensory representations in the visual cortex; people with aphantasia could have a deficit with these feedback connections such that the visual cortex cannot be activated to produce an image.
A 2020 study concluded that those who experience aphantasia also experience reduced imagery in other senses, and have less vivid autobiographical memories.
- 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.
- Derek Parfit, British philosopher. His aphantasia may have influenced his long interest in photography.
- Blake Ross, co-creator of the web browser Mozilla Firefox.
- Richard Herring, British comedian and podcaster.
- Yoon Ha Lee, science fiction author.
- Michelle Sagara, fantasy author.
- James Harkin, co-host of podcast No Such Thing as a Fish, researcher for television show QI.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Aphantasia.|
- "Aphantasia: When The Mental Image Is Missing". Quirks and Quarks. Episode Part 1. CBC Radio. 2016-06-25.
- "Can you picture things in your head? Well, this guy can't". The Doc Project. Episode Part 1. CBC Radio. 2019-09-14.
- "Aphantasia: Seeing the world without a mind's eye", Tamara Alireza, TEDxGoodenoughCollege