You use your imagination every day, and you don’t even realize it. Let’s say you lost your car keys. You open every drawer, check coat pockets, open up your tote bag, and you still can’t find them. Stress begins to creep up your spine as the clock ticks away precious minutes before an extremely precarious appointment.
Taking a deep breath, you try to remember where you’ve seen them last. You went to the gym this morning, and you came into the house holding them in your hand with your water bottle, with your duffel bag over your shoulder. You walked through the door, and then your phone rang. Expecting an important call, you dropped your water bottle, opened your duffel to grab your phone… So the keys must be… You run across the hall and rip open your gym bag. Yup, there are the keys.
This typical situation utilizes your imagination. Yet some are not able to relate to this experience at all.
He Never Knew
Philip is years old, and he never had reason to believe that his brain worked any differently than others. He is a successful photographer, married with kids, and yet he can never picture the faces of his family in his mind. “
“When I close my eyes, I see my eyelids. It’s just blank,” Philip says.“I never realized that people could see images in their mind when they were awake. When they said ‘imagine this’ or ‘count sheep’ I thought they just meant figuratively.”
One day he hears a podcast presenter discussing a condition called aphantasia and the inability to conjure mental images. He was surprised. “I was like ‘what do you mean? People do that?’”
Thinking it may be a hoax, he tested this theory with his four-year-old child. “I asked her whether she could picture an apple in her mind, she said ‘yeah, it’s green.’ I was shocked.”
Suddenly many confusions and doubts in his life became apparent. He struggled with an egregiously bad memory. “I’m awful at remembering people’s names and faces, but now I know that other people can just picture what everyone looks like, then, of course, that’s why they find it easier to remember that kind of stuff.”
For instance, finding his car in the parking lot has always been a challenge, being he cannot picture where he had left it. “I always have to take a picture of the car or write down a shop that it is near. Otherwise, I spend an hour searching for it.”
This condition was first discovered in 1880, but a study in 2015 by Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter brought it back into the spotlight. The investigated 21 people who claimed that they cannot see images in their mind.
When those like Philip try to conjure a mental picture of a face, they use intellect to understand the structure of it, but without seeing the person at all. He explains it as the following: “If I try to picture my father’s face, for example, I would know that he had blue eyes or the size of his nose, but I wouldn’t be able to describe it in any more detail than that – I can’t bring his face to mind. I see nothing.”
Interestingly enough, people with aphanasia dream how others do, or they experience flashes of imagery, but they have no ability to cogitate any likeness. The majority report issues with memory and stunted planning capabilities.
How Do They Manage?
Amazingly, these people have learned to compensate for their lacking by use of their excellent skills with math, verbal tasks, and logic. These abilities have formed naturally, without any conscious effort, to enable to perform just as well.
For example, Philip is talented with impersonating voices. “I can imitate anyone. I can do any kind of accent,” he says.
“I don’t understand why other people find that so hard. I can hear people’s voices in my head as if they’re really speaking. Perhaps that’s one sense making up for another.”
Many individuals with aphanasia agree this condition is beneficial.
“Not being able to picture the future [means] you can’t really live in it,” says one such person. “The same thing about [the] past.”
“Because you can’t relive a moment, you cherish each moment that little bit more,” agrees another.
Philip as well takes advantage of this. “I’m very good at working things out on the spot.”
One man speaks of another blessing. “I have watched a girlfriend convulse from an intentional overdose,” says he. “I am grateful I do not have a visual memory to continue to relive that trauma.”
A woman with aphanasia writes mental stories about life’s events and descriptions. “Words are a beautiful thing,” she says. “I almost feel sorry for the people replacing those words with images. Sure images are great and all, but I love my words.”
She would never trade her blind mind for any other brain. “If I suddenly started picturing images and my need to describe things in my mind diminished, I’d miss it.”