Blindness of the Mind’s Eye

Take a moment to read this description of Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner:

“But I remember it was a scorching summer day and I was driving up a rutted dirt road, nothing on either side but sunbaked bushes, gnarled, spiny tree trunks, and dried grass like pale straw. I passed a dead donkey rotting on the side of the road. And then I turned a corner and, right in the middle of that barren land, I saw a cluster of mud houses, beyond them nothing but broad sky and mountains like jagged teeth.”

What images of Hosseini’s account of this arid landscape conjure up in your mind? Were you able to picture the vast expanse of sunbaked yellow land filled with trees, houses, bushes? This mental activity might seem unnecessary but for people with aphantasia, imagining and recalling these images is impossible. Aphantasia is derived from the greek word phantasia, meaning imagination, and the prefix ‘a,’ meaning without. Compared to the majority of the population, who rely on their imagination in day-to-day activities, those with aphantasia interact and experience the outside world in unique and fascinating ways, and instead rely on other mental aspects that may initially seem separate from visualization.

What is the neuroscience behind aphantasia?

Aphantasia was coined by Adam Zeman, a cognition neurologist at the University of Exeter through a patient who experienced an inability to recall images after undergoing a heart surgery. Zeman’s team 1 tested the patient on a series of cognitive tests to explore the blindness in the mind’s eye. For instance, on a visualization test that asked whether the green shade of pine trees or grass was darker, most people would visualize the image and reach an answer. However, the patient said that he simply knew the answer without employing visual imagery. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) confirmed that instead of employing the occipital and temporal lobes that control memory and vision, the patient used the prefrontal cortex that controls decision making and error analysis.

Another study 2, led by Wilma Bainbridge of the University of Chicago, investigated the differences in extent of visual imagery in those with aphantasia and those without. They showed photographs of three different rooms to both groups and asked them to recreate them, once from using the photograph and once from memory. The results showed that those with aphantasia had less colorful images, drew lesser details, and spent less time drawing the photograph from memory than those without aphantasia. However, those with aphantasia used verbal coding, such as labelling furniture to remember its details, instead of visualizing those details. A participant from the aphantasia group said, “I had to remember a list of objects rather than a picture.” The team concluded that the verbal strategies employed by those with aphantasia actually made them better at avoiding false memories since vision is highly unreliable and prone to forgetfulness.

How do we know if we have aphantasia?

First, researchers developed a standardized self-report — the Vividness of Mental Imagery Questionnaire — that assesses the vividness of the various imagined scenes formed in our brains. The test’s items aim to bring images to our mind, and we would rate the vividness using a five-point scale. We would also rate the items with eyes open and closed, respectively, as the ratings might vary.3 Try it out using the link attached below! Another cognitive test is the Mental Rotation Task, using our reaction time and accuracy in telling the difference between three-dimensional shapes to evaluate what mental strategies we are using to solve visual or spatial puzzles.

What is it like to live with aphantasia?

In an article by BBC News, health editor James Gallagher interviews Niel Kenmuir and seeks the answer to this question. It is important to note that aphantasia is not a disorder at all, and it does not hinder creativity as some might think. It might sound scary to not be able to picture your loved ones when you are separated, but many like Niel Kenmuir live relaxed lives with aphantasia after they learn to embrace it. According to Niel, “When I think about my fiance there is no image, but I am definitely thinking about her, I know today she has her hair up at the back, she’s brunette. But I’m not describing an image I am looking at, I’m remembering features about her, that’s the strangest thing.” 4 But what in life isn’t strange? We all lead very different lives and each one of us have unique characteristics that are just as “strange” as aphantasia. The way that everyone imagines is totally subjective — even with similar environmental or genetic impacts, the vivid scene that you imagine may be non-dynamic features for your sibling, though it can mean the world to the both of you. With the current momentum in the research and clinical worlds, neuroscience is gravitating towards the recognition of neurodiversity and the concept of a “spectrum” that our minds are distributed on. Aligned with this progressive perspective, it is not hard to understand that everyone produces mind imagery somewhat differently.

This article was written by Brandon Cai, a junior undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular & Cellular Biology and Public Health, and Aakarsh Kankaria, a freshman undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Molecular & Cellular Biology and Data Science. This article was edited by Jandy Le, a junior undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Integrative Biology.


We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley

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