Can’t picture things in your mind? You’re not alone.

Researchers have discovered that some people can’t see images inside their heads—for instance, they can’t count sheep or picture the faces of loved ones. It’s a condition called aphantasia, and it appears to affect up to 2.5% of the population—myself included, as I’ve just found out.

It’s similar to synesthesia: For many, it’s a normal experience—we’ve never lived in a world where the mind’s eye can see, so we aren’t aware of the difference. But for others, the change can happen drastically, like in a patient known as MX—who lost his mind’s eye after a minor heart surgery.

“Patient Zero” in a way

MX, lead Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at the University of Exeter Medical School, to the subject. After publishing a paper about MX, Discover magazine covered it—leading 21 individuals to come forward claiming to have the condition.

Zeman interviewed these individuals and published the results in Cortex. There were many common threads tying these people together—like problems remembering faces of people they meet and issues with imagining architecture or design. Some cannot comprehend descriptive writing in books, as their brains cannot translate the words into something it can see.

In the case of Tom Ebeyer, 25, from Ontario, Canada, he cannot recall sounds, textures, tastes, smells, or any other kinds of imagery—but wasn’t aware of this fact until age 21, when he realized his girlfriend could see things in her mind’s eye.

“It had a serious emotional impact,” he said. “I began to feel isolated – unable to do something so central to the average human experience. The ability to recall memories and experiences, the smell of flowers or the sound of a loved one’s voice; before I discovered that recalling these things was humanly possible, I wasn’t even aware of what I was missing out on. The realization did help me to understand why I am a slow at reading text, and why I perform poorly on memorization tests, despite my best efforts.”

Personal effect

For myself, I have a very hard time remembering people’s faces—which has led to some pretty embarrassing situations where people inevitably get offended and yell something like, “Susanna, you know me!” I have no way to construct a mental map and I can’t picture how a room will look with different furniture or paint, because I can’t see the room. (Also, people can recall smells and textures in their minds?!)

Apparently this all comes down to networks across the brain which work together in concert to create the mind’s eye. For example, the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain are responsible for organizing the entire process of creating mental images; the temporal and occipital lobes are responsible for representing the item to be remembered and give us the “visual feel” of an image.

Aphantasia could arise from alterations in many points in these networks, and these alterations could arise from genes, environmental changes while developing in the womb, brain damage, or in the context of a mood disorder.

Interestingly, however, many people with aphantasia can still see their dreams. “Our participants mostly have some first-hand knowledge of imagery through their dreams: our study revealed an interesting dissociation between voluntary imagery, which is absent or much reduced in these individuals, and involuntary imagery, for example in dreams, which is usually preserved,” said Zerman.

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If you think you have aphantasia, Dr. Zerman indicated he is interested in talking with you. He can be reached at the following email address: [email protected].

Image credit: Thinkstock

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