How well does your “Mind’s Eye” work? / Aphantasia

New York Times / SCIENCE /6/22/2015

Picture This? Some Just Can’t

By Carl Zimmer

Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds.

In 2005, a 65-year-old retired building inspector paid a visit to the neurologist Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter Medical School. After a minor surgical procedure, the man suddenly realized he could no longer conjure images in his mind. Dr. Zeman couldn’t find any description of such a condition in medical literature. For decades, scientists had debated how the mind’s eye works, and how much we rely on it to store memories and to make plans for the future.

The patient agreed to a series of examinations. He proved to have a good memory and he performed well on problem-solving tests. His only unusual mental feature was an inability to see mental images. Dr. Zeman and his colleagues scanned the man’s brain as he performed certain tasks. First he looked at faces of famous people and named them. Certain regions of his brain became active, the same ones that become active in other people who look at faces.

Then the scientists showed him only names and asked him to picture their faces. In normal brains, some of those face-recognition regions again become active. In the patient’s brain, none of them did. The patient could however answer questions that would seem to require a working mind’s eye. He could tell the scientists the color of Tony Blair’s eyes, for example, and name the letters of the alphabet that have low-hanging tails, like g and j. These tests suggested his brain used some alternate strategy to solve visual problems.

Something remarkable happened: the patient was not alone.

“I have spent my entire life explaining to people that I do not think visually,” one reader wrote to me. “I cannot conjure a mental image of a person or of a place to save my life.” 

It turned out that Dr. Zeman and his colleagues were also hearing from people who thought they had the condition. The scientists decided to make a formal study of their email correspondents. They replied to emails with a questionnaire designed to probe the mind’s eye. All told, the researchers have received 21 responses.

The scientists asked their subjects to picture things like a sunrise. Try as they might, most of the respondents couldn’t see anything. But some of them did report rare, involuntary flashes of imagery. The mention of a friend’s name, for instance, might briefly summon a face. When the scientists asked their subjects to mentally count the windows in their house or apartment, 14 succeeded. They seem to share the  ability to use alternate strategies to get around the lack of a mind’s eye.

All in all, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues were struck by how similar the results of the survey were.

“These people seemed to be describing something consistent,” Dr. Zeman said. Rather than being a unique case, the original patient may belong to an unrecognized group of people.

In their new report, the scientists note that many of the survey respondents differ in an important way. While the original patient started out with a mind’s eye, the others never did. If aphantasia is real, it is possible that injury causes some cases while others begin at birth.

Thomas Ebeyer, a 25-year-old Canadian student, discovered his condition four years ago while talking with a girlfriend. He was shocked that she could remember what a friend had been wearing a year before. She replied that she could see a picture of it in her mind.

“I had no idea what she was talking about,” he said in an interview. Mr. Ebeyer was surprised to discover that everyone he knew could summon images to their minds. “I’d been searching forever on Google, but I didn’t know what to look for,” he said. “It was really empowering just to hear a story of someone else who had it.”

Mr. Ebeyer got in touch with Dr. Zeman, who sent him the questionnaire. Like many other subjects, he could count his windows without actually picturing his house. “It’s weird and hard to explain,” he said. “I know the facts. I know where the windows are.” The new study has brought Mr. Ebeyer some relief. “There’s something I can call this now,” he said.

Dr. Zeman now wonders just how common aphantasia is. “Moderately rare” is his guess, but to follow up, he has sent the questionnaire to thousands of people in Exeter.

He hopes to find enough people with the condition to begin a bigger scanning study, comparing their brains with those of people who see vivid mental images. Speaking of which — Dr. Zeman said that he was interested in meeting more people with aphantasia. He can be reached at _________________________________________________________________________


My need for “wide open natural spaces” may be a way of compensating for sensory overstimulation. Crowded human environments are unbearably “war-zone” like.

ME: I’ve italicized peculiar non-scientific phrases that refer to picture memory – “having a mind’s eye” would seem as if there is an organ in the mind that functions as an eye and it either works or it doesn’t. Verbs such as “conjure” and “summon” sound as if this is a magical process that requires some “hidden” effort. I don’t think these descriptions are peculiar to the writer, but are common usage.

As a visual thinker, what do I think of this? It’s almost impossible to know whether what I experience as visual memory is the same as that of people with “normal brains” (here we go again). Is my default visual processing an extreme form of what is normal or something else entirely? I would say that I don’t conjure, summons or make an effort to “see” picture memories; they aren’t “conscious” but belong to an unconscious system. Conscious thought is word thought; visual thinking is intuitive / unconscious.

An analogy might be that I experience something like an ATM machine; the card that I insert contains a request for information or an answer. (The answer would be in the form of a pattern, connections, processes or images.) The request goes into the machine, which whirrs and clunks and at some point (there is no timetable or deadline) an answer “appears”. (Don’t ask me where!) The images at work inside the machine are invisible – I don’t need to “see” them. The “answers” that emerge are visual: (my brain has processed visual memory, so what else but images would result?

The results may be geometric arrangements, categories of impressions; connections, patterns and various types of relationships; not linear, but 3-D and “moveable”. Sometimes I can verbalize (translate into words) these visual andwers; many I cannot. Often I “see” word concepts and structures a “visual” – my brain converts words / written work as graphic relationships so that the “structure” of thought “pops out”. The point is, visual thinking utilizes visual memory – it’s not a photo album that one looks through to find a picture of Uncle Albert.

Okay visual thinkers: help me out! How do you experience visual thinking?


4 thoughts on “How well does your “Mind’s Eye” work? / Aphantasia

  1. But (at least for most Norms) the unconscious ***is*** a place of instinctive evil!

    As ‘thinking is not to be done’ (regarding social matters), then most Norms ‘do social’ largely on ***autopilot*** – which permits their ‘true and inward nature’ to shine forth largely ***unimpeded***.

    Hinduism (of the old style) / hermeticism simply ‘legitimizes and externalises’ these largely innate tendencies; the only time a Normie actual works as hard as ***we*** do is when he/she is trying to get to the very top of the hierarchy in a great hurry, e.g. national-level politicians/ politburo members (esp. under Dugashvili/Stalin!) -and he/she is ‘jumping a ***vast*** number of steps, i.e going from sudra-level to brahmin in ***one*** jump.

    We, as ‘domestic untouchables’, are denied even the ***opportunity*** to ‘game the system’ in that fashion; and it isn’t just our lack of the ability to mind-read (and other ***psychopathic*** abilities present in Normalistic instinct.)

    It is also Normdom seeing us (individually and collectively) as something akin to a tangible Lovecraftian nightmare. (Why ***else*** would we be so commonly portrayed as subhuman/inhuman/monsterous/etc? As if we each were a toppling vessel of social (contagious) poison?)

    I think Normdom is merely calling us what it actually sees (socially and instinctually) when it speaks of us the way it does!


    • Before I forget – have you had any problems accessing/navigating my blog? I installed heavy-duty malware and now I’m having problems with WP running SO SLOW and some pages are almost impossible to open. It may be a coincidence…or crap inserted by evil-doers!

      I tried to explain to an Asperger yesterday about the essential and mandatory function of “lies” to the establishment of status on the social pyramid: The question of course was, Why do N’s lie (so much), so often and seemingly “automatically” – unconsciously? The “lies” issue is a critical cause of scorn, aggression and even violence toward Asperger people – a knee-jerk response! I thought about it as an “American” thing that is INCREASED by the myth of opportunity; since “the elites” get to lie to anyone at any time about anything and the peasants at the bottom get severely punished for simple evasion (all those cop-stops, searches and grilling over “being honest” about every little detail – especially extremely minor drug use). LIES are both the “sign of” status and a means to attain status. So many N’s self-diagnosed status level is built on lies (from job titles vs. actual work level, education attainment, gross material acquisitions on credit – to fake boobs, fake designer clothing, jewelry and handbags) that any “non-compliance” in AFFIRMING THOSE LIES is a terrible threat; an attack on the “magic” illusion of status, which in the U.S. is never truly settled as it is in rigid class systems (like India, etc.) In the U.S., status is a vicious battle that goes on 24/7 in families, workplaces, marriages, “friendships” – in the media, in advertising and consumer markets – which is ENORMOUSLY stressful, energy-sucking and diverts attention from just how badly the Elites are screwing everyone!


  2. I need to ‘translate’ pictorial data into words – presuming of course that the matter isnt too complex or detailed. (It’s as if I can only really understand a matter if I can ‘picture’ it -so much so that I ***need*** to picure a matter, often, before I can write about it.

    My suspicion, however, is that most Norms who speak of ‘the minds eye’ do not experience matters ‘with autistic vision’ – and the percentage who are utterly unable to is likely to be higher than recorded.


    • I doubt that the “visual brain” has vanished from “modern civilized” humans, but it certainly has atrophied from disuse and “swamping” by verbal communication. If an individual is removed from natural environments in which “visual thinking” is mandatory for survival, and from human groups that “mentor and guide” the development and application of visual skill, visual thinking may lie dormant. It’s NON_VERBAL processing, and “located in the unconscious domain” has also been “damned as the source of evil” by religion, psychiatry and psychology, scaring people into believing that “the unconscious” and its content is a dark and dangerous source of “instinctive “evil” impulses and behaviors.

      The ability to access “sensory reality” in any effective way may have been “selected out” by domestication of modern humans.


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