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.
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 email@example.com. _________________________________________________________________________
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.