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Here's what it feels like to be blind in my mind — a condition called 'aphantasia'

Key Points
  • "Aphantasia" was coined by the neurologist Adam Zeman in 2015. 
  • An estimated 1 in 50 people are image blind, meaning they don't have a mind's eye. 
  • I'm one of them. 
Francesco Carta fotografo

I was recently asked to visualize the size and shape of my laptop, which I've had for more than a year, while shopping for a replacement part. As usual, my mind's eye was completely blank.

"I think it's purple, or maybe pink?" I bumbled to the Apple Store clerk, who gazed back at me with a look of total confusion.

I've had this problem for as long as I can remember, where I can't conjure up images no matter how hard I try. I've never been able to count sheep as I'm falling asleep, I struggle to remember faces, and I'm constantly lost because I can't visualize a map in my head.

It took me a long time to realize that other people did not have this experience of the world. They could imagine a beach in detail or a loved one's face. Some even had memories that played out like a movie reel, which I had once believed was a Hollywood conceit.

More recently I learned that I'm not alone. My image blindness now has a name: "Aphantasia."

In 2015, the neurologist Adam Zeman coined the term to refer to the subset of people who cannot form mental images of objects that are not present. In a research paper, Zeman documented the case of a patient who could not longer see images in his mind following a surgical procedure.

After conducting deeper research, Zeman now suspects that 1 in 50 people have aphantasia, either from birth or following a traumatic event, like a surgery or a stroke. According to Zeman, the hallmarks appear to be faint or non-existent visual imagery, a struggle with autobiographical detail, and for some, a challenge recognizing faces.

After stumbling upon his research, I called Zeman, a professor at the University of Exeter's Medical School, to find definitive proof that I had aphantasia, and to figure out if there was anything I could do about it.

Zeman sent me a set of link to a survey that he created called the "VVIQ," which stands for the vividness of visual imagery questionnaire. It began by asking me to imagine a loved one (errr....), and describe the contours of their face and body (nope), as well as the poses of their head and the way they walked (not happening). My results came back immediately, and it put me firmly in the range of having aphantasia.

Take the aphantasia test here.

A 'variation in human experience'

Zeman does not consider aphantasia to be a neurological condition, but rather a "variation in human experience" similar to synesthesia, where people intermingle senses. (They perceive sounds as having colors or smells, for instance.)

Since opening up a research study to the public, he's also heard from people who seem to have the opposite experience, where they're hyper visual and are somewhat burdened by images. He calls that "hyperphantasia."

But his research hasn't yet determined what happens in the brain to create these divergences.

I asked him whether aphantasia had held people back professionally, and whether it's associated with a lack of creativity. For instance, I've never considered myself to be a particularly artistic person and have tended to gravitate to more analytical pursuits. I've also struggled to follow visual cues in sports and dance, and tend to learn better when I'm physically moved or positioned by an instructor.

Fortunately, the answer appears to be "no."

Zeman pointed out some very successful people have reported having similar problems with visualization, including the former Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, who recently told the BBC that he figured out he was different while trying to meditate. Catmull spent days trying to conjure up a picture of a sphere before giving up. He eventually learned that many of the other top animators in his field had it too, including Glen Keane, the creator of Disney's "The Little Mermaid."

Catmull asked hundreds of staff at Pixar to also take the VVIQ test, including both artists and technicians. The results showed that the artists were only slightly better at visualization than those doing more technical jobs. He now believes that visual acuity and creativity are not the same thing. Perhaps creativity is more closely aligned with something else, like our emotional experiences. (I also asked a subsection of CNBC staffers to take it, and learned that the vast majority are very visual, which isn't surprising as we do a lot of multimedia storytelling.)

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Anecdotally, Zeman has noticed that many people with aphantasia are scientists and engineers, who benefit from having a brain less cluttered by images.

On Reddit, where hundreds of people actively discuss their experiences on dozens of threads dedicated to aphantasia, many report to be computer programmers. Among the most high-profile among them is the Mozilla co-founder Blake Ross, who wrote a post on Facebook entitled "Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind."

As Ross put it:

"I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can't "see" my father's face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought "counting sheep" was a metaphor. I'm 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind."

Finding others

After I read the post last year, I reached out to Ross and we communicated back and forth. I'd never talked to anyone before who had such similar experiences, so I peppered him with questions: Did he have a terrible sense of direction, too? (Yes, he said he was a directional idiot.) Could he dream in images, like I do? (Nope.) Had he always had it? (As long as he could remember.)

This week, I reconnected with Ross. He told me his post has attracted about a million readers, and people continue to find it and reach out to him about it three years later. "In an age of clickbait," he told me, "it's rare for any of us to truly have our minds blown about something so fundamental."

His experience reminded me of a story a friend told me about a girl who had experienced chronic pain for years. Her friends and family understood her to be this sullen, quiet person, but she simply didn't know that other people didn't experience this pain, so she managed it as best she could without asking for help. When her pain was finally treated years later, her personality totally shifted.

I have no idea if this story is true, but the point was how challenging it is to experience anything outside of ourselves.

That begs the question: What if we've been different our whole lives and didn't even know it?

After my discussions with Ross and others, something has shifted in my thinking. For as long as I can remember, I've felt clumsy because I couldn't navigate space well, and impolite when I fail to recognize acquaintances. Now, it seems like there might be an explanation about why my brain seems to work differently than most, and that it might even be an advantage depending on how you look at it.

That's one of the reasons why Zeman continues to study it, even if aphantasia isn't a serious condition or a disease.

"There are a lot of people who realize there's something slightly different about them, that there's some kind of wrinkle in their psychological nature but no one took an interest in it," he told me. "This affects not many people but quite a lot of people, so I'll do what I can to help get the word out."

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