Health and Wellness

3% of people can't create a mental picture in their heads—this test will tell you if you're one of them

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Most people can visualize a loved one's face or the best meal they've ever had, but there are others whose minds go blank when they attempt to do the same.

This phenomenon is known as aphantasia.

Simply put, aphantasia is "the inability to have a visual experience when we are thinking about things in their absence," says Dr. Adam Zeman, honorary professor of neurology at the University of Exeter with extensive research on aphantasia.

And people with aphantasia usually aren't able to picture how characters look, or visualize the settings they're in, while reading books, Zeman tells CNBC Make It. They may also struggle to recall the face of someone dear to them who has passed away, he adds.

People who experience aphantasia account for 3% to 4% of the world's population, and Zeman has met and spoken to over 10,000 of them.

Use this test to determine if you have aphantasia

In 1973, a psychologist named David Marks developed a vivid imagery questionnaire that prompted people to visualize different scenarios and rate their ability to picture the images in their mind on a scale of one to five.

These are a few scenarios from the test that you can think about and then rate how vividly the images appear in your mind:

Try to visualize the sun rising.

  • Can you picture the sun rising above the horizon into a hazy sky?
  • How about the sun rising when the sky is blue and clear?
  • Are you able to visually see clouds and a storm with flashes of lightning?
  • What about a rainbow stretching across the sky?

Rate the visualizations above using the questionnaire's scale:

  1. No image at all
  2. Dim and vague/flat
  3. Moderately clear and lively
  4. Clear and lively
  5. Perfectly clear and lively, almost as real as seeing it

How do people get aphantasia? Can it be reversed?

If you weren't able to see any of the images in your mind, then you likely have aphantasia. And more often than not, aphantasia is something that people are born with, according to Zeman.

"We think it may be, to some extent, genetic because it certainly seems to travel in families," he adds. "If you have aphantasia, your close relatives are about 10 times more likely to have aphantasia than we'd expect by chance."

It also doesn't seem that the phenomenon can be reversed, says Zeman, because people have tried and have been unsuccessful. Yet, having aphantasia doesn't mean that your creativity is limited.

You can still be creative and have an imagination with aphantasia

While most people with aphantasia lean more towards careers in the STEM field that don't require much visualization, there are "exceptions to the rule," says Zeman.

For instance, Glen Keane, the animator who drew Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," has openly shared that he has aphantasia and cannot visualize the Disney princess in his own mind, even though he created her.

"He says that he doesn't have any kind of visual idea of what he's going to draw before he draws it. But, he knows what he wants to draw and he goes at it," Zeman says.

There are also incredible novelists who experience aphantasia as well, says Zeman. Though, he has found that the writers with aphantasia that he's come across, tend to focus more on the plot of their stories than extremely descriptive language.

When it come to creatives who aren't able to visualize in their brains, "Some of them say their aphantasia gives them an extra motivation," he says.

"Because they can't see things in their mind's eye, it gives them a stronger motivation to depict them."

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