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Does Everyone Have An Imagination?

How do you know if you have a “mind’s eye” or not, and is it good or bad if you don’t?

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Dr. Katie Spalding

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Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

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human silhouettes with representations of a brain full of ideas and the other with an open door showing the empty sky behind it

If you take your imagination for granted, it can be almost impossible to imagine life without it.

Image credit: Ashleigh Campsall

This article first appeared in Issue 9 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.

In 2003, in Exeter, UK, a 65-year-old man, now memorialized in scientific literature as patient “MX”, decided to visit his neurologist. He had a very peculiar problem: after a minor heart surgery, he had awoken to find that he had completely lost his ability to visualize images in his mind’s eye.

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For his doctor – one Professor Adam Zeman, cognitive and behavioral neurologist at the University of Exeter Medical School – it was a mystery. The phenomenon didn’t even have a name, let alone a set of diagnostic criteria or clinical presentation – with vanishingly few exceptions, there was essentially no mention of such a condition in the literature at all.

Bizarre cases make for good headlines, however, and MX’s story soon went viral. But along with this newfound fame, Zeman started getting something unexpected out of the world’s interest in the sudden disappearance of a stranger’s imagination: thousands and thousands of similar stories, all from people genuinely surprised that the term “mind’s eye” isn’t, for most people, just a poetic turn of phrase.

The evidence was clear: this wasn’t just an isolated incident after one person’s heart surgery, but a real phenomenon experienced by a non-negligible number of people. Eventually, 10 years after MX first approached Zeman and unwittingly kickstarted a decade of intense public and scientific interest, the condition finally got a name: aphantasia.

How do we define imagination or a “mind’s eye”? 

Whether or not you have a mind’s eye – that is, the ability to picture things in your imagination, even when you can’t actually see them in real life – you may well be struggling to understand exactly what the above means. Aphantasia is thought to affect up to one in 50 people, many of whom are quite shocked when they learn those around them really can “see” things in their “mind’s eye”.

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“Some individuals with aphantasia have reported that they don’t understand what it means to ‘count sheep’ before going to bed,” noted Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, who led a 2020 study of the condition. “They thought it was merely an expression, and had never realized until adulthood that other people could actually visualize sheep without seeing them.”

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Similarly, people used to taking their imagination for granted are often baffled by the idea of going through life without it. Even more confusing is that, despite a lack of visual imagery, aphantasic folk often can recall information that you’d think would be ruled out by their condition: in fact, Bainbridge found that not only can such people correctly recreate photographs from memory, but they might even be better at it than those with a visual imagination.

It's a puzzle with profound consequences: aphantasics’ seemingly unaffected spatial imagery, combined with their very seriously affected object imagery and episodic memory – that is, the internal home video reel (and yes, aphantasic readers, we mean that literally) that most people think of as “memories” – has led to important breakthroughs in our understanding of perception. We know now that aphantasia can be brought on by injury or illness, or it may be something you’re simply born with; that some people with the condition can dream images, while others cannot – in short, that aphantasia is not just one condition, but a spectrum of experiences.

To Zeman, though, that’s far from surprising. “We know that there’s this big network [in the brain]: visual, decision-making, working memory, attention, long-term memory and introspection,” he told Science Focus in 2019. “Where there’s a network, you could predict that it might break down in a number of different ways, which helps to explain why there’s more than one sort of aphantasia.”

How can you tell if you have a “mind’s eye” or not?

As you might expect from all this fuzziness, aphantasia is a pretty difficult phenomenon to measure. It’s not hard to see why: try imagining a person kicking a ball, for example. Now: what color is the ball?

Could you do it? Maybe you could visualize the ball, but not the person – does that count as aphantasia? Perhaps you thought you were fine until we asked about color, and are now wondering if it’s normal to only imagine things in black and white. Maybe you could imagine the ball, but not really “visualize” it, and are now left wondering whether that’s what we meant, or if everyone else is basically surrounded voluntarily by hallucinations most of the day.

People with a vivid visual imagination will have a physical response – their pupils will constrict – when they merely imagine something bright. For aphantasic individuals, this isn’t the case.

It's not an exact science, is the point. Or at least, it wasn’t – until last year, when researchers at the University of New South Wales’s Future Minds Lab managed to find what they called “the first biological, objective test for imagery vividness”.

The answer was pleasingly poetic: to measure a person’s mind’s eye, just look into their actual eyes. “The pupillary reflex is an adaption that optimizes the amount of light hitting the retina,” explained project lead Professor Joel Pearson. “And while it was already known that imagined objects can evoke so-called 'endogenous' changes in pupil size, we were surprised to see more dramatic changes in those reporting more vivid imagery.”

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In other words, people with a vivid visual imagination will have a physical response – their pupils will constrict – when they merely imagine something bright. For aphantasic individuals, this wasn’t the case. 

“Our results show an exciting new objective method to measure visual imagery, and the first physiological evidence of aphantasia,” Pearson said at the time. “We are now close to an objective physiological test, like a blood test, to see if someone truly has it.” 

The pros and cons of not having an imagination

So, there’s a fair chance that about one in 50 of you are feeling a bit disappointed right now, having just found out about a whole dimension of experience you were likely born missing out on. But, as it turns out, having a “mind’s eye” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Or, to put it another way, not having one isn’t necessarily that bad. One 2020 study, led by Zeman, revealed that people with aphantasia are noticeably overrepresented in scientific and mathematical occupations. Noted biotechnologist Craig Venter, who led the team behind the first draft sequence of the human genome back in 2000, even pointed to the condition as key to his success in the field.

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“I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches,” Venter told BBC Science Focus. “By understanding concepts vs fact memorization I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.”

And this rational bent can be seen in another secret superpower of aphantasic folk: their near-total unflappability. They’re basically impossible to spook with scary stories, for example: one 2021 paper found that skin conductivity levels – which should increase when people become distressed or scared – “pretty much flatlined” for those lacking a mind’s eye, lead author Joel Pearson explained. 

It’s not that aphantasic people lack the emotional response of fear, the researchers pointed out – but unless they can actually see the horror playing out in front of them, it just doesn’t hit that hard. As Pearson put it: “We can think all kinds of things, but without imagery, the thoughts aren’t going to have that emotional ‘boom’.”

This, too, may be why aphantasia seems to – anecdotally, at least – go hand in hand with the enviable ability to cope with past trauma. Spared the pain of having to relive distressing memories or experiences in glorious technicolor, people who lack a mind’s eye are simply “really good at moving on,” Zeman told the New York Times in 2021. 

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“One wonders whether that’s because they’re less troubled by the kinds of images which, for many of us, come to mind and give rise to regret and longing,” he added.

Perhaps that’s why, despite the superficial “lack” that comes with aphantasia, Zeman – and many aphantasic individuals themselves – do not consider the condition to be a problem. Indeed, “if [there] was an experience where you take this pill and you can visualize forever, I probably wouldn’t risk it,” Thomas Ebeyer, one of the first people studied by Zeman, told the Times.

And, more than a decade and a half since MX first came to his practice, Zeman has to agree. 

“This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” he said. “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”

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CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 12 is out now


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