‘Heartbeat 1’, Susan Aldworth 2010
Since we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper last year (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380: Read manuscript), there has been a remarkable surge of interest in the extremes of the human experience of visual imagery: both in those of us who lack the ability to visualise at will – with aphantasia – and in those with superabundant imagery – hyperphantasia. When asked to visualise a sunset, for example, people with aphantasia are unable to conjure any kind of image to mind, and will often have assumed that terms like the ‘mind’s eye’ are purely metaphorical. At the other end of the spectrum, people with hyperphantasia describe imagery so vivid that they can find it difficult to be sure whether an image was perceived or imagined. Coverage in the press, on TV, radio and the web throughout the world, including the BBC’s on-line vividness questionnaire, has led to over 10,000 contacts from interested individuals, most of them falling at one or other extreme of the vividness spectrum. We are tremendously grateful to the several thousand people who have by now completed and returned our questionnaires: these paint a much more detailed picture of these phenomena than we could provide before. Thank you so much for doing this!
The final analysis of this wealth of data will take a while, but some patterns have already emerged. A first reaction, which came as a welcome surprise, was gratitude: people with aphantasia, in particular, were glad to have a handy term to describe this subtle but distinctive feature of their experience. Many participants have told us how they found it hard to explain this to others: they often met with disbelief. The new term seems to be useful.
Some sub-groups have come to light. The scientific literature already spoke of a link between low imagery vividness and prosopagnosia – difficulty, often lifelong, in recognising faces. This link is a recurring theme in the questionnaires. We were not too surprised by a second association: a small proportion of participants have described a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (asd). Alterations in the ability to imagine have long been regarded as a key feature of asd, and visualisation is a key ingredient of imagination (though not an indispensable one, as we will see). A third sub-group also makes good intuitive sense: many folk with aphantasia report that their autobiographical memory, for personal events like holidays and weddings, is less rich that that of their friends and relations: for most of us visualisation is a big part of recollection. But none of these associations is true for everyone: there are many shades of aphantasia.
These shades have some other expressions. Some people with aphantasia, probably the majority, dream visually: but others do not. Some can ‘imagine’ in other modalities, hearing with the mind’s ear for example, but others can’t. Does this make a nonsense of the notion of aphantasia? We think not. We know that the brain activity involved in visualisation is complex and ‘distributed’, involving a widespread network of brain areas. Given this complexity, it is not too surprising that visualisation can be disrupted in a wide variety of ways. In particular, it is understandable, in neurological terms, that dreaming and wakeful imagery can behave differently in aphantasia.
We are learning other fascinating things from our participants. While most people with aphantasia describe this as a lifelong characteristic, others have reported the loss of imagery, due to brain injury or to psychological factors: we are very keen to learn more about these. We also hope to learn much more about the large group of highly creative individuals who have contacted us: I had not anticipated so much pleasure from looking at the art of aphantasic painters or from reading the prose of aphantasic novelists. Visualisation is clearly not a prerequisite for creativity.
Much has been written and broadcast about aphantasia over the past year. Our website gives links to several of these outputs . My personal favourites include James Gallagher’s original BBC broadcast, two personal accounts written by highly creative people with aphantasia, Blake Ross’s Facebook post (A personal account by Blake Ross) and Dustin Grinnell’s article in New Scientist (Dustin Grinnell in New Scientist) and a recent radio portrait by Sarah Jane Hall (The Mind’s Eye – BBC Radio 3 ‘Between the Ears’ programme).
So far most of our knowledge of aphantasia has come from first person testimony. This is the right (and really the only) place to start the exploration of this topic, but we are keen to ‘triangulate’ our knowledge by correlating first person evidence from questionnaires with data from neuropsychological tests – of autobiographical memory or face recognition for example – and from brain imaging techniques. We have begun a pilot study with local participants who are within striking distance of Exeter. We hope to have some preliminary answers over the coming year. At present the project is relying heavily on the enthusiasm of a small group of academic colleagues and undergraduate interns who have kept the project on the road: thanks to you, also! We are applying for research funds that will enable us to extend this work. We are considering a crowd funding appeal – you may be hearing from us 🙂
We have one further plan: at our Eye’s Mind project conference in May this year, in addition to a lively group of imagery researchers, we had probably the largest ever gathering of people with aphantasia from around the world, from Finland to the States. There was enthusiasm for a meeting dedicated to aphantasia: we hope to organise this sometime next year.
This research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. We aim to write regular updates as the story develops.