Aphantasia: When you try to picture something in your mind and nothing happens

This is a difficult topic to talk about, since it involves things that happen exclusively inside your (or my) mind, which by definition can’t be experienced by anyone else. So it’s hard to even describe properly, since different people are going to experience things differently, even if we are trying to talk about the same thing. But here’s a question: When someone asks you to picture something in your mind — a horse, a sunset, a shiny red apple — and you close your eyes, what happens? Many people see a visual representation of that thing hovering in front of their “mind’s eye,” and in some cases it is in full colour, like they were looking at a photograph but in their mind. For me, there is nothing. Literally. Just a blank space.

I obviously know what a horse and an apple and a sunset look like, and I can describe them in great detail. But if I try to think of what they look like with my eyes closed, I don’t see anything at all — not even a hazy representation of them. The best I can do is try to remember a photograph of a sunset I saw, or a horse, but even then it’s a memory of having seen something. It’s not just neutral objects either — this goes for loved ones, family members, pets, etc. I don’t see the person or the thing itself, in color, or even in black and white.

I’ve since learned that this is a phenomenon called “aphantasia,” a condition that was first mentioned in the 1800s but not really studied until relatively recently. I started reading about it awhile back, when I came across two things at about the same time: One was a post by a friend on Facebook that mentioned that he has this condition, and the other was a post from Blake Ross, a famous software developer who was one of the original developers of the Mozilla Firefox browser, in which he described his gradual realization that he had the same condition. In the post, entitled “When you are blind in your mind,” Ross says:

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.

Ross linked to a New York Times story about a man who had surgery and when he awoke from the operation he complained that he had lost his imagination. Eventually, they discovered that what he meant was he could no longer picture things in his mind. They did an MRI and watched when he looked at a photo of former British prime minister Tony Blair, then asked him to describe Tony Blair and looked to see if the same sections of the brain lit up as when he looked at the photo, and they did not (for most people, they would). And yet he could describe Blair without any problem, including details like the colour of his eyes.

There’s more in this Scientific American piece. Scientists now believe that it’s not something you either have or you don’t, that there’s a spectrum in which some people see virtually nothing when they visualize things, and others see either imagery or in some cases rich, totally photographic colours etc. (called hyperphantasia). There’s another good piece in Time called “What It’s Like To Be Mind Blind,” which points out that people who have aphantasia (including me) often have difficulties with other senses such as sound. For example, I play the guitar and know a lot of songs, but I can’t hear them in my mind when I think of them, the way some people can.

The man who first described this condition (although it didn’t have a name until recently) was Francis Galton, who wrote about it in a paper published in 1880 called Statistics of Mental Imagery. He wrote: “I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words ‘mental imagery’ really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour.”

As Scott Alexander wrote recently in his Astral Codex Ten newsletter, Galton also “found that the people who didn’t have visual imagination at all thought that all the references to “seeing things in your mind’s eye” in the language and culture were just kind of metaphorical, and nobody could actually do that. When he tried to convince them that lots of people could, they were skeptical! They didn’t believe that other people could be having this weird internal experience which was impossible for them.”

In Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception,” he writes: “I am, and for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object.” By an effort of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday afternoon… but such images have little substance. To those in whom the “

What’s interesting is that I think I have a pretty good imagination, and I also draw and paint, or at least did when I was younger, and I like to think I was pretty good at it. But I was never (and still am not) good at drawing or painting things that weren’t directly in front of me — and now I think that’s likely a result of not being able to picture those things in my mind. I also wonder whether this helps explain why I (and at least one of my daughters) don’t do very well with directions and maps — I can’t visualize the map or landmarks or routes.

I also wonder whether this helps explain why I take so many pictures — because looking at those pictures is the only way I can experience those memories. I also don’t have vivid dreams the way other people describe them — things happen, but it’s more like I experienced a book. There’s virtually nothing visual at all.

What makes this especially frustrating is that my wife has what amounts to the opposite condition — she has something called “synesthesia,” which involves a merging of senses, including usually a sense of colour. So when she pictures letters and numbers, they are different colours (a number of musicians, including jazz great Duke Ellington and singer/producer Pharrell Williams see colours when they hear music). This gives her a “mundane superpower,” which is that she can remember almost every number, date, birthday etc. she has ever seen.

So where I am missing something, she actually has extra abilities. According to our daughter who is studying cognitive psychology, this could be a holdover from when she was in utero, when her synapses were initially forming connections.

It’s a fascinating topic — but it’s also extremely difficult to discuss, because how do you describe something that is (or isn’t) only in your mind? It’s like talking about colours. Do you and I see red the same way, or have we just agreed to call something completely different by the same name? That’s a question for another day! For more info on aphantasia, check out the Aphantasia Network.

Update: I’ve learned that there are some related conditions that may be associated with aphantasia, and one of them is called SDAM or Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory syndrome, which refers to a person’s inability to recall events that happened to them in the past in any detail. Some people have the opposite condition, often called hyper-memory, where they can remember specific details of incidents that happened to them decades earlier.

I always assumed that I just had a terrible memory for all kinds of things, but I definitely have difficulty remembering personal events even from a few years earlier, and even ones that theoretically made a big impression on me. So perhaps this is related. For example, my mother died recently and I was trying to remember some of the significant events that happened when I was younger, and I couldn’t really come up with anything — except hazy memories of things that other people had told me about certain events.

In a Facebook thread on aphantasia, people who have it felt very differently about whether it is a blessing or a curse — or somewhere in between. Some felt that not being able to visualize traumatic incidents was a good thing: “I am glad that I do not see them, so it starts to become an out of sight out of mind experience,” one person said. “For me it’s a blessing because I was molested and gone through a lot of abuse before I was adopted,” said another. “I’m grateful because I don’t have to see it like a movie. I’m able to work through my emotions a lot easier where if I had to see it would just cripple me.”

But others found it to be a curse, especially those who — like me — wished they could see images of loved ones who had passed away. “How on earth can lacking beautiful images of places and loved ones who have passed be a blessing?” asked one person. “I love fantasy books, and I was devastated when I found out people were actually transported in their mind to these places, and it wasn’t a turn of phrase,” said another. “Being an aphant sucks. Sure, there would be things I’d love to forget, but there’s so much more I’d love to experience.”

100 Replies to “Aphantasia: When you try to picture something in your mind and nothing happens”

  1. Sybil says:

    Hi Matthew I understand how you feel as I also have aphantasia and also SDAM which is severely diminished autobiographical memory and interesting enough I also have a very strange mild form of synesthesia in that I see time. I see seasons as a bar graph. I once asked a friend ” what do you think of if I talk about the season Fall and they started describing the trees changing colour and all the other things that are associated with fall. I said yeah but can you see September can you see October and they kind of looked at me and said “you have synesthesia”. so to me the months of the year are a bar graph. it’s useless I mean what are you do with that? but I thought I’d remind you that you’re not alone. 2% of the population has aphantasia and severely diminished autobiographical memory. there’s also a Facebook group for folk with the condition. some people are fine with the condition; other people are really pissed off about it. feel free to reach out if you ever want to chat more. Martha Hendricks sent me your blog by the way.

    1. mathewi says:

      Hi Sybil — thanks for the comment. I had never heard of severely diminished autobiographical memory syndrome before, that’s fascinating. I will check out the aphantasia Facebook group as well, thanks for that. And please say hi to Martha for me 🙂

    2. Lin says:

      I see time as you describe the seasons on a continum. I can pop out and expand areas of the timeline and see all the memories, historical events etc. associated with that spot. I can pop further into the timelines to days and moments as well.

  2. @mathewi Perhaps I have the opposite to that – I can visualise things to an immense level of detail, even with my eyes open – though I did wonder if everybody did that or not. It includes music, when I was younger I could run an entire concerto through my head, no question.

    1. Kenneth Michaels says:

      Not only do I carry a map in my mind’s eye, but it automatically orients itself so I always know what direction I’m going. (Note: this skill is greatly diminished in my old age.)

  3. @mathewi I’ve known this about you for quite a while now and even then I didn’t realize the extent to which I have largely the same experience – I’m at least hypophantasic – can vaguely imagine fleeting images but nothing clear or static. The test made it obvious that I’m affected.

  4. Lin says:

    Hi Mathew,
    This was very interesting. My dad has aphantasia and I have synesthesia (colour, number, letter, taste and musical). It was a shock for both of us to realize how different our perceptions and memories are. I also have a photographic memory and after reading this realize probably hyperphantasia also.

    It makes me wonder how genetics play into these perceptions.

    I am able to recall my dreams in full detail (like a colour movie) when I wake up and also later on.

    My dad draws, paints and is a designer. He also writes stories and poetry. His creative ability is not diminished by the aphantasia, but he tells me he sees things when he draws them or writes them out.

    Thank you for sharing your story and for such an illuminating read.

    1. mathewi says:

      Thanks, Linda! Did your father always know he had aphantasia, or did he find out recently? It’s interesting that you mention synesthesia, because my wife is also a synesthete — she sees numbers and letters as different colours. I’m curious also when you realized you had synesthesia — my wife didn’t realize she was different until she was in her 40s and read an article about synesthesia. She always thought everyone was like that! I thought the same thing about the way I saw things (or didn’t see them). I just assumed everyone was like that

  5. @mathewi This was a really interesting read, thank you! I have aphantasia although not too severe, in that I can recall memories, just can’t imagine things I haven’t seen. I love SF/fantasy but can’t “see” what I am reading, which is frustrating but doesn’t stop me from reading and enjoying it. I get a lot more from dialogue and plot than descriptive passages obviously. Like you I struggle with memory and tend to find it easy to suppress trauma, although I hadn’t really linked the two. Anyway, super interesting topic!

  6. @Cullen18Cullen @mathewi I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are no words (or images of course) when I do a task. There’s just what needs to be done. I usually have music playing in here though.Until recently I thought both the minds eye and the monologue were metaphors for more abstract thought. I didn’t realise they were real for most folk! I do feel like I’m missing out for the former, but a monologue sounds exhausting. Like building ikea furniture all the time.

  7. Lin says:

    Hi Mathew,
    My dad says he realized as a little kid in school. The teacher said “close your eyes and imagine a yellow dog sitting by a tree”. He couldn’t understand what she meant. For him when he closed his eyes there was nothing. I spoke to him about your article today. He said he had only had two smudges of colour in his dreams ever. Writing and drawing are the way he ‘imagines’ things.

    I didn’t know I had synesthesia until I watched a ‘Nature of Things’ documentary about it in my 30’s . Until then I thought everybody experienced things that way. I did a Synesthesia test developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, as a part of some study that confirmed it.

    For me a letter has a number and a colour associated with it. For example; the number three the letter ‘r’ and red all are the same thing, 4 and ‘c’ and green, 2 and ‘d’ are yellow continuing on for the rest of the alphabet. This made math hard for me as a child because I would sometines write an ‘r’ instead of the number 3.

    I paint and the vividness of the colors has a powerful effect on me. Painters Kandinsky and Van Gogh were supposedly synesthetes. I have always wondered if many of the expressionist painters also were, because of the way they use colour.

    I think the taste synesthesia is the strangest. If I imagine eating chocolate cake, I can taste it. I write poetry and I think these extra sense combinations help with the imagery I come up with.

    Does your wife also have a photographic memory? It is so interesting to realise how differently people perceive and experience the world. I wonder how much this unknowingly effects our relationships?

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