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? Most people see a visual representation of that thing hovering in front of their “mind’s eye,” and in many cases it is in full colour, like they were looking at a photograph but in their mind. Some people can even rotate this virtual image in 3D. 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 think it’s one of the reasons I take so many photographs of literally everything — the only way I can remember what people or things look like is to look at a picture.

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 (the man who coined the term in 2012 — Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural biology at the University of Exeter — wrote about his research and what he has learned since). I started reading about aphantasia 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.

According to Zeman, there are plenty of creative people in a variety of fields other than Ross who also have this condition — Craig Venter, who led the first draft sequences of the human genome, Ed Catmull, past president of Pixar Disney and recent recipient of the Turing Prize for his work on computer-generated animation, and Oliver Sacks, the acclaimed neurologist and author of such ground-breaking books as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat,” have all declared that they have aphantasia. Glen Keane, the award-winning animator of both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast has aphantasia.

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). One thing that I’ve found aphantasists have in common is that most of us never realized that we were any different from anyone else until — in some cases — quite late in life. I was in my 50’s, for example. I always wondered what the term “mind’s eye” referred to, but I assumed it was a metaphor for memory, so I didn’t think anything of it. When told to imagine myself on a beach, etc. for meditation purposes, I just tried to remember what a beach might look like, and thought that was normal.

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. And 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 or even heard of. 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!

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.

More updates: Since I wrote this in 2020, I’ve learned about some new elements of aphantasia and also synesthesia. For example, there’s a form of synesthesia called “ticker taping,” where people with this ability see what amounts to closed captioning in their minds when someone is talking. When I mentioned this to my wife, she said she also has this form of synesthesia, but — like me with my aphantasia — never really thought about it, and/or thought it was so common that it wasn’t worth mentioning. She said she mostly ignores it. I’ve also learned that some aphantasics (me included) can’t recall other senses either, such as sound — some people with a rich imagination can actually hear their favourite music whenever they want to, apparently. And some people have an “inner voice” that they literally hear talking to them, which amazes me.

In a Facebook group devoted to aphantasia, I’ve learned that some people with this condition have visually rich and vivid dreams, while others (like me) have dreams that are either completely lacking in colour or are washed out. Some people have experimented with psychedlic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin to see if that will create visual imagery for them — some say that it has, but I have taken both LSD and psilocybin several times (many years ago) and I never saw hallucinations or much visual imagery of any kind. Things appeared altered, and there were swirls and so on, but I never saw anything that wasn’t there.

Zeman and his colleagues thought that a lack of mental imagery meant that most aphantasics would wind up in scientific rather than creative trades, but he was surprised to find this isn’t always the case. What he says he realized was that aphantasia might sometimes increase rather than reduce interest in the visual world. “Deprived of the ability to contemplate the look of things in their mind’s eye, their visual attention to the here and now might be heightened,” he wrote. “And lacking a mind’s eye might also increase the motivation to represent the visual artistically.” Andrea Blomkvist, a researcher in the philosophy of cognitive science, said that her group had met aphants who are not just skilled at non-visual jobs and hobbies, but are artists, writers, animators.

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

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  3. @mathewi 50s also and 😲😲😲 I discovered a cool thing is that my artistic process, bc I can’t visualize, is painting directly from the creative space, no visual imagination in between. So that’s interesting and special, I think 😊

  4. @mathewi my adult son heard this and replied “!!!!!” So now I have a name for it. I knew it existed, suspected it, but didn’t have a descriptive definition. He can describe a thing’s physical properties and still grab for the wrong thing, every time.

    1. 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.)

  5. @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.

  6. @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!

  7. 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. 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

  8. @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.

  9. 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?

  10. Sasha Chapin writes about having aphantasia, which some of you might recall I also suffer from (although maybe “suffer from” is the wrong term):
    “I wonder whether my mental existence is more shallow than that of others, whether my somewhat detached, playful, and ironic view of life is partially based on my blankness. I have never been haunted by an image of suffering or pined after the picture of a distant lover crossing a hypothetical room in a hypothetical evening. When I am reminded of some contentious issue, like firearm regulation, I’m not watching a movie in my mind about horrible things happening; everything is simply a concept. It’s easy to stay at a mental remove.
    It’s possible that aphantasia actually makes writing easier for me because there’s nothing to get in the way of the words. I’m not worried about doing justice to the pictures in my head—they are not there. Also, since I don’t remember through the visual, life is already stored as a series of connected verbal clusters, ready to be deployed. I just have to start moving my hands to get them out of storage. Recently, it was revealed to me that some people have trouble describing recent incidents in their lives in anecdote form. And this is totally foreign to me. The first words I call on aren’t always fantastic, but they can always be summoned.
    There is another potential upside I wonder about, which is: maybe I have an easier time accepting death than other people. The transience of things has always seemed obvious and relatively easy to accept for me. Everything has already slipped into the void for me, everything that’s not right here. I remember that, last summer, I sat with a friend in a park in Dumbo at sunset, watching the pink-purple fall on all the metal and water, the wheezing cars and glass towers. I thought: this is as beautiful as it’s going to get. But it didn’t occur to me to hold onto the substance of the moment, because I knew that was impossible. When I turned around, it was gone.”

    Interestingly enough, Sasha also wrote about how he used an online course, meditation, and some micro-dosing of psilocybin and LSD to trigger something approaching mental visualization — or at least more than he had before:
    There is one fMRI study of an aphantasic person. Scans revealed that, when asked to visualize, he displayed different patterns of brain activity than healthy subjects—specifically, less activation in areas associated with mental imagery, and more activation in regions associated with semantic processing. Crudely speaking, he was using non-image parts of his brain to do image stuff. This matches with my subjective experience of aphantasia, wherein trying to remember an image brings up a set of words, sounds, and even spatial information, just no pictures.
    So, the way the exercises work is… okay, this is where it gets fuzzy for me. But I guess that… since people with aphantasia use their word-brain instead of their image-brain when trying to visualize… then… by using their word-brain extra hard… maybe the dormant visual brain regions will be activated a little bit in the process… so new brain connections will form?”
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