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:

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Zoom under pressure as the world relies on it to communicate

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It’s the kind of problem many companies would love to have: Something happens that makes the world suddenly adopt your app or service by the millions, to the point where it becomes mission-critical for many, including journalists. Unfortunately for Zoom, the thing that happened is a global pandemic, and what it has done more than anything is expose some of the flaws and weaknesses in the service, which has become the de facto method of communication for everyone from politicians and teachers to doctors. Some of those flaws or weaknesses are mundane and even humorous, such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson inadvertently sharing the meeting ID number for a cabinet meeting he held via Zoom (which could allow someone to connect to the call without permission), or the manager who enabled filters for a conversation with friends, and then couldn’t turn them off and did an entire meeting as a potato.

Somewhat more serious than that (although still on the nuisance end of the spectrum), attendees on some Zoom calls have been interrupted by pornography and other misbehavior, thanks to a phenomenon that some are calling “Zoom-bombing” (from the term “photo-bombing,” which is when someone jumps into a picture without permission). Trolls appear to be dialing in to random Zoom calls and displaying porn videos or blasting other annoying forms of audio and video, since many Zoom calls can be joined with a simple nine-digit number. The company said in a statement that hosts can prevent this by requiring a password, or by making use of various features such as the Waiting Room, which hides a new visitor until the host allows them to enter. “We are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this kind of attack,” the company said.

Some flaws in the software, however, could be extremely serious, such as a Windows vulnerability that could allow hackers to steal someone’s credentials. All a user has to do, according to one report from a software security blog, is to click on a link in the Zoom chat window, and if a hacker has configured the link properly, it will connect to the user registry within Windows and provide the user’s login and password (although Windows sends this in encrypted form, a researcher was able to decrypt the user info in less than 30 seconds with a standard PC). This kind of vulnerability could be a significant problem for journalists or aid workers and other agencies who need to keep their conversations anonymous for various reasons. It’s not the first back-door style vulnerability Zoom has seen: Until late last year, the app secretly installed a hidden web server on Mac computers that could potentially be used by hackers to take control of a computer’s video camera (Zoom has removed this feature).

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