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

(Note: This post was originally published in 2020, but I have been updating it regularly ever since as I learn more about this topic. Newest updates are at the bottom)

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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