Understanding Aphantasia

by Namasya Nandini Swain 
July 13, 2022
Understanding Aphantasia

Imagination refers to the complex cognitive process which allows us to formulate pictures and things that aren’t immediately present to our senses. It is the ability to “see” things from our mind’s eye, just the way we want. While some people are naturally gifted with a vivid imagination, some aren’t. This imagination comes in eight different forms, namely dreams, memory reconstruction, effective imagination, empathy, intellectual/constructive imagination, emotional imagination, imaginative fantasy, and strategic imagination. Most of these require and make use of visual imagery. This visual or mental imagery refers to the sense of viewing pictures in one’s mind. Visual images occur when the visual cortex of our brain processes visual information from our eyes correctly. These pictures or images can be of past memories of our visual experiences or synthesis created by our imagination. Individuals who lack this ability to create mental pictures have a condition named Aphantasia. This condition occurs when there’s a disruption in the functioning of the visual cortex.

History of Aphantasia
Aphantasia was first described by Francis Galton in the year 1880 in a statistical study about mental imagery. However, the term Aphantasia was coined by Dr. Adam Zeman and his team in 2015. This term is derived from the Greek word “phantasia’’ meaning imagination. The “a’’ in phantasia refers to its absence. Even though Aphantasia got its name in 2015, its history traces back to as early as 320 B.C. It was Aristotle who first mentioned the term “phantasia’’ in De Amina, Part III to describe a distinct capacity between thoughts and perception. In his words, phantasia “need never to have been actually perceived by the senses, nor ever really exist”. While the majority of people are born with this phenomenon, researchers are still unclear about the cause. Many people have reported developing Aphantasia after a brain injury or other psychological conditions.

Epidemiology Aphantasia describes only one major symptom, i.e, the inability to draw mental images, either from imagination or memory. While most people suffering from aphantasia lead an otherwise healthy life, some people may face difficulty in recognising faces, places, or remembering events. Some individuals also might face difficulty imagining the future and many have reported weaker physiologic stress responses to imagined terrifying situations. Since aphantasia is not classified as a disorder yet, hence, it doesn’t have a diagnostic criterion. Scientists make use of a questionnaire to rate the strength and vividness of one’s visual imagery, where the individual is asked to rate the vividness of pictures they see in their mind in response to different prompts. Aphantasia, as a mental health condition is understudied and research on this phenomenon is in its infant stages. However, there is some evidence that suggests that depersonalization and depressed mood hampers the ability of visual imagery. For now, there is no cure for aphantasia but Shank and McDowell (2017) highlighted an increase in a patient’s ability to visualize after 18 focused therapy sessions.

Some fun-facts and statistics The prevalence of aphantasia in individuals all across the globe ranges from 1 to 3.9%. Several famous personalities have been vocal about their condition. Blake Ross- the co-creator of the web browser Mozilla Firefox, James Harkin- a British television writer and podcaster, Zelda Williams- an American actress, producer, writer, and director, Glen Keane- an animator, illustrator, and author, Ed Catmull- the co-founder of Pixar and the former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios amongst others. All these public personas have reported living with this phenomenon. While aphantasia leads to a lack of visual imagery, hyperphantasia is its opposite. Research suggests that around 10% of the global population have hyperphantasia which allows them to create & experience extremely rich and vivid visualization and imaginations (Zeman et al., 2020). Just like the former, hyperphantasia is also understudied and further research on it is yet to be done.

Living with Aphantasia Studies reflect that aphantasia doesn’t really hamper an individual’s success and this is also known from all the famous personalities who have this condition (Wilcox, 2022). However, it can be tough and distressing for people who are unable to visualize their loved one’s pictures or remember their favorite places in their mind’s eye. People with aphantasia also have reduced capacity to access other mental senses such as imagining smells, sounds, taste,s or touches. Just like any other mental health condition, aphantasia too is enveloped with several myths and faulty convictions. Many people think that this condition is an impairment and affects one’s daily life but fortunately, people with this condition have learned to adapt and perform well in most cognitive tasks. Some individuals think that aphantasia is a visual impairment but it’s not. People with aphantasia can see everything just as well in real life as others and can still have normal spatial imagery. Aphantasia is often used in terms of prosopagnosia (inability to recognize people’s faces, also called face blindness), but most people do not have that condition. Research suggests that there might be a weak connection between both, however, the majority of the people having aphantasia do not have this issue (Zeman, 2021).

Looking forward Aphantasia, as a mental health condition, is understudied and is yet to be classified. Some researchers classify it as the complete lack of visual imagery while others classify it as a spectrum disorder that may span from complete absence to low visual imagery. Anyhow, people with aphantasia can live fulfilling lives and empathize with others around them. Aphantasia is a condition that requires more research. Whether this condition possesses links with other mental health disorders, does it have different varieties and subtypes, or can we label it as a learning disability, all of it asks for dedicated research and promoting awareness amongst those who live with it. Developing tools, tests, and techniques for people with aphantasia will definitely help individuals with this condition and make their lives much better.

Author, Namasya Nandini Swain Clinical & Research Intern, PsychLine.in


Adam Zeman. (2021, April 6). When the mind is dark, making art is a thrilling way to see. Psyche. https://psyche.co/ideas/when-the-mind-is-dark-making-art-is-a-thrilling-way-to-see

Claire Wilcox. (2022, February 11). Aphantasia: Symptoms, spectrum, and more, explained. GoodRx. https://www.goodrx.com/health-topic/neurological/aphantasia-symptoms-spectrum

Rebecca Keogh, & Adam Zeman. (2021, April 5). Chapter 15 - Aphantasia: The science of visual imagery extremes. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B978012821377300012X

History of Aphantasia - A timeline of events. (2020, March 1). Aphantasia Network. https://aphantasia.com/history-of-aphantasia/

A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia. (2020, June 22). Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-65705-7?from=article_link

Andrea Shank, O. D., & Paula McDowell, O. D. Treatment of Aphantasia: Can we Reopen the “Mind’s Eye?”.