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The science behind aphantasia

The fascinating condition we're beginning to understand.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on Apr 25, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 9:37 pm CDT

On April 22, Firefox co-creator Blake Ross announced to Facebook that he has a condition called aphantasia—the inability to imagine.

Whereas most people can easily visualize everything from a simple red triangle to a complex beach scene complete with umbrellas, waves, and happy people, Ross insists that he just sees nothing. He can think of all the things that would go into that beach scene, but his mind does not conjure up a corresponding visual to accompany the idea. Try as he might, he just can’t project the image into his mind.

Ross said that he diagnosed himself with the condition after he read a 2015 New York Times article about a patient, MX, described in a 2010 case study. This particular patient lost his ability to imagine at the age of 65 following heart surgery, but people like Ross and other people described in research studies suggest that there is a congenital version of the condition as well.

Researchers aren’t totally sure what causes aphantasia, yet accounts of patients with the condition date back as far as 1880. This is in large part because aphantasia is probably exceedingly rare. Finding patients that truly have the condition is difficult, Stephen Kosslyn, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Keck Graduate Institute’s Minerva Schools, told the Daily Dot.

In the case of MX, the researchers found that when he was shown a photo of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it activated a specific pattern in his brain that they could see in an MRI. In most people, if they were then asked to visualize Blair, researchers would see their brain activate in the same areas, though not as strongly on an MRI. But MX’s brain showed nothing when asked to visualize Blair.

“The brain is incredibly flexible. Most of the time there’s more than one way to do something.” 

Other than MK’s case study, and a few reports here and there, we don’t know much about aphantasia. Researchers only coined the phrase last year, and they haven’t published much about how the condition arises or what it looks like in the brain.

Kosslyn suspects that, among people with aphantasia, researchers can expect to see a great deal of variability.

He said that the brain has different “tracks” for processing visual imagery: one for form and color, and another for space and location. For example, a person who is good at location-based imagery can easily tell you which hand holds the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Someone who is better at form and color will have an easier time calling up whether various animals have pointed ears.

But a lot of people with aphantasia don’t realize there’s anything strange about them until later in life. Similar to people who are unable to recognize faces, or who associate two different senses with one another, people with aphantasia are usually so good at developing workarounds for their deficit that they don’t realize they’ve done it. They assume all people are like they are, and are often in for quite a shock when they realize they’re different.

Kosslyn emphasized that for most people, aphantasia is not a disability.

“The brain is incredibly flexible. Most of the time there’s more than one way to do something,” he said. “Sometimes [workarounds] may require more effort, but the end result may be pretty much the same. I wouldn’t get too upset if I were to discover that I didn’t have mental imagery.”

It does sound like Ross may have a relatively severe form of aphantasia. By his account, he also can’t imagine people’s voices or even have visual dreams—something that people with aphantasia apparently can do. But he hopes that by making his experience public, he might help more people realize their condition and contribute to research by reaching out to scientists studying aphantasia.

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*First Published: Apr 25, 2016, 7:07 pm CDT