Most of us have a strong visual aspect to our imagination. We can literally see pictures when we close our eyes. Yet it isn’t this way for everyone.
People with a condition known as aphantasia, have an inability to view images in their mind.
But far from being a “disorder”, not having a mind’s eye is just a variation in human experience.
One which comes with some potentially surprising benefits.
Aphantasia: Having no mind’s eye
If you think in pictures it can be difficult to fully grasp the concept of having no mind’s eye. Similarly, if you don’t, the notion that people literally see things in their heads can feel equally perplexing.
The majority of people replay images and scenes from daily life — the experiences they’ve had, the people they know, the sights they have seen, etc.
But for people with aphantasia their imagination is effectively blind. It doesn’t use pictures.
The concept has been known about since the 1800s. Francis Galton commented on the phenomenon in a paper he wrote about mental imagery.
In it he observed that not only were there differences in the way people saw things in their mind — for example with differing degrees of vividness — but also that some people didn’t see anything at all.
But it wasn’t until quite recently, 2015, that cognitive and behavioral neurologist Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter finally coined the term “aphantasia”. His research has formed the basis for much of what we know about it today.
After coming across the case study of a man who had lost his mind’s eye after heart surgery, he wrote a column about it in Discover magazine. After doing so he got many of replies from people saying they never had a mind’s eye in the first place.
How to tell if you have aphantasia
To test if you have no mind’s eye is actually quite simple.
It’s a cold and rainy winter morning, and so you close your eyes and imagine yourself lounging by the pool on a hot summer’s day in some far flung destination.
The warm sun beating down on your skin. The afternoon light creating an orange glow that reflects off the buildings around.
How do you experience a scene like this? Can you picture it if you close your eyes? Or do you just see blackness if you try?
If you only see darkness, then you probably don’t have a mind’s eye.
Most people who have no mind’s eye didn’t realize that others experience things differently.
They took sayings like “see it in your mind” or “picture the scene” as more of a figure of speech.
It can come as a bit of a shock to realize that you see things in a different way to other people. But although aphantasia is rare, it’s perhaps not as uncommon as you might think.
How rare is aphantasia?
Scientists estimate that tens of millions of people don’t visualize.
Based on the most recent research using surveys, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues have found 0.7% of people don’t have a mind’s eye.
But the estimates over how many people actually have the condition vary from 1-5% of people.
That could mean that anywhere from 76 million to 380 million people have no mind’s eye. So yes it’s rare, but it seems we’re only just discovering how many differences truly exist in how we all see the world.
So, why do some people have a mind’s eye and some don’t?
The truth is that it isn’t yet clear. But research looking into brain activity and circuitry have found differences between people with and without aphantasia.
For example, one study found that when allowing their minds to wander, there was less activation in the parts of the brain linking the front and back in people with aphantasia.
It also appears to run in families to a certain extent. If you don’t have a mind’s eye, it’s like a close relative of yours probably doesn’t either.
What’s fascinating is that it seems that we are all “wired” differently which creates a lot more variation in our mental perceptions than we would perhaps have ever imagined.
But what are the strengths that come from this particular difference of having no mind’s eye?
7 unexpected benefits of having no mind’s eye
1) You are more present
One of the biggest benefits of having no mind’s sight is that it means it is easier to be fully present in the moment.
“Maybe it’s a bit harder to live in the present if you have very vivid visual imagery” Prof Adam Zeman told the BBC Focus magazine.
When we visualize we are actually withdrawing into our own little world. We pay attention to internal stimuli rather than what is happening around us.
Anyone who has ever been accused of daydreaming and “drifting off” when they should be paying attention will know that visualization can be quite distracting.
When you have a mind’s eye, it may be easier to find yourself drifting off to focus on the future or the past.
This means that you miss out on life right now. But people with no mind’s eye seem to find it easier to stay focused on the present.
Some people with aphantasia say the advantage is that they tend not to worry so much about the past or the future. It’s almost like having no mind’s eye helps you to keep a clean slate and focus on the now.
2) You don’t dwell on things
When we visualize, emotions are intensified. As the New York Times explains:
“The mind’s eye acts as an emotional amplifier, strengthening both the positive and negative feelings produced by our experiences. People with aphantasia can have those same feelings from their experiences, but they don’t amplify them later through mental imagery.”
The more intense an experience and situation is, the more likely that it becomes fixed in our memory. We also have a tendency to replay painful events, picturing them again and again.
Even when this causes us pain, we can’t seem to help ourselves and it keeps it alive and fresh. Something may have happened 20 years ago but you imagine it in your mind as though it were yesterday.
When you do not have a mind’s eye you may be less likely to get hung up on the past. And so you’re probably less prone to regret, longing, craving, or other negative emotions that come from holding on to painful events.
3) You’re less overwhelmed by grief
One thing that is commonly noted amongst people who report not having a mind’s eye is their different way of experiencing grief.
Alex Wheeler (speaking to Wired) said he saw how his family reacted differently to his mom’s passing.
“It was an incredibly difficult time for me, but I dealt with it differently than the rest of my family because I could move on quite quickly. It’s not that those emotions weren’t there, because they were there. But I can talk to you about it now quite clinically and I don’t have any response emotionally. “
Others, like this person speaking anonymously on Reddit, have commented how they think not having a mind’s eye makes it easier to move on.
“It just honestly feels like an out of sight out of mind thing. I mean of course, I know she’s gone, but it’s like when I’m not specifically thinking about it, not reminded of it, it’s not something that’s bothering me. Am I not as hurt as my sister because I can’t picture her in my head? Because I can’t recall visual memories of us together? Or speculate what the future would be like by imagining her at my wedding or holding my first child like my sister?”
It’s not that people without a mind’s eye love any less. They still feel the exact same emotions. So when dealing with the loss of someone, it’s not that they care less.
It’s more that their inability to imagine things in their mind lessens the sometimes debilitating impact of grief.
4) You might avoid having nightmares
A study of people with aphantasia found that around 70% of people said they did see some form of images whilst dreaming, even if that was just flashes of imagery.
But the rest did not, and 7.5% said they did not dream at all. People who lack a mind’s eye generally report less vivid dreams.
That means having aphantasia makes you far less susceptible to nightmares or night terrors.
As Ron Kolinie, who doesn’t have a mind’s eye commented on Quora:
“I dream in words (thoughts). Advantage: I have never had a bad dream! A nightmare is a disturbing dream associated with negative feelings, such as anxiety or fear that awakens you.”
5) You’re good at grasping complex concepts
People without a mind’s eye often report living a life based on facts.
Research has suggested that many people with aphantasia may develop stronger skills in certain professions. Abstract reasoning seems to be a core skill set amongst people without a mind’s eye.
Many with the condition have the ability to understand complex ideas that are not tied to experiences, objects, people, or situations.
This firm grasp of hypothetical or symbolic concepts means that they excel in areas such as science, math, and technical sectors.
World-famous geneticist Professor Craig Venter led the team reporting the first draft sequence of the human genome, and has aphantasia.
He beliefs his condition has supported his success:
“I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches. By understanding concepts vs fact memorization I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.”
6) You don’t get lost in a fantasy world
There’s a big buzz about using visualization in the self-development world to achieve your goals and dreams. But there is a downside to visualization too.
The idea that visualizing a “better life” can help you to create it can actually keep you stuck. Having the absolute opposite effect than you intended.
How? Because you create a perfect image in your head that real life cannot live up to.
Daydreaming can turn delusional. Not having a mind’s eye means you avoid this pitfall.
I started to more fully appreciate the potential dark side of visualization as a method of transformation after watching Justin Brown’s free masterclass ‘The Hidden Trap’.
In it he explains how he himself fell foul of touted visualization techniques:
“I’d become obsessed with an imaginary life in the future. A future which never arrived because it only existed in my fantasies.”
Whilst fantasies can feel pleasant when we indulge in them, the problem is that they never stack up in real life.
That can lead to unrealistic expectations which only disappoint when life doesn’t match up to the image you create in your head.
I’d really recommend checking out Justin’s masterclass.
In it, he walks you through exactly why visualization is not the answer to creating the life you want. And importantly, he offers a better solution to both inner and outer life transformation.
7) You may have more natural protection against trauma
Because of the strong associations between vivid visual imagery and memory, being without a mind’s eye may offer some natural protection against trauma and conditions such as PTSD.
As Social worker Neesa Sunar explained in Psyche:
“I have experienced mental illness conditions for many years, and my aphantasia diminishes various symptoms. I previously had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to experiencing emotional abuse from my father as a child. But although I was emotionally shaken, I had no flashbacks or nightmares. My memory of the trauma was rooted in the aura that my father created in the home. But now that I haven’t been around him for more than 20 years, I rarely recall this feeling.”
It seems not having a mind’s eye may allow people to more easily distance themselves from traumatic memories.