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Aphantasia: life as a student without visual imagery

Aphantasia is the lack on an ability to visualise
Aphantasia is a phenomenon affecting an estimated 3-5% of the population. Source: Tumisu (via Pixabay)
Aphantasia, (the inability to visualise), is a newly researched condition by Professor Adam Zeman that 3-5% of the world experience, but how does it impact life as a student?

By Vicky Witts | Head of Comment

With the many trials and tribulations of life in modern society, our imagination, and the ability to imagine a positive future, seems like an obvious and natural part of life. However, for people with Aphantasia, having an imagination, at least in the visual sense, is not as easy or possible. 

According to Aphantasia.com, “Aphantasia is the inability to visualise”, and people with the condition “don’t create images familiar objects, people, or places in their mind’s eye”. Essentially this means that whilst to most people being asked to imagine a beach would conjure images of the sea and sand in their minds, people with Aphantasia can picture nothing. Even something as simple as imagining the face of a friend or family member can be impossible for people with complete Aphantasia. 

Discovery of and research into this condition is being conducted by Professor Adam Zeman, a neurologist in Exeter University’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences. Following his research paper on the topic in 2015, Zeman’s team has estimated that around 3-5% of the population have the condition, with different degrees of severity ranging from a complete lack of all mental imagery, to simply lacking auditory imagination such as imagining the sound of a horse neighing. 


Why is this significant? 

Although such a small percentage of people experience the phenomenon, the findings of Zeman and the ongoing research from his team brings into question just how different everyone’s experiences of the world are, and if there is one right way to see things. 

Gair Rhydd spoke to Professor Zeman about his findings, and the implications that they may have on the 3-5% of people with Aphantasia. 

According to him, “Aphantasia really doesn’t seem to be some kind of a handicap”, and “it might even in some ways facilitate some kinds of thinking”. 

Conditions such as Aphantasia and colour-blindness show us that people can view the world in a variety of different ways and colours, and so, perhaps suggest that trying to encourage children to be imaginative or creating artwork that can only be appreciated by those with full colour vision is a hinderance to a large community of people. Instead, perhaps we should be striving to make our culture acknowledge in greater detail the uniqueness of the human experience- particularly in creative fields. 


How does Aphantasia change life as a student? 

As a student studying for a BA degree, discovering Aphantasia has made me re-evaluate and adjust much of my social and academic life in numerous ways. 

Zeman’s research has discovered that people with Aphantasia are usually more inclined to pursue scientific degrees and career paths, as often visual imagery in some form is required for more creative subjects such as creative writing and art. 

However, in his interview with Gair Rhydd, Zeman went on to explain that there are creatives with Aphantasia who adapt their approaches so that they are not restricted by their lack of visual imagery. Artists with Aphantasia in particular, he said, often create work where “the end result is indistinguishable compared to things that artists with visual imagery might produce”, although they often approach the canvas in different ways that are more accessible to them. 

Notably, Glen Keane, a Disney animator with Aphantasia who is best known for illustrating The Little Mermaid, demonstrates how people with the condition can still be successful in creative fields. 

For me, studying English literature means that I have had to change the ways that I approach reading, because I have come to realise that unlike my peers who are able to picture the plot of the book in their minds, I am left simply reading the words on the page without even a trace image of what the characters look like. Instead, I choose to look deeper into the word meanings rather than the imagery that they create. 

In my experience, the academic implications of a lack of awareness of Aphantasia have occurred throughout my time at school. 

Looking back, much of the curriculum that we are taught, especially in secondary school English descriptive writing tasks, is focused on our imagination, and being able to visualise solutions to problems. Take mind maps and memory palaces, which in their very names rely on an ability to make connections mentally in visual ways that people with Aphantasia are often not able to achieve. Aphantasia may illuminate a need for change in academic curriculum and the ways that we are taught to learn, which takes into consideration that students all learn in a range of different ways. 

Research into Aphantasia is in early stages, with Zeman concluding in the interview that “there are so many other pieces to the jigsaw”, and so the conclusions drawn from these findings are relatively uncertain. However, with future goals for research into genes and quantitative studies, it is hopeful that research into similar conditions can put into perspective just how unique the individual mind is. 

Victoria Witts Comment

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