Aphanthasia: the inability to visualize mental images

In 2016, he began to popularize a phenomenon that had gone virtually unnoticed until then, with the exception of a pioneering study conducted by the famous Francis Galton at the end of the 19th century. This is inability to visualize mental images, Which was baptized “afantasía”.

In this article we will describe what exactly is aphantasy and what has been its historical development. To do so, we will focus on the contributions of Galton and Adam Zeman, as well as the case of Blake Ross, who has been instrumental in raising awareness of aphanasia through the intervention of social media.

    What is apantasia?

    In 1880 Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a pioneer in the use of statistics in psychology and eugenic ideas, published the results of a psychometric study of individual differences in the ability to generate mental images. Galton found great variability in this aptitude, Including some cases in which he was absent.

    During the 20th century, research on this phenomenon has been very scarce, although there are some references under Anglo-Saxon terms which can be translated as “faulty revisualization” or “visual irreminence”. Adam Zeman’s team studies (2010, 2015) and individuals like Blake Ross popularized it as “aphantasia”.

    The scarce data currently available suggests that between 2.1% and 2.7% of the general population are unable to generate mental images and can therefore be considered as cases of aphanasia (Faw, 2009). It also seems that the alteration is more common in men (Zeman et al., 2015), although it is not yet possible to say with certainty.

    It is believed that aphanasia may be neurological associated with synesthesia and congenital prosopagnosia, Which consists of a marked difficulty in recognizing people by their faces. People with synesthesia score very high on visualization tests, and the opposite happens with cases of prosopagnosia.

      Contributions from Adam Zeman’s team

      The term “aphantasia” was coined by a team from the University of Exeter, UK, led by Adam Zeman (2010). These authors published an article on the case of MX, a man who mentioned one loss of visualization ability following coronary angioplasty. After this milestone, afantasía began to gain popularity.

      Zeman and his collaborators have further raised awareness of apantasia with their second text on the subject (2015). The Exeter team drew on the questionnaire contributions of 21 people who contacted them after reading the previous article and identifying with the description of this particular ‘imaginative blindness’.

      The study by Zeman et al. revealed that there are different degrees and forms of presentation of this phenomenon; thus, some people are unable to voluntarily produce visual images but may experience them spontaneously, both upon awakening and during sleep. On the other hand, in other cases, these capacities are not even preserved.

      The interference of aphanasia in the lives of those who experience it generally appears to be quite limited, although a significant proportion of participants reported autobiographical memory problems associated with this deficit, Which on the other hand tended to compensate by the verbal format or what Zeman et al. they are called “sub-visual models”.

        The case of Blake Ross

        In April 2016, software engineer Blake Ross, co-creator of the Mozilla Firefox web search engine and former Facebook product manager, published a text on this social network in which he recounted his experiences with aphanasia. It was a New York Times article that analyzed MX’s case (Zeman et al., 2010) that inspired him to share his story.

        Ross said he didn’t know he was experiencing this phenomenon until he read about it. Until then, he says, he believed concepts like counting sheep to promote sleep consolidation sounded like metaphors. He was unable to visualize the face of his dead father, and he believed that no one could really generate sharp mental images.

        Of course, Ross’s text went viral and led a lot more people to the same revelation as him. Since then, we have witnessed a rapid and notable awareness of this curious imaginative deficit; Therefore, it is hoped that scientific knowledge will also increase in the coming years about apantasia.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Faw, B. (2009). Conflicting intuitions may be based on different skills: evidence from mental image research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16: 45-68.
        • Galton, F. (1880). Mental image statistics. Is lying. Oxford Newspapers, os-V (19): 301-318.
        • Zeman, AZJ; Della Sala, S .; Torrens, LAA; Gountouna, VE; McGonigle, DJ and Logie, RH (2010). Loss of image phenomenology with an intact visuospatial task: a case of “blind imagination”. Neuropsychology, 48 (1): 145–155.
        • Zeman, AZJ; Dewar, M. and Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without images: congenital fantasy. Cortex, 73: 378-380

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