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Aphantasia is a phenomenon in which an individual cannot conjure an image of a face or thing in their minds. There is no inner ‘mind’s eye’ in these people and the mental imagery is essentially blank. People with Aphantasia can explain the object using words, but the mental image isn’t experienced.
Signs of Aphantasia include unable to vividly picture someone in one’s mind. It is estimated that about 1% to 3% of the population might be having Aphantasia.
Aphantasia was first described in the early 1800s by Francis Galton in a paper on mental imagery. It was not until 2015 that the phenomenon was further studied and the term was coined.
One of the major studies was with a patient who had undergone a minor surgery in 2005 and later could no longer generate visual images within the ‘mind’s eye’. The details of the study were published in 2010, which led to many others coming up with similar symptoms.
MRI scans in patients show that while recognizing faces show no change, the person finds it hard to ‘imagine’ or conjure imagery, due to a significant reduction in activation patterns across the posterior networks in the brain. Patients, therefore, relied on a different cognitive strategy.
People with Aphantasia are only able to remember things by using words and lists of facts.
Research suggests that this phenomenon has a negative impact on their memory, like being able to remember the details of a particular day, but still not being able to visualize it. This also has an unexpected advantage of them not being disturbed by negative life events getting flashbacked in their minds.
Strangely enough, people with aphantasia can dream normally, being able to see the visuals. It is the intentional ‘imagining’ that is affected and not the dream state.
Dreams are a subconscious mind event, controlled by the brainstem, while visualization requires the conscious mind to process the image.
Not being able to imagine people and places can be bothersome and upsetting for the people with Aphantasia. Many people from all walks of life experience this, and it does not seem to impact their success in life.
This is a normal variation of human experience and is not something that can be treated. However, tools like photography, illustrations, visual aids and design software can be used to fill this gap in the mind.
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