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article imageOp-Ed: Aphantasia — When the mind’s eye can’t see, things get grim

By Paul Wallis     Jun 28, 2020 in Health
Sydney - Some people can’t visualize well, or barely at all. The mind doesn’t create inner images. It’s called Aphantasia, a condition affecting up to 5% of the population. Now, it seems that it might have some implications for memory.
Recent studies trying to quantify Aphantasia have come up with some tricky issues. Even the terminology gets a bit difficult soon enough, describing it as a “lack of visual imagery”, not simply being unaware of internally generated visual images.
Just to make things much less simple, this condition may be inborn or may be the result of an injury. There’s obviously some physiology involved, somewhere, but that hasn’t been pinned down yet. It’s not even clear if Aphantasia qualifies as a mental health issue or physical disability.
This very unsatisfactory situation gets more complex, fast, and on multiple levels. Aphantasia can actually affect cognitive processes. A study at the University of Sydney collected a pretty broad bandwidth of issues arising from a quiz including 267 people who identified as having Aphantasia.
The very disturbing outcome was that any type of visual imagery was reduced in those with Aphantasia. Imagination was also dulled. Other sensory functions, even emotions, were also negatively affected.
Who’s doing what about Aphantasia?
This is a relatively recent new issue in global terms, but it’s widespread enough to have created The Aphantasia Network, a sort of all-purpose/ all issues network.
The Aphantasia Network Science page is particularly interesting. It covers things like “Learning with Aphantasia”, a very controversial issue indeed. Seems nobody’s able to agree whether Aphantasia affects learning.
You can see the implications here – If Aphantasia affects learning, it may also be an important developmental issue. It might be correctable. Less appealing is the possibility that this “non-learning” is systemic and becomes a fixture in people’s mental processing.
The potential developmental issue is that at an early age, you don’t just “learn”. You learn HOW to learn. Cognitive problems could do real damage at this early stage.
Visualization – A few qualifiers
We need to be clear about this - There is no One Size Fits All for human visualization abilities. There are standard levels of visualization which are common enough to be considered normal. People with Aphantasia lack these abilities.
Let’s also try and forego the obvious “This is why so many people seem to understand things so badly” option. This might be much more like an important learning disability, of which there are many other kinds.
So – What’s wrong with Aphantasia? A bit too much.
“Aphantasia” means literally “non-fantasy”. That may sound very “real world”, but it’s a potentially dangerous issue, particularly if it’s associated with cognition and memory.
For example – Situational awareness in the real world includes seeing possible risks, opportunities, or other elements in a situation. If you don’t visualize, you don’t see these things well, if at all. The risk may not even be recognized. If cognition and related processing is involved, and making a practical assessment, that means a person with Aphantasia may not process the risk factors which might otherwise be visualized. It might also explain the issues created when people simply don’t acknowledge a possible risk – They really can’t visualize it.
Another not-very-attractive possible correlate is that Aphantasia may explain the rather noticeable issues when people don’t get other people’s ideas. Those with Aphantasia may not be able to process the ideas and reject them. (In fairness, it may also be that the attempt to process might be traumatic, genuinely discomforting people with Aphantasia.)
Sensory dullness can’t be good at any level. A whole range of cognitive things, from bad smells to reflex responses, may be involved. Low-sensory dreams, another common issue, are definitely atypical. I’d hate to think what an extreme case might be like, but it’d be like a dumbed-down version, lacking detail and probably not well remembered.
The memory part of this problem could be serious. Memory is a fundamental part of processing information. It’d be hard to process if the memory is blurry, or otherwise missing bits of information due to an inability to manage the processing.
A caveat or so
I may be the person on Earth least able to relate to Aphantasia in any form. Visualization is what I do, and it’s built-in. The pity of it is that I can visualize all too well what this is all about. I’ve met plenty of people whose visualization skills are more than rusty, they’re comatose. These people do not like trying to visualize.
For example -
I remember back in the 80s getting into a conversation with someone about digital watches. The guy said it was “Dr Who stuff”, i.e., not real. I was wearing a digital watch at the time. The whole of Pitt Street, Sydney was full of the original early digital watches. Everyone was wearing them. This guy simply did not process a word, beyond rejecting the whole idea. Wearing it didn’t mean a damn thing to him. A watch was obviously comprehensible, but not the tech, as an abstract, or anything to do with it. There was no visualization at all.
Emotional Aphantasia? I can see a whole range of people who don’t get other people’s emotions. That might explain a lot of behaviors, particularly the boorish, troll-like, types. The insensitivity seems to fit in with other traits, like ignoring other people’s sensitivities, etc.
Cognitive Aphantasia could be, and apparently is, almost anything to do with cognitive non-registration of anything not actually present as a functional issue. It might also explain the weird process of technophobia, the cognitive “threat” of having to understand a new thing.
Aphantasia may also explain a well-known issue in group discussions – The people who never contribute much, if anything, to discussions. If you can’t use the cognitive tools, you can’t contribute. You may not even be able to follow the logic. Your communications are also likely to be a pretty low-grade recital of facts and figures, not the logical developments of those things.
If Aphantasia is really a form of cognitive dysfunction, it may affect 300 million people worldwide. In the US, that 5% figure would be 15-18 million people. That’s a lot of people to be severely disadvantaged by the lack of abilities everyone else has.
Conditions that affect cognition and basic mental processing typically happen at degrees of difficulty. Tracking something as broad as Aphantasia could be pretty hard work. From the current information, Aphantasia may first show up as low learning skills in kids. That’s a very broad bandwidth indeed. Memory issues in adults might be another marker. Case studies, tracking the issue over childhood to adulthood, could create a profile that can be useful for broad-spectrum management.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Aphantasia, lack of visualization abilities, mental health vs physical disability, University of New South Wales, Aphantasia research
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