I Can’t See You but I’m Not Blind

If I ask you to think of an elephant do you see an elephant in your head when you close your eyes?

I don’t. Regardless of how descriptive the imagery, story or text I can’t create any pictures in my head at all. 2% of people can’t do this either. This inability to visualize is called aphantasia.

I never knew this absence of mental imagery was even a thing until my daughter pointed out that she and I were missing something my wife and other daughter had. Ask us to visualize a rainbow or a sunset and we just see nothing. We can’t create pictures in our head of objects, people, places or experiences. Where others can visualize these things, we can’t. Not for people, memories, or images past or future. When people say visualize this in your mind’s eye I just thought that was a turn of phrase. It now dawns on me that other people were really seeing something in their heads.

If you want to see what aphantasia is like look at the picture of the Apple. Now close your eyes and try to imagine the apple, seeing it mentally in your mind’s eye. If you don’t see anything, you might have aphantasia.

For a more detailed test check out the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire.

(I’m also realizing that that when people describe that they can hear the sound of their voice in their head (a train of thought), that it wasn’t just a metaphor. But my thoughts are silent.)

My reaction to learning that most people can create visual images was “huh.”  I lived my entire life thinking the word “visualize” meant “think about what this means,” not actually being able to “see” it. Reading that other people actually see images in their head was like learning there was another sense that most people had that I was missing. I was bemused that I had lived my whole life with the equivalent of seeing the world in black and white and finding out that other people see the world in colors. (The one exception to this is that I often wakeup remembering visual images from my dreams.)

Handicap or Asset?

My inability to visualize doesn’t seem to have handicapped my imagination or creativity. I am constantly thinking about new things – I just don’t see them as pictures (or hear them.)

I’m not sure what it is I can’t do that others can. Perhaps I can blame my failure in sports on it? Or my inability to sing or dance? It likely explains why when my wife asks me what someone was wearing or what their house looked like, I come up empty. Or more telling, why I can’t visualize the descriptive language in poetry or in a novel.

What’s interesting is that lacking what most everyone else seems to be able to do may explain how I think, communicate and process information. Perhaps this explains how I go about the creative process. When I want to describe an event that happened, I don’t bring up the visual imagery of what the places or people looked like. Instead my stories are of what I remember about the facts/data/conversations around the event.

It might also explain why pattern recognition and abstract thought (the ability to think about principles, and ideas that are not physically present) come easier to me. Possibly because I’m not distracted by visual pictures associated with the data that others see. I just see raw data.

To work out complicated ideas, I often diagram ideas and concepts (but don’t draw pictures of things.) I break ideas and concepts down into simpler steps by drawing each part. This helps me simplify ideas so I can first explain it to myself and then to others.  I then translate the diagram into words.

At times the result has been transformative for more than just me.

The way I’m wired has given me (and likely other founders and those in other fields) an edge. So, how can others with aphantasia consciously harness that? And for those who do see pictures in your heads is there anything you can learn from those of us who don’t?

(I wonder if I could have benefited from a modified classroom curriculum if this had been discovered this early. Or if I could have been taught how to visualize. But what would have been have lost?)

Pluses and Minuses

When I first heard about aphantasia I wondered if those of us with it would tend to excel in certain fields and avoid others. I was surprised to find out that someone already ran a study that showed that people with low or no visual imagery are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries. And having hyperphantasia (people with the opposite condition – having an extremely vivid mental imagery) predisposes people to work in the arts. It makes me wonder if the response and recovery from trauma/PTSD has some correlation with those with the ability to visualize those memories versus those who don’t. (Here’s a great future study area for the Veterans Administration.)

We’re Just at the Beginning of Understanding

This latest recognition of aphantasia as a neurological difference is only a decade or so old (although references in the literature go back to the 1890’s.) My bet is that as science continues to explore neurodiversity (brain differences among people), we’ll gain a wider understanding that people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in many different ways.  And how that leads to different strengths in comprehension, pattern recognition and problem-solving. We’ll likely discover more connections.

I’m curious if there’s anyone else who can’t see pictures in their head.

Let me know.

34 Responses

  1. The question is wrong.
    If you ask me to think of an elephant I recall the concept of the elephant.
    Sometimes it’s the picture, sometimes the smell, sometimes the sound, sometimes the ambient where they live, or news about elephants, movies, lots of stuff.

    But mine is not aphantasia.
    If you ask me to visualize an elephant I can do it without any problem.

    I got your point, but the first question is not correct.

    • Your framing of the question as being correct or incorrect is incorrect.

    • That’s true for me as well. I don’t picture an elephant unless I’m actually asked to picture an elephant. I wonder if this phenomenon changes slightly over time. When I was a kid, I seem to think mostly in pictures, and as an adult I think mostly in internal monologue or conversations. The inability to picture something in your head is, however, something I can’t even begin to imagine.

    • I feel like I have the opposite experience. I have the sense of an image of an elephant until I really try to “see” it. I can almost visualize an elephant in a pink tutu if I want but it feels like it’s just above and behind my visual field and when I try to bring it into my visual field it disappears. If I try to describe with words what I’m visualizing it’s gone, until I stop thinking about it in that way.
      This has always been frustrating when trying to draw. It seems like I should be able to project images from my imagination onto paper and in a sense trace those images, but that’s not the case.

  2. Hi Dr Blank! This is incredible. I didn’t know this was a thing until today, but I also can’t visualize in my head. Thank you for writing this post. At the ripe age of almost 44, I get the sense I just discovered something new and fascinating about myself.

  3. Interesting article. I don’t have aphantasia but was intrigued to hear your experience … since it was different than mine. I think we all have innate abilities (I like abilities as apposed to disabilities which implies something is missing). While in many ways we are more similar or more the same than we often act, these small innate differences I believe leave us all with specific gifts that as we understand them often help explain our paths in life. Nice article!

  4. Steve that solves a mystery for me. I can’t close my eyes and visualise stuff either. Never saw it as a disadvantage or an advantage until now. Good to have a name for it.

    Cheers Dom

  5. I can og see the images. Tom

  6. Not

  7. Same here.

    I learned about this a half-dozen years ago and was also surprised to learn that it should have been clear that the words ‘image’ and ‘imagination’ were more closely linked than I had .. uhm, imagined.

    It might be that my ability to invent complex algorithms for software has been the way I think through processes in some sort of abstract way which does not involve hearing voices!

  8. I too see nothing in my head.—I realized this in high school, at Ursuline Academy, a girl’s school in Dallas—The girl who eventually became Valedictorian had just gotten a perfect score on a biology test were we had to draw and label things.—-I was astonished, how had she done that!? Turns out she had the classic eidetic memory and could look at something once and remember it fully–

    We were by a blackboard and I fell over saying “You mean you have a blackboard in your head??!!”

    If I drew the word Cat on the board and closed my eyes I could not visualize the letters….After that, I watched myself thinking—-I always struggled, like holding onto a rope in a snowstorm, but I was a really careful thinker, a questioning thinking, a new path thinker.— Ultimately, a very strategic thinker. It did not always benefit me in terms of grades in school; but later, in adult life, I was always astonished that the more brilliant set thought I was so intelligent and they loved my fresh and original take on things…Maybe it was only “original” because I did not have their memory to sprout back something.—–I had to take my own path to find the meaning—in that meaning became “my memory”.— The *journey* to “get it” means I looked at lots of factors; factors way beyond regurgitation.— I was not upset when I thought it out to the 7th circle and had to backout of a concept because it goes wrong later on.—-While not being able to “See” the immediate thing——I could well see what was *not there; not yet there*.—-I could see ramifications, consequences, relationships–similarities & opposites.—-I could fall into a whirlwind of ideas and data and not drown!——

    Efforts that did not go according to the *hard vision” did not bother me— changes and even gross oppositions to the expected still does not throw me.——I can always find a *second way*.—-It is easy for me to fast find the strengths and weaknesses. I have sometimes been termed argumentative—-but, it is that I will not easily back down when I feel it is not making “strategic sense”—and while it may take awhile with some persistence on my part, the team usually finally sees it through the fog and my concern is factored in. I work at peak in fast-paced, chaotic settings with limited resources: read start-ups.

    I too do drawings of how something works—-

    I am delighted to be traveling in the 2%!—- Among my high school class I am considered to have done all the most interesting things, been a Presidential Political Appointee in 3 Administration (worked on the Presidential Campaigns, Inaugurals, been a Cabinet-level Speechwriter–worked with the cultural change of Tech Transfer out of the National Labs ); was a Visiting Scholar 25 years ago in Seattle at the U of WA Virtual Reality Lab; am the co-founded of an Advanced Communications company that has been identified by the Department of Defense as part of the Innovative Warfare; became a Certified Emerging Company Analyst which helps with my efforts to guide young founders to becoming strong CEOs . Currently I serve on boards and do some Program Grant reviews for the National Science Foundation—I have done some successful hopping in life; and, now, after reading your article, I think it may be due to my “No Blackboard in This Brain”!

    So, I read with fascination what you just wrote—and feel that I do think more then my peers “about principles, and ideas that are not physically present”——-I actually am always called the most creative thinker at the table—-AND —I do have strong visualization skills—only they are my visions—not a snapshot from somewhere else—

    Well, it is nice to travel with you and the other 2% on this—-And I have something new to add to my resume: aphantasia———-Shall we make it into a new badge of courage & resilience?
    Rita Ste. Marie Martinez Solon-Prothero
    Palm Beach & Dallas

  9. You might want to try an experiment to see if you can train yourself to do it. Start by attempting to visualize something very simple, like a letter X. See if over time you can improve.

  10. Your description fits me exactly. I first realized that I was different when I tried using a popular book to learn how to draw, about 45 years ago. I was totally stumped in the first few pages of the book when I totally failed to visualize the letter “L”, much less rotate it as they asked. Since then I’ve asked many people I know if they have this same “problem”, and so far I haven’t met even one person who does.

    A few years after my experience with the drawing book, a conversation with a friend made me realize that I also lack the “auralization” ability, just as you described.

    For the record, I know nothing about sports, and am a self-educated electrical engineer and software developer, retired a few years ago…

  11. I do not agree with the study or “scientific” article that says people who goes into artistic fields are more visual. Firstly because not every kind of art is visual. Secondly, because people, or rather the common sense has a very narrow view, in my opinion of what art is all about. For example: Is electric engineering art or science? If it is not art, then why the genius of this field never draw his projects on paper, but he used to draw most of his complex projects inside his mind and build them out of it? I am referring to Nicola Tesla… So that, I just think that people are different and have different gifts.

  12. My natural way is 3D without any colour and I more feel whatever it is in my body than see it and can deal with moving or interacting things quite well. Unknown bits are, well, unknown fuzzy. I can deal with 2D pictures in colour as well but I don’t remember colours without trying – even though knowing my front door is white is far more useful than knowing it is uPVC with a metal frame inside!

  13. Honest question that seems facetious but I am totally serious:

    Does this mean you can’t masturbate by just thinking about something, without using a physical visual aid like a smartphone?

    • Well, I suffer from this condition and I always found very difficult masturbating without visual aid. I think I succeeded this way no more than a couple of times 😀
      However it’s a known fact that this is also influenced by frequent use of pornography.

    • Not the author, but of course you can. I can easily do it by imaging (maybe that should be “remembering”?) sensations and experiences I did have.

  14. I find it fascinating that you posit it as having advantages. I can visualize things, but I can also do abstract (non-visual) thought. I’ve never felt I was “distracted” by visual data because I just turn that feature off if it’s not needed.

    I’d suggest that there’s multiple modes of thinking: Words, Pictures, and Abstract (and presumably others!). Each has advantages and disadvantages, but like with learning new languages, knowing more is almost always an advantage 🙂

    • I have complete aphantasia, I cannot see or hear *anything* in my head. I don’t have a “mind’s eye”. Interestingly, I *do* dream.

      One thing that aphantasia gives a definite advantage on is meditation. Before learning about aphantasia I had trouble understanding why some people found the concept of “empty your mind and concentrate only on your breathing” so difficult, when it’s a thing I can do at will any time 😅

      • Actually, meditation came easily to me as well – it’s pretty easy to switch or “turn off” the various modes. I’ve always found it surprising how much other people seem to have trouble with it.

        • This is actually a really interesting idea! I’m a typical phantasic visualizer according to the quiz (and I’d say I agree based on the article and what I’ve read). I usually will have my patients, if they feel confident to do so, picture safe spaces or various items to promote safety in sessions with me. My question would be do you find that you focus on anything in particular when you’re meditating? You mentioned breath, but are there other stimuli you can access?

  15. Super interesting! Glad to know it’s a thing. I’ve been wondering because my wife seems to recall places and such far better than me. I took the test and while not aphantasia, I’m low on the scale. Had her take it, and she’s hyper, That said, like you i started in engineering & science always (and still) great with numbers and facts (my wife, not so good ;)).

    Side note: I’m working with a sports tech startup (GameSense Sports) that was founded by 3 PhD brain scientists, experts in sports science. Their brain training app, think Duolingo for sports, trains a baseball hitter’s brain, for example, via gamified mass repetition of seeing & interacting with specialized video clips of pitches (yes, by real pitchers). They often refer to it as building up the ‘mental database’ in your brain. Speeds the learning process by 100x leading to significantly increased performance. It really works. Now I am wondering whether if a person may have aphantasia, they’d never be able to get good at a sport involving split-second decision making because they can’t retain the mental database to do things like successfully read a pitch or a tennis serve. Interesting…

    • I am pretty good at sports even though I am fairly convinced I’ve got aphantasia (I can’t really go past 0 on that vividness test). I was never interested much in the boring repetition to train properly (that might be more related to aphantasia? eg. I can’t imagine myself achieving something and basking in it before I do — this is just wild speculation, I have no idea how one motivates themselves to train hard), and I found creating stuff with computers so much more fun, but even after 10 years of not training a particular sport, I could evenly match up with my former teammates from youth categories (who continued and went into pro sports locally and even internationally) in things like Uni competitions.

      I think being good at sports is a combination of physical “talent” (I probably have plenty), longevity (tendency to not get hurt when overexerting yourself) and motivation to train, with the last probably being the most important as long as you’re at least “average” on the first two.

      If there’s a correlation between aphantasia and lack of sports ability, I’d look toward that last one (yes, from the datapoint of one, but how else am I going to form my prejudices? :D).

  16. Not sure but this might be related.
    Do you dream in black and white or color?
    I have aphantasia and only dream in black and white.

  17. I am also affected, can’t imagine visually anything.
    Had a girlfriend 30 years ago who was in music school, and she told me she can hear in her head playing the piano just by thinking about it.I could not believe there is such thing.To which I was told all musicians can do this, it is somehow a requirement.

  18. It’s the same for me, as I close my eyes all I see is dark and I can’t visualize anything even if I’m trying really hard.
    Now I understand why some friends reported seeing wonderful pictures with eyes closed while on LSD trips, but all I see was some faintly shiny geometric shapes and no more. I think that this condition deserve to be studied more. Thanks for the knowledge!

  19. I think I must have this too. I do like drawing, but am not very good at drawing from imagination, except by using logic as to how things should be. I was good at Physics at school.

  20. Until you took that questionnaire, were you aware of missing out on something? I think we’re all wired differently. I Took the questionnaire and have extremely vivid Image memory even though I’ve been legally blind for the past seven years.

    I wouldn’t consider this as an asset or a deficit. It’s just who I am and the way my brain and Neuro transmitters and whatever else is in there works. I would not be overly upset if I couldn’t visualize an elephant and although this research is Interesting, I think it will tend to make people feel like they’re missing out on something went until they took the questionnaire they weren’t aware of any deficit. Well I wouldn’t call this BS, I really wouldn’t worry too much about it!

  21. I can visualize just fine, as I assumed that anyone with unimpaired eyesight and memory function could.

    That’s why your post absolutely floored me. Not just learning that aphantasia even exists, but that this is the first time I’ve ever heard of that disorder.

    Knowing what we do about memory, absent brain damage, and the five senses, the disorder is so far out of the realm of understanding that you would expect there to have been mountains of literature on it – throughout human history. But for all intents and purposes there’s been nothing written about it.

    It makes it seem that there’s a straight line between someone’s (biological) perception and their behavior (and talents).

    Maybe you’ve stumbled on to the scientific determinate for what makes some people “left brain” and other “right brain.”

    Certainly prosopangnosia is closely related to your condition, and Autism – across its wide spectrum of behaviors in some ways dovetails with it.

    Wow. I’m 75 and I thought I’d heard it all.

    Thank you for the post.

    • Regarding your last point, this is not really correct, quite the opposite is true. Most autistic people are visual thinkers. Many of them think in pictures and they need to translate them into word first, before they can speak their thoughts.

      Here is an interesting blog from an autistic woman where she describes her way of thinking:
      http://www.judyendow.com/autistic-behavior/autism-and-thinking-with-colors/

      It is indeed very interesting to learn how other people‘s brains work and it is not always the way you expect it.

    • Regarding your last point, I think this is not really correct. Quite the opposite, most autistic people are visual thinkers. Many of them think in pictures, which can pose a challenge for them since they have to translate the picture into words when voicing their opinion.

      Here is a link to a blog from a autistic woman describing her visual way of thinking:
      http://www.judyendow.com/autistic-behavior/autism-and-thinking-with-colors/

      I find it very interesting how differently people‘s brains work. I believe the key for success is to understand your own way of thinking and how to use it best.

  22. I am also unable to visualize. Visualization exercises made a lot more sense to me once I understood that other people can. 🙂 It also helped explain to me why I have such a strong preference for writing and/or diagramming things on paper. I was very interested in the study related to industry preferences. Thank you for sharing!

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