My latest article for Broadly looks at a recently discovered neurological condition, aphantasia, which affects people’s ability to visualise mental images.
‘It Was Just Black…’
“If I tell you to close your eyes and picture a beach, can you do it?” This is probably the most unexpected of all the weird questions my friend Sam has asked me over the last ten years we’ve been mates. “My brother’s just told me that most people can. But we can’t,” she explains, in response to my bemusement.
At 26, Sam has discovered that she’s one of an estimated 2 per cent of the population affected by a condition called aphantasia, meaning that their mind’s eye is effectively blind.
“When my brother first asked me if I could actually see the blue sea and picture the yellow sand, it seemed like a ridiculous question,” she explains. “He’d been reading a news article about aphantasia, and said that most people can actually form some sort of image in their head. But I couldn’t—it was just black.”
At first, she adds, “I thought it might just be that people interpret it in different ways, but then I spoke to a few people and what they described was definitely nothing like what I experienced. I felt a bit gutted, like I’d just found out everyone has an amazing super power they’ve been keeping secret from me.”
The term aphantasia has only been around since 2015, when it was coined by Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in the UK. Since then, Professor Zeman has heard from 10,000 people who, like Sam, are unable to visualize mental images.