I can't visualise
My brain is like a black box
You know when you’re a kid and you can’t sleep, your parents will often tell you to count sheep.
As a bad sleeper, I’d snuggle up under my covers, lay on my back and count to ten. I’d say the word sheep, but I didn’t see anything. I’d move my eyes from right to left, but I still didn’t see anything.
Where were the sheep? Was I supposed to see sheep frolicking and jumping over a fence? I had no idea, but quite quickly determined that counting sheep was just an expression to make the boring act of counting until you fell asleep feel a bit more fun.
Fast forward to my early twenties and I’m at one of my first pain management workshop things for chronic pain. It was about meditation. Beyond the "focus on your body” stuff that I hated, we were told to visualise something relaxing (I forget what).
This, it turns out, is a common theme in the relaxation side of “self-management” for chronic pain. From apps to therapists to books - it seems like visualisation and guided imagery techniques are everywhere.
But, just like with those bloody sheep, whenever I was told to visualise a babbling brook or a beam of light slowly melting my pain…I saw…nothing.
Because I knew nothing but blackness in my brain, I just assumed that all this talk of visualisation was literal pseudoscience.
But then I talked to more people, including those who work with chronic pain and visualisation, and it turned out that no…it’s actually thing that people can do.
Fast forward a few more years. The Queen’s Gambit is blowing up on Netflix.
As Beth Harmon lies in bed, she plays a game of chess on the ceiling with giant upside down pieces.
“That’s a cool visual,” I said, turning to Sebastian (who plays chess). “But surely people can’t actually do that in real life.”
It led to another conversation (one that occasionally came up over the years) about how his brain works, how people use visualisation, "memory palaces” (OHHH that’s why that literally never made sense to me!), and all things visual imagery.
As a result of having my mind blown and learning that an inability to visualise is not, in fact, the norm, I’ve become kind of obsessed with learning how the brains of my favourite people work.
We seem to be on a spectrum, with my friend Lucy being pretty much the opposite of me - able to conjure imagery in such intense detail it’s absolutely fascinating.
I, on the other hand, describe my brain like a black box. I also can’t conjure up smells, and when I think of a song, sound or music in my head, it’s in my own voice. Everything to me is words. Or feelings.
Does it change anything about me or my life? No. Not really. It’s what I’ve always known and it’s just how I am. Mostly, I find it fascinating that I could spend most of my adult life believing that visualisation was pseudoscience, only for that to not be the case. A lot of things in pop culture make a lot more sense now. People can actually count sheep!
But thinking about all of this has given me a better insight into how my brain works, how I respond to things, and perhaps even some of the things I’ve struggled with over the years.
A small example I thought about on Monday: when I used to sing I really struggled with harmonising and I always liked to sing while listening to someone else sing.
Could that be because I can’t hold music in my head? All I hear is myself, on the same note going “bum bum bum” or “doop di doop” to whatever tune I’m thinking about.
Maybe? Or I could just not be great at harmonising!
Either way, it turns out that this inability to visualise is a thing. It’s called Aphantasia.
I’ve not been diagnosed with it (nor will I be seeking one), but I wanted to learn more about it as I find it all so fascinating.
So, I turned to the lovely people at the Aphantasia Network to learn more about what aphantasia is, the impact it can have on the lives of people who can’t visualise, and what it means for pain patients who are told to visualise but just bloody can’t!
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So, let's start at the beginning! What exactly is Aphantasia?
Aphantasia is the inability to visualise in your mind, or as we prefer to say, "image-free thinking."
For people who have rich visual imaginations, can you give us an example of what this looks like in practice?
Think of a horse. Does some kind of mental image of a horse come to mind? Imagery functions like a weak form of perception. Most people will see vague to moderately clear images in their mind, some will see extremely vivid images of a horse, just like they were seeing it with their eyes.
A few, like me, will experience no mental images at all. This simple graphic helps to illustrate the spectrum of imagery vividness:
You can see some people with rich visual imaginations (hyperphantasia) describe their experience as almost life-like, or the total opposite experience of aphantasia.
Does this mean people with aphantasia don't have imaginations?
No. Imagination is much more nuanced and complex than our ability or inability to create sensory representations of things in their absence.
Aphantasics may not experience sensory imagination, but they do have a conceptual imagination. That is, they think, often creatively, in concepts or ideas. It's why you often hear aphants saying things like: "I can imagine things, I just don't see them."
They'll often describe it as "a knowing" rather than "a seeing". Early days in our discovery yet, but it could be that aphantasics have a heightened experience of conceptual imagination, and perform better at conceptual tasks like spatial reasoning which might also help to explain why they are more likely to work in STEM fields (with some notable exceptions in creative industries of course!) as one study found.
And it doesn't just impact the visual system?
That's correct. The term Aphantasia can be used flexibly to describe the absence of sensory imagination, which extends to all mental imagery senses.
For example, if you cannot hear the horse neigh in your mind, then you might experience auditory aphantasia, or sound-free imagination. If you cannot smell the barnyard, you might experience olfactory aphantasia, or smell-free imagination. Some people may use different words to describe the same experience, here's a report calling for a single term "aphantasia" for clear communications and to promote greater understanding.
How can this lead to alternative ways of thinking?
We're still at the base camp of our understanding, but one example is creativity. So much of our culture/media conflates imagination with creativity. They are not the same thing.
Aphantasics can be incredibly creative. They simply go about the creative process, differently. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Craig Venter, biologist who first sequenced the Human Genome. Blake Ross, creator of Mozilla Firefox. Glen Keane, Disney Animator and Creator of The Little Mermaid. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. All have aphantasia.
In the absence of sensory imagination, one can reasonably infer that aphantasics will remember, dream, learn, and think about the future in different ways than the typical visualiser.
What ways can aphantasia impact people's lives beyond the sensory?
Aphantasia can impact your life, work, and well-being in so many different ways; everything from how you remember details/facts about your past experiences, to what career you may be more inclined to choose, to your experience of PTSD or other mental health afflictions. There are many discoveries beyond this, and many more we have yet to discover.
And it's a spectrum, right?
Yes. Each mental imagery sense is its own spectrum. It's not simply the case that you have imagery or you don't. Think of it as a set of sliders for each mental sense. More vivid to less vivid is one way to think about it, but there are other factors that impact our imagery as well - can the pictures move? how colourful are they? are they blurry or sharp? can you hold them in your mind, or do they just come in quick flashes? There are lots to unpack here.
How common is aphantasia?
Current estimates are ~0.8-3% of the global population.
Could aphantasia impact how we are able to perceive or describe pain?
Possibly, we would need to investigate more or defer to the experts.
Visualisation techniques are very often recommended to people living with chronic pain. For many years I believed that visualisation was literal pseudoscience as I just couldn't understand how or why this was supposed to work when I couldn't see anything. What impact can this have on the treatment or management of conditions that can benefit from visualisation?
This research could have big impacts. We've talked to some aphantasics who suffer from chronic pain where the only available rehabilitation or "cure" requires imagery, whether visual, motor or other senses.
We hope to see more discoveries into alternative treatment and management strategies for aphantasics in the near future.
Are there any alternative exercises to visualisation that could have a similar impact?
None that have been identified, codified, and widely disseminated. At least not that we've seen.
This is a very new field. What is the current state of aphantasia research? What are you currently excited for?
Dr. Zeman's original paper still ranks in the top 3% of new research interests on Altmetric. There have been lots of new researchers from around the globe that have been in contact with the Aphantasia Network to conduct new studies into the extremes. We share all the latest published research here.
We're excited about a number of things: a greater understanding of the imagination spectrum across senses, more objective measures to detect aphantasia like the latest pupillary finding, and more practical "so what" strategies, techniques, or modifications to help aphantasics and those from across the spectrum better identify, perform, learn, cope, remember, etc.
Do you have any final message for people who think they may have aphantasia?
A message from our Founder:
“We all experience invisible cognitive differences, and aphantasia is one of them. It might feel unfair that others can do something we seemingly can't.. that's how I felt for some time.
My mindset on it changed, though, when I focused on the advantages that come with an image-free mind. A simple concept that opened my eyes: most people who visualise, can't turn it off, and they don't always "choose" what they visualise. The process can be involuntary. I say this to illustrate that more imagery doesn't always equal good. Now, if [you] were to offer me a pill to gain the imagery back, I'd certainly decline. Aphantasia is my superpower.”