If Your Mind’s Eye Can’t Form Pictures As You Think…

When my daughter was born last year, I was fifty-three years old. I’d wanted a child so badly for so long, and her arrival may well be the most wonderful thing ever to happen to me. And yet I cannot picture her first breath, though I witnessed it from inches away. I also cannot picture her right now, as I type these words. Or my wife. Or my parents. Or my friends. Or my daughter’s nursery at home. Indeed, I have no real idea what the verb “to picture” is supposed to mean.

How, after all, could I possibly picture what is not in front of me?

I say: After all. That is because I have aphantasia. I lack a mind’s eye. If you ask me to describe someone I cannot see at that moment, or something, I have no idea how to do it since my mind forms no pictures. The idea that a mind could form pictures is, to me, science fiction. The only way I know what my daughter, wife, and parents look like—what color hair, eyes, and skin they have, for example—is by memorizing the answer in words. Don’t ask me about the design of our dishes or which trees in the backyard shed leaves. I can store away words and facts—unusually easily, it seems. But I cannot store away faces or, with a very specific set of exceptions, any images at all.

I did not know I had aphantasia until I was in my late forties. My then-girlfriend, now-wife, decided there had to be something wrong with me and went looking for answers. It did not take her long to discover the word “aphantasia” or the existence of the Aphantasia Network and numerous recent articles on the subject, in both the scientific and the popular literature. The “Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire” and some other such tests made clear that she and I experience the world very differently. For instance, the first prompt in the VVIQ asks you to “[t]hink of some relative or friend whom you frequently see (but who is not with you at present) and consider carefully the picture that comes before your mind’s eye.” When it comes to seeing “[t]he exact contours of face, head, shoulders and body” or “[t]he different colors worn in some familiar clothes,” I see “[n]o image at all, you only ‘know’ that you are thinking of the object” (that’s a 1 on a scale from 1 to 5); but for my wife, the image is at least “[c]lear and lively” (that’s a 4) if not “[p]erfectly clear and lively as real seeing” (5).

Knowledge of the gap between the 1-s and 4-s/5-s has been known at least since 1880, when Francis Galton—the great polymath whose enthusiasm for eugenics (a term he coined in 1883) has tainted his legacy—published an article titled “Statistics of Mental Imagery” in the then-new philosophy journal Mind. But only in the present century did the phenomenon start to receive wide attention, thanks in the first place to the British neurologist Adam Zeman, who coined the term “aphantasia” in 2015: the opposite (with what classical scholars call the “alpha privative”: the negating “a-” in words such as “atheist” and “apolitical”) of Ancient Greek phantasia, whose basic sense is “appearance” but whose first two meanings, according to the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, are “forming of images (in the mind), imagining, visualizing” and “mental picture, image (as a product of the imagination, sts. in a poem).” The English word—which my wife and I initially pronounced “uh-fan-tuh-ZEE-ya,” though the norm turns out to be for its final three syllables to sound like the classic Disney movie Fantasia—is so new that it has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary; it is, however, in Merriam–Webster.

The problem my wife wished to solve began, as it so often does, with Plato, who seems to have been nearly the first to use the Greek equivalent of “the mind’s eye.” In fact, he was anticipated by the early sophist Gorgias of Leontini (ca. 485–ca. 380 BC), whose Encomium of Helen contains the phrase “appear to the eyes of opinion” (phainesthai tois tēs doxēs ommasin), where “opinion” is a form of the noun doxa (as in our “orthodox” and “heterodox”) and “appear” is the verb corresponding to the noun phantasia. But it was Plato who first ran with the arresting image: “the vision of the intellect” (tēs dianoias opsis) in the Symposium and “the eye(s) of the soul” in the Sophist (tatēspsychēs ommata) and, most famously, Book 7 of the Republic (to tēs psychēs omma). The word for “soul”—psychē—is, of course, familiar to everyone.

How, my wife asked me, had I understood Plato? (She has a PhD in classical philosophy.) How did I understand Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet, when the title character says, “methinks I see my father”; Horatio asks, “Where, my lord?”; and Hamlet answers, “In my mind’s eye, Horatio”? What did I imagine when I encountered the phrase otherwise (it is first attested in English literature in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale”: “eyen of his mynde”)? What on earth did I think people meant when they said, “I picture that”? The answer to all these questions is that I’d always assumed that people who spoke of mental images and of imagining things were being metaphorical (as even those with a mind’s eye admit is generally the case with the offhand statement “I see”)—and as for philosophical discussions, well, I had to admit that I never was very interested in epistemology.

When I was in high school, I read, or at least tried to read, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, which had come out a few years earlier. Picking up this book, with its ludic but presumably philosophically deep title, is what made me realize that “the mind’s eye” wasn’t in fact “the mind’s I,” as I had previously believed it to be. But then, as still now, I have difficulty appreciating the pun: The idea that I am a mind makes more sense to me than that my mind has visual perception. It is particularly intriguing to wonder, with the cognitive scientist Joscha Bach and others, whether the same might not have been true of Dennett himself, who died in April.

It isn’t exactly the case that I didn’t know even as a boy that I saw the world differently from people around me. I have no ability whatsoever to draw; I have to think about what’s left and what’s right; maps confuse me; mirrors frighten me; I was staggeringly bad at geometry in middle and high school; visual instructions for how to assemble furniture look to me like undecipherable code; and a sixth-grade teacher took me aside after class one day and asked me to perform various exercises with rubber bands on a nail board—a task I executed with, as she put it, “exceptional creativity,” by which I now understand she meant “exceptional strangeness.” A year earlier, my best friend, who has gone on to a career as a distinguished physicist, tried to teach me to memorize information via a “memory palace,” a technique first described in the Roman treatise Rhetorica ad Herrenium from the late 80s BC and brought to a wider audience in more recent years by Frances Yates in her 1966 book The Art of Memory and Joshua Foer in his bestseller from 2011, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. I had no idea what he was talking about.

The truth is that, even now, I have a very hard time believing that most people can see things (or, as I think of it, with scare quotes: “see” things) without seeing them. I have to accept that it is so since most people speak about this amazing power they possess with nonchalance. But to me, “phantasia” is what is now often called a superpower, as though all those around me were Olympic gymnasts or Fields Medalists. And this is to say nothing of those visualizers who actually have what everyone recognizes is a superpower: “hyperphantasia” (also missing from the OED). The animal behaviorist Temple Grandin is perhaps the best-known of these people: Her autobiography, Thinking in Pictures, first published in 1995, and her 2022 book Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions are marvelous in every sense of the word.

My lack of even the ordinary superpower of phantasia has indisputable drawbacks beyond not being able to picture the birth of my daughter. When I was ten, I sat in a cubicle in the local police station, scared because a well-meaning officer was growing increasingly frustrated with me for being wholly unable to describe the stranger who had exposed himself to me in an elevator: the color of his hair, eyes, and skin; his height; or what he had been wearing. But there are advantages, too. I have never had to live with the memory of the stranger’s face—or, for that matter, with the face of the man who drugged and raped me when I was in college.

On the whole, not being able to see bad things that have happened to me, even as I remember their existence, has provided mental protection when I sorely needed it—a true blessing. The flip side, though, is that it is not ideal that I cannot see bad things that I have done to others, even as I remember these bad things as facts.

I also have no nightmares. Nor do I recall many dreams of any kind, though I believe that I do very occasionally see blurry pictures. If I am right about this, it is my one concession to normal phantasia, but my sense of my own unconscious is so elusive that I’m not even sure. I can’t say, for instance, whether these possible blurry pictures are or are not in color. For what it’s worth, a 2023 study titled “Aphantasia: In Search of a Theory” (“the first extensive review of studies on aphantasia,” according to its author, the philosopher and neuroscientist Andrea Blomqvist) reports that there is evidence that some “aphantasics can form involuntary mental imagery,” as in dreams.

What I do see with my eyes shut, both awake and asleep, are alphanumeric symbols: letters and numbers, as well as punctuation marks. I can read a printed page at a glance and then see the words in my mind, and in the right typeface. I can tell you, long after reading it, that such and such a phrase appeared in the third line on a right-hand page in a book. But if there’s a non-verbal image—a drawing, a photo, a graph—it is gone as soon as I’ve turned the page.

Presumably aphantasia also helps explain why I become restless in conventional art museums. I have always gravitated toward graphic design rather than to, say, landscapes or portraits, and my eye looks first for any words or numbers, including a signature, a date, and a title. In any case, aphantasia certainly accounts for my preference, both personal and professional, for literary form over content: When I read a description of a landscape or a character in a novel, my focus is on word choice and cadence. Consider the first paragraph of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

All readers must take notice of the language, but I gather that most also conjure up a vision of the road, the animal, and the child. For me, though, Joyce’s famous opening is entirely about the comma-less rush of baby cooing in a fairy tale.

The discrepancy between how my mind processes alphanumeric symbols and everything else interests me as a linguist, as do certain complications. For example: If the typeface is unusual (e.g., Akashi or LDJ Crafty), my ability to see the letters in my mind goes way down, and I cannot visualize words written in loopy cursive. Also, if the words are on a computer screen, even in a common typeface, they just don’t stick in the same way. And this is to say nothing of language written in ways other than with so-called Roman letters and so-called Arabic numerals. Even for scripts I know well—take the Devanāgarī of Sanskrit and Hittite cuneiform—my ability to picture them is limited and, in some cases, close to nonexistent.

I think it likely, but obviously cannot know for certain, that this is to some extent cultural: If I had grown up with Cyrillic—which I can read easily and which is structurally similar to our alphabet and, indeed, historically related to it—I suppose that I would have sharper pictures of Russian words in my mind. But what about pictographs? Surely it is not odd that the mind of someone with aphantasia might process pictographs and ideograms as pictures, even though most of these are not pictures. (If they were, everyone would be able to read a number of Chinese characters with little problem!) What is really interesting, though, is that our own letters developed from what were once pictures in the precursor of what is usually called Proto-Sinaitic script, which dates to the first half of the second millennium BC: “A” goes back to a picture of the head of an ox, for example, and “B” to a picture of a house. I look forward to further psycholinguistic research into the differences between processing pictures and processing words—and especially words based on pictures.

I make no claims that my experience is special. Although uncommon, aphantasia is not vanishingly rare, either: A recent estimate is that 3.9 percent of the population is aphantasic, with 0.8 percent having the most extreme type. But perhaps it is useful to have an account by someone who cares about language: indeed, someone who, despite not having memories the way most people do, has nonetheless written a small heap of scholarly papers (the main one is here) that center on instantiations in Ancient Greek, Indic, and Iranian poetry of the Proto-Indo-European root *men- (“think”) that underlies such words as mind, mental, manic, and reminiscent—my method of compensation, perhaps. And speaking of compensation: A remarkable fact is that many of the world’s best animators, employees of the Disney subsidiary Pixar, have aphantasia. Clearly, then, the phenomenon manifests itself across a wide spectrum.

Aphantasia is not officially classified as a disorder. But even if it were, I wouldn’t go to therapy or take experimental drugs to change this aspect of myself. Nor do I think I should have received special accommodations in school, though these days, with diagnoses of “neurodivergence” on the staggering rise, I don’t imagine it would be difficult for me to do so. In a splendid essay titled “The Claims of Memory,” Wilfred McClay writes that “[w]hat makes for intelligent and insightful memory is not the capacity for massive retention, but a balance in the economy of remembering and forgetting.” For everyone, aphantasic and otherwise, these are, I think, words to live by.

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