Sounds like a magic word a magician would say before conjuring a rabbit from his hat, doesn’t it?
But let me ask you this:
Can you visualize the magician pulling out the rabbit by his ears?
For most of us, it will be easy to recall images inside our head, using our mind’s eye.
However, if you could NOT see any image in your mind’s eye – no colors, no sounds, no smells, no textures, no flavors, nothing at all – you may have a condition called aphantasia or a blind mental eye.
Don’t freak out, though. Many people have aphantasia, even magicians.
Familiar with Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame)?
He is a famous magician and entertainer, and he is an aphantasic(!).
By his own admission, Penn says he cannot conjure a mental image of a person or a place to save his life.
What Exactly is Aphantasia? A Detailed Definition
The term ‘aphantasia’ comes from the Greek words a, meaning “without”, and phantasia, meaning “a capacity to form mental images”.
The phenomenon was first described by the controversial psychologist Francis Galton – one of the pioneers of eugenics – in 1880.
The interest in the phenomenon was renewed after the publication of a study conducted by a team led by Dr. Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology, at the University of Exeter.
Zeman’s team published a paper in 2015 on what they termed “congenital aphantasia”, now known simply as aphantasia.
For Firefox co-creator Blake Ross it was a surprise revelation that other people could visualize things in the mind’s eye while he couldn’t. “I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
According to Craig Venter, the biologist who created the first synthetic organism: “It’s like having a computer store the information, but you don’t have a screen attached to the computer.”
Is Aphantasia a Common Phenomena?
While research on the subject is still in its nascent stages, neurologists believe approximately one in 50 people or 2-5% of the population are non-visual-imagers.
Sounds like a big number?
Don’t be surprised. Being an aphantasic is nearly as common as having a food allergy.
Neuroimaging has shown that mental imagery, although strongly associated with the left temporal lobe, requires the use of large networks of brain pathways. This means that aphantasia could potentially occur in different ways in different individuals.
The Two Likely Causes Of Aphantasia
However, the exact cause of aphantasia is still unknown. According to Dr. Zeman heredity and environment both are likely to be relevant causes.
Interestingly, an aphantasic may have a visual memory which means they may be able to describe in detail about how things looked – the cat had blue eyes, the umbrella was pink and matched the skirt – even though they cannot see these very images in their mind’s eye.
Moreover, many people who cannot visualize in mental images can think in sounds, while others can remember physical sensations.
Penn says, when he dreams, he’s not sure if he sees images but has the sensation of knowing that “ideas wash over me”.
Want to Take The Aphantasia Test?
It is not possible to “see” what someone else is picturing inside their head unless they describe it to you.
So how do we check what your mind’s eye is seeing?
You can answer the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, which is what psychologists use to rate different mental images of an individual, to test the strength of his mind’s eye.
There’s another such questionnaire by someone I think possibly has an aphantasia cure.
In the first case, although you don’t get any results, you’re helping a good cause by completing the survey and the questions themselves will tell you a lot about your imaginary visual style.
In this case, you might actually find you get the help you need.
How Aphantasia Affects Memory
Our brain stores information in at least two different ways – verbally and visually.
Both these types of storage are independent of one another, and each can be used alone.
Therefore, even people with aphantasia can complete the “tests of visual imagery” without too much difficulty. They can also often (but not always) complete these non-visual sensory memory exercises.
Here’s a quick test:
Count the number of windows in your house.Quick #memory improvement exercise: Mentally count all the windows in your home.Click To Tweet
Even if you can’t see a “mental” image of your house and locate each window in that image, you would have an awareness of being there and recall from factual information the number of windows in your house.
While aphantasics can remember things from their past, they experience these memories in a different way than someone with strong imagery. They often describe memories as a conceptual list of things that occurred rather than a video playing in their mind.
As Ross says, he can ruminate on the “concept” of a beach, but cannot flash to beaches he has visited.
“I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself…But I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience.”
The brain has many unique ways of storing visual information than just as a picture.
Multiple Ways To Create Visual Imagery In Your Mind
Neuroscientists believe that the brain constructs visual imagery in more than one way. There are separate circuits for things like shape, size, color and spatial relationships, and when these are accessed together, we form an image of a memory.
As AphantasiaMeow suggests in this video, it might have to do with how the brains of some people develop:
There are still a lot of unknowns, that’s for sure. But it’s great that someone is doing such good work to help people create a mind’s eye.
Back to the source of the problem:
Experts think that aphantasics piggyback on neurons involved in controlling physical movements rather than using the visual brain circuitry to “visualize” or recall information.
For instance, you can trace the letter B of the alphabet in your brain to know it has curves or you can use your mind’s eye to see its image.
Are There Any Aphantasia Benefits?
While the research is still out on this one, Penn says that because he thinks verbally and not visually, when he gets an idea, he can describe it instantly.
While aphantasics’ use of spatial memory is stronger in the absence of visual memory.
It gets better!
People with aphantasia have been seen to perform on par with people who can visualize images in many tasks involving visual information.
Moreover, a 2003 study stated the benefit of mental imagery is surprisingly small when it came to creative thinking.
Does Aphantasia Hamper The Memory Techniques
That Call For “Visualization”?
Not in the least.
Tansel Ali and I talked about your multiple options in a recent interview.
Memory techniques involve more tools than just visualization. You have many options.Memory techniques involve more tools than just visualization. You have many #mnemonic options.Click To Tweet
When you use a memory technique like the Memory Palace use all the Magnetic Modes, you can memorize a very large amount of information relatively quickly without necessarily seeing the Memory Palace in your mind.
Here’s an infographic that tells you all about the different ways that your brain perceives information:
Personally, I don’t have aphantasia.
However, I am low on the visual threshold.
As a result, it took me a long time to understand techniques like mind mapping, let alone developing mind map mastery (which is still a work in progress, to be honest).
Most of what I do in the world of memory techniques involves thinking about strange combinations of images in words and sounds, not high-definition imagery. I would call this being audio-conceptual.
So, if you are worried that the inability to see images in your mind will stop you from using the Memory Palace technique…
Over the years, I’ve invested in myself so that I can “see” something like visuals in my mind.
But even to this day, the best results I get from memory techniques don’t require constant streaming of high-definition images in my head. I’m not trying to develop eidetic memory, after all. I just want to remember more.
Here’s my discussion on this issue:
In any case, if you want to visualize bright, vivid pictures in your mind’s eye, you can try image streaming.
Image Streaming Vs. Aphantasia?
Image streaming is a simple process that enables you to open up your mind’s eye to visuals.
Here’s how it works:
- Close your eyes and describe what you see.
- If you don’t see anything (which would exactly be the case if you have aphantasia) help your brain start seeing images.
- Start by gently rubbing your closed eyes like a sleepy child. Then describe the bright sparkly light that you see behind your closed retina.
- Or look at a bright light like a candle for a half minute, or a window which has strong light/dark contrast. Then when you close your eyes, you should be able to see after-images, like a blob of light or color, at back of the eye. Describe that blob of light.
- You can also describe a memory that you cannot “see” but remember from the past.
- The important thing is to describe using all your sensory details – meaning use all your five senses of sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation) to describe your bob of light or memory.
- While you are examining and describing your after-images or memory events, keep a look out for experiencing some other kinds of image. It could be a momentary face, landscape, or whatever. Notice when this happens, and switch to describing that new image.
- Remember to describe all images to an external focus – quickly and loudly. The external focus can be a friend or a dictaphone (voice recorder), anything or anyone you can talk to.
- Practice image streaming for only 10-20 minutes a day to enable your mind’s eye to see pictures.
How to Use A Memory Palace With A Blind Mind’s Eye?
Associating pieces of information with a location you are familiar with, like your house, is the basic idea behind the Memory Palace Technique.
And it does not need you to visualize your house. You can “know” factually which room is where in your home or where is the window or door or the attic located.
Keeping the full range of your Magnetic Modes in mind, you can use any home or location with which you are familiar.
The effectiveness of the Memory Palace technique is based on the scientific fact that your brain and spatial memory perceive space as a kind of image.
Check out this lecture for more information about how that works:
If you’re interested in this “Magnetic” technique, click on the image below:
Memory Is More Than A Mental Picture Book
Memory is many things. It includes facts, figures and figments of information stored in various regions of your brain.
But more than that, memory is the ability to communicate these kinds of information to others and recognize them when they are being communicated to you.
When it comes to how you get information to play with in the first place, there are many ways. Some are faster than others.
Using an effective, dedicated memory strategy system like Magnetic Memory Method you can easily retrieve those memories faster and with predictable and reliable permanence.
Add to it a balanced diet, meditation, and sleep and you will be able to enhance your memory, concentration and focus in a way that improves your entire life.
Doesn’t that make a pretty picture?