Some people have reported a significant impact on their lives when they’re unable to visualize memories of their partners or departed relatives. Others say that they find descriptive writing pointless, or that they can’t work in the field of design or architecture because they couldn’t visualize the final product. While this phenomenon, also known as aphantasia, was first identified in 1880, and a 20th century survey suggested that this afflicts 2.5% of the population, it hasn’t been fully explored until recently through the work of cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter’s Medical School.
Visualization is the result of activity in a network of regions widely distributed across the brain that work together to enable us to generate images on the basis of our memory of how things look. These regions include areas in the frontal and parietal lobes, which “organize” visualization, together with areas in the temporal and occipital lobes that represent the items we wish to call to the mind’s eye, putting the “visual” in “visualization”. An inability to visualize could result from an alteration of function at several points in this network, a problem that’s been described following major brain damage and in the context of mood disorder. Yet now Zeman and his team describe these patients’ experience in a recently-published paper in the journal Cortex.
One example illustrated in the report was of Tom Ebeyer from Canada, who spoke of the “serious emotional impact” that not being able to visualize things had on him. It’s caused all of Tom’s senses to be affected: he can’t conjure up any sound, texture, smell, taste, emotion or any other type of imagery. Another example, Niel Kenmuir of the UK, is an avid reader, whose reading involves going through the motion of reading the words without any image coming to mind. When he comes across a visual description passage in a book, he finds himself going back and re-reading it several times.
Zeman is currently pursuing the study of aphantasia through an interdisciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), The Eye’s Mind. The project studies the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture. If you want to find out more, then feel free to click here!