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Doctor, I can’t count sheep!


Elinor Jones, Science Editor, visualised what it’s like to live without a mind’s eye 

IN 2003, a man dubbed MX claimed he could no longer conjure up images of friends and family, he could not visualise descriptive scenes from his beloved novels, nor could he ‘see’ his favourite places to visit. When presented to neurologist Adam Zeman, this wasn’t just a bizarre phenomenon, it became the forefront of Professor Zeman’s research: why can’t this man form pictures in his mind?

Now at the University of Exeter, Professor Zeman has been investigating the neuroscience of people who cannot visualise things, known as aphantasia, and the converse, as some people experience hyperphantasia, an intense visual imagination. These extremes of imaginations can affect up to one in 50 people, with many saying these variations impact significantly on their daily lives.
From being unable to visualise memories like your wedding day or the birth of your child, to the meaninglessness of descriptive writing and music, aphantasia causes challenges, with the potential to limit creativity and cause distress and prevent you being able to count sheep.

Why can’t this man form images of friends in his mind? 

The Firefox internet browser’s co-creator Blake Ross describes his experience of visual imagery by suggesting the concept of a beach. He has knowledge that both sand and sea are involved, alongside the factual recall of other information about beaches, yet he cannot put these concepts together, nor can he conjure up images of when he has visited the seaside or create these images upon visiting again.
Other high-profile creatives, such as ex-Pixar boss Ed Catmull, say their aphantasia hasn’t hindered their performance in their career, but the limitations often creep up when least expected, such as during meditation.
Although first noted as early as 1880 by Sir Francis Galton, who conducted a survey of the public’s internal imagery, the phenomenon, which can be both distressing and peculiar, had rarely been explored more than a handful of times in case studies until Zeman’s interest was piqued in the early 2000s, and in 2015 the term aphantasia was coined, to describe this peculiar lack of visual imagination.

He knows sand and sea are involved, but he can’t conjure up images of a beach

Visualisation is a complex process which is resultant of many different brain regions working in symphony to create images dependent on our memory of how people, places and objects look. The frontal and parietal lobes of the brain organise the visualisation in coordination with the temporal and occipital lobes, giving the images the sense that they are ‘visual’, as if one is actually looking at the object or person.
Most notably, the superior (upper) parietal lobe in the left hemisphere and inferior premotor areas were prominent in the semantic demands placed on them by tasks that require visual imagery.
Recent studies have aimed to greatly develop the international research into visual imagery, including imaging brains of individuals without a mind’s eye with MRI scans.
This coordinated, global approach to intrigue was high
lighted at the first ever Extreme Imagination Conference held by the University of Exeter in April 2019, with neuroscientists and philosophers meeting at a cross section of visual imagination biology and culture, eloquently showcasing perfect harmony between visual art and human physiology.

Discovering that others share their experiences brings this community together

Professor Adam Zeman said: “During the conference many people expressed delight in finally having a term for an aspect of their life that they previously found very difficult to communicate to others – and in discovering that countless others share their distinctive variation in experience. It was incredible to play a part in bringing this community together.”

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