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The Mind’s Eye

Picture a red apple in your mind. What do you see? Can you visualize it in 3D right down to its last detail and let it rotate in your mind? Maybe you can see and feel the shape but struggle with the color. Maybe it's in 2D and fuzzy. Or maybe nothing comes to mind at all.

This discussion about visualization resurfaces just about every year on social media as people assess their mental imagery, often referred to as “the mind’s eye”, and new waves of internet users discover the variations in this human experience.

The people who are entirely unable to voluntarily conjure an image have aphantasia, a term coined in a 2015 paper by Adam Zeman and his team. Some aphants (or aphantasiacs) have what is unofficially known as “total aphantasia” where, in addition to images, they are unable to create the other 4 senses (sound, smell, taste, and touch) within their mind. They may not, for example, have an inner monologue, or a voice inside their head. Interestingly, a few twitter users have shared that they only see the word “apple” in their mind.

On the other end of the spectrum of the mind’s eye lies hyperphantasiacs who have vivid imagery. Around this area of the spectrum, synesthesia occurs. Synesthesia is a phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory pathway causes involuntary experiences in another sensory pathway. The most common manifestation of synesthesia are visual color experiences when seeing gray letters or numbers but it can also exist as color experiences in response to sounds and touch. Not all hyperphantasiacs are synesthetes though.

The idea of aphantasia and hyperphantasia being on opposite ends of the spectrum may cause worry that aphantasia is undesirable and disadvantageous but this is not the case. Studies have shown that people with aphantasia perform just as well on memory tests as those without. One such study quantified aphantasia through drawings and found that, on the recall based drawings, “aphantasic participants showed high spatial accuracy equivalent to controls, and made significantly fewer memory errors”. At the same time, they recalled significantly fewer objects and relied more on verbal scaffolding. It also doesn’t interfere with creativity as there are people on the Pixar animation team, including the man who created Ariel the Little Mermaid. There can also be an argument made about the factual and semantic centered mind’s eye allowing for less vivid reliving of negative or traumatic memories in comparison to a mind’s eye more akin to hyperphantasia. This spectrum simply represents differences in the way people view the world and hold memories.

While there are many people who experience aphantasia and hyperphantasia, most of the population lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Some are closer to aphantasia and may struggle with visualization or lack an inner monologue; some find themselves nearer to hyperphantasia with abilities to read books and picture them like movies; some may be right in the middle. Where do you think you are on this spectrum?

– Shahrika Taiyeba


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