What is aphantasia? Exploring why some people struggle to visualise

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on May 5, 2023

What is aphantasia? Exploring why some people struggle to visualise

It’s a condition that affects 2-5% of the population, so what exactly is aphantasia, and how can it affect our ability to engage in wellness practices?

“I was in a therapy session, and the therapist asked me to imagine something about my childhood. She asked me what I saw, and I just said, ‘Nothing’. Next, she said, ‘Have a look around you, what can you see?’ ‘Nothing’. She said to me, ‘If you try to imagine your mum’s face, can you see her?’ I said, ‘No’. And then she said, ‘Can you imagine an apple and turn it around in your head?’ At that point, I just burst out laughing.” Paulina Trevena is casting her mind back to 2018, when her therapist first suggested that she might have aphantasia.

Some people can voluntarily bring images to their minds, such as those of familiar faces, places, objects, or scenes based on descriptions. But others can’t, and this inability to visualise, otherwise known as image-free thinking, is called aphantasia. It’s more common than you might think, and many people may unknowingly be aphantasic because, truth be told, it’s not often that we go around comparing the mechanisms of our thoughts to other people’s.

“I could not believe that other people see pictures in their heads – I just couldn’t fathom it!” Paulina says. “I remember, the next day, I put up a Facebook post saying: I have a question, can you guys imagine an apple, and turn it around in your head? Most people said yes, and I thought, OK, this is something real.”

Although it was only formally recognised by name in 2015, conversations around image and image-free thinking date back to 340BC when Aristotle coined the term ‘phantasia’ in De Amina. He wrote, “Whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images.” Far more recently, in 2009, neurologist Dr Adam Zeman saw a patient who could no longer imagine. The story attracted a lot of attention, and the encounter eventually led to the coining of the term ‘aphantasia’ eight years ago.

Rather than classifying it as a ‘condition’ or a ‘disorder’, the Aphantasia Network defines it as a ‘variation in human experience’. That said, it can come with some challenges.

I’m now 50, and I found out in my late 40s – I had gone through most of my life without realising that other people can visualise and I can’t,” Paulina reflects. “I was successful at school and I worked as an academic for 18 years, so it never really affected me in terms of learning. At some point though, I realised that I have a pretty bad memory. I also discovered later on that I have ADHD and severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM), there’s very little I remember from the past and my childhood.

“I also have aphantasia across all senses, which means I can’t visualise, but I also can’t imagine sounds or touch – so I don’t have that way of retrieving memories to go back to. I only realised its impact when I started studying hypnosis a few years ago. The metaphors I was training in were highly visual. That’s when it sunk in that I could do a successful session for someone else using these methods, but if someone was using the same methods on me, I’m a lost cause, it just doesn’t work. So I realised that I’m a difficult hypnosis subject, and this led me on to my research.”

A social sciences academic turned hypnotherapist and mindset coach, Paulina set out to better understand how aphantasia affects people’s experiences of being hypnotised, with the goal of the project being to find a best practice for working with people with aphantasia. But Paulina also envisions the findings of this research spanning beyond hypnotherapy and into other wellbeing practices, where visualisation is a go-to technique that could be making it harder for some people to engage.

Do I have aphantasia?

Because aphantasia isn’t a disorder, you won’t receive a diagnosis in the way you would with, for example, ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. But you can find tests, questionnaires, and resources to help you better understand your relationship with visualisation by visiting aphantasia.com

I have aphantasia and want to try wellness treatments, what do I do next?

“Please do not focus on what you cannot do, and try to find methods that work for you,” Paulina advises. “Just experiment, because I think it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if people keep asking you to visualise things and you can’t, and everybody else can.”

If you are already working with a wellbeing practitioner – be that a counsellor, coach, hypnotherapist, or any other holistic practitioner – let them know that you cannot visualise, so that they’re aware that some of their techniques may not work for you.

“I would say another thing to do is to step away from this very logical way of understanding the word ‘see’ or ‘visualise’, because what I’ve found in the study is that if you change the language a bit, this already helps,” Paulina says. “So practitioners could say ‘imagine it any way you like’, or ‘feel into it’, or something more abstract than ‘see’ or ‘visualise’. Many of us are very analytical thinkers and are quite literal, so if you say ‘see’ we really try to see, but if you say ‘imagine any way you like’ then there’s more space there for us to play around with.”

Paulina also points to wellbeing practices that utilise the mind-body connection, like yoga or tai chi. With these activities, you can tune-in to the movement to get into a meditative state, rather than trying to visualise things that you can’t see. Ultimately, it’s about finding what works for you – and, as Paulina points out, there are sometimes links between aphantasia and other conditions such as ADHD and autism – so there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer.

A different way of thinking

Because aphantasia is not a disorder, and just another example of how some people see the world, there isn’t a ‘cure’, and there doesn’t really need to be. Instead, addressing the challenges that can sometimes come with aphantasia is far more about awareness, discussion, and a willingness to adapt wellness spaces when needed. Our minds are fascinating places, and learning more about how others interact with the world can open up a whole new level of opportunity.

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