Aphantasia is the inability to voluntarily create a mental picture in your head. There’s no cure for aphantasia. However, some techniques may help improve your visualization.

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Close your eyes and picture a rainbow. Can you picture it? If not, you may have aphantasia.

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, and Blake Ross, the co-creator of internet browser Firefox, are two notable people who reportedly have aphantasia.

Aphantasia is still poorly understood. The first modern account of the phenomenon dates back to an 1880 study, when Sir Francis Galton reported that some men in a group of 100 were unable to create a mental image of their breakfast table.

The phenomenon didn’t receive a name until cognitive neurologist Adam Zeman coined the term aphantasia in 2015. The name comes from the ancient Greek words “a” meaning “without” and “phantasia” meaning “imagination.”

Scientists have yet to discover the cause of aphantasia. However, some research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has found that people with aphantasia exhibit different brain patterns than people without aphantasia when trying to form mental images.

Let’s look at whether aphantasia has a cure, and break down the latest scientific findings.

Very little is known about aphantasia, and to date, no cure has been discovered. What is known comes from a handful of studies and anecdotal reports. However, there have been more studies published over the last decade, so researchers may know more in the near future.

Studies have estimated that 2.1 to 2.7 percent of the population may have aphantasia, but there still haven’t been any large-scale studies.

Even though there’s no known cure for aphantasia, it’s not necessarily a condition that needs to be cured. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, Professor Adam Zeman called it a “fascinating variation in human experience.”

Many people with aphantasia may not know that they experience the world differently than other people and go on to live normal lives.

Can aphantasia be treated?

It’s still not clear if people with aphantasia can improve their ability to make voluntary mental pictures. The best treatment options have also not been established yet.

In a 2017 case study, researchers examined a 31-year-old who had aphantasia since birth. The person was unable to voluntarily recall images including the faces of his wife or child. He was, however, to visibly dream at night.

After 18 weekly 1-hour vision therapy sessions, he self-reported being able to visualize more right before he fell asleep but not during his day-to-day life. Some of the techniques used in his treatment included:

  • the card game “memory”
  • pattern block memory activities
  • activities requiring the description of objects and outdoor scenes
  • afterimage techniques
  • computer activities requiring picture recognition

People with aphantasia experience either an inability or severely limited ability to create a mental image.

To determine if you aphantasia, try picturing a familiar object or the face of somebody you know well. If you can’t create a picture in your head, or if it’s very difficult for you, you may have aphantasia.

In the 2015 study where Dr. Zeman first coined the term aphantasia, he examined some of the features of the condition by surveying 21 people who experienced it since birth:

  • nine had a substantial lack of ability to voluntarily create a visual image
  • 12 had a complete inability to voluntarily create a visual image
  • 10 reported involuntary flashes of images
  • 17 maintained the ability to dream visually

The researchers also found some evidence that people with aphantasia might develop strengths in other areas. A total of 14 participants reported strengths in verbal, mathematical, or logical ability.

Some other symptoms people with aphantasia report:

  • decreased imagery involving other senses like sound or touch
  • less vivid memories
  • less vivid ability to imagine future scenarios
  • trouble with facial recognition

Aphantasia can be congenital, meaning it’s present from birth, or developed later in life due to brain injury or psychological conditions.

The ability to create a mental image is complex, and involves many areas of your brain. The exact neural basis of aphantasia isn’t well-understood, but some research indicates areas of the brain involved in visual imagery may be underactive.

One theory is that people with aphantasia do experience mental imagery but can’t access the image in their conscious thoughts.

Damage to a wide range of areas in the brain can lead to aphantasia. A 2020 case study describes an architect who developed aphantasia after a stroke affecting the area supplied by the posterior cerebral artery.

Some researchers have theorized that aphantasia could have a psychological origin since it’s also associated with depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. However, more research is needed to understand the link.

Some people seem to have a greater capacity for mental imagery than others. People with conditions like schizophrenia can have hallucinations so vivid that they have trouble distinguishing mental images from reality. On the other hand, people with aphantasia have no ability to create mental images.

It seems that aphantasia exists on a spectrum, because some people with the condition report a complete inability to create a mental image while other people have a greatly reduced ability.

Many people with aphantasia are self-diagnosed since there are no agreed-upon criteria for diagnosis. Whether somebody with a severely limited ability to create a mental image is considered an aphantasiac is subjective since it’s not a formal diagnosis.

Aphantasia is an inability or severely limited ability to create a mental picture in your head. To date, there’s no known cure or treatments that have been proven effective, but research remains in the early stages.

The researcher who coined the term aphantasia has called it “a fascinating variation in human experience.” Many people with aphantasia don’t even know they have it until adulthood.