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One of the most important skills for any creative person is that of visualisation. Whether it is remembering a specific image, like a sunset, your lover’s face or the goal scored by Didier Drogba against Everton, there is something special about being able to picture something in your mind’s eye.
However, new research is telling us that up to 2% of the population might not be able to form mental images at all, as shown in the above video.
Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology from the University of Exeter recently released a study about a new condition called aphantasia, where the brain is unable to form mental images of memories. Apparently this is the first time that the condition has been given a name, yet they estimate that about 1 in 50 people may suffer a version of it.
One person who suffers from this and had his brain scanned was able to name famous people when shown their picture. But when he was told the name of a famous person and told to think about them, the brain scanner showed that his brain’s visual systems went dark.
Other people are now coming forward saying that they have struggled for years to understand what other people were talking about when they were asked to visualise something, saying that often they thought their friends and family were just using a “figure of speech” they didn’t understand properly. When asked to visualise a day they spent at a beach previously, one person noted that he would begin to list facts that he remembered about the beach rather than thinking the other person could remember the images and sounds as well.
Niel Kenmuir, from Lancaster, has grown up with the condition. He knew he was different even in childhood.
“My stepfather, when I couldn’t sleep, told me to count sheep, and he explained what he meant, I tried to do it and I couldn’t,” he told the BBC.
“I couldn’t see any sheep jumping over fences, there was nothing to count.”
“This is the hardest thing to describe, what happens in my head when I think about things,” he says.
“When I think about my fiancee there is no image, but I am definitely thinking about her, I know today she has her hair up at the back, she’s brunette.
“But I’m not describing an image I am looking at, I’m remembering features about her, that’s the strangest thing and maybe that is a source of some regret.”
The response from his mates is a very sympathetic: “You’re weird.”
But the good news is that as with many mental conditions, this one sits on a scale of ability and there are people on the other end of the scale who have extremely potent abilities to visualise not only memories but new ideas as well. This polar opposite of aphantasia is now known as hyperphantasia.
And most importantly, this condition is not a disorder. Much like colour blindness, it just means that people affected by it experience the world a little differently.