The People Who Think Without Pictures
By E.P.F. Wohlfart
I close my eyes and think of a loved one, but no face and no voice break through the darkness. I have done this exercise innumerable times, so I know better than to get my hopes up. There are no pictures in my mind — no colors, no sounds, no smells, no textures, no flavors. It wasn’t until I was 14, while exploring meditation and spirituality, that I realized this made me different. It was no happy discovery; out of shame and feelings of inadequacy, I did not mention it to a living soul for over a decade.
Over time, I’ve made peace with the fact that, no matter how many hours I spend in meditation, when the lights go out and the stimuli of the material world fall away, there is only a vast darkness where voiceless words pass through. For some people who share my reality, this is the distressful result of head trauma. But I am not like them. Like 2 to 5% of the population, I was simply born this way.
We are “natural non-imagers,” born with a “blind mind’s eye.” There is nothing wrong with our senses, intelligence, or perception, but our thoughts and memories take shape without visualization — the result of multiple parts of the brain working together to regenerate images, sounds, and smells. It’s not true of everyone that they can’t experience any senses; some non-imagers can think in sounds, while others can remember only physical sensations. For many, it’s mostly a matter of being unable to conjure the visuals themselves.
You’d be forgiven for believing that thinking in images is an integral part of the human experience. Most people, after all, are very good at creating pictures in their minds. In the field of mental imaging research, visualization abilities tend to be rated from “none” to “perfectly realistic” — but the average person doesn’t fall in the middle of that scale. The curve is skewed in favor of the visually minded, with 30% achieving an almost perfect score. To many people, images truly do seem integral to thinking and to all creative activity. But for a significant portion of society, they aren’t. Being a natural non-imager is nearly as common as having a food allergy. Yet our existence often comes as a surprise — to everyone.
“Part of me still believes that when people say they’re ‘picturing’ something, they mean it metaphorically, like I do,” says Kelly Sandoval, a fiction writer from Seattle who is a natural non-imager. “To me, seeing images in your head sounds like a superpower.”
“It’s kind of like learning your best friend can move objects with his mind,” agrees Bruno Ferreira from Rio de Janeiro. Having no personal experience of thinking in pictures, non-imagers often grow up seeing references to mental imagery as simple figures of speech.
In academic circles, non-imagers have been studied since at least 1880, when the British scientist Sir Francis Galton published the first statistics on non-imagers. The most extensive statistics to date were collected under the leadership of Dr. Bill Faw, a professor of psychology at Brewton-Parker College and a lifelong non-imager himself. Having surveyed roughly 2,500 people over the period between 1993 and 2004, Faw is the one who came up with the estimate that 2–5% of people are born without mental imagery.
This interdisciplinary area of study has welcomed the voices of neuroscientists, medical doctors, psychologists, and philosophers alike, but the debate has not always been positive. As academics like Bill Faw have experienced, sometimes quite personally, many of those voices have been dismissive, even incredulous. The study of natural non-imagers has faced an uphill battle, which is perhaps why it was only in 2015 that a scientific name was first proposed for the condition: congenital aphantasia.
The exact cause of aphantasia is still unknown. Neuroimaging has shown that mental imagery, although strongly associated with the left temporal lobe, requires the use of large networks of brain pathways. This means that aphantasia could potentially occur in different ways in different individuals. “As with most complex functions, heredity and environment are both likely to be relevant,” adds neurology professor Dr. Adam Zeman, who co-authored the paper that coined the term “aphantasia.” Of the 21 non-imagers who responded to his team’s survey, five had a family member who was also unable to think in pictures.
Dr. Zeman seems cautiously optimistic about the future of the research. “I think that contemporary technology should be able to help us resolve these uncertainties,” he says. Unfortunately, although the technology is accessible, the answers are not forthcoming — in part because of the issue of funding. Dr. Zeman is reluctant to claim underfunding, given the relative youth of the subject area, but admits that being able to fund the salary of even a single junior researcher could make a big difference. That is funding he has been unable to find.
This is bad news for those non-imagers who want immediate answers. Not only is the cause unknown, there is no satisfactory answer to pressing questions such as whether aphantasia might best be classified as a normal cognitive variation; a cognitive disorder, like dementia and amnesia; or even a neurodevelopmental disorder, like autism and ADHD.
The good news is this: If there is any particular disadvantage to not thinking in images, it is only a slight one. Non-imagers perform on par with imagers in many tasks involving visual information, although several studies also indicate that reduced visualization capacity is associated with small reductions in short-term memory. A 2003 meta-study concluded that when it comes to creative thinking, the benefit of mental imagery is surprisingly small. It is quite possible that individual differences are more important than whether or not we think in images.
That is not to say that non-imagers are unaffected by their condition. “I do think it affected my math in school,” says R. E. Sanderson, a dog trainer from England. Initially, she had a math teacher who always provided visual aids. “He’d draw a diagram on the board for everything he taught us, or provided us with printed diagrams or pictures in textbooks,” she says. This allowed her to see each logical step, analyze what she was looking at, and easily memorize the picture’s content. But when she got a new teacher, she went from loving math to hating it. Her new teacher didn’t use visual aids, and with no picture in her mind to reference while the teacher spoke, it became much harder to follow the steps outlined, draw conclusions, and memorize. “He’d talk and if I didn’t understand, he’d repeat himself again, and again, but none of what he said sank in,” Sanderson says. “Within a week I’d gone from getting a 99% score in a test to getting 3%. I used to think he was an awful teacher, but looking back at it, now that I know about aphantasia, I assume that he just expected us to picture his words in our minds.”
Instead of thinking with images, natural non-imagers often recall people, places, and events through descriptive storytelling. Sanderson compares her mind to a book without pictures. “I have a narrative of thought running through my mind,” she says. “When I remember something, I write the memory in my mind as though it were a story.” For some, answers appear in the mind seemingly out of nowhere. “The information just comes. It’s that simple,” verifies Bruno Ferreira.
Certain non-imagers, like myself, compensate for the lack of visuals with kinesthetic information, or the memory of motion; for instance, recalling the motions necessary to trace a loved one’s features instead of seeing the face itself, or remembering the layout of a house by recalling the motions necessary to move through it while performing daily tasks.
Often, only conscious imagery is affected. Most non-imagers still dream with pictures, though the visual vividness varies from person to person. My own dreams are usually blurry, colorless and populated with faceless beings, but I experience them as incredibly vivid and emotionally engaging. Sometimes, unconsciously produced images will even slip into the awake mind, producing flashes. This happened once to Alexandra Martel, a university student from Quebec, while she was walking with her boyfriend. “I saw my brother swimming, trying to keep his head above the water, his child face, his eyes, his eyelashes, the pool, the reflection of the sun on the water,” she explains. “I stopped walking, stunned, and started crying in the middle of the street. It felt so real, it was beautiful. It lasted only a second, and now I cannot see it again.”
For the most part, non-imagers are not terribly discouraged by not being able to visualize. “I was [upset] at first, mostly due to being told I was missing out. But as the initial shock wore off, I began to question myself,” says Sanderson. “I suppose it would be nice to actually see some of my memories again, although there are some things I’m glad I only had to see once! Overall I’m happy with how my mind works and I wouldn’t want to change it.”
My own path has been less straightforward. When I learned that others around me could visualize, I was a teenager. I didn’t grasp at the time what this could mean in the context of aging and mortality. It wasn’t until adulthood that I experienced the sorrow and loneliness that comes from not being able to experience the memories of deceased loved ones.
Learning that I was not alone also came with a mourning period. It’s true that I had experienced shame over my condition in the past, but I also believed with all my heart that I would one day overcome this personal inadequacy of mine. The fact that this is not a personal flaw lifted the shame, but at the same time snuffed out much of the hope.
But it is not all negative. I am happy with who I am, and as for the things I can’t experience, I am motivated to work around them. While I still wish that I could experience the past and remember the people I love, I have the privilege of living in a modern society where I can literally create my own external memory storage, filled with all of the photos, videos, and sound files that my mind can’t produce on its own.
Sometimes, a lack of imagery can even be an advantage. “Not picturing things means that when I write, it’s fairly easy to get the words down,” says Kelly Sandoval, noting that she’s not hindered by having to translate images into words. ”I’m very sensitive to the rhythms of prose as a result, and I think my prose is better for that sensitivity.”
If she could teach the world just one thing about being a non-imager, it’s that “it’s not a lack of imagination. You don’t need pictures in your head to be creative. You just need ideas. And ideas come in all sorts of forms.” Sanderson adds: “I feel like everyone has their own unique way of seeing and experiencing the world; this is just another variation.”