Imagine there's no mind's-eye



Research involving a Heriot-Watt expert has shown that some people are unable to visually imagine, in effect having no ‘mind’s-eye’.

Many of these people are relieved and excited that their condition has been recognised.
Dr Michaela Dewar

A team of cognitive neuroscientists, including Heriot-Watt’s Dr Michaela Dewar, has established that, try as they might, these people’s mind’s eyes are blind, a condition, which the scientists have termed ‘Aphantasia’.

For most people visualisation, the capacity to ‘see in the mind’s eye’, is an important and normal element in our daily lives. . However, according to the new research, published in the journal Cortex, some people are in fact born without a mind’s eye – they cannot visualise intentionally.

Dr Dewar said that the research has an exciting history. Some years ago her colleagues reported a patient who had, abruptly, lost the ability to visualise following a medical procedure. Having read about this case more than 20 people contacted the researchers, stating that they recognised their own experience except for the key difference that they had never been able to imagine. The new research revealed that these people had typically discovered in their teens or twenties, to their surprise, that when others spoke of ‘seeing in their mind’s eye’ they were referring to an experience which had a genuinely visual feel.

The condition was named ‘Aphantasia’ by the team, and following press coverage of their research they have received more than 2,000 responses from people, giving detailed and fascinating accounts of their experience – or lack of it.

Dr Dewar said, “Many of these people are relieved and excited that their condition has been recognised, and we in turn are very excited to have the opportunity to study aphantasia in more detail via their help!”