Living With Aphantasia, the Inability to Make Mental Images

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Originally published on NYT – Health on 2020 07 16 by Serena Puang

It is possible that people who have identified their aphantasia still don’t know the full extent of what they’re missing. I learned only recently that metaphors are meant to evoke images. For instance, when some people hear “My job interview was a slam dunk,” they envision someone playing basketball. Who knew?

Robin Reymond, a third-grade teacher in New Haven, Conn., said that during her teacher training she was instructed to encourage students to create “mind movies” as they read. She was taught that visualization was “a key skill” and “if a child can’t do this, that’s detrimental to their learning.”

But Ms. Reymond herself had never been able to visualize, and was shocked to learn that other people did. Eventually she discovered that with concentration, she can see faint black and white outlines. Some see vivid, colorful images automatically, and they rely on these images to process information. Some can’t see anything at all, and many fall somewhere in between.

Ms. Reymond said she initially taught her students visualization as a strategy, but she has recently moved away from it, believing that as with other learning strategies, visualization is not the only way to succeed in school.

Aphants use an array of strategies to compensate for their lack of mental imagery, but since aphantasia varies from person to person, what works for some may not work for others.

Some draw on other mental senses, such as what might be called the mind’s ear. For example, I often read my notes aloud to myself and rely on auditory recall on tests. But that won’t work for everyone: Approximately half the people who have contacted Dr. Zeman about their aphantasia also describe an inability to conjure sounds, feelings or smells in their minds.

Others take a kinesthetic approach. When studying for her pre-med classes, Ms. Xu acts out scientific concepts with a friend, gesturing with her hands to make a lesson on ligand-receptor interactions stick.

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