Aphantasia is as mystifying as its name itself. People with this condition are unable to visualize things, let alone the people they love. They struggle to remember events from the past or imagine what the future could look like. Instead, they ‘see’ in concepts, using semantics, algorithms, or geometry. Perhaps this explains why they are often strong in maths, logical thinking and verbal expression. But what makes that these people can’t create images in their mind, like other people?
Researchers in the UK have come up with some interesting insights into what happens when we make a mental picture. Their findings suggest that the size of the visual cortex – the area in the brain that processes what we see – and the activity of brain cells in that area play a crucial role in our ability to imagine. Experiments revealed more mental imagery when brain cells in the visual cortex were less active, providing a clue as to why people with aphantasia can’t conjure up pictures in their head.
But the ability to evoke vivid images is also linked to conditions like addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. And it affects our ability to remember and learn, and even how we make moral judgments or how well we empathize with others. Perhaps, learning how to finetune this mental imagery may offer new solutions to enhance our brain power, as well as our mental wellbeing. But the inability to make mental images can come with its own perks: the ability to fully live in the moment, and the freedom from visual memories of painful traumas.
To read more on the inability to imagine and remember, check out my earlier post ‘Present tenseless’.