- Ann Roggen, violist; member of Orchestra of St. Luke's
Queens Council on the Arts (QCA) Poetry Night on June 30, 2022 in Astoria, Queens, NYC, USA
Joe Crow Ryan - Open Mic Host (Emeritus)
Aphantasia is a spectrum neurodiverse condition where one has a blind mind's eye, unable to conjure real-appearing visual imagery in the imagination. The term "aphantasia" was coined in 2015 by Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in the U.K. The concept was first described by Aristotle in the 340s BCE, who described internal visual imagery as a sixth sense, called "phantasia." In 1880, Sir Francis Galton conducted an experiment asking participants to first look at a (real) breakfast table, then picture the image in their mind's eye. People reported varying levels of ability to recall the image, indicating that mental imagery occurs on a spectrum. Today, it is estimated that 4% of folks experience aphantasia, significantly diminished or no mental imagery whatsoever. At the other end of the spectrum, 10% to 15% of folks experience hyperrealistic mental imagery, hyperphantasia.
People with aphantasia report other experiences as well, including the inability to identify faces (facial recognition), greater difficulty with recalling memories, difficulty with meditation exercises that require conjuring imagery (guided meditation), difficulty with mental tasks that require spatial awareness (like following directions), reduced ability to project future outcomes in the mind, and reduced ability to read books, especially fiction or writing that has descriptions of visual imagery. While most people with aphantasia can dream visually, some folks (like myself) also do not have sensory dreams. (For me, I wake up with idea of what happened, having never seen it, and I can use words to describe what happened.)
Most people with aphantasia don't realize they have the condition, until they discover that it is even within human capacity to have visual imagery. For me, phrases like "count sheep to fall asleep" simply occurred to me as metaphors, and I had no idea that people actually can picture this! The experience of daydreaming also, people actually see things.
"Multisensory aphantasia" is a term which describes diminished or absent internal imagery in more than one of the five senses. Consider, that internal sensory imagery is not only a visual concept. There is also auditory imagery (the ability to conjure sounds and music in the mind), tactile imagery (recollection of touch and physical sensory experience), olfactory imagery (recollection of smells), and gustatory imagery (recollection of taste, such as foods). Each of these experiences exists on its own spectrum in the same manner as visual imagery. One person may have limited visual imagery, but have hyperrealistic audio imagery.
I am sensory blind in all five senses, which I realized in 2022. I had no idea, that most musicians are able to recreate real-sounding music in their "mind's ear!" I am unable to do this entirely. When I close my eyes and imagine something, I merely see the darkness behind my eyelids. Thoughts occur to me as silent words, or a sense of "knowing" without seeing.
When I disclose my sensory-blind experience to folks, I get a lot of pity, and people immediately ask me how I can possibly live without this sense. Well... it's been there my whole life, and I feel quite the same about how folks can actually see things in their mind's eye? Or hear things in their mind's ear? Like the voice of God? Even as a person with schizoaffective disorder, I have never visually hallucinated anything, and I have only heard an actual voice once in my life. The average undiagnosed person hears internal "voices" or "sounds" more than I do!
Multisensory aphantasia is an underresearched condition, and what I know of it is based on talking to others with aphantasia on Facebook. I now challenge myself to discover new ways of perceiving the world, a way to compensate for what I "lack." My sensitivity to uncomfortable sounds is felt as physical tension in my body. I feel sound in my body, and acoustic sound is more comfortable than electronically-produced resonance. Aversion to electronic music is something I've experienced since childhood.
I hope to create more awareness about this condition. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com, if you have a similar experience, or if you would like to interview me about my experience of multisensory aphantasia.