About eight years ago, while watching TV psychics augur the future, Robb Williams asked his wife Nat how she thought mediums saw the spirits they described. They used their mind’s eye, she responded, matter-of-factly. Williams, an illustrator in the UK, wasn’t familiar with the phrase, so Nat explained that the “mind’s eye” referred to the act of mental visualization.
The concept didn’t register. Williams assumed that his wife’s ability to think in pictures constituted a “spooky gift.” But his friends, he learned, used their mind’s eyes too. Everyone he knew could easily conjure up images of summer sunsets and loved ones’ faces. But he couldn't. Williams, then 50 years old, figured out that his mind worked differently.
“I was devastated,” Williams said of his jarring realization. “Actually, it put me into a depression, realizing that everyone saw the world in a different way — like suddenly discovering you’re blind.”
Williams now knows he has aphantasia, a condition — or perhaps merely an alternate cognitive orientation — that makes it impossible to visualize images. While the condition first earned medical recognition in 1880, it didn't get a formal name until 2010, when Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at the University of Exeter Medical School, wrote up the case study of a patient in his 60s who complained about losing his mind’s eye following heart surgery. Aphantasia means the absence of phantasia, a Greek term Aristotle coined to describe the human capacity for recalling visual memories.
Science journalist Carl Zimmer reported on the case study for Discover magazine, prompting 21 other aphantasiacs to reach out to Zeman. It’s thought that up to 2.5 percent of the population falls somewhere on the aphantasiac spectrum. In June 2015, Zeman and his colleagues published a study in the journal Cortex describing the varied experiences of aphantasiacs who came forward. Unlike the subject in Zeman’s original case study, the other 21 didn't lose their mind’s eyes — they were born without them. Next up, Zeman and his colleagues will focus on fleshing out this congenital form of the condition.
When Williams initially discovered he’d spent his life as the cognitive odd man out, he felt isolated. He wanted to fix whatever was wrong, but struggled to articulate the problem. He took his search to the internet, and eventually found a community of equally confused people whose minds worked in the same, starkly different way. He then created a facebook page that’s seen a traffic surge since the condition got its name.
Williams still finds it hard to describe exactly how he thinks. His ability to “know” what other people see, he says, is almost like a gut feeling. Memories and thoughts, he says, often feel as though they’re on the cusp of consciousness.
But, he’s developed a better understanding of the differences between living with a “normal” mind and one that only thinks in concepts. For instance, in becoming a multimedia illustrator, Williams unwittingly chose a profession that’s inherently visual. He’s made his living creating images he can’t imagine.
“When I draw an image, it’s the first time I see it,” he says. “In my mind, I know how a face, for example, is constructed. An eye goes here, and the next eye goes here, and so on.”
Most people recollect faces by conjuring up mental snapshots. Facial features only register in Williams’ mind as statistics. He’ll know if someone has bushy eyebrows, and can reproduce the mounds of hair on paper, but the intermediary step that others automatically perform — picturing the eyebrows — just doesn’t happen.
The only time Williams can visualize thoughts, he believes, is when he’s dreaming. True, his capacity for dream mentation is hard (if not impossible) to prove, given that he can’t reconstruct vivid, colorful dreamscapes when he’s awake. But he remembers what transpires in his dreams with such salience that he’s confident his subconscious mind regularly performs the feat his conscious mind can’t.
“I remember the thoughts of dreams,” says Williams, “but I can’t replay them visually.”
He describes the process of remembering dreams as comparable to the way someone might recall only the plot of a movie they saw years ago.
“It’s almost like images are just slightly below my level of consciousness, like the images are there, but don’t manifest in a sensory way [when I’m awake].”
The ability to dream in pictures, let alone dream at all, appears to vary widely among aphantasiacs. Some say they never dream. Others say their dreams, like their waking thoughts, present only as concepts. And then there are those who, like Williams, insist their minds' eyes only work when they’re mired in REM sleep.
Williams refers to aphantasia as a condition because we lack words to describe biological distinctions that don't carry negative connotations. In the ’90s, the Autism rights community spawned the neurodiversity movement, using the phrase “different not deficient” to characterize brains that don't conform to a typical neurological mold.
Neurodiverse might be an accurate description for aphantasiacs, too, as Williams has discovered advantages in having a brain that others might see as inferior. For one, Williams thinks he often works through problems more quickly than his co-workers because he’s not bogged down by existing associations between images and concepts. If tasked to draw a red car, Williams works off concept alone; someone else, however, might automatically draw the red Volkswagen they drove as a teenager, and have trouble thinking beyond the familiar image that pops into their head. In other words, Williams can always start with a clean slate.
This story was originally posted in 2015 and has been updated.