What Is Aphantasia?

2 June 2023
Rebecca McHale

Since I can remember, I’ve had no minds’ eye, minds’ ear, minds’ nose or minds’ touch – along with (a current estimation of) 3-5% of the population, I have Aphantasia. If you ask me to describe any memory, there will be no images, sounds, smells or tastes in my mind. The term ‘Aphantasia’ relates to mental imagery only, however those with Aphantasia commonly report a lack of other internal senses and internal dialogue. 

When I was 14 years old, deciding on which colour to redecorate my bedroom, my Mum said to me “I can see it in purple”. I contemplated purple paint and wandered off replaying her choice of words in my mind “I can see it in purple”. It suddenly dawned on me; what if my Dad really meant count sheep when I couldn’t sleep as a child, and what if I was really meant to be seeing that white light wash over me when I listened to a meditation? So, I set off to Ask Jeeves...and I found absolutely nothing. I was simply having a ‘wild imagination’ thinking that people could really see pictures in their heads, right? Wrong!

Years on, I met my partner who presented me with Hyperphantasia (hyper vivid mental imagery). One day in the car, I plucked up the courage to ask him “When you think of a beach...you’re not actually ‘seeing’ a beach are you?” To which he replied “Of course I am. Not only am I seeing a beach, but I am hearing the waves crash and feeling the fresh breeze.” 

For the following few months we endlessly questioned each others’ experiences. We’d be writing the shopping list and I’d ask him if he was seeing the food that we were talking about, and he’d jokingly ask me how I can even write a shopping list with all that nothing in my head! He saw the food in the isle as if he were standing in our local store. 

In 2015, Neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter published a study coining the term ‘Aphantasia’ within his findings. In 2003, a man had reported to Zeman that his minds’ eye had gone blind following a heart procedure. After Zemans’ study of this patient was reported in Discover magazine in 2010, people began reporting that they had in fact never had the ability to create mental imagery. Zeman and his team had respondents complete questionnaires, following which he published his findings first using the term ‘Aphantasia’. 

Despite the fact that psychologists have reported a lack of mental imagery since 1880, it was surprising throughout my psychology education and training to discover the true lack of research and understanding around Aphantasia and the array of experiences that we can have as individuals using our internal modalities. During my studies, my director was supportive and understanding towards my lack of visualisation, with internal experience being in such focus, yet there was very little that she could do but encourage my exploration and reassure me that it’s not impossible to find my own ‘map’ – which it turned out was exactly what I had needed. I joined Aphantasia support groups to learn about others’ experiences in life and in therapy. I discovered thousands of people who couldn’t seem to find support to heal their traumas or calm their anxiety because they felt so misunderstood by their therapists and frustrated with the inability to visualise or the expectation to do so. They had given up all hope. Having engaged in my own therapy over several years, I also began sessions with others including a clinical hypnotherapist, so that I could experience the difficulties for myself. There were plenty – and I felt extremely fortunate to have the knowledge to translate what we were working on in sessions to fit with my Aphantasia. I went on to navigate other students with Aphantasia throughout my studies and training. 

Having a much deeper understanding about Aphantasia, I mapped out every way in which I could apply therapeutic techniques and psychological theory that I’d covered to those like myself, without the need for visualisation and without the blocks of understanding between myself and my therapist. This map provided the most transformative changes beyond the sum of my progress in several years of therapy previously. Not only did I heal traumas, change unwanted behaviours, and improve my relationships, but I was hypnotized over and over without visualisation for cravings, regression therapy and even anaesthesia! I didn’t need to visualise, and not only that, I actually had strengths and advantages that only come with Aphantasia. From this point on, I was intent on creating a form of therapy specifically for those with Aphantasia.

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