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Aphantasia: Software engineer Blake Ross writes ‘mind-blowing’ post about being unable to imagine things

A post recounting what living with the hypothesised condition has been shared thousands of times - often by people just realising that they too may have it

Andrew Griffin
Monday 25 April 2016 16:35
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Many people are not able to visualise things - and might not even realise it.

A new post sharing the reality of living with aphantasia is bringing to public awareness a hypothetical but apparently surprisingly common problem that leaves people unable to imagine visual images.

The interest has been brought about by a post from celebrated software engineer and Mozilla founder Blake Ross, who described accidentally stumbling over a description of the problem.

“I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind,” wrote Mr Ross in the post. He wrote that though he had simply stumbled over the realisation, it was “as close an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh”.

“Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind,” the post continues.

“I have never visualized anything in my entire life,” Mr Ross wrote. |I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor.

“I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.”

Mr Ross described how he accidentally heard about the condition and realise that it applied to him. Straight away, he began chatting to friends to see if it was unusual not to be able to visualise things.

But all of those friends reported that they could “see things” if they were instructed to, when he told them to imagine a beach. But the idea of a “mental picture” like that made no sense to him, he wrote.

“The very foundation of the question does not compute in my brain,” he wrote. “It’s like asking me if the number seven has any stubble, or if the puppy is on a leash. What puppy?”

Optical illusion cake

Mr Ross did manage to find two people who described having the problem - engineers from Facebook, where he used to be head of product - and said that the feeling of doing so was one of “transcendent warmth”.

He then went on to detail a list of common questions that had been asked of him. Those included people wondering whether the same thing applied to sound - and Mr Ross said that while he can imagine some voices, it is difficult to “hear” songs and he had never had one stuck in his head.

Many noted that it was especially surprising that Mr Ross had been the one to point out that he had it - especially given the pioneering work that Mozilla has done.

Mr Ross’s post has since been shared thousands of times, and liked by thousands more people including Mark Zuckerberg. Many of those people reflected in the comments that they appeared to have the same thing and had only just realised: “It was surreal reading this,” wrote one.

The reaction seems to show that many more people might have it, too. The post has also been shared on Twitter, where many posting it are indicating that they too have just realised that they are unable to visualise things.

People can find out whether they might be affected by taking a short survey on the BBC’s website. Mr Ross recommends that people who think they might take part to email Professor Adam Zeman - the man who has been responsible for much of the research about aphantasia, and who inadvertently helped Mr Ross find out what was affecting him.

The idea of aphantasia has been part of medical literature for over a century - first proposed by Francis Galton in 1880 - but what exactly causes it has gone mostly unstudied since. That was despite a survey in the 20th century that showed that 2.5 per cent of people might be affected by the condition.

Most of the work on aphantasia is the work of one team, led by Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter’s Medical School.

That began in 2005, when a 65-year-old retired building inspector visited Professor Zeman who realised that he appeared to have developed what is now known as aphantasia, following minor surgery. The man known as MX seemed otherwise as expected, but couldn’t conjure images within his mind - an

It was a New York Times article on that topic that Mr Ross stumbled over, which described the case of MX and how he had lost the ability to form mental images.

“What do you mean “lost” his ability?” Mr Ross describes himself thinking. “Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever had that ability?”

Mr Ross wasn’t alone in undergoing that experience, according to that same article in the New York Times. Its author had written another piece about MX in 2010 - and soon after that was published, he began receiving emails from readers who appeared to have the same thing.

““I have spent my entire life explaining to people that I do not think visually,” a reader wrote to Carl Zimmer, who wrote the NYT’s article. “I cannot conjure a mental image of a person or of a place to save my life.”

Mr Zimmer then started forwarding those emails onto Professor Zeman, who said that he and his colleagues had also been hearing from people who described having the same condition.

They used those emails to undertake a survey of the 21 people who reported the condition - and had not acquired it, like MX, but had never been able to imagine - to find out whether it was consistent, and how people managed to work around it. They mostly reported similar effects to each other, and Professor Zeman then went on to explore exactly how and why they are happening.

Members of that study described how they had mostly managed to cope with not being able to visualise things. But one participant - Gill Morgan, the chair of NHS Providers - said that she had grown more aware of the problems of it when her mother died and she was unable to picture her face.

“I became more aware of it when my mum died, as I can’t remember her face. I now realise that others can conjure up a picture of someone they love, and that did make me feel sad, although of course I remember her in other ways,” she said. “I can describe the way she stood on the stairs for a photo for example, I just can’t see it.”

Others said that having aphantasia did appear to have affected their lives.

“I have never been ambitious, and wondered if an inability to 'imagine myself in a place ten years from now' as a concrete image has affected this,” said Niel Kenmuir, a 39-year-old who said that he realised he couldn’t visualise images in primary school. “I also find it difficult to jump from abstract thought to concrete examples, although I think a positive consequence is that I am perhaps better at thinking abstractly than many other people.”

Professor Zeman is exploring aphantasia through a range of work that includes study with artists and philosophers.

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