Everyone has problems. It’s an important truism to remember, especially these days. Even the seemingly happy, well-adjusted people have their fair share of issues. Perhaps they struggle mightily from depression, or the state of the world weighs on them like an anchor, or they fight imposter syndrome in a high stakes battle for self-respect. As you can imagine, I count myself among those with problems.

The problem I’m going to talk about today though, is different. It’s not a malady of the mind or a poisoning of the body, but it has an impact nonetheless. It’s not truly a disorder, but rather just a different way of being. It’s surprisingly common as well. It’s called aphantasia. 

Aphantasia is, simply put, the inability to voluntarily create mental images. There is a test, called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire or VVIQ, which can be used as a diagnostic marker. However, aphantasia is severely understudied and often overlooked. Most people with aphantasia, myself included, are self-diagnosed. The self-test is actually quite easy. 

Basically, read this, then answer the questions:

Close your eyes. I want you to imagine your favorite spot on the beach. Imagine the sun shining, the waves lapping at the shore, perhaps a nice cold lemonade to drink. Describe the scene you see out loud. Are there animals? Shells? What color is the sand? Does your drink have an umbrella? If so, what color?

If you can answer those questions quickly and easily because you actually have an image of the beach, then you don’t have aphantasia. If you have to think and make decisions on those answers because you don’t have an image of the beach, you have aphantasia. 

To describe it in a contemporary fashion, when I close my eyes I do not have a “mind’s eye”. I do not see colors, shapes, lights, or anything; when I imagine something, from the Ruby Shift to the face of a loved one, I see nothing but inky darkness. When I try to imagine the beach, those questions are both difficult and easy to answer.  

Are there animals? Surely there are, it’s a beach. Probably there are birds at least. Shells? There must be. What color is the sand? Well I grew up near Destin, so white. Does your drink have an umbrella? If so, what color? I’d like it to have an umbrella. No idea what the normal color for it is though. Blue maybe.

When I try to imagine that beach, I think of it more of a gestalt idea of what a beach entails. Language fails me when I try to describe what I imagine, because our cultural ideas are heavily slanted towards those who can see something in their “mind’s eye”. Imagine is the closest there is to neutral. When people ask you to imagine something, they say, “What do you see” or “What does it look like”. Another popular one is, “Picture this” or “Picture yourself in a library”. 

The verbiage is so widespread that most people who have aphantasia don’t even realize it. For me, when people would talk about “picturing something in their mind” or when shows like Sherlock talk about a “mind palace” to organize their memories, I thought that it was florid and poetic language. I truly thought that everyone thought like I did, and that such phrases were just a quirky aspect of our world. 

It wasn’t until much, much later in my life that I realized I was, well, seeing things differently. My wife shared an article with me about Professor Adam Zeman, who in 2015 published a study where they coined the term aphantasia and described it clinically. She said, “Isn’t it weird that there are people like that out there?” I was floored. I read the article and thought, “Well shit, this explains a lot.”

I then told her that the article described me well, and we talked through contrast and comparison of our experiences. We found that she has hyperphantasia, which is the polar opposite of aphantasia. She can imagine not only colors, but sounds, smells, and feelings. Hyperphantasia and aphantasia are a spectrum too, some people, for example, can only imagine in black and white. 

A 2022 study published in Consciousness and Cognition shows a prevalence of 3.9% of those with either absent or dim/vague imagery. Those lucky ones with absent imagery, like me, make up 0.8% of the population. “But Jake,” I hear you say, “you said it was surprisingly common! Point eight doesn’t sound like a lot!” In the grand scheme, it’s not. But, with rounding, that means that 64 million people have severe aphantasia. Which is a lot; roughly the population of France.

What’s curious is that there are a wide variety of people who have some degree of aphantasia. Authors, animators, illustrators, mnemonic experts, philosophers, tech giants, and actors, to name a few professions. Some of those names are Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox, Yoon Ha Lee, sci fi author, Penn Jillette, a magician of some renown, and Zelda Williams, actress and daughter of one of the most gifted comedians of all time. And this isn’t a new phenomenon, the first description of aphantasia was by Francis Galton 1880, who did a statistical study of mental imagery. 

It definitely affects my writing as well. My “image” of the Ruby Shift was a loose collection of ideas. I spent quite a while drawing different forms for it, and eventually hired a 3D artist to create a model of it so I could see it in all dimensions. I use Heroforge to create miniatures of my characters so that I can see what they actually look like. Quite literally before that I didn’t describe my characters very well at all, because I couldn’t picture them. 

So if any of this resonates with you, take heart. You can still be imaginative. Still be creative. Still be just as good an artist as anyone else. You just have to utilize a different skillset than most. 


To learn more about aphantasia, visit https://aphantasia.com/