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Can't count sheep? You could have aphantasia

Date: 26/08/2015

If counting sheep is an abstract concept, or you are unable to visualise the faces of loved ones, you could have aphantasia – a newly defined condition to describe people who are born without a “mind's eye”.

Some people report a significant impact on their lives from being unable to visualise memories of their partners, or departed relatives. Others state that careers such as architecture or design are closed to them, as they would not be able to visualise an end product.

Professor Adam Zeman is pursuing the study of aphantasia through an interdisciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Eye's Mind - a study of the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture. Professor Zeman, at the University of Exeter Medical School, has revisited the concept of people who cannot visualise, which was first identified by Sir Francis Galton in 1880 A 20th century survey suggested that this may be true of 2.5% of the population – yet until now, this phenomenon has remained largely unexplored.

Visualisation is the result of activity in a network of regions widely distributed across the brain, working together to enable us to generate images on the basis of our memory of how things look. These regions include areas in the frontal and parietal lobes, which ‘organise’ the process of visualisation, together with areas in the temporal and occipital lobes, which represent the items we wish to call to the mind's eye, and give visualisation its ‘visual’ feel. An inability to visualise could result from an alteration of function at several points in this network. This problem has been described previously following major brain damage and in the context of mood disorder. Now, Professor Zeman and his team are conducting further studies to find out more about why some people are born with poor or diminished visual imagery ability.

The recent research came about by serendipity. The American science journalist, Carl Zimmer, wrote an article in Discover magazine about a previous paper by Professor Zeman reporting a man who lost his mind's eye in his sixties following a cardiac procedure. Professor Zeman was then contacted by 21 individuals who recognised their own experience in the Discover article, but had never been able to imagine. Professor Zeman and colleagues describe these patients' experience in a paper just published in the journal Cortex.

One of the responders, Tom, 25, from Ontario, Canada, keenly felt a sense of loss when he realised at the age of 21 that his girlfriend could visually “see” things in her mind's eye in a way that he could not.

Tom said: It had a serious emotional impact. I began to feel isolated – unable to do something so central to the average human experience. The ability to recall memories and experiences, the smell of flowers or the sound of a loved one's voice; before I discovered that recalling these things was humanly possible, I wasn't even aware of what I was missing out on. The realisation did help me to understand why I am slow at reading text, and why I perform poorly on memorisation tests, despite my best efforts.

For Tom, all types of sense are affected. He cannot conjure up any sound, texture, taste, smell, emotion, or any other type of imagery.

He said the condition had severely affected his relationships, as he is unable to visualise his partner if they are not together, or to recall shared experiences. He said: After the passing of my mother, I was extremely distraught in that I could not reminisce on the memories we had together. I can remember factually the things we did together, but never an image. After seven years, I hardly remember her.

To have the condition researched and defined brings me great pleasure. Not only do I now have an official title to refer to the condition while discussing it with my peers, but the knowledge that professionals are recognising its reality gives me hope that further understanding is still to come.

Niel, 39, from Lancaster in the UK, first realised he could not visualise images at primary school. I can remember not understanding what 'counting sheep' entailed when I couldn't sleep. I assumed they meant it in a figurative sense. I've spent years looking online for information about my condition, and finding nothing. I'm very happy that it is now being researched and defined.

Asked if it had impacted on his life, he said: 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. 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 said: This intriguing variation in human experience has received little attention. Our participants mostly have some first-hand knowledge of imagery through their dreams: our study revealed an interesting dissociation between voluntary imagery, which is absent or much reduced in these individuals, and involuntary imagery, for example in dreams, which is usually preserved.

To see a short interview with Niel, and hear him describe his intriguing condition in person, please see the video released on the BBC website.

For further information please contact, Louise Vennells Communications Manager University of Exeter Medical School +44 (0)1392 724927 or 07768 511866 or l.vennells@exeter.ac.uk

For further information from the AHRC, please contact Danielle Moore-Chick on 01793 41 6021 or d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk

Notes to editors

  • Professor Zeman and both case studies are available for interview. Photographs of the case studies are available on request.
  • Professor Zeman is pursuing the study of aphantasia through an interdisciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), The Eye's Mind - a study of the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture. The AHRC project involves, among others, the artist Susan Aldworth, art historian John Onians and philosopher, Fiona Macpherson.
  • The University of Exeter Medical School is improving the health of the South West and beyond, through the development of high quality graduates and world-leading research that has international impact. As part of a Russell Group university, we combine this world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. The University of Exeter Medical School's Medicine programme is ranked 7th in the Guardian University Guide 2015.

    Exeter has over 19,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, and 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2015. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter's Clinical Medicine research was ranked 3rd in the country, based on research outputs that were rated world-leading. Public Health, Health Services and Primary Care research also ranked in the top ten, in joint 9th for research outputs rated world-leading or internationally excellent. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

 

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