“Imagine, if you will,…”

–Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone

We’re finding out, though, that some people can’t. A newly identified condition called aphantasia, or the inability to create mental imagery, makes it difficult for people to see images in their mind’s eye. This has implications for how people learn.

While aphantasia was first described in 1880, it was seldom discussed until Carl Zimmer wrote about a 2005 case of a man with the condition, in Discover. That article led to further study, with the condition being given a name in 2015. Zimmer then wrote about it for the New York Times, and, earlier this year, a conference was held on it.

But it really got people’s attention when Blake Ross, co-founder of Firefox and former director of product of Facebook, recently wrote a long post describing how he discovered that he had it and what it was like for him, which he described as “being blind in your mind.”

“If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the ‘concept’ of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself,” Ross writes.

“But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited,” Ross continues. “I have no visual, audio, emotional, or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time — or whether I’m standing on the beach itself. And I grew up in Miami.”

Ross came to this realization when he stumbled on Zimmer’s New York Times article. It was the first time, he writes, that he ever realized he was different. He figured that most people, like himself, were simply speaking metaphorically when they talked about concepts like “counting sheep.”

“Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news: WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well, then, what are you?” Ross writes of his revelation. His original Facebook post has been shared more than 13,000 times, and gained more than 1,000 comments.

Aphantasia’s Impact on Learning

Other than not being able to call up the image of a beach on command, what could make having aphantasia a problem? Some researchers believe it could make it more difficult for people to learn, writes Mo Costandi in The Guardian. “One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning,” he writes. “Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.”

On the other hand, Ross has succeeded in the technology field with the condition. “How do you design product interfaces if you can’t visualize them?” he writes that he gets asked. “I’m strong at the conceptual aspect: Figure out how a function fits into the overall system; figure out the minimum set of features it requires; strip every other whisker. I’m weak at designing the aesthetics.” Perhaps he, and others with it, simply learn in a different way, which can be accommodated as if it were a disability.

Some people with the condition get sad that they can’t form visual memories—particularly once they find out that other people can. Many people with it say they have trouble recognizing faces.  Ross notes that he can’t draw, he’s lousy with directions, and he forgets experiences that he’s had. On the other hand, he points out, “Thinking about a tarantula doesn’t give me goose bumps.” And he reads quickly, especially fiction, because he essentially skips over all the description. He even writes fiction.

Implications for Business

It’s unclear how many people have aphantasia, but estimates range between 2 and 5 percent of the population. As Ross’ post circulated though social media, a number of people commented that this was the first time they’d realized that they, like him, thought differently from others. And, of course, in any event, people can have different degrees of the ability to imagine. Perhaps they can easily imagine sounds, but not do so well with pictures.

One wonders how many of the communications difficulties some people have with coworkers come down to this sort of disconnect. Someone might be expected to know that they shouldn’t describe something in visual terms to someone who’s blind. But will they know not to use visual terms to people whose imaginations are blind? Especially if those people might not know themselves?

It also isn’t clear what causes aphantasia. In some cases, it appears to be due to a brain injury of some sort—Ross was knocked unconscious at 9, and the 2005 subject had had brain surgery. Some people appear to have been born with it. Ross also notes that his mother also has the condition, suggesting there could be a genetic component. And some researchers believe that, in some cases, it could be a response to anxiety and depression.

People with aphantasia insist it isn’t a disorder but that it, like autism is being seen to be, is simply another axis in the broad field of neurodiversity, or ways that people’s brains work differently. Increasingly, organizations—particularly in the tech industry—are looking at neurodiversity to help them better understand and make use of the varying skills of their employees, and not just when tarantulas are involved

It’s too early to tell whether aphantasia, like Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), might turn out to be more prevalent in the tech community. With examples such as Ross, as well as the other engineers he found at Facebook, it makes sense, but this is still just empirical evidence. That said, as with other forms of neurodiversity, organizations need to not only be aware of it, but consider situations where it might actually be an advantage.


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