Books & Print

The Mystery of the Mind’s Eye

Emily Cooper Smith

Are you an avid reader who finds it hard to fathom why certain people dislike reading? For some, Aphantasia could be the answer.

If I told you to think of an apple, what form would it take? Is it clear and life-like? Is it blurry and vague? Does it even appear at all?

Aphantasia is the inability to visualize mental images. In other words, being unable to picture things in your mind. In more extreme cases, this includes the inability to recall sounds, smells, or even sensations of touch, but this is far less common. Most cases that have been recognised are identified as people simply not having access to their own mind’s eye – hence why Aphantasia comes from the Greek term meaning ‘without imagination’. If you are like me and you have a truly vivid imagination, you will find it difficult to acknowledge how people experience their day-to-day lives without the means to form images in their minds. It may surprise you, then, that many people with mild forms of Aphantasia don’t even realise that this degree of mental block isn’t normal. 

Being a relatively new term, having only been coined in 2015, research is still ongoing. Something that researchers can confidently say so far though, is that one’s person’s vivid scene could be another person’s grainy picture – the extreme case being a blank canvas. But we mustn’t be ignorant to the reality of the condition for many people because Aphantasia does not impair creativity, as it has been noted that many Aphantasiacs are successful in creative professions and have ways to compensate for their lack of mind’s eye.

Since the discovery became public knowledge, readers with Aphantasia have admitted that they prefer books with lots of dialogue and narrative because it is easier for them to identify the story. It follows that graphic and fantasy novels are much harder to enjoy and understand, as novels relying on strong visualisation can be off-putting. For example, small facial cues in characters often noted by an author may go unnoticed by an Aphantasiac reader and thus hinder their overall perception of the writing.

Can this explain why some people prefer books and some prefer films? Those who have a love for reading can usually see the book played out in their head like a film itself, and it could be said that they are more likely to be disappointed with screen adaptations because it doesn’t fulfil their own imagined expectation. Maybe it’s fair to say that Aphantasiacs are probably glad to see something they couldn’t visualise in the first place come to life in some way.

The emergent question in relation to all of this is whether authors should begin writing with Aphantasia in mind. Having said this, it is thought that only 2% of the population struggle with it, so perhaps not. An alternative solution could be raising awareness. Readers themselves could aim to be more open-minded about how each other view literature and consume media. Let’s get rid of the perception that people who don’t like to read are ignorant or unwilling to purposefully try – their sense of creativity and expression simply manifests itself in different ways.

Links for further interest:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34039054
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-minds-eye-is-blind1/
Aphantasia quiz: https://aphantasia.com/vviq/