Many people are not able to visualise things — and might not even realise it. A new post from celebrated software engineer and Mozilla founder Blake Ross, 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. He described accidentally stumbling over a description of the problem.
“I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind,” he wrote. Admitting 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”. The post continues, “Here it is: You can visualise things in your mind. I have never visualised anything in my entire life. I can’t ‘see’ my father&’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on 10 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.”
Ross described how he accidentally heard about the condition and realised 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?”
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. Many people noted that it was especially surprising that Ross had been the one to point out that he had it — especially given the pioneering work Mozilla has done.
Ross&’s post has since been shared thousands of times, and liked by thousands more, including Mark Zuckerberg. It 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. Ross recommends they email Professor Adam Zeman, who has been responsible for much of the research about aphantasia and who inadvertently helped him 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. This 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 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.
It was a New York Times article on that topic that 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?” Ross describes himself thinking. “Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever had that ability?”
Ross wasn’t alone in undergoing that experience, according to that same article in the New York Times. Its author, Carl Zimmer, 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. Zimmer then started forwarding those emails to 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 to find out whether it was consistent and how people managed to work around it.