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When you can’t picture your own family: Life with aphantasia

(Photo: Getty Images)

Choose one of the people closest to you... maybe your partner, a parent, a friend or one of your children.

Now picture them in your head. Close your eyes and remind yourself exactly what they look like.

For most of us that's a natural and easy thing to do.

But if you have aphantasia you'd find that very difficult, probably even impossible.

The condition didn’t even have a name until 2015, when Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter University coined the phrase.

As he told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Most of us can call an experience to our mind in a way which feels a bit visual. It turns out that about two per cent of the population can’t do this.”

So while an aphantasiac could recognise a loved one, or identify them in a photograph, they wouldn’t be able to ‘picture’ them if they’re not there.

Here are a few things you might not know:

Lots of people have it

Alan Kendle (above) was in his 50s before he realised he had aphantasia, when his wife heard someone talking about it on BBC Radio 2.

“I’ve come to terms with it now but initially it was a shock, because you feel like everyone else has a superpower.”

Prof Zerman has been contacted by more than 12,000 people who believe they have aphantasia, and it has become the focus of his research.

He says most 'aphantasiacs' just get on with their lives, often not realising that others can do something they can’t.

“It has a large impact on their experience, but it doesn’t seem to affect performance, so people with aphantasia can lead very normal, fulfilling, creative lives.

“I’d describe it as a fascinating variation in human experience rather than a medical disorder,” he said.

People are still finding out about it

Shazeeb Iziz (above) is 35 and only found out he had aphantasia four months ago: “I was having a conversation with a friend – he said he could visualise some food.

“I asked him ‘can you actually picture it?’ and he said 'yes'. I always thought the term ‘picture this’ was just a figure of speech. I went onto Google and discovered the term aphantasia.

“Because I’ve never experienced it, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.”

It’s not just about vision

(Photo: Getty Images)

Alan Kendle believes his aphantasia affects all five of his senses.

“I don’t hear any sounds in my head, there’s no music, there are no ear worms, there’s nothing.

“In my mind I only experience taste when I’m actually eating. If I’m looking at a menu in a restaurant, I know what I like but I don’t know why.”

In an effort to educate people about the condition, Alan has written a book called Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions and Insights, and he also makes YouTube videos and podcasts.

There may be an up-side

My life with aphantasia

Aphantasia - the pros and cons of not having a "mind's eye".

People with aphantasia don’t have visions ‘pop into their heads’, which in some circumstances could be beneficial.

“Both my mum and dad have died and I had a partner who died years ago and you don’t store the memories of those saddest moments,” says Alan. “I’m grateful for that.”

Fellow aphantasiac Catherine Salt (above) agrees: “I surround myself with photographs so that I choose which memories I remind myself of.

“It does make grieving easier, because in the longer term they don’t pop into your head so it’s easier to deal with.”

As Prof Zeman puts it: “People with aphantasia may just live a little bit more in the present than most of us do. They may be a little less liable to nostalgia or to longing.”

It could explain why some children struggle in school

(Photo: Getty Images)

Catherine suspects that many children have aphantasia and find it hard when they’re encouraged to learn in a visual way.

She found school difficult because she couldn’t visualise numbers: “Mental arithmetic is really hard. I believed for a long time that I was just a bit stupid.

“To me now it’s like you’re all cheating, because we aren’t seeing the sum. You’re writing it down already, you’re just doing it mentally. We’re trying to do that without seeing the sum.”

She also has face blindness (prosopagnosia) which makes her job as a science teacher rather difficult: “I have very detailed seating plans for all of my classes as I can’t recognise faces, which as a teacher can be quite a challenge. I don’t recognise any of my students!”

It affects dreams in strange ways

Prof Zeman says the effect on dreaming varies from person to person: “Many have visual dreams, which is intriguing. They know what imagery is like from their dreams even though they can’t summon it up during the day.”

“I can’t dream in images either – apart from spiders!” said Catherine. “The only thing I’ve ever visualised is a spider. Thankfully I don’t dream about spiders very often.”

  • If you think you might have aphantasia, or would like to know more, take a look at Prof Zeman's research project.