Why Some People Can’t “See” When They Close Their Eyes

As you read this, take a look around and choose an object that catches your eye. Give it a good look. Look at it for a moment. Now close your eyes. Do you still see it? Can you imagine it in your mind? How does it look? Is it as vivid as the real thing? Do the colors, lines, shapes, and textures jump out at you, or does it look blurry, somehow less defined, or even dull? As you imagine it in your mind, see how long you can hold the image. How does it evolve over time? Does it seem to fade?

Now imagine a random object or scene from your childhood and ask yourself the same questions. How vividly can you “see” it in your mind?

Some people can’t see anything. Nothing. Their mind’s eye is empty. They experience a neural phenomenon called aphantasia.

Aphantasia is a condition in which a person cannot visualize mental images. In other words, when they try to imagine or think about something, they cannot create an internal mental picture or image. For this reason, people who suffer from aphantasia may have trouble remembering things like past experiences and the visual details associated with those memories. They also tend to have difficulty with tasks that require visualizing or imagining physical objects and how they move and rotate in space. This can impact their spatial reasoning.

Interestingly though, a recent study suggests that while people with aphantasia have deficits in recall and memorization of objects, their spatial memory is unaffected.

It is important to understand however that aphantasia is not classified as a neurological or neuropsychological disorder. In general, it does not limit or hinder daily life. However, for some people who have aphantasia, it can cause frustration and limit their ability to do or remember certain things correctly. It is not known exactly what fraction of the population suffers from aphantasia, but current estimates suggest that around 4% of the population suffers from it.

What does a person with aphantasia experience?

So what does an individual with aphantasia actually experience? How would they describe it?

Although each experience is unique and no two are exactly the same, the most important characteristic is the inability to “see” or imagine anything in their minds, even when they try to remember a scene or a visual object or any visual imagery. Beyond any reminder, they also lack the ability, or at least struggle, to create images or mental pictures.

For example, a person with aphantasia may not be able to imagine or remember something they might have seen in a movie. Or they may have great difficulty forming a mental picture of a description they read in a book or a story they hear. Or events that happened to them in the past. Remembering faces is also difficult or impossible.

What are the causes?

It is not fully understood what causes aphantasia and why some people simply cannot see, imagine, or recall mental imagery. There is evidence to suggest that aphantasia is the result of altered activity in different parts of the brain that process and create visual imagery and imagination. A highly distributed network of brain regions, including parts of the visual cortex, the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe. These regions of the brain are involved in the processing and integration of visual information and are thought to play a key role in the creation of mental images. There may be structural and functional changes in specific networks of neurons and other neural cells in these regions that function differently from individuals who can produce mental images.

The brain picks up information from the outside world through its five senses. It then integrates this information into different regions of the brain and combines the information between different sensory inputs to create an internal model of the physical environment. None of us have actually directly already “seen” what the physical world around us looks like, we can only interpret what it might look like from the internal model created by our brain and mind. In people with aphantasia, there is something about the way neural networks and other neural cells are wired that makes it difficult for them to imagine or see visual images in their minds.

In one study, researchers measured the brain waves of a subject with aphantasia using electroencephalography (EEG). The EEG was within normal limits for a neuropsychological test battery, with the exception of visual imagery. When asked to imagine and see things in their mind, parts of the brain that would normally be involved in creating the experience showed less activity, while other parts of the subject’s brain were active. Specifically, brain activity started in the temporal regions instead of frontal, and there was no activity in the occipital (visual) cortex or parietal areas.

There is still significant debate about the functional changes in the brain that produce aphantasia, and much research is focused on trying to synthesize and integrate the ever-increasing information and data available in order to arrive at a more complete and unified understanding of how neurobiological changes lead to observed effects and measured cognitive effects.

There is some evidence that aphantasia is hereditary, but the extent to which it is and the underlying genetics are unclear and remain a subject of ongoing research. Although there may be a genetic component to aphantasia, the biological and cellular mechanisms that link possible genetic variants to physiological processes that functionally and cognitively manifest as aphantasia are not understood.

Finally, it is important to note again that aphantasia is not a neurological or neuropsychological condition. Although it can be frustrating and limiting in certain scenarios and for certain tasks, in general it does not meet the criteria associated with its classification as a mental disorder, namely impairment of activities of daily living, violation of norms social and inappropriate behaviour, and the perception of personal stress. The final criterion is statistical rarity, which it satisfies. But on its own, it is not sufficient for clinical classification. That said, it is possible that in combination with other life factors or clinical manifestations, a person with aphantasia may require treatment or clinical intervention, but by itself aphantasia is not a disorder. clinical. However, it offers an intriguing window into brain function and the spectrum of mind functionality.

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