Friday, 9 December 2016

Superpowers? (3) A blind mind's eye

Some exciting news - I've made it to the second stage of the UK Blog Awards 2017! The awards are run annually, and are the biggest and UK's longest running programme for recognising influential blogs. Voting is now open to a public vote until Monday 19th December, after which the top voted blogs go through to the final shortlist!

I'm so so grateful to anyone who's taken the time to read this blog and I would appreciate it so much if you could vote for me via the link below - all you need to do is fill in your name and email address so that the vote can be validated. I'm in the categories 'digital and technology' and 'health and social care' - if you select the first option on the drop down box, both categories can be voted for at the same time. 



Back to blogging... I've written previously about two conditions that gift a person with rare abilities or afflictions, as part of a a short series I have planned. This series looks at conditions or diseases that may appear fictional or superhuman, but have a drastically different reality. You can read the first blog post in this series here, or the second post here.

This week I'll be looking at aphantasia, the name of a condition in which people do not have 'a mind's eye'. In other words, an inability to create visual imagery inside their mind... Try imagining the face of a friend or family member - if you can do this, you are able to conjure mental images. For those with aphantasia, this is impossible. I've described how our 'mind's eye' works in a previous blog post, which you can read here

It appears to be only last year that the name 'aphantasia' was coined. Whilst studies describing the condition have appeared recently, this does not mean it is a new phenomenon; there's evidence that Francis Galton investigated the condition in the 1880s. As well as this, a study in 2009 estimated that around 2% of people could be affected by the condition, although this number could be drastically different.

Those with aphantasia have a blind mind's eye
Source: BrainDecoder
In the previous blog post linked above, I've described a case of a patient known as MX, who would now be considered as aphantasic, but at the time was determined to have 'blindsight', which is an entirely different condition. It is interesting that the progression in knowledge (just in the past two years since that previous blog post!) has now worked out MX suffers from a completely different condition.

Research into the condition is still scarce however, and more must be done to work out exactly how this inability to create mental images propagates in the brain. It is, understandably, extremely difficult to test for and research the condition as no one can 'see' inside our own minds and experience exactly as we do - similar to the idea that my perception of 'green' may actually be your 'red'.

The study from 2015 (available here) that looked into the condition mostly tested subjects using a visual imagery questionnaire, asking participants to score the vividness of mental images. Unsurprisingly, those with aphantasia struggled with this task. Another exercise the researchers used is to ask a person to count how many windows are in their home.

Source: The Atlantic
The condition has garnered further interest this year after Blake Ross, the co-creator of Mozilla Firefox web browser, published an essay describing his own aphantasia. He only realised that everyone else around him could see mental images after reading the case of MX in an article published in The New York Times, available here. He described his realisation as "blowing my mind" (imagine suddenly realising, at 30 years old, that everyone around you is able to see with their mind's eye, but you cannot), believing previously that 'mind's eye' was just a figure of speech. Interestingly, in Ross's case, the aphantasia extends to other sensory stimuli, such as audio. He is unable to 'hear' a familiar song in his 'mind's ear', which perhaps is more related to 'inner speech', a topic I have covered in another previous blog post (read it here).

You can read Blake Ross's full essay here. If you'd like to learn more about this condition, have a read of the Independent's article here, or the BBC's here.

If you enjoyed this blog post, or my blog is general, don't forget you can vote for me in the UK Blog Awards 2017 at Thanks! :)


  1. Hi Emily,
    Congrats for getting to the second round, it truly is a great achievemnet! :)
    Andra x

  2. Congrats on the blog award!
    What a fascinating condition, it must be sad though to not be able to conjure memories. I wonder what the Alzheimer's/dementia incidence is in sufferers of aphantasia...

  3. A phantastic post. It would indeed be a sad life to live dreamlessly; to live knowing that every experience is truly and unequivocally ephemeral. Echoing one of the other comments on this post, I too wonder about the effect of aphantasia on memory in general. Obviously we have other ways of remembering besides visual capacities (and as you say, the ‘mind’s ear’ is quite different from the mind’s eye), but nevertheless I would imagine that losing a sense would be detrimental indeed. Unfortunately Blake Ross only hints in passing that perhaps memorizing is more difficult. Would you happen to have come across any studies that link aphantasia to memory in your own research?