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- When You Can't See In Your Mind's Eye
If counting sheep is an abstract concept, or you are
unable to visualise the faces of loved ones, you could
have aphantasia - a newly defined condition to describe
people who are born without a "mind's eye".
Some people report a significant impact on their lives
from being unable to visualise memories of their partners,
or departed relatives. Others say that descriptive writing
is meaningless to them, and careers such as architecture
or design are closed to them, as they would not be able to
visualise an end product.
Cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman, at the
University of Exeter Medical School, has revisited the
concept of people who cannot visualise, which was first
identified by Sir Francis Galton in 1880 A 20th century
survey suggested that this may be true of 2.5% of the
population - yet until now, this phenomenon has remained
Visualisation is the result of activity in a network of of
regions widely distributed across the brain, working
together to enable us to generate images on the basis of
our memory of how things look. These regions include areas
in the frontal and parietal lobes, which 'organise' the
process of visualisation, together with areas in the
temporal and occipital lobes, which represent the items we
wish to call to the mind's eye, and give visualisation its
'visual' feel. An inability to visualise could result from
an alteration of function at several points in this
network. This problem has been described previously
following major brain damage and in the context of mood
disorder. Now, Professor Zeman and his team are conducting
further studies to find out more about why some people are
born with poor or diminished visual imagery ability.
The recent research came about by serendipity. The
American science journalist, Carl Zimmer, wrote an article
in Discover magazine about a previous paper by
Professor Zeman reporting a man who lost his mind's eye in
his sixties following a cardiac procedure. Professor Zeman
was then contacted by 21 individuals who recognised their
own experience in the Discover article, but had
never been able to imagine. Professor Zeman and colleagues
describe these patients' experience in a paper just
published in the journal Cortex.
Professor Zeman said: "This intriguing variation in human
experience has received little attention. Our participants
mostly have some first-hand knowledge of imagery through
their dreams: our study revealed an interesting
dissociation between voluntary imagery, which is absent or
much reduced in these individuals, and involuntary
imagery, for example in dreams, which is usually