Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Mote to Trouble the Mind’s Eye

By Tim Hannan

The study of aphantasia offers a window into our ability to visualise.

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Visualisation is a common and prominent part of everyday human experience when we retrieve memories of people, scenes or objects, or imagine events that have not occurred. A new study has highlighted the implications for those who lack the ability to visualise – people who appear to be born without a “mind’s eye”.

In 1880, the English polymath Francis Galton’s interest in mental imagery was piqued when he noted that “the great majority of the men of science” reported no knowledge of the concept, with some protesting that they did not experience any kind of visual imagery. Galton conducted an experiment in which he asked “100 Adult Englishmen and the 172 Charterhouse boys” to each describe the scene at their breakfast tables that morning. He noted that participants varied widely in their ability to recreate an image and in its reported vividness, colour and size, providing evidence of “the variability of the visualising faculty in the English male sex”.

Despite occasional case reports of patients losing the ability to visualise after a brain injury, and a recent survey finding that 2.5% people claimed to have lacked this ability from birth, little further research has been conducted with those whose visual imagination appears impaired.

In a paper recently published in Cortex, Adam Zeman and colleagues from the University of Exeter assessed 21...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.