Close your eyes and picture a bicycle. For some people, this is impossible.
Since the 1970s psychologists have used a specific set of questions, the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, to compare how well people can picture things in their mind. It is thought that this ability connects with things like remembering details in pictures. But in 2015, a curious research paper described a condition whereby people are unable to form a mental image at all.
The paper describes this phenomenon as “blind imagination” and reports twenty people who said that they had never been able to picture something in their heads:
Participants typically became aware of their condition in their teens or twenties when, through conversation or reading, they realised that most people who ‘saw things in the mind’s eye,’ unlike our participants, enjoyed a quasi-visual experience.
Since the study was publicised a few famous people have come forward with the same experience: the co-founder of Pixar and the co-creator of the Firefox web browser, for example.
Is this a neurological difference? One person (who inspired the 2015 study) lost his ability to picture things after a heart procedure, which suggests a physiological cause of some kind. But we’re still very early into researching this condition. The authors – Zeman, Dewar, and Della Sala – have given it the evocative name aphantasia, so if this interests you keep an eye out for further developments. And if you want to do the test yourself, start at the fourth link below.
(End note: a friend of mine from high school described himself this way back in the 1990s, so I’m personally inclined to believe the people who report this.)