Anke Dirix, aphantasia, science - two blank faced figures (one wearing red, the other blue) stand in front of an escalator, each has a thought bubble attached to them (bubble on the right contains two pink elephants and a small red car, bubble on right is
Illustration by: Anke Dirix

The Condition Where You Have Zero Visual Imagination

2.6 percent of the population don't see pictures in their mind’s eye. Does it mean they can't fantasise or be creative?
Anke Dirix
Brussels, BE

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

It’s easy to take imagination for granted. It moulds our thoughts, shapes our fantasies. It’s there when we daydream and when we drift into sleep; for most of us, our days and nights are accompanied by a ceaseless visual slideshow.


This isn’t the case for everyone. Studies show that 2.6 percent of people have aphantasia, meaning they don’t possess the ability to create pictures in their mind’s eye. This, understandably, presents some questions. What happens when they dream? Can they fantasise? Does it mean they’re not creative? If you asked them to recall their favourite aunt’s face or their ex’s bedroom, could they do it?

The term was coined several years back by Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist who teaches at the UK’s University of Exeter. In 2010, he and his team examined the case of a 65-year-old man who found himself unable to form mental images after undergoing heart surgery.

The resulting study found its way into the pages of science magazine Discover. Soon after publication, the scientists received responses from around 20 people who recognised their inability to conceive of things visually. There was, however, one big difference between the respondents and the 65-year-old: these people had never had surgery. 

Zeman and his team carried out a new study on the respondents, honing in on their mental image-building capacities. As expected, their ability to visualise thoughts was much lower than the average. Still, despite this lack of what’s considered “voluntary image recall”, most of the participants were capable of invoking involuntary images, which meant they could dream


People who have aphantasia may be unaware that their capacity for visual imagination is considerably lower than most of the population’s. Artist Marthe Vroegop, 30, discovered her aphantasia about three years ago when she was watching a video on YouTube. “It explained that some people can see mental images very clearly, while others see nothing,” she says. “I always thought people talked about ‘thinking in pictures’ just as a figure of speech, because I wasn’t aware that other people saw actual images when they thought.”

While no images pop into Vroegop’s head when she’s thinking, she does know what things look like. Sort of. She uses her boyfriend as an example. “I would describe my idea of him as a mishmash of visual components that exist in a kind of fog: he has dark hair, green eyes and he’s 1.8 metres tall. I know these things, but they’re not enough to effectively produce a lasting image of him in my head.” 

Professor Dr Steven Laureys, neurologist at the university hospitals in both Luik (Belgium) and Quebec, and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain and human consciousness, proposes a quick test of your own ability for visualising images. What did you have for breakfast this morning? Can you see the pale milk cascading over the golden cornflakes, a glass of orange juice next to the bowl? Or do you see absolutely nothing?


Another test: what do you see in your mind’s eye when you’re asked to think about a pink elephant? One person might conjure up a hyper-realistic image rendered in crystalline 4K, while another could maybe muster up a vaguely outlined black-and-white image of something approximating an animal. 

In other words, the imagination isn’t an either/or proposition. “The brain is very good at imagining things, but it carries out that task very differently depending on the individual,” Laureys explains. “Think of imagination existing on a spectrum. At one end there’s aphantasia, and at the other we have hyperphantasia [having an extremely clear, vivid sense of visual conception].”

Vroegop dreams from time to time, but her dreams never feel particularly detailed. “I can’t remember what I dream about,” she says. “It’s more of a case of knowing where I am in my dream and who is in it with me. I’m not sure if I really see images when I’m dreaming. I think I do, but sometimes wonder if they were really images, or if they were just concepts.”

Putting a firm figure on the number of people who experience aphantasia is difficult. Even leading scientific experts have a hard time capturing something as subjective and personal as the imagination within the bounds of scientific language.


“Because our consciousness contains so many aspects, this sort of research will always be a tad reductive,” Laureys says. “We do see certain correlations, though. People with aphantasia are more readily found in the scientific community, and people with hyperphantasia are more likely to choose creative professions.”

This assertion is backed up by another study led by Adam Zeman’s team. They found that 20 percent of people with little to no visual imagination choose careers in maths, IT or science, while a quarter of people on the other end of the spectrum work in art, entertainment and design. 

Laureys is keen to stress that aphantasia isn’t necessarily a barrier to pursuing a creative practiceany kind. “As I mentioned, it’s not easy to look for hard, scientific evidence when it touches something as hyper-personal and subjective as our imagination,” he says. “This means you have to define fantasy or imagination. You can talk about creative jobs or creativity itself, but being creative can manifest itself on so many different levels. Are you making music? Visual art? Do you write novels? Aphantasia mostly pertains to the visual component. But still: not having a visual imagination doesn’t mean you can’t be a great visual artist.”

This was proven by Disney animator Glen Keane, for example, who didn’t need his visual imagination to dream up Ariel, the titular little mermaid. Or Ed Catmull, who has aphantasia and is the co-founder of Pixar and the former president of the Walt Disney animation studios. Catmull won an Academy Award for developing the photorealistic 3D rendering software Pixar RenderMan, without seeing a single image pop up in his mind when his eyes were closed. All of which is to say: you don’t need to be able to conjure up a pink elephant or a bowl of cornflakes to win an Oscar.

Vroegop herself has managed to establish a career as an artist and photographer, and tries to ignore her aphantasia as best she can. Though she finds it hard to plan ahead when it comes to producing imagery, she never considers it a burden. According to one study, this may partially be because people with aphantasia use their memory and previously gathered knowledge to complete tasks which others – those without aphantasia – rely on mental imagery for. 

“Our brain is malleable. You’ll use certain tricks to make up for that lack of imagination. Most people with aphantasia function perfectly well at school or at work,” Laureys says. “The most important message is that we all experience the world differently, and that this is no cause for anxiety or fear that you’re abnormal.”

For Vroegop, there’s an additional bonus to going through life with aphantasia: “Unpleasant images, either from movies or real life, don’t stick. That’s actually really nice.”