People Who Can't See A Ball On This Table Have A 'Blind' Mind's Eye

Photo: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock
man taking aphantasia test

When you think about scenarios in your head, what do you see? You might assume everyone pictures memories and other situations in their mind the same way you do, but as it turns out, not everyone visualizes things the same way in their heads.

For example, someone posted this picture on Twitter, asking their followers to close their eyes and picture an apple, then select the corresponding image that matches what they see in their mind's eye.

The image seen by the OP was a complete blank —no mental image, just darkness — which may be attributed to something known as aphantasia.

What is aphantasia?

Aphantasia is an inability to see images in one's mind. People with a typical mind’s eye can create a mental picture of things and actually see them as if those things were right in front of them. Those with aphantasia, however, can recall details without actually picturing them.

More technically, it is a neurological condition that affects the visual cortex that is estimated to occur in 2 to 5% of the population. The name was coined in 2015 by researchers Adam Zemana, Michaela Dewarb, and SergioDella Salac.

While some people are born with it, others may develop aphantasia after a brain injury.

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The 'Ball on a Table' Aphantasia Test

The OP of the Twitter post then directed anyone interested to the r/Aphantasia subreddit, where they describe a scenario designed to test your visualization skills. Here's how it goes:

1. Visualize (in whatever form of mental imagery comes naturally) a ball on a table.

For the purposes of this test, "visualize" can mean picture, think of, imagine, or whatever it means to you when you hear that request.

2. Imagine someone walking up to the table and giving the ball a push.

"What happens to the ball?” the post asks.

3. Once you’ve done that, answer these questions:

  • What color was the ball?
  • What is the gender of the person who pushed the ball?
  • What did they look like?
  • What size is the ball? Like a marble, or a baseball, or a basketball, or something else?
  • What about the table, what shape was it? What is it made of?
  • Did you already know the answers to these questions, or did you have to choose a color/gender/size, etc. to fill in the details after being asked to get more specific?

Your answer to the last question is perhaps the most important when it comes to gaining insight into whether or not you have aphantasia:

While some people automatically have answers to all of the questions listed above, others can only conceptualize all of this happening without ever "seeing" an image of any of it in their head. These people are thought to have aphantasia.

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Aphantasia isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, researcher Zoe Pounder, who studies aphantasia, tells The Conversation that those “with aphantasia have intact spatial imagery abilities” and can perform just as well in other imagery tasks such as mental rotation as those without aphantasia.

“On the other hand, it’s been documented that some people with aphantasia – but not all – are more likely to report difficulties with recognising faces and also report a poor autobiographical memory — the memory of life events — a type of memory thought to rely heavily on visual imagery,” Pounder explains.

For example, Mozilla co-founder and self-proclaimed aphantasic Blake Ross describes aphantasia as being “blind in your mind.”

“If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself,” he writes in a Facebook post.

“But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.”

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The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) is a more in-depth way to rate how vivid your visual imagination is.

The ability to create mental images exists on a spectrum, with some people having extremely vivid mental images and those with aphantasia having the complete absence of mental images.

The VVIQ can help you see where you fall on that spectrum.

The test presents scenarios and asks you to form mental images of them in your mind. You then rate how vividly you see them in your mind on a 5-point scale.

For example, when you think of someone you know well, can you see the exact contours of face, head, shoulders and body, or can you only recall that person’s hair and eye color?

The test then rates you on a scale of aphantasic (no mental imagery) to hyperphantasic (extremely vivid imagery), with most people falling somewhere in the middle.

While a fun test to take, it’s important to note that, as with any free online personality test, the VVIQ is not an actual diagnosis.

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Micki Spollen is an editor, writer, and traveler. Follow her on Instagram and keep up with her travels on her website.