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Two brains: One visualizes too much, the other not at all

Visualizing a memory is a common occurrence for many people. A whiff of cinnamon and ginger may whisk you back to your childhood kitchen to relive eating freshly baked cookies, while hearing a particular tune may trigger images of dancing with a special someone.

Mary Wathen has never had that experience. When the 43-year-old solicitor from Newent, England, recalls baking with her mother, no images come to mind. She cannot visualize herself as a child opening presents, her husband’s face when he proposed, or even the birth of her children.

“When people say they can bring up images, to me that sounds really quite odd,” Wathen said. “I can’t relive any experience I see. I see it only once in the moment. I’m more led by feelings and thoughts than I am by visuals.

“Right now, I have no image of the birth of my boys, but I can tell you all about it,” she added. “I can remember the feelings and describe the room and each birth in detail, but I will absolutely never see it again.”

Mary Wathen has been unable to see images in her mind since she was a child. - Mary Wathen
Mary Wathen has been unable to see images in her mind since she was a child. - Mary Wathen

A year ago Wathen discovered that she and her mother use a rare form of processing called aphantasia — their brains don’t form mental images to remember or imagine. (Phantasia is the Greek word for imagination.) “Until recently, I had no idea that other people did see images. I just assumed that everyone was like me,” she said.

Much like being left-handed, aphantasia is not a disability or disease, experts say, just an intriguing variation in the human experience.

“I understand concepts, I comprehend things, I have memories, but they aren’t supported by any images,” Wathen said. “I’ve read aphantasia is best described as ‘You’ve got all the same computer hardware as everyone else, but the monitor is not switched on.’ That really resonates with me.”

Geraldine van Heemstra has always been able to relive experiences in great detail and has a vivid imagination. She uses her ability to etch images inspired by the Scottish wind. - Paul Bokslag
Geraldine van Heemstra has always been able to relive experiences in great detail and has a vivid imagination. She uses her ability to etch images inspired by the Scottish wind. - Paul Bokslag

Dutch-born artist Geraldine van Heemstra is at the opposite end of this unique way of processing. She has hyperphantasia and can recall memories vividly, often as if they were reoccurring in the moment.

For van Heemstra, letters and numbers have colors, and people often have colorful auras encompassing their bodies — so remembering the birth of her daughter is an experience filled with warm hues and bright lights.

“I remember a blue screen and then our daughter’s head popping up with a little sunrise over her head, probably because she was screaming her lungs out,” van Heemstra recalled with a smile. “It’s just a very beautiful and vivid memory, with very warm colors.”

While such explicit imagery can be a boon to an artist, it also has significant downsides. “Having too much imagination can be a problem sometimes as well, as you can overthink things and get very insecure,” said van Heemstra, who splits her time between London and Edinburgh, Scotland.

If she’s nervous about going somewhere, for example, she may overthink it and experience déjà vu. “I think that happens because I’ve sort of imagined it so vividly,” she said.

At other times, van Heemstra can’t shut her brain off. “Last night, my son persuaded me to watch a scary television series about a woman who smuggled cocaine into Miami and shot a child in the head,” she said. “Then the whole night every time I tried to sleep it was like cameras in my head going through all these very, very colorful and scary images.”

Aphantasia is not a medical condition or disability

About 4% of the world’s population may experience aphantasia, said neurologist Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in England and honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Zeman coined the term in 2015 after meeting a man who had once had vivid recall but lost it after heart surgery.

“We did a brain imaging study and found when he looked at things his brain responded normally, but when he tried to imagine them, there was no activation of visual regions of the brain,” Zeman said.

Since then, research has exploded, said Zeman, who authored a review of the science on aphantasia published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. One of the advances is a method of objectively measuring the inability to visualize.

“If you have imagery and you imagine looking into the sun, your pupils actually constrict a little,” Zeman said. “By just imagining that you are looking into a dark room, your pupils will dilate a bit. However, people with aphantasia don’t show that effect.

“If you have imagery and are read a very scary story, you sweat; however, people with aphantasia don’t,” he continued. “But they do sweat if you show them scary pictures. So the interpretation is that you need imagery to generate a kind of gut response to an emotive story.”

Researchers now realize aphantasia can be associated with memory impairment, autism or face blindness in which people cannot recognize most faces, even those of loved ones. People with aphantasia are also more likely to be working in science, mathematics or information technology, Zeman said. And while aphantasia can be caused by an injury to the brain, some people, such as Wathen and her mother, have the condition from birth.

“We found that it seems to run in families, so if you have aphantasia, your first-degree relatives are about 10 times more likely to have it as well,” Zeman said.

Another finding: Many people with aphantasia do dream visually. How can that be? It’s because the processes involved in generating imagery during wakefulness and generating imaginary while dreaming are quite different, Zeman said.

“People with aphantasia know what imagery is; they just can’t summon it during the day,” he said. “That lack of imagery typically impacts all of the senses, not just the mind’s eye.”

That’s certainly true for Wathen, who cannot recreate an image, sound, smell, touch or taste. However, Wathen said she is often “led by emotions and feels things quite intensely” and would be able to describe a smell, taste or sound by how it made her feel.

Wathen has a successful career as a lawyer and considers herself excellent at communicating complex information: “I’m not really relying on images in any way, shape, or form, and don’t assume another person does.”

However, she doesn’t enjoy fantasy fiction. “It’s just words on a page. I don’t go on a journey and visit places in my mind” — which also hinders her ability to role-play with her children. She often watches her husband, whom she discovered has hyperphantasia, do so with ease.

“I watch slightly enviously when I see them immersed in pretend play like on a tractor or in a car race,” she said. “I’m much better at helping with homework or playing an actual game.”

The most upsetting aspect of aphantasia for Wathen, however, is the “fact that if I’m not with my children, I can’t see them. I can’t bring up an image of them. I can tell you to every detail what they look like, their mannerisms and even what clothes they’ve gone off in this morning, but I don’t have an image of them.

“It worries me to think that when I lose loved ones, my mum for example, I won’t be able to just close my eyes and bring up a picture of her.”

Seeing too vividly

Zeman estimates up to 10% of the world’s population has hyperphantasia, which lies at the opposite end of the brain’s processing spectrum from aphantasia. People who experience extra-vivid imagery are often in the arts and may experience heightened emotions, Zeman said.

“Imagery has been described as an emotional amplifier, so I think it would be a fair bet that people who have hyperphantasia tend to have more volatile emotional responses than those with aphantasia, although that’s not been well-studied yet,” he said.

Brain scans show people with vivid imagery have “quite strong connections between the front of the brain and the sensory centers at the back of the brain,” Zeman said. “Whereas if you have aphantasia, those connections are much weaker. So the difference between the two may lie with connectivity in the brain.”

There are apparent pros and cons to being at either end of the sensory spectrum, Zeman said.

One of the pluses of aphantasia, he said, is that due to the lack of repetitive visual distractions, it may be easier to live in the moment.

“With hyperphantasia, we worry that it could make people more prone to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” he said. “People sometimes confuse what they’ve imagined with what’s actually happened or allow themselves to constantly visualize horrifying outcomes that didn’t occur.”

For example, a mother whose children had exited a car just before a collision with another was then plagued by vivid images of what might have happened if the kids had still been in the car with her, Zeman said.

People with hyper-visual brains often have synesthesia, Zeman said, in which the brain experiences more than one sense simultaneously, such as tasting colors, feeling sounds or assigning specific colors to numbers and letters.

Van Heemstra has created a tool that moves with the wind, allowing her to capture images created by the movement of air. - Geraldine van Heemstra
Van Heemstra has created a tool that moves with the wind, allowing her to capture images created by the movement of air. - Geraldine van Heemstra

Growing up with a different brain

While many people with hyperphantasia are happy with their abilities, the condition can be ostracizing. In reaction to cruel teasing from her brothers and school friends, van Heemstra learned to hide her sensory abilities as a child.

“When I was little, I used to keep very quiet about how my mind worked,” she said. “I could play with nothing; like literally with a few sticks, I could build huge towns with rivers and bridges and plant trees, but my younger brother couldn’t visualize it. So he’d say, ‘I don’t see anything, you’re stupid,’ and jump on it.

“It was quite tricky at school as well, such as with math, where I would see the numbers in color,” van Heemstra said. “Even though I knew how to do the math and the proper answer, I didn’t like the outcome because the colors of the numbers didn’t go together, so I would change them.”

Van Heemstra and Wathen have never met or spoken with each other, but both women told CNN they are speaking out about their unique brains in the hope that it will help others, especially young children who may feel alienated in school.

“It was so frustrating at school because I would explain something, and then I would be laughed at,” van Heemstra said. “I felt very insecure, and I think so many children can suffer from that, no matter if they have aphantasia or hyperphantasia, because you’re made to feel you’re so different.“

Many teachers in primary school focus on boosting a child’s creativity, but if they are unaware of the differences in how brains process sensory information, they could easily leave a student behind due to an appearance of disengagement “when actually it is just not something their brain enables them to do,” Wathen said.

“It is so important for children to feel inspired and engaged at school,” she said. “The more aware of these things we are, the more understanding and empathetic we can be — all part of trying to live harmoniously.”

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