When I say you try to close your eyes and imagine a flock of sheep jumping over a fence, can you do that? Most of us have done this easily since we were kids. But some people cannot. They saw only a black color in front of them, and no sheep jumped out.
These people are suffering from a strange syndrome called “aphantasia”, a term put by Dr. Adam Zeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Exeter in the UK.phantasia“in Greek means” fantasy “.
In contrast to “phantasia”, “aphantasia” syndrome is defined as the inability to summon any image from memory, whether it is the face of a loved one or a familiar place.
Although appearing in ancient medical texts from the 19th century, but “aphantasia” syndrome has only been accurately identified in 2015. Since then, the scientific research on the syndrome. This is counted only on the fingertips, most of which are just self-descriptions of the patient.
One of the first people with “aphantasia” syndrome to speak up about his experience is Niel Kenmuir. In an interview with the BBC, he said that he recognized it when he was a kid. Kenmuir’s stepfather then told him to imagine sheep jumping over a fence and counting them to make it easier to sleep. But he can’t.
“I couldn’t see any sheep jumping over the fence. There is nothing to count“, Kenmuir said.
Having the same experience with Kenmuir, a woman named Serena Puang also told the New York Times: “When I was in elementary school, I sometimes had trouble sleeping and people told me to count sheep. Though I’ve seen sheep jumping over a fence in the cartoon, when I imagine it, I never see anything – just black. I’ve been counting quietly in the dark for many years.
Although “aphantasia” can make it difficult to count sheep, it doesn’t seem to have too much effect on the creativity or imagination of those with it. Most people with “aphantasia” live a normal life and don’t even realize how different they are from others.
Niel Kenmuir – the man who can never imagine his wife’s face
Kenmuir for example is working at a bookstore. He can still remember which shelves books are placed on without having to visualize pictures of them. When asked by the BBC how he lived with his wife, Kenmuir replied:
“That’s the hardest thing to describe, what’s going on in my mind when I think about everything. When I think of my fiancé, no image comes out, but I’m sure I’m thinking about her, I know she’s in a bun today, her hair brown. But I am not describing the image I am seeing in my mind, I am just remembering the features of her.
On the other hand, Kenmuir’s wife sympathizes with her husband. She just said: “You are so strange “.
Serena Puang is only having a little bit of difficulty when starting to learn Chinese. “While my friend, Shayley, found it easy. I asked her how to remember the hieroglyphs, and she told me she was just “figuring out the letters.”“, Said Puang.
To fix the problem, she discussed her “aphantasia” with the professor, and he drew the letters on the board, analyzing Puang the difference between them. Since then, her Chinese learning has been going on normally.
To add to this, some people with “aphantasia” still have very visual dreams. They can still describe and recognize people’s faces or what a place looks like. “Aphantasia” just means the memory cannot be retrieved, but their linguistic and spatial memories are still intact.
This may be because people with “aphantasia” have encoded their memory entirely with words, not pictures, explains psychologist Wilma Bainbridge at the University of Chicago. When Kenmuir thinks of his wife, for example, he just encodes her with words like “brown hair “,” blue eyes “,” tall “or” today “,” bun “…
This set of words completely replaces the image that the average person might imagine. Kenmuir still recognized his wife, just never able to imagine his fiancee in memory.
Wedding of Niel Kenmuir and his wife Alexa in 2017.
“Their verbal expression and other compensatory strategies can really help people with “aphantasia” to avoid false memories.“In some cases, the memory of people with this syndrome is even better than the average person, as we often create fake images in our memories,” says Bainbridge.
Think back if you ever recalled a room in which there was an object, such as a guitar, but never really was there.
The strange recall of memories in people with “aphantasia” syndrome is attracting more and more neurological researchers. “These individuals have unique mental experiences, and they are able to provide essential insights into the nature of images, memory, and perception in the human brain”, a group of authors write in Cortex.
They are a testament to how memory can be completely separate from vision. People with “aphantasia” may experience something similar to people born blind. Because they can still describe and navigate around a room, even though they can’t ‘see’ it.
“When I closed my eyes, all I could see were the faint blue dots,” Puang said. “Yet for 19 years, I think everyone else has seen it.”