Can you picture things in your head? Well, this guy can't
Tom Ebeyer has aphantasia, which means he can't visualize things that aren't in front of him
Originally published on September 14, 2019.
In 2010, Tom Ebeyer learned that something about his brain was different.
Walking home from a party with his then-girlfriend, he discovered there was such a thing as a mind's eye — and he didn't have one.
As Ebeyer remembers it, he and his girlfriend were chatting about an old friend they hadn't seen in a while, "when my girlfriend says to me, 'Joanne was wearing the same thing that she was wearing last time we saw her, a year ago.'"
"I was like, 'How on earth do you remember what she was wearing? And she says to me, 'Oh, I see a picture of her clearly in my mind.'"
"And I just did not understand," the Mississauga, Ont., man said.
Ebeyer would go on to learn that he had something called aphantasia — though, at the time of the party, it didn't even have a name yet.
No mental pictures
What exactly is aphantasia? Close your eyes and picture a horse — what the horse looks like, what's around it.
If you were able to see a horse in your mind, then you have a mind's eye. But aphantasics like Ebeyer can't visualize anything in their minds.
For Ebeyer, this would come to a head whenever he was told to imagine something, like in a guided meditation — and he could never figure out what that meant.
"I remember feeling confused, I remember feeling extremely frustrated with the 500 blogs about how you could just meditate and you can visualize," remembered Ebeyer, "and it would just drive me crazy… what are you talking about?"
After Ebeyer discovered this about himself, he talked to anyone who would listen, and realized that his differences extend further than the mind's eye. All of the senses are involved.
"If you go to a restaurant and you see something on the menu that you enjoy, you can smell and taste it. I can't do that."
"Or if you think of a song that you like, you can hear the sounds of the instrument in your mind. I could maybe hum to the rhythm of the music, but I don't actually hear the sound."
So what does imagination mean for those with aphantasia? Ebeyer described it as "words and numbers just in my head," a kind of inner monologue.
The science of aphantasia
Research into aphantasia is still in its infancy, and there's lots to explore. For one, aphantasia, exists on a spectrum, where there are some who lack a mind's eye, but have a mind's ear. There are also hyperphantasics, who are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Those with hyperphantasia have very strong mental imagery.
Descriptions of the trait started popping up in medical journals as early as the 1880s, but the term "aphantasia" is fairly new.
It all started in 2005, when Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology at the University of Exeter in the U.K., encountered a patient who had lost the ability to imagine after undergoing a medical procedure.
"He was a very bright man in his mid-60s who had previously had a very vivid, visual imagination," said Zeman. "And following this coronary procedure, he just found that he no longer could call images to the mind's eye."
After running a series of tests, Zeman published an article describing this patient's case as "Blind Imagination."
Nearly a decade later, Ebeyer was talking to a colleague about his inability to imagine, and she brought up Zeman's paper. Ebeyer got his hands on the paper and eagerly reached out to Zeman, in the hopes that he might have some answers.
It turns out that Ebeyer was one of 21 people who contacted Zeman, "who said that they recognized themselves in the description of [the patient], but they'd always been this way," Zeman said.
Zeman sent Ebeyer and the 20 others a series of questionnaires, including a VVIQ, a vividness of visual imagery questionnaire, which was designed to rate one's visual imagery.
Ebeyer and the others scored very, very low.
After compiling this data, Zeman gave the neurodifference a name: aphantasia. "Fantasia was the word Aristotle had used to describe the power of imagination," explained Ebeyer, "so aphantasia is without."
Finally, there was clarity for Ebeyer and other aphantasics. There was a word to describe how they perceive the world, but more importantly, they were no longer alone.
Two of a kind
Ebeyer had never actually met another aphantasic in person until this past summer, when documentary maker Paul Aflalo connected him with a London, Ont., woman.
Amanda Jacobs, 25, realized she didn't have a mind's eye in early 2019. In fact, her discovery was eerily similar to Ebeyer's.
"I was reading an article… about someone who'd had a form of surgery," said Jacobs, "and he woke up from the surgery and claimed that he could not see in his mind, and I'm like, OK, what is this 'seeing in your mind' thing?"
When Ebeyer and Jacobs met over coffee, they quickly realized their similarities. Like Ebeyer, Jacobs can't conjure any of the senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, touch — independently of experiencing them in that moment.
And for both Ebeyer and Jacobs, this extended further, to emotions and feelings.
"I have an emotional detachment to most of anything that's ever happened, unless it's right after the fact," said Jacobs. "I remember the facts of what happened, but that emotional response, I don't feel it again."
Ebeyer could relate. In 2007, Ebeyer's mother passed away unexpectedly, and though it was deeply emotional for him when it happened, it's now just a memory with no feelings attached.
"I know that that happened in my past," said Ebeyer, "but that does not in any way affect my emotional well-being at this moment."
For Ebeyer and Jacobs, meeting each other meant feeling, possibly for the first time, that they weren't alone. "It's validating," Ebeyer said to Jacobs, "you've explained things… similar to the way I would explain them."
"It's really cool," agreed Jacobs. "Because when I talk to my friends, my family, they just kind of [go] 'Yeah, whatever you say,' and I'm like, 'No, this is real!'"
Nearly nine years after walking home from that party, Ebeyer feels a sense of belonging amidst his difference. He's since started a website devoted to aphantasia and a discussion forum.
"There's an acceptance, and validation. There's also a lot that's happened in the last nine years, and I'm confident we'll know more in the next ten years."
To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page.
Paul Aflalo is a storyteller, documentary filmmaker, radio and podcast producer. He also makes the best lasagna.
This documentary was co-produced and edited by Acey Rowe.