This blog post was originally published on Junkyard of the Mind, a scholarly blog devoted to the study of imagination.
Late one night, Blake Ross discovered something incredible (as in, almost impossible to believe): other people had visual imagery! Like Ross, a surprisingly large number of people (about 3-5% of the population) have aphantasia, which is characterized as the lack of mental imagery.
Seeing things in the mind’s eye is an important faculty during development, in art and science, and it has a tight relation to cognitive skills such as mental simulation, short-term memory and mental rotation, among many others (Pearson et al., 2015). Despite this, aphantasics do not seem to suffer from any noticeable deficit. Blake Ross founded Mozilla without even realizing he was aphantasic (or those close to him noticing anything was amiss). Millions more live oblivious of how different their mental imagery skills are (Lupyan et al., 2023).
But how can this be? One possible implication is that imagination—and perhaps even consciousness in general—is not as useful as we might think: people do not even notice when this entire faculty is absent! This, of course, goes against common sense and millennia of research. Philosophers have discussed the importance of imagination at least since Plato (Bundy, 1922; Schwartz, 2020) and Aristotle (1993), scientists have studied it and its effects for more than a hundred years (e.g., Kosslyn, 1980, 1996; Perky, 1910; Shepard & Cooper, 1982), and most of us seem to use it all the time. Could mental imagery be more epiphenomenal than we thought?