People with low or no ability to visualise mental images are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries than creative sectors, research has found.
A study led by the University of Exeter examined people with aphantasia, which describes when people are unable to visualise in the mind.
The phenomenon is the opposite of hyperphantasia – where people have particularly vivid mental imagery – which has been shown to be more common in creative professions.
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Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology, initially coined the term aphantasia in 2015.
“This discovery adds importantly to our understanding of aphantasia,” Prof Zeman said.
“Our research shows that aphantasia has certain benefits to people working in technical sectors while hyperphantasia predisposes people to work in the arts.
“While this is the overall trend, we know there are many exceptions – for example, we recently organised an exhibition of art created by aphantasic artists which went on show in Exeter and Glasgow in 2019.”
The research involved 2,000 people with aphantasia, 200 with hyperphantasia and 200 control participants with mid-range imagery vividness.
More than 20 per cent of people with aphantasia worked in science, computing or mathematics. In those who had hyperphantasia, more than 25 per cent worked in arts, design, entertainment and other creative industries.
Professor Craig Venter, who led the team reporting the first draft sequence of the human genome, has aphantasia.
“I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches,” Prof Venter said.
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“By understanding concepts vs fact memorisation I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.”
Recounting his discovery that he couldn’t visualise, Venter said: “I discovered that I had it when I returned to college after getting out of Vietnam. My realisation came from competing in classes with then my wife who had a perfect photographic memory. By comparison I discovered I had none.”
The research was led by the University of Exeter with collaborators from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University.
The paper is published in the journal Cortex.
What is aphantasia?
Aphantasia is the name given to the inability to call an image to mind. The name was coined in 2015 by Prof Adam Zeman, a cognitive and behavioural neurologist at the University of Exeter. Zeman first became aware of the phenomenon when he was referred a patient who had ‘lost’ his visual imagery after a heart operation.
Zeman searched the literature on visual imagery loss and found there was little out there. In the 1880s, Victorian polymath Francis Galton had published a paper on mental imagery, where he reported that a small number of people couldn’t visualise.
Since then, researchers have continued to study visual imagery but haven’t paid attention to the extreme ends of the visualisation spectrum. Before Zeman started studying it, there wasn’t even a name for the experience.
Zeman and a classicist friend came up with ‘aphantasia’, based on Aristotle’s term for the ‘mind’s eye’.