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Designing for Aphantasia

Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a giraffe.

Did you see its extensive neck, speckled with yellow-brown patterns? Perhaps you saw its long-lashed eyes, framed by fluttering ears and a pair of furry horns atop its head?

Most people can create and perceive visual imagery with closed eyes. I, however, do not. I see no giraffe—only black fuzz.

I was 29 when I discovered that I have aphantasia. I was a successful student in grade school and college. I currently enjoy a stable career in instructional design, creating effective and imaginative graphics, layouts, and videos to help others learn. And yet, I have a “blind imagination.”

Experiencing aphantasia

Until my discovery, I had assumed everyone was speaking figuratively or metaphorically. When self-help books asked me to “visualize success” or when guided meditations invited me to create a beach sunset in my head, it made no sense to me. Those exercises had little to no effect.

When any activity begins with “close your eyes,” I just roll mine instead. While others in the room are conjuring fantastic images to match what’s being said, I’m just sitting in the dark and listening.

In novels, I often gloss over paragraphs that focus on imagery, because my memory is not visual. Reading does not generate a movie in my head. On a positive note, I am never disappointed by movie characters that look different than how I imagined them in the book.

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Often, we aphantasics have bypassed our limitations—sometimes before we even realize we’re limited. For example, the memory palace technique (exploring an imagined location tied to memory cues) might seem impossible without visualization. Interestingly, some have succeeded using only spatial memory. They walk the corridors of their palace without needing to see it.

A new and growing community

The term aphantasia wasn’t coined until 2015. In fact, no one seemed to recognize it existed until one person, “Patient MX,” suddenly lost his ability to visualize following a surgery in 2005. After publishing a paper on this strange case study, the authors were quickly inundated with letters from others who believed they also experienced an inability to visualize.

Since then, a flood of research papers and blog articles have coalesced into a burgeoning community of aphantasics, collectively discovering, defining, celebrating, and commiserating their condition. Unlike MX, those of us with aphantasia haven’t “lost” anything. Most of us do not recall ever having the ability to generate mental imagery. Additionally, some do not have inner voices, while others are unable to imagine feelings, smells, or tastes.

Despite that, aphantasics live rich, fulfilling lives in a broad range of occupations—even in roles thought to rely on visualization like artists and authors (and instructional designers!). Depending on your source, between 2 and 5% of people belong to this community.

Just think: 2-5% have lived normal lives, not even realizing that we were missing out on an ability that was considered inherent to imagination, learning, and memory. More poignantly, 2-5% of your learners are confused, frustrated, or checked-out during exercises that rely on mental imagery.

What does this mean for trainers and instructional designers?

Frankly, not much. Some learners will disengage during a visual exercise but fully engage in a verbal activity. This is nothing new. You should already be mindful that various people respond better to auditory, kinesthetic, or visual stimuli. The well-established best practice is to offer multiple modalities to accommodate these differences. Awareness of cognitive diversity simply underscores the importance of this practice, and it might give you insight when a learner struggles with a task involving mental imagery.

If anything, the rise of aphantasia is just a reminder that we all experience life differently—in both our outer and inner worlds.

So, when you sit down to design your next course, close your eyes and imagine seeing only black fuzz.

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