Learning with Aphantasia

Misty Hance
Misty Hance
Assistant elementary school principal; Ed.D. in School Leadership, Carson-Newman University, TN

Many teachers hook students into a lesson by asking them to visualize a scene from a battle, a formula or equation, or even a list of words. For many students this is a strategy that can help them recall facts and events, but for a small percentage (about 2%) this is as foreign as asking them to recite the Declaration of Independence in a different language. The problem is these students probably don’t know others can actually picture these images, they assume it is a metaphorical expression or a way to think about previous skills without truly picturing it. This minority of the classroom population has aphantasia. So what is aphantasia? It is the condition of reduced or absent mental imagery.

History of Aphantasia

Although it wasn’t named until 2015, when Carl Zimmer, an American journalist, wrote an article based on a previous paper by Professor Zeman which discussed the discovery of a man who reported he had lost his ability to visualize following a cardiac procedure. Aphantasia has been reported as far back as the 1880’s. At that time, Sir Francis Galton reported on the phenomenon in one of his scholarly reports. In 1973, David Marks created a short assessment to help determine the intensity at which people can visualize. This survey was then presented by the BBC, and based on the 700 plus participants, it was determined that about 2% of the population has aphantasia.

Congenital or Acquired Aphantasia

Some people are born with the inability to create images mentally. For these people, images may be conjured while dreaming during phases of sleep or in periods of high fever. Not all people with congenital aphantasia have zero imagery; a few report a slight ability to visualize or broken imagery. Just like people who are colorblind don’t understand the colors other people see, people with congenital aphantasia typically don’t know they have this disability because they can’t miss what they never had. It is usually not until early adulthood that they begin to realize the difference in those that have the ability to see mental images.

Those who have acquired aphantasia due to a medical event or serious brain injury are those more able to explain the difference in what they once had but now have lost. They are the ones who have been made aware of the disparity and asked for answers as to why they can no longer recall images mentally.

Aphantasia as a Disability

Aphantasia is a relatively new term, and the inability to see images mentally has rarely been understood by those with the ability unless they know someone affected by it. Because so little is known about it, it is not recognized with other learning disabilities. Those that have aphantasia have other ways of learning and coping without mental images. People who are most affected are those who have acquired aphantasia because they know what they are missing.

While it seems there is a great disadvantage to not being able to see mental images or conjure pictures of loved ones or favorite vacations spots, there can be advantages. Those with aphantasia are not able to recall images of a gruesome nature that might affect people with the ability to recall images negatively. They may also be able to explain things better, as their mind is constantly explaining without relying on images. Because they are not caught up in images, people with aphantasia tend to be able to think about potential problems with a given process, as well.

The Effect on Learning

Although it may not be considered a recognized disability that requires special education services, educators need to understand the effects of aphantasia on student learning. As someone with congenital aphantasia, this question can be answered with first-hand experience. Students with aphantasia can still memorize and recall information. Information is just retrieved without images. In fact, some researchers, such as Dame Gill Morgan from England, believe the lack of mental images may enhance the ability to memorize, as memorization is necessary for recalling information. Just like a student who lacks background knowledge will need support in understanding what has never been experienced, students with aphantasia need to see pictures more frequently to implant the knowledge for future recall. They are typically visual learners and auditory or material that is just read to them is less likely to be absorbed as they cannot make a connection as easily.

Curriculum Affected by Aphantasia

As you might predict, students with aphantasia may not find enjoyment in reading. The reason is they are not able to visualize the story or become engaged with the characters. This does not mean that they will not be able to comprehend a story, it will just take more effort and be less appealing to read a story without pictures. Another area effected is spelling. Those who are unable to visualize must totally rely on memorization. When this area of learning is compromised, it can greatly impact the ability to spell. For some people, aphantasia may affect creative writing and other artistic abilities as they are not able to rely on images to complete inventive tasks.

Helping Students Understand Aphantasia

Teachers may never know which students truly lack this ability. Because most students want to appear like their peers, they may never let on that they can’t see images in their mind. It also may take a long time for them to realize they can’t see those images, especially if they are able to see images when they dream.

The question arises, should teachers help identify these students? If teachers want to reach every type of learner, they can provide supports without naming the disability. After all, a teacher wouldn’t say: “Here are some strategies for students with ADHD.” Instead, teachers can provide pictures, videos, and other visual images that provide support for these students’ learning needs. Once students are older and able to recognize their inability to visualize mentally, then teachers can support them by answering questions and noting their strengths in learning. A Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) can be taken to determine the level of aphantasia and provide further information and support on the phenomenon.

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