I'm writing some more about aphantasia, or no mind's eye. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. I think this is the last rhetoric discussion about aphantasia for now.
So now, after looking at some modern/mainstream articles and some older stuff – Galton's 1880 paper and a tracing of how people have thought about mentalimagery/the lack thereof by Bill Faw, I'm going to look at how Adam Zeman, those working with him (Michaela Dewar for both the papers where the word aphantasia is used, Sergio Della Sala for all three papers I'm looking at, and Lorna A. Torrens, Viktoria-Eleni Gountouna, David J. McGonigle, and Robert H. Logie for the loss of imagery paper that wound up inspiring the later aphantasia papers), and those reacting to their work in formal academic settings. I think of Zeman as the main person mostly because he tends to be the one to talk to journalists. (Isn't that how it goes?)
I start with the 2010 paper in Neuropsychologia. I did a "press release" report on this one for my neurobiology class this semester, which I may wind up sharing here too. (Note that this was published after Bill Faw makes his hypothesis about imagery-like processes at the subconscious level, so any evidence to the contrary was not available to him when he was writing.) In the introduction, the authors start off using “most people” instead of “people” when describing the ability to “call to mind an image that is less vivid than the original but has a visual 'feel.'” (145) This might seem like a small thing, but it's not. All too often, researchers talk about what all people do and implicitly exclude folks who don't do that from humanity. It's enough of a problem to have led to the paper, “On Not Being Human.” Pitfall #1 avoided.
The authors mention a debate over the importance of (visual) mental imagery in cognition, whether it plays a key role (maybe even a required role) or whether propositional/factual knowledge is sufficient for imagery tasks. As someone who doesn't experience any (visual) mental imagery, I know that there are other ways to do it, but the thing about scholarly discourse is that everything needs to be studied and checked. At least they're asking questions about how folks without mental imagery do the things rather than insisting that if we can do things like recognize rotated objects we must actually have a minds eye. The authors then propose that there are several ways to do imagery tasks at the cognitive level. Hi, cognitive (neuro) diversity, and that multiple ways might be available to “healthy adults.”
(Now what does it mean to be healthy here?) In this case, I think it refers to the fact that the in cases the authors know about where mental imagery is not a thing, it had been a thing before (so they recognized that there was a change instead of it being a normal state like it is for me) and then when it stopped being a thing, it was an event that also led to trouble with the imagery tasks usually used to check if a person can visualize things or not. They were also related to injuries or illnesses. Then MX shows up having lost his ability to visualize (again, not a thing I'd be able to show up with because I'm totally used to not visualizing), and he can still do these tasks. Mostly. There's some difficulty immediately following the loss of visualization ability, and a decrease in these difficulties as time goes by. The study authors interpret this as initial difficulties followed by development of a verbal strategy.) This upsets the theory that visualization is needed, though not necessarily the one that it's related or used for most people. The authors want to know how, which wasn't examined in the cases reported in 1954 where the ability to create certain kinds of mental visualizations went away after injury but the ability to do certain things visualizers would expect to be related weren't affected. (Reading and writing after not being able to visualize recently viewed pages, which wait people visualize pages? Also drawing building plans after not being able to visualize new building plans.) Brain, the author of the 1954 paper, noted that this must mean disconnection between the “visual imagery” related tasks and actual visual imagery was possible.
Despite the focus on understanding what MX does rather than what he doesn't do (the research team even goes into the fMRI part expecting that he's going to show different activation patterns than the neurotypicals do) they do talk about abnormal patterns of activation and healthy controls. That is, there's a definite “normal” mind that the authors are working with for this paper.
Moving on to the 2015 letter to the editor in Cortex where the term “aphantasia” is finally coined, we see a different tone. We're still talking about “imagery generation disorder” for the 65 year old who suddenly stopped having mental imagery, and we're still talking about a “condition”, but there are differences. Rather than assuming visual imagery is an everyone thing, it's now described as a most people thing. They also suggest that this is going to be a variant, comparing it to synaesthesia (not usually pathologized!) and prosopagnosia (kind of pathologized.) Of course, Zeman et. al. are calling both of those things disorders. So. It's a bit of mixed bag. The authors are replacing clearly pathologizing terminology like “defective revisualization.” They're also doing better than most of the journalists at not assuming that their readers all have mind's eyes. Quite a few of the journalists write like they think everyone in their audience can visualize, and that the aphantasiacs are not their audience. Really, 2% of the population is significant and we're probably more likely to be reading an article about aphantasia than the visualizers are. This is a bad assumption, which Zeman et. al. aren't showing.
Then, “Reflections on Aphantasia”, part of a 2016 discussion and again in Cortex, shows a distinct clinical focus, as one would expect in an academic journal focused on the relationship between the nervous system and cognition using neurodivergent people for contrast. (Both acquired and developmental.) The authors point out that calling mental stuff organic or functional doesn't quite work as a divide. (Functional sounds a lot like an academic version “all in your head” to me, in that functional apparently implies reversible? This idea is one of the things the authors are criticizing.) They point out that a range of factors can affect the level of visual imagery, including certain medications, depression, brain injury, and PTSD. They argue that lifelong aphantasia is unlikely to have such a source (and is therefore not pathological? Zeman is pretty insistent that aphantasia is not a disorder when interviewed. Or at least that congenital aphantasia isn't a disorder.) They also say that other psychiatric factors should be taken into account when assessing someone who claims aphantasia. It sounds like they're trying to have their cake and eat it: aphantasia isn't a disorder, they're born this way. But here's all this disordered stuff that could also cause it, and if you experience/complain of aphantasia because of those things, it's a disorder. So maybe it is?
I'm a bit reminded of the “we're not crazy” discourse around asexuality and around being transgender. Some of us do have pathologized stuff going on in addition to being asexual/transgender/aphantasiac. (Hi, I'm Autistic, asexual, nonbinary, and aphantasiac!) That doesn't mean the other states are somehow invalid or pathological, even if they are related to or directly caused by my being Autistic.
At the end of it all, I'm thinking people aren't quite certain how to place aphantasia. Is it a disorder? A disability? A sign of something else that's one of those things? Just a natural variation that we legitimately don't need to pathologize? (Even if it comes with other stuff we tend to pathologize?)
I lean towards variation that we don't need to pathologize, even if it comes with (or is caused by) stuff we tend to pathologize. I also lean towards disability under certain circumstances. In environments that are very specific about wanting visual methods to be used, aphantasia could well be disabling. That doesn't mean other people are talking about it that way. We're currently getting a mix where folks aren't quite sure how to write about it, I think.
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia." Cortex 3 (2015).
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Reflections on aphantasia." Cortex 74 (2016): 336-337.
Zeman, Adam, et al. "Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: A case of ‘blind imagination’." Neuropsychologia 48.1 (2010): 145-155.
Appreciate my writing? Support me on Patreon!