London - Sometimes, if I have been insensitive, my wife will say: “You have no imagination.”
It turns out that she is right, in the most literal sense. Though only in the past few days have I begun to understand how or why.
Last week news outlets carried stories on something called aphantasia. What drew me to them was the name of the professor of cognitive neurology who had invented this term (from the Greek meaning ‘without the ability to form images’): Adam Zeman.
More than 40 years ago, Adam and I had shared a room at a London boarding school - though we had not been in touch since.
But as I read the stories, I suddenly realised that I might as well have been one of his experimental subjects. For though I had never given the matter any thought until now, I am one of those who has no ability to generate an image in my head: that is, I have no mind’s eye.
According to Zeman - now based at the University of Exeter Medical School - this is a condition shared by approximately 2.5 percent of the population. Like many people, I have always been susceptible to the error of assuming that my thought processes are like others: so it never occurred to me to wonder if I was in some way “different” or missing something.
Yet when I scrolled through the readers’ comments below a BBC story on the subject, many expressed great sympathy with those with aphantasia, one or two even saying that they would not be able to carry on living if they suddenly lost their “mind’s eye”.
In fact, Zeman’s interest in this stemmed from a patient he encountered in 2003, who had abruptly lost the ability to visualise. The patient had “previously enjoyed a vivid visual imagination, imaging the faces of his family, for example, as he dropped off to sleep; when he read novels, he entered a visual world created by the fiction; when he recollected a familiar place he could ‘see’ it before him.
“Suddenly, after a procedure to treat a narrowed coronary artery, he found he could no longer visualise, though his vision was otherwise intact. But his visual memory appeared to be unaffected: he could tell us in detail about how things looked, even though he could no longer see them in his mind’s eye.”
In 2010 Zeman published an account of this in the journal Neuropsychologia, and it was taken up by the American science magazine Discover. At that point, Zeman told me, a number of people got in touch with him to say they had the same lack of imaging ability as affected his patient, “except for the key difference that they had never been able to imagine”.
When I asked Adam why he estimates that it applies to just two or three people in every hundred, he said the only psychologist who had studied this phenomenon in the past had given that figure, and that it seemed to hold true of those who have so far volunteered for his experimental questionnaire.
After I contacted Adam at the weekend - the first time we had spoken together since we were school friends - he reassured me that aphantasia “should not be considered a disorder”. In fact, there may even be some advantages. Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterised by heightened visual images.
This might explain why I tend not to be affected by unpleasant incidents. A little over ten years ago I was involved in a head-on car crash. But although I was sorry it wrote off my vehicle, the absence of any image in recollection - let alone flashbacks - meant I very quickly stopped thinking about it.
A disadvantage is that I have an appalling autobiographical memory: I am constantly being told by friends and relatives of certain things we have experienced together - yet to me it is as if it had never happened. When I mentioned this to Adam, he told me this was one of the common factors among those who got the lowest scores for visualisation in his questionnaire. The reason, he surmises, is that visual images are a great asset in recalling our experiences.
He cheered me up, however, by pointing out that those whose memories were “atrophied” in this way, would compensate with other forms of retentiveness. So perhaps I am also characteristic in having what I immodestly think of as an excellent memory for things like dates and telephone numbers.
Also, I can reconstruct chess games I have played, from memory. And I gain a great deal of pleasure from my ‘mind’s ear’: that is, I can play symphonies to myself, or at least chunks of my favourite passages.
Words, too, fill my mind - but not from novels. While I read books voraciously, they are almost invariably non-fiction. On the rare occasions I pick up a novel, I skip all the descriptive passages, as they create no image in my mind. When I mentioned this to Adam, he laughed, saying that this was another “characteristic of those with aphantasia”.
Since these conversations, I have, for the first time in my life, been trying consciously to form visual images. It is very frustrating - sometimes I think something might appear, but it never quite does. Only once in my life was I distressed by this inability. After my mother died, I wanted to have her image in my mind, but there was nothing at all.
The same applies in the present to my wife and children, when we are apart. But at all other times I have the joy of their company. And I do know what they look like, of course. While I can’t conjure up any image of my wife when she is not with me, I can describe the facts of her appearance from memory: auburn hair, green-grey eyes, olive skin - rather beautiful, in other words.
She is pleased by the revelations of my old school friend. “I’ve always thought you were a bit different,” she said, “and now I’ve got a diagnosis.”
I’m rather less happy: I’ve suddenly become aware that I am missing out on the full richness of the inner life.
But in a way I’ve always sensed it. Whenever a friend of mind told me that he (or she) is writing a novel, I would reply: “I could never do that. I’ve got no imagination at all.” It was truer than I knew.