If somebody asked you to remember the face of a loved one or picture your favorite food at the breakfast table, you’d likely be able to create these images with your eyes closed with no problem. However, this wouldn’t be the case if you had aphantasia.
Also known as “blind imagination,” aphantasia is a condition where people are unable to visualize images in their minds. The condition can make things like remembering the past or imagining future scenarios quite challenging.
Currently, there is no cure for aphantasia, but some suggest that psychedelic drugs might help. We’ve investigated some of the evidence and theories behind why psychedelics could treat aphantasia below.
What Is Aphantasia?
Most people can visualize an image in their heads of a familiar object or face if asked. However, for somebody with aphantasia, this would be extremely difficult or impossible.
The word aphantasia was coined in 2015 by scientific researcher Adam Zenman, and it comes from two Greek words, “a” meaning “without,” and “phantasia” meaning “to imagine.” Zenman created the word after he received letters from several people describing how they were incapable of summoning pictures in their mind’s eye. He initially described this phenomenon as having a “blind imagination.”
Although aphantasia has only recently come to scientific interest, it’s a condition that has likely affected people throughout history. For example, writings by the famous scientist Francis Galton from the 1800s describe a small group of men unable to create mental images of their breakfast table.
Very little is understood about aphantasia, but research suggests it could affect anywhere from 0.7% to 6.7% of the population.
Symptoms of aphantasia vary from person to person. For example, some patients may have a decreased ability to create visual images, whereas others are completely unable. Furthermore, some people with aphantasia can still have visual imagery in dreams, whereas others don’t.
There are currently no known treatments for aphantasia. One published case study (source listed below) described how a 31-year-old man with aphantasia had vision therapy sessions for 18 weeks, including remembering images on cards and describing objects and outdoor scenes. His visual imagery before sleeping improved, but there was no improvement in his day-to-day visual imagery.
What Causes Aphantasia?
Decreased Brain Activity
It’s unclear what causes aphantasia. However, scientists think it’s likely people with aphantasia have altered or reduced activity in brain areas involved in visual imagery and visual memory. Reduced activity in these brain areas could occur because of a brain injury or neurological condition.
Specific brain areas are involved in visual processing and may play a role in forming closed-eye visual imagery and aphantasia.
One study investigated which brain regions were damaged in a man who gained aphantasia following a stroke and compared the results to patients who had similar strokes but no aphantasia.
Specific brain injuries in the aphantasic patient included damage to the left fusiform gyrus and right lingual gyrus. These brain areas are involved in visual processing and may play a role in forming closed-eye visual imagery and aphantasia.
Other Theories of Aphantasia
One theory of aphantasia, based on animal experiments, is that some aphantasics may have no problems in forming visual imagery. Still, they are unable to bring their internally-generated visual images to consciousness.
Some scientists have speculated that aphantasia could also have a psychological and physical cause, as it has been commonly associated with depressive, anxious, and dissociative psychological conditions. For example, there are cases where aphantasia is onset following a depressive or psychotic episode (source listed below), indicating that there may be a link between aphantasia and mental health.
Could Psychedelics Be a Cure for Aphantasia?
Psychedelics Help Improve Vision
Psychedelics can increase the clarity of people’s visual field, known as visual acuity, and increase the brightness of different colors. In some cases, psychedelics have even cured people’s color blindness.
A common effect of psychedelics is vivid open and closed-eye hallucinations. Combined with their ability to improve vision, this effect may mean that psychedelics could help people with aphantasia visualize images in their minds.
Furthermore, research has shown that LSD increases brain activity in the primary visual cortex, illustrating a potential to reverse some damage to the brain area relating to aphantasia.
A Case Study for Aphantasia and Ayahuasca
One case study investigated Scotty Enyard, a 39-year-old man who claimed the use of the ayahuasca, a brew containing the psychedelic compound DMT, improved his aphantasia. Ayahuasca has been used as part of spiritual ceremonies by indigenous communities throughout history, and users can legally access the plant in South America, where it grows natively.
Scotty first noticed his aphantasia aged 24 during his undergraduate degree studying cognitive psychology. He quoted:
The professor asked us, students, to close our eyes and recall an image of a clock. Once we identiﬁed an image, he then asked us to draw that image on a piece of paper. The other students began to draw detailed clocks. I closed my eyes several times trying to bring forth an image of a clock, yet nothing came.
Scotty participated in a legal ayahuasca ceremony in South America during his Ph.D. During his experience on ayahuasca, he saw closed-eye imagery for the first time in his life. One of the images he conjured was that of his father, who had passed away many years ago.
I could see him clearly, hear his voice, and even smell the distinct smell that he picked up from working in the oil ﬁelds. I was seeing in visual imagery for the ﬁrst time in my life as I laid there with my eyes closed.
Brain imaging has shown that ayahuasca can cause just as much activity in the visual cortex as a natural image seen by the eye, suggesting ayahuasca may be able to recover any damage to the visual cortex that may be causing aphantasia. This effect could explain why ayahuasca helped recover Scotty’s ability to conjure visual imagery.
Bottom Line on Psychedelics and Aphantasia
When considering psychedelics for aphantasia, It’s essential to remember that several different factors may cause the condition. Therefore, psychedelics might only be effective in small subsets of patients with aphantasia.
However, since aphantasia is a relatively new condition in modern scientific research, psychedelic drugs may help us better understand aphantasia and its causes and the mechanisms by which the brain forms visual imagery.