What Is Aphantasia? Exploring the Deeper Meaning of the Word

Man with Aphantasia struggling to visualize

Adapted from Getty Images

Almost everyone can relate to getting lost in a vivid daydream. Or, they understand trying to picture where they left their keys after setting them down somewhere and forgetting. The majority of people have the ability to visualize things like these in their minds, but did you know some people don’t? They can’t because they live with a rare condition known as aphantasia. But, what is aphantasia, exactly?
Advertisement

What Is Aphantasia?

We define aphantasia as the inability to properly visualize images. When asked to close their eyes and picture a room, person or object, someone with aphantasia will either only see vague images with no defining details or not be able to form mental images at all. This means that they lack the “mind’s eye” that most people use on a daily basis. 

Aphantasia affects approximately two to five percent of the population. 

Most people with this condition are born with it. But, someone can also develop aphantasia later in life. One such example happened in 2003 when a man lost his ability to create mental images after undergoing a procedure on his heart. 

The History of Aphantasia Research

The symptoms of aphantasia were first observed and studied in 1880 by English polymath Francis Galton. Galton’s research showed that most of his peers, scientists like him, did not have the ability to see mental images and could not truly comprehend the concept. As Galton stated, “They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour.”

Zenam’s Study of Patient MX

Substantial studies into the condition did not happen until the 21st century. The aforementioned man who developed aphantasia went to neuroscientist Adam Zeman for a diagnosis. Zeman had never seen the phenomenon before, so he and two colleagues began to research the condition. For the study, the patient was dubbed MX for anonymity.

Zenam and his team created various aphantasia tests that measured MX’s mental visual abilities against a control group. This way, they could see how MX’s abilities compared to someone with a more typical “mind’s eye.” 

For example, one test asked participants to explain whether a blade of grass or a pine tree had a lighter shade of green. They were asked to visualize the objects and give their answers. MX was able to confirm that the grass was the lighter green, but he could only do so from memory. He was unable to see the differences in his mind.

Published Research and Naming the Condition

After completing their research, Adam Zeman and the other researchers published their findings in a 2015 research paper titled, “Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia.” Zeman coined the term “aphantasia” for this study. 

The term is a combination of the word “phantasia” with the prefix “a-.” “Phantasia” means “imagination,” and an “a-” means “without.” So, the definition of “aphantasia” is “without an imagination.”

Additional Testing by Other Researchers

In other tests by other groups, subjects were asked to visualize and draw the layout of a room. Often, when they couldn’t craft good enough images, the subjects with aphantasia would use words to represent objects in the room. For example, rather than drawing a chair, they would simply write the word “chair” in the place where the chair would go.

Aphantasia and Spatial Memory

What is interesting to note about people with aphantasia is that while their visual memory is affected by the condition, their spatial memory usually is not. In a February 2021 study, “Quantifying aphantasia through drawing: Those without visual imagery show deficits in object but not spatial memory,” Wilma A. Bainbridge et al. noted that their test subjects with aphantasia showed no impairment to their ability to recall distances. 

In fact, when compared to control groups, the test subjects with aphantasia recalled spatial details with greater accuracy. This study led to the theory that spatial and visual memories are not stored or managed by the same parts of the brain.

Is Aphantasia a Good Word Game Word?

Unfortunately, “aphantasia” is currently not a legal word in Scrabble or Words With Friends. That’s not to say it can’t inspire you to play some other great and potentially game-winning words. The following are a few examples of words using the letters in “aphantasia.” You can find plenty more with our anagram solver.

  • Aphasia: Losing one’s ability to understand or say words.
    Scrabble score: 12 | Words With Friends score: 12

  • Hatpins: A long ornamental pin used to fasten a hat to a person’s hair.
    Scrabble score: 12 | Words With Friends score: 13

  • Ashpan: A pan placed under a grate to collect fallen ashes.
    Scrabble score: 11 | Words With Friends score: N/A

  • Taipan: A powerful businessman, typically from China or Southeast Asia.
    Scrabble score: 8 | Words With Friends score: 10

  • Apish: Something or someone that generally resembles an ape.
    Scrabble score: 10 | Words With Friends score: 10

  • Staph: The shortened form of Staphylococcus.
    Scrabble score: 10 | Words With Friends score: 10

  • Pash: A romantic infatuation.
    Scrabble score: 9 | Words With Friends score: 9

  • Pish: A noise used to express disgust or disdain.
    Scrabble score: 9 | Words With Friends score: 9

Coming to NASPA’s Scrabble Word List?

“Aphantasia” was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. NASPA, the organization that manages all North American Scrabble tournaments, uses this dictionary when curating its own word list. 

In the interview we had with John Chew, NASPA’s chief executive officer, he stated that he has a personal interest in adding the word to the NASPA word list and would plan to do so during the next update. John has aphantasia himself. It was only recently that he learned about the nature of his condition and what its name was.

If all goes as John Chew hopes, “aphantasia” should appear in the official word list before too long. This would also mean that the word will most likely end up in the Collins Scrabble Words dictionary at some point as well.

Scientific Terms in Scrabble

Typically, specific technical terms, especially those from medical fields, are not added to official Scrabble word lists. This is due to their relatively limited use outside of those fields. The groups that manage the various word lists look to general-purpose, college-level dictionaries for new words to include. That is why the word’s inclusion in Merriam-Webster is so important.

Endless New Words to Learn

“Aphantasia” is a curious term. It’s a relatively new word, and its subject matter is not something most of us can truly understand. But, that’s the fun of learning about new words and what they mean. It can also make you wonder – how many words are there in English? The answer can vary, depending on who you ask. For answers from the experts, read our article all about the English word count.


Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.

Advertisement

See more popular articles