Curious Case of a Rare Condition

An uncommon disorder, wherein an individual doesn’t possess a functioning mental eye, receives a name—Aphantasia

Published: 04th July 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th July 2015 11:33 AM   |  A+A-

Rare Condition

Rare Condition.jpgHere’s a test— all you need to do is close your eyes and visualise the scenario. So, here we go. Sara looked out of her pale yellow mullion window and watched the threateningly ominous overcast sky, bracing itself for the burst of shower it had been preparing itself for since the last few hours. As the grey clouds huddled up together, they formed a thick cover of blinding darkness, painting the twilight sky all shades of grey. As she sat up in her chair to notice the first sounds of pitter-patter on her pane, the outer most lining of her dark brown iris dilated with anticipation, followed by the squaring of her petite frame, that ready themselves for the spectacle that the gravel-grey airspace is now on the brink of exhibiting.

Now, if you were able to imagine the scene without the slightest difficulty, you’ve passed the test. However, there are some who may not have been able to conjure up the unfolding of events because of a blind mind’s eye. The condition that effects only about 2 per cent of the world population, recently received a name. It’s called aphantasia, wherein individuals cannot summon up mental images. Not much is known about this neurological condition still, but researchers are finding all the clues possible that could make its cause known.

Dr Adam Zeman, a neurologist based in the United Kingdom, was left stumped in 2005, when a man came to him and told him he had lost his ability to visualise things after a minor surgery. While, this person could easily name the people whose faces were shown to him, he, couldn’t picture faces of people whose names were thrown at him. This and other examinations like these inspired Zeman to study the condition further.

There are still very few reports of people with this condition. Now, that it’s received a name, it may bring out more cases into the public eye. “Zeman is going to be in Bengaluru to take a workshop titled, Cognitive Neurology for the Clinician, and we may learn more regarding his findings on aphantasia then,” says Dr. Ratnavalli Ellajosyula, Consultant Neurologist and Specialist in Cognitive Neurology, Manipal Hospital in Bengaluru.

Rare Condition1.jpg

“For now, I must say, that even though these people are incapable in one way, they often find ways of compensating in other ways. For instance, if there is one area in their mind that doesn’t allow them to imagine things, there’ll be other areas like logic or reasoning, wherein they’ll be smarter than other individuals who can visualise things with the help of their minds eye.” Ellajosyula adds.

She, however, doesn’t like to call the condition a disorder. She believes that it isn’t something that drastically impacts people’s lives or interferes with their ability to carry on with their routine. It’s just a small limitation that is coped with other strong attributes in one’s mental faculty, she says about aphantasia that comes from the word phantasia used by Greek philosopher, Aristotle, to describe the ability that allows us to visualise things.

But for people whose lives are based on harnessing their imagination, aphantasia could prove to be a bane. Says Delhi based Arjun Kartha, a candid wedding photographer whose work is fundamentally based on creating a concept or a frame work first in his mind and then on ground, “I don’t know how somebody with this limitation can produce a good body of work. For artists, powerful creative imaginations are a prerequisite. The ability to form a mental picture of a thing that you may not have seen or experienced in the past, helps us develop concepts and assists us in believing in new possibilities even before they’ve been discovered.”

Those into art photography, definitely need this skill, he emphasises. “We’re often given very basic briefs. If we don’t make mental sketches of the things that can be done to deliver that, generating the desired result would become a nightmare,” he says.

In that case, we wonder, how thought philosophies such as law of attraction can be practiced with this particular condition. “On the surface, it may sound like the law of attraction may not be for people diagnosed with aphantasia, the reality is different,” says Pune based corporate leadership trainer and promoter of the law, Mitesh Khatri. He says, if one cannot visualise, they can simply verbalise their desires over and over again so the right kind of energy can be created. “If both visualising and verbalising doesn’t work for you, you can depend on an external vision board, wherein you can write down your desired goal a nd read it repeatedly. So, people suffering from this disorder needn’t worry,” Khatri says.

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