Nothing to do with never having seen a Disney cartoon, and everything to do with mental imagery, aphantasia is a newly described condition in which people are unable to exercise their ‘mind’s eye’ or ‘get a picture’ in their heads. Typically, they’ve thought other people were speaking metaphorically and, when a range of neuropsychological tests became available through a research project, were surprised to find this wasn’t so. Rather like colour blindness, you have no concept of the missing colour and so no way of knowing you can’t see it unless you come across someone who can.
One of the elements described in the podcast put out by the British Psychological Society’s research team is mental rotation and initially, being someone who can generate mental images very well but not mentally rotate, I couldn’t see how these might be related. It turns out they aren’t, at least not as a deficit. People who can’t image can, it seems, mentally rotate at least as well as people who can also image, which means lack of imaginative imagery has nothing to do with an ability to perceive objects in space and to mentally move them around.
I’ve said elsewhere that lines confuse me, and also that I’m unable to imagine the view back down the road I’ve just come as if I were driving in the other direction, even when I make both journeys frequently. Nor can I recognise streets or buildings in photographs if the context is outside the frame. I’ve known both of these things for years but no example is so striking to me as the many press photos of the traffic lights on the A27 where, in 2015, a jet plane hit cars waiting there and killed eleven people. I know those lights, I’ve sat there myself often. Just the week before I was there with my two kittens in their carrier on the way to get their first vaccinations. These traffic lights are significant to me and yet when I look at those photos I have no idea whether the camera is pointing east or west.
There used to be a theory that boys were better at mental rotation and girls at recognising facial expression, but the first part of that equation at least has fallen out of favour as being an inherent part of being female. Now it’s attributed to the opportunity to play with toys that require manipulation and construction, like Lego or Meccano, rather than the more passive dolls most girls got. How that plays out with the less gendered toys of today is yet to be seen but it certainly resonates with me. As an artist though, I wonder if it underpins my aversion to precision in drawing while those who gravitate towards that style may be less comfortable with going off-piste in their work. It probably merits a whole new study.