The Life-Changing Sensory Condition You've Never Heard Of

Photographed by Winnie Au.
Have you ever been blown away by the realization that you can't do something that almost everyone else can? For example, curling your tongue or whistling. What if you discovered that thing about you that was different was literally how you picture the world?

That’s what happened to Blake Ross, the co-creator of open-source web browser Firefox. On Friday morning, he posted a long essay to his Facebook page about the unexpected discovery that, unlike most of us, he has no ability to visualize images.

He uses the example of imagining a beach. "If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves,” he writes. “Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only 'see' a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas. I don’t.”

Ross says that he knows about beaches — what they do and what they’re like; that there's sand, sun, and water. But he can’t picture it in his head. And that blankness extends to all his sensory memory. He can’t imagine the heat of the sun, the sound of the waves, or the smell of the salt.

The condition is called aphantasia, which literally means a lack of fantasy. Ross discovered it when he stumbled across this article in The New York Times, which profiles a man called MX who found himself with the condition after minor surgery. Tests showed that parts of MX’s brain simply didn’t activate when he was asked to visualize the face of famous people. When Ross read the symptoms, he was blown away. It defined something he had never considered enough to name.

Nobody knows for sure how many people might have aphantasia — or even if it's definitively real. The medical community is still debating the subject. A 2008 study based on self-reported surveys suggested that about 2 to 5% of people were either very poor visual imagers or simply didn’t have the ability. It was only last year that the condition was even named.

So, what does this discovery mean for Ross? Well, mainly, it means that he finally has a name to put to something he didn’t even know how to identify. “Above all, strangely, I feel relief," he writes. "It is vindication in some lifelong battle against an enemy I could never find."

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