Everyone’s brain is different. I’ve known that mine is different in a particular way since I was at secondary school. I can’t picture things in my head. It doesn’t matter what you describe – a sunny beach, the Drill Hall Library where I work, members of my family – I simply cannot “see” it unless it’s right there in front of me. Apparently, this is unusual, though to me it’s perfectly normal.

Although people with this “lack” have been recognised for over 100 years, the phenomenon only gained a name in 2015: aphantasia, sometimes explained as the lack of a mind’s eye. Other people find it quite interesting, or perhaps a little confusing. So I wondered – what can our digital library tell us about it?

There’s some academic information, of course, but I thought I’d start with something a little easier. I turned to the Find Databases A-Z menu on LibrarySearch to see what I could find.

The Box of Broadcasts (BoB) service provides access to a huge back catalogue of radio and TV. This includes a number of programmes which mention aphantasia. I found an episode of Radio 4’s All in the Mind from May 2019 called ‘Spatial navigation, aphantasia and depression musical’. Around ten minutes of this episode explains aphantasia and includes interviews with people who have experienced or studied it. This includes Ed Catmull from animation studio Pixar, who explains that numerous animators experience aphantasia – it seems that the inability to picture things isn’t a barrier to creativity!

Edwin Earl “Ed” Catmull former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios*

Next stop – newspapers, thanks to LexisLibrary Newspapers UK. Here, I found a couple of dozen articles. There was a flurry of them in 2015 when it was first named – probably a result of people like me finally understanding that they weren’t the only ones out there. More recently, there are reflections on the animators with aphantasia, and some articles which ask some more probing questions, such as “If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?” (from the Education section in the Guardian in 2016).

We also have access to the New Scientist, a popular magazine covering most areas of science and technology in a way which is comparatively easy to read (even if you don’t happen to be a specialist). A search here brings up five stories relating to aphantasia. Interestingly, some of these suggest that its recent ‘discovery’ is revealing all sorts of things about how the human brain processes information.

Having heard and read some basic information about aphantasia, I returned to LibrarySearch to see what academic information I could find. The word was only coined 4 years ago, so there isn’t a huge amount, but a quick search does find a handful of articles. Most of them are from a journal called Cortex, which makes sense as that’s the journal where aphantasia was first named. The earliest of these debate to what extent it is a psychological phenomenon, or even whether it exists at all. Much of the subsequent writing on the subject is by the same group of scientists who named aphantasia, who are investigating it further in various ways. Again, understandable – it’s probably not high on the list of things which urgently need studying.

So even for a fairly obscure and unresearched concept (and a very new word), your digital library can find a range of things, many of which you wouldn’t be able to read elsewhere. For most topics, the range of material available increases dramatically. Whether it’s for an assignment or simply to satisfy your curiosity, your digital library is a great resource to use.

Your Digital Library
Discover Your Digital Library

By David Bedford – Academic Support Librarian – Drill Hall Library

+ Featured Image – Mind’s eye by Bill Hails. CC BY-ND 2.0, – https://flic.kr/p/K8sLS
* By VES_Awards_89.jpg: Jeff Heusser derivative work: Ahonc – This file was derived from: VES Awards 89.jpg:, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24370502