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Visualizing memory is a common phenomenon for many people. A dash of cinnamon and ginger may take you back to your childhood kitchen to enjoy freshly baked cookies, while hearing a different tune may conjure up images of dancing with that special someone.

Mary Watten had never had an experience like this. No images come to mind when the 43-year-old lawyer remembers baking with her mother in Newent, England. When she opens herself up as a child’s gift, she can’t even imagine the face of her husband’s proposal, or the birth of her children.

“It seems very strange to me when people say they can take pictures,” Watten said. “I cannot relive what I saw. I only see it once in a moment. I am guided by emotion and thought rather than by sight.

“I don’t have pictures of my boys being born right now, but I can tell you all about it,” she added. I remember the feeling and I can describe the room and every birth in detail, but I will never see it again.

Mary Watten

Ever since she was a child, Mary Waton has been unable to see images in her mind.

A year ago, Watten discovered that she and her mother had a rare processing disorder called aphantasia – their brains don’t form mental images to remember and imagine. (Fantasia is the Greek word for fantasy.) “Until recently, I didn’t know that other people see pictures. I just thought everyone was like me,” she said.

Like left-handedness, aphasia is not a disability or a disease, experts say, but a striking difference in the human experience.

“I understand concepts, I perceive things, I have memories, but they are not supported by any images,” Watt said. “I read Afantasia saying, ‘You have the same computer hardware as other people, but the monitor isn’t on.’ That really resonates with me,” he said.

Paul Boxlag

Geraldine van Heemstra has always been able to recreate her experiences well and has a vivid imagination. She uses her abilities to create images inspired by the Scottish winds.

Dutch-born artist Geraldine van Heemstra is at the opposite end of this unique process. She has hyperphantasia and remembers memories vividly, often reliving them in the moment.

For van Heemstra, letters and numbers have colors and people often have colorful auras that surround their bodies – so commemorating her daughter’s birth is an experience full of warm colors and bright lights.

“I remember a blue screen and our daughter’s head with a little sun coming up on her head, probably screaming her lungs out,” Van Heemstra recalled with a smile. “It’s a beautiful and vivid memory, with very warm colors.”

While such a clear image can be beneficial to the artist, it also has significant disadvantages. “Having too much imagination can sometimes be a problem,” says Van Heemstra, who splits her time between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. Because you tend to overthink things and have too much confidence.

If she’s nervous about going somewhere, for example, she might think about it and experience déjà vu. “I think that happens because I think about it clearly,” she said.

At other times, Van Heemstra can’t shut her brain off. “Last night my son convinced me to watch a horror TV series about a woman who smuggles cocaine into Miami and gets shot in the head by a kid,” she said. “Then every time I tried to sleep all night, the cameras in my head were going through all these very, very colorful and scary images.”

Neurologist Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in England and an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says about 4% of the world’s population may experience aphantasia.

Zeman coined the term in 2015 after meeting someone he once remembered well but lost after heart surgery.

“We did a brain imaging study and found that the brain responded normally when looking at objects, but when trying to imagine them, there was no activation of the brain’s visual regions,” Zeman said.

Since then, research has exploded, says Zeman, a Science review on aphantasia, published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. One of the advances is a method to objectively measure visual impairment.

“If you have an image and you’re looking at the sun, your pupils actually get a little bit more crowded,” says Zeman. “Thinking you’re looking in a dark room, your pupils dilate a little. However, people with aphasia do not show that effect.

“If you have a picture and read a really scary story, you have to sweat. But people with aphthasia don’t,” he continued. But if you show them scary pictures, they will sweat. So the implication is that you need images to generate some kind of gut reaction to an emotional story.

Researchers now know that aphantasia can be related to memory impairment, autism or face blindness, where people can’t recognize many faces, even those they love. People with aphasia are more likely to work in science, math or information technology, Zeman said. And while aphasia can be caused by brain damage, some people, like Waton and her mother, have the condition from birth.

“We’ve found that it seems to run in families, so if you have aphthasia, your first degree relatives They are about 10 times more likely to get it,” Zeman said.

Another finding: Many people with aphasia dream visually. How can it be? That’s because the processes of creating images during sleep and creating images while dreaming are very different, Zeman said.

“People with aphantasia know what an image is; they can’t call it a day,” he said. “This lack of imagery affects all the senses, not just the mind’s eye.”

This is true for Watan, who cannot see, sound, smell, touch or taste. However, Watt said that she is often “emotional and feels things very strongly and can describe a smell, a taste or a sound by how she feels.”

Watt has a successful career as a lawyer and considers herself good at conveying complex information: “I’m certainly not relying on images in any way, shape or form, and don’t think anyone else does.”

However, she does not enjoy fantasy fiction. “They’re just words on a page. I don’t go on trips and visit places in my mind”—and this inhibits her ability to play roles with her children. She often observes her husband, who has been diagnosed with hyperphantasia, do this with ease.

“I get a little jealous when I see them playing in pretend play, like tractor or car racing,” she says. “I’m much better at helping with homework or playing a real game.”

What makes aphantasia so frustrating for Wathe, however, is the fact that “if I’m not with my children, I can’t see them. I can’t take a picture of them. This morning I would tell you in detail what they looked like, their manners and what clothes they wore, but I have no picture of them.

“For example, it bothers me to think that I can’t close my eyes and take pictures of my mother when I lose people I love.

Zeman estimates that up to 10% of the world’s population has hyperphantasies. People who experience vivid imagery are often into art and can experience heightened emotions, Zeman said.

“Imagery has been described as an emotional amplifier, so I think it’s a fair bet that people with hyperphantasia have a more dynamic emotional response than people with aphantasia, although it’s not well studied yet.

Brain scans show that people with vivid imagery “have very strong connections between sensory centers in the front of the brain and the back of the brain,” Zeman said. “If you have aphantasia, those connections are very weak. So the difference between the two may have to do with the connection in the brain.

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to being at both ends of the sensory spectrum, Zeman said.

One of Afantasia Plus says that, with no frequent visual distractions, living in the moment can be easier.

“We worry that hyperfantasy may make people more vulnerable to PTSD[post-traumatic stress disorder],” he said. “People sometimes confuse what they think with what actually happened, or they allow themselves to constantly see the dire consequences of what didn’t happen.”

For example, a mother whose children got out of a car before it collided with another person is troubled by images of what might have happened if the children were still in the car, Zeman said.

People with highly visual minds have more time. SynesthesiaAccording to Zeman, the brain experiences more than one emotion at the same time, e.g tasting colors, Hearing sounds or assigning certain colors to numbers and letters.

Geraldine Van Heemstra

Van Heemstra created a device that moved with the wind, which allowed her to capture images created by the movement of air.

Although many people with hyperphantasies enjoy their abilities, the condition can be isolating. In response to cruel teasing from her brothers and schoolmates, Van Heemstra learned to hide her emotions as a child.

“When I was little, I was very quiet about how my mind worked,” she says. “I could play with anything; I could build big cities with just a few sticks, rivers and bridges and plant trees, but my little brother couldn’t imagine it. So he said, ‘I don’t want you, you idiot.'”

Van Heemstra says, “It was also very difficult at school to see the numbers in color, like in maths.” “Even though I know how to do math and the correct answer, I don’t like the result because the colors of the numbers don’t match, so I change them.”

Van Heemstra and Watten have never met or spoken to each other, but both women told CNN that they are speaking out about their unique minds in hopes that it will help others, especially young children.

“It was very frustrating at school because I would explain something and then I would be laughed at,” Van Heemstra said. “I felt very insecure, and I think a lot of kids can suffer from this, regardless of whether they have aphantasia or hyperphantasia, because you’re made to feel like you’re so different.”

Many teachers in elementary school focus on fostering children’s creativity, but if they don’t recognize the differences in how brains process sensory information, they can easily dismiss the student as dissociative. It allows them to do that,” said Watten.

“It’s really important for kids to feel motivated and involved in school,” she said. “The more we know these things, the more we can understand and empathize – all part of trying to live in harmony.”