Maritza van Dop always thought ‘counting sheep’ was just a metaphor. Until, in the course of her PhD research, she read an article on aphantasia. Suddenly she realized that, unlike her, most other people actually saw those sheep in their mind’s eye.
Maritza van Dop graduated with a PhD in Biochemistry on 7 September, for her study of the role of polar proteins in the development of plants.
Proposition: 'People that lack visual memory learn differently, not necessarily less'
‘People with aphantasia are not very able to visualize something mentally. I had never realized other people could do that, when the “count sheep” for instance. It has nothing to do with being able to recognize things, because if I see a sheep, I know what it is. And I can usually describe the general characteristics of something I’ve seen earlier. I just don’t picture it. Maybe there is an image stored somewhere in my brain, but I can’t access it consciously. Sometimes, for example, I see images in my dreams, although they are fairly vague.
People can have various degrees of Aphantasia. If you ask them to imagine a blue ball, some people can see a vague shape. I can’t even see that. That is what I mean in my proposition by “lack of visual memory”.
In the course of my research I examined cell patterns under the microscope. At the start, if someone asked me to draw them afterwards, I would find it difficult. I could only work out what they ought to look like based on my knowledge about them. So I first have to remember details about visual information in words or concepts, and perhaps that is more demanding of my memory than it would be if I could picture what I had seen.
It doesn’t mean that I am less able to learn things. And I don’t experience it as a handicap or a lack. I have other strategies for remembering things and retrieving them from my memory. I remember more in words, sounds and concepts. Aphantasia has only recently started to come in for some attention, and research on it is still in its infancy. I try to contribute to research, by filling in questionnaires, for instance.’