You’re not imagining things. Imagination is a spectrum, and some of us can’t imagine.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what it actually means to use your imagination? Most people when they say “imagine this” or “imagine that” what they often mean is create some kind of mental representation of some one, place, or thing in their absence. 

When you think of a horse, for example, do you create some kind of mental picture of a horse in your mind. Whenever we create a mental picture of something that isn’t actually there in front of us, we are using our sensory imagination.

Imagination, however, isn’t just limited to our inner sense of sight. Some of us can imagine entire sensory worlds – sounds, movements, smells, tastes, sensations of touch. 

Until recently [2015], it was generally believed that everyone’s imagination worked the same, and that sensory imagination was a ubiquitous part of all human experience; evoked by vivid memories, compelling stories, dreams and daydreams. Yet, more than 2% of people worldwide are born without the ability to imagine sensory worlds beyond what they perceive in the present moment. 

As humans there exists remarkable, often unsuspected differences in our imaginative experience ranging from complete absence (aphantasia) to extremely abundant (hyperphantasia). Imagination is a spectrum, a fact that has surprised those who’ve encountered it for more than a century.

While the sensory experiences we imagine are highly variable from one person to the next, one thing is certain: This (in)ability to form mental representations of things not present to our senses impacts many facets of our life, work and wellbeing, from how we learn, create, dream, remember, plan for the future and so much more.
Can you imagine a life without sensory imagination?

Jennifer McDougall is the Founder of Imagination Spectrum, a platform for measuring cognitive differences, starting with the vividness of our imagination, and Aphantasia Network, helping shape a new global conversation on the power of image-free thinking.