Leaving nothing to the imagination

Laura White
Laura White

RAMM, which has just taken the top trophy at the Exeter Living Awards, is holding a new art exhibition. It explores the strange phenomenon of aphantasia, a condition which is being researched by Exeter University.

So, you have been working hard all day and not eaten anything but then remember there is the most delicious stack of chocolate eclairs in the fridge.

When you close your eyes you can see that luscious glossy icing and the whipped cream squidging out of them.

Or maybe you are fed up with winter and suddenly find yourself thinking of that great holiday last year: you can imagine the sun filtered through the green leaves of the trees, the dappled shadows, the view of the mountains from your hotel balcony.

On the other hand if you are one of the unfortunate few who have aphantasia you will find all this incomprehensible. Blake Ross, a director of Facebook who discovered he was aphantasic, has famously written about what it feels like.

For him the idea that you can conjure up imagery in your ‘mind’s eye” is like saying: “Is the puppy on a leash?”  “What puppy?” he wants to know. For those with aphantasia, recalling past events or visual experiences is an entirely verbal or descriptive exercise.

They find it bizarre that most people can ‘picture something’ in their mind’s eye and the rest of us are equally amazed that they cannot.

Now, a new exhibition at RAMM is featuring artists who have the condition alongside those who have the exact opposite – hyperphantasia which causes people to have overly vivid visual imaginations.  ‘Extreme Imagination: Inside the Mind’s Eye’  is inspired by research carried out at Exeter University’s Medical School.

Among the artists exhibiting their work is Andrew Bracey. He says: “I found out two years ago that I have aphantasia.  It blows my mind that others can see and create in their minds.
It made me wonder, maybe that is why I paint? Perhaps why I create images and also why I do not start with the blank canvas, but with an image.”

Another artist, Isabel Nolan, says:
“I never understood those artists who could anticipate exactly how they intended a finished work to come together. I’ve always felt it necessary to make the work in order to discover what it might do, how it will appear. But having nothing to compare it to, it’s difficult to understand how mind-blindness affects my practice.”

Fellow exhibitor Hillah Nevo, feels that the condition has a direct impact on artwork:
“I think that my aphantasia is manifested in my artistic work in the ‘foggy’ nature or in the lack of concreteness of my images.”

However, Claire Dudeney, an artist with hyperphantasia experiences the opposite effect.   She describes what it is like to have an ability to conjure up very detailed mental images:

“I became aware of my hyperphantasia by making a series of works on dreams – realising how vividly I remembered or recreated the scenes.”

Although it was a polymath called Francis Galton who initially explored the idea in the nineteenth century, it was not until 2015 that the subject started to gain more widespread recognition.  Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter Medical School published a study which then sparked off 12,000 emails from people who recognized the phenomenon he described.

He is currently continuing research into the area and the first conference will be held at the University early next month.  Zeman’s work was the driving force behind the art exhibition.

He explains: “It’s really gratifying to have described a phenomenon that has struck a chord with so many people.

RAMM’s exhibition will also allow visitors to test the vividness of their own ‘mind’s eye’.

There will be an online questionnaire on an iPad, plus a range of optical illusion exercises for people to try out.

Extreme Imagination: Inside the Mind’s Eye at RAMM, Exeter opens on 30th March and will continue until June.  The conference on aphantasia and hyperphantasia will be held at Exeter University from 5-7th April.