Artwork by Oscar winning character animator Glen Keane

World’s largest gathering for people with no ‘mind’s eye’ takes place in Exeter

The first ever conference for people with Aphantasia – no visual imagination – took place in Exeter, and is the largest known gathering of people who experience the phenomenon.

More than 100 people from around the world, convened at the University of Exeter in early April, for the Extreme Imagination Conference 2019. The conference brought together people at either extreme of the visual imagery spectrum, for a series of lectures, workshops and discussion groups hosted by the leading scientists and thinkers in aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

Professor Adam Zeman, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “During the conference many people expressed delight in finally having a term for an aspect of their life that they previously found very difficult to communicate to others – and in discovering that countless others share their distinctive variation in experience. It was incredible to play a part in bringing this community together.”

Adam coined the term 'aphantasia' in 2015. Following an article featured in BBC Health and in The New York Times, Adam received 12,000 emails from people who related to his descriptions and wanted to take part in his research. One of them was co-founder and former President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, 74, who attended the conference and also gave a guest presentation.

Ed said: “I think it’s really helpful for people to know that the way they visualise – or not – doesn’t define them. Although we all have different thought processes, that doesn’t link with the quality of what you produce. We just all go about it in different ways.”

Ed – whose revolutionary software formed the basis for all curved surfaces in computer generated imagery – ironically discovered he had aphantasia when a friend asked him to picture a sphere in his head. “I spent a week trying,” he said, “but when I closed my eyes, I just couldn’t conjure up a sphere in front of me. I have a physics degree and a strong sense of 3D. My creation set the industry standard for animating curves, yet I couldn’t see a sphere in my mind.”

Adapting the test Adam used for his colleagues at Pixar, Ed conducted a questionnaire in more than 500 staff members from multiple disciplines. “I realised I had unique access to some of the greatest visual creators in the world and to some of the most technical minds – so I carried out some research on them.”

He quickly realised the while some had such high-quality visual imagination that they could “trace” their thoughts onto a page, some of the most talented of all could not visualise. Oscar winner Glen Keane, the creative talent behind iconic characters including Ariel and Rapunzel, was among those who has no visual imagery. He now believes there is little to no correlation between having aphantasia and one’s creative potential.

The conference launched the same weekend as the Extreme Imagination: Inside the Mind’s Eye at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) which features work by artists with Aphantasia, and its opposite, hyperphantasia.

The exhibition will remain open until 2nd June.

Date: 18 April 2019

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