If you ask several people to close their eyes and imagine a cow, the results will differ significantly. For most, an image of something roughly cow-like will appear in their mind’s eye. It may be vague and indistinct, and it may soon fade, but they will see something. This is not true for everyone.
Some people will see nothing at all, which indicates a condition known as aphantasia. Even if you asked an aphantasic to mentally picture something extremely familiar, such as their own kitchen, they would not be able to do so because they have no faculty for mental imagery. Most aphantasics find this normal, and struggle to imagine how it could be otherwise. They tend to assume that the concept of a ‘mind’s eye’ is simply metaphorical, because although they couldn’t see a cow or a kitchen if you asked them to imagine one, they were still thinking about those things.
Aphantasics are more likely to have difficulty recognising faces and often have weak autobiographical memories of events in their lives. Roughly 2–3 per cent of the population is aphantasic, which makes it a surprisingly common condition.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are people with a condition called hyperphantasia. If you could glance inside a hyperphantasic’s mind when you asked them to imagine a cow, what you saw might shock you. A hyperphantasic would see a cow in their mind’s eye as vivid and real as if it was standing just in front of them. They would not only be able to see the cow in pin-sharp focus, but they would also be able to smell its damp hide and feel the heat from its breath. To a hyperphantasic, images are not things that you think, they are things that you encounter.
Scientists have only just begun to study these extremes of mental imagery vividness. The term ‘aphantasia’ was first coined by the neurologist Adam Zeman and researchers at the University of Exeter in a 2015 paper. Studies of the condition are currently in their infancy, but there are already some interesting correlations being reported. Hyperphantasics tend to spend more time day-dreaming than the average person. They are more prone to emotions such as regret, longing and nostalgia; they experience both greater anxiety and greater empathy than most; and they can find reading about a gory incident extremely distressing. Research into hyperphantasia is producing techniques that can help syndromes like post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients suffering from intrusive memories, it has been discovered, can be calmed by being presented with alternative strong visual imagery, such as playing the game Tetris – the mind can only hold one mental image at a time, and the vividness of the new image overwrites the old intrusive one.
Although retrospective diagnoses of historical psychological conditions are problematic, the case for Blake being a hyperphantasic is strong. As we have already noted, Blake insisted that everything he painted he saw first in his mind. His contemporaries also commented on this. Thomas Phillips wrote how Blake ‘always saw in fancy every form he drew’. This situation was tested by a series of experiments Blake undertook around 1820 with the watercolour painter John Varley. He encouraged Blake to draw portraits of famous spirits that he saw, including Moses, Julius Caesar, William Wallace and Edward III. A cynic may say that these portraits, known as the ‘visionary heads’, owe more to memory than vision, because a number of his drawings of historical figures resembled previous portraits that Blake would probably have seen. The accounts of Blake producing these images, however, suggest that whatever their original source, Blake was indeed sketching people who appeared vividly in his mind’s eye.
Sessions took place at night, usually starting around 9 or 10 p.m. and sometimes lasting until 3 or 4 a.m. Varley would suggest a historic figure, and after a brief moment, Blake would cry, ‘There he is!’ and get to work. As he sketched, Blake would occasionally look up, as if he had a real sitter before him. Sometimes he would abandon a portrait mid-sketch, saying, ‘I can’t go on, it is gone! I must wait till it returns.’ When he was asked to sketch the monstrous spirit from his famous painting The Ghost of a Flea, Blake started drawing the spirit he ‘saw’ but ran into a problem when it moved position and opened its mouth. He had to abandon his first sketch and start again next to it, this time showing the new position of the creature’s features. This suggests that he was sketching what he saw vividly in his mind’s eye, rather than making up the image as he went. From the many similar accounts, it seems that Blake was telling the truth about drawing what he ‘saw’ in vision.
There are other aspects of Blake’s life which support the possibility that he was hyperphantasic. When people discuss the great moral problems of the day – in the modern world issues like climate change, inequality and biodiversity collapse – they can usually remain dispassionate and calm. Blake couldn’t; the issues of his age, which included slavery and child labour, pushed him into anger. For an hyperphantasic person, talking about the cruel conditions that plagued child chimney sweeps would conjure vivid visions of the suffocating, claustrophobic darkness that these young children were forced to endure. When talk of these issues causes the reality of those situations to play out in your mind’s eye, a reaction of righteous anger is natural. Blake was always quick to express fury about confinement. In the poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’ he writes:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro all its regions