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NLP and Aphantasia – having no ‘Mind’s Eye’

by Frances Coombes(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 227 - January 2016

If you find it Impossible to Visualize Objects, People’s Faces, a wedding scene in your ‘mind’s eye’, scientists have coined a name for your condition – aphantasia.



I discovered I had no ‘mind’s eye’ on an NLP course when I was asked to work with a partner and describe a scene in order to discover how differently we each viewed the world.  My super- visually led partner, an Italian woman, could picture and describe people’s faces as clearly as if they were on a television screen.  She could make the image bigger, brighter and more colourful at will, whereas I could ‘see’ nothing at all – just a blank screen.

Up to one in fifty people are believed to have aphantasia.  Professor Adam Zeman who authored a university of Exeter study published earlier this year believes that up to 2 per cent of the population could have the condition.  He believes that people can either be born with aphantasia or develop it as a result of damage to parts of the brain involved in visualization.  It means that people can’t imagine the face of someone they love, although they may be able to construct an image of them in other ways.  In my own case I get a ‘sense’ of people.

I teach NLP courses at the City Lit in London and ten years ago began asking learning groups what they are ‘seeing’ when they describe a scene.  In a class of twenty people sometimes a person will say either they do not see pictures just a blank, some will say they see grainy pictures, whilst some say they get a vague ‘sense’ of a scene but no pictures. 

People use a mixture of senses but tend to have a preferred system which is either ‘Visual’,  ‘Auditory’ or ‘Kinaesthetic’ in particular circumstances which can often be confirmed from listening to the language they use and noticing their matching eye cues. 

Eye accessing cues are a series of largely unconscious eye movements which people exhibit whilst thinking. Eye movements are clues to the sensory system a person is using to access information and the sensory modality they then use to ‘process’ or ‘re-present’ that information.  Noticing where others are looking when then talk gives us an indication of the sensory systems that person is using. 

We also notice language predicates, which are cue words people use which are linked to the five senses, ‘visual’, ‘auditory’, ‘kinaesthetic’ (touchie-feelie), ‘gustatory’ (taste)  and ‘olfactory’ (smell).

The person’s representation of their experience can be identified by the words (predicates) that they use to describe what they are talking about.

  1. I ‘see’ what you mean (Visual)
  2. It ‘rings a bell’ (Auditory)
  3. He’s had a ‘rough’ time (Kinaesthetic)
  4. ‘Smells fishy’ to me (Olfactory)
  5. This confrontation leaves a ‘bad taste’.  (Gustatory)

Being aware of other people’s eye cues and sensory language enables you to better understand how that person is experiencing the world.  It gives you a means to communicate more fully with them in that particular moment and build rapport. 

In general people look upwards for visual information, from side to side for auditory information.  They tend to look down to the left when they are talking to themselves and down and to the right when they are in touch with their ‘feelings’.

  1. Roughly 59 per cent of learners lead with their visual sense; they ‘see ‘things, usually in colour.  They prefer their information in visual form and the more mentally agile have a highly developed sense of ‘spacial’ awareness and can manipulate and move objects they visualize around in their mind’s eye.  (This is the kind of imagery that people like architects tend to possess.);
  2. Up to 13 per cent of people lead with their kinaesthetic senses.  These are people who are often bright but may not be good at passing exams or in putting their ideas across, because they need walk and move their bodies in order to process the information in order to get to the answers;
  3. 28 per cent of people lead with their ‘auditory’ senses, they like their information served in clear linear form.   I watched David Blunkett, the blind ex labour MP on television doing an interview about Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader.  Interestingly he looks up when he is delivering information (a ‘Visual’ strategy, although he is blind), and his eyes move from left to right, as if reading from a script (an auditory strategy).  So he combines two sensory styles, ‘visual’ and ‘auditory’ to retrieve information and deliver it in good order.

How to Teach a ‘Visual’ Strategy to a ‘Non-Visual’ Speller

Cricket Kemp runs NLP North East and has spent over 40 years teaching the ‘Magic Spelling Strategy’ to thousands of children and adult learners who do not access a visual learning strategy. She says: ‘Children who are predominantly auditory (hear words then spell them), or kinaesthetic (able to feel that a word is correct) but cannot ‘see’ it are distinctly disadvantaged in a visual learning setting.

How the New Strategy is Installed

The word to be learned is printed on a card and shown to children whilst Cricket holds the card below the chest at gut level.  This is because most good spellers have a ‘gut’ feeling if a spelling is right or wrong.  It is important that the word feels right when you look at it. Once the word ‘feels’ right the card is then moved upwards.

Storing the Correct Spelling

Learners move the correct spelling up and to their left, so that their eyes also move up and to the left, continuing to be aware of your good feelings. Removing the card from your line of sight, notice that you are continuing to ‘see’ the word is there, up and to the left. It takes a morning for most people to learn and install the new habit so it becomes automatic - then the benefits last a lifetime.

People who lack a mind’s eye so that they can’t see clearly and in colour like other people need not feel sad. It is likely they will have evolved many of their own sensory strategies for achieving their outcomes, something the visuals amongst us can’t even imagine.

Bandler and Grinder who developed the concept of NLP, introduced the idea of primary representation systems in the 1970s mainly as a simplified teaching tool to direct learners attention to peoples sensory predicates and eye accessing.

NLP is largely about modelling successful outcomes;  and if you want to model someone else’s strategy for doing a task successfully  it is helpful to notice what sensory channel the person is using ‘in the moment’ they are performing the task well.

There has been little or no research done in the NLP community on eye cues in the last few decades.

This is one of the many areas that the NLP field should research properly that needs proper research and data gathering.


Visual Imagery Checklist

Think of a most recent and vivid gathering you have attended, i.e. wedding, party or group setting.

Is the image in

Black + White


Near or far


Bright or Dim






Vivid as real life

Add other details




Circle the descriptions that fit your experience.  Do you see in colour, black and white, do your images move?  Just how clearly do you ‘see?’



  1. Linden Rowland said..

    Hi Frances, Thank you for posting this informative article. I can't visualise what people are saying so it helps to have actual pictures and diagrams. Many of us with aphantasia report we need to understand underlying structures of any subject being taught. Lots of detail or learning by rote doesn't work for me. In a way it's a bit topsy turvy. I guess visualisers gradually form models of underlying structures over time whereas I need them from the outset otherwise I have nothing to pin the detail on. Your readers may be interested in these sites: Aphantasia facebook group: Aphantasia Community/Forum:

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About Frances Coombes

Frances Coombes Advanced Dip CBT/REBT Dip CBT offers one-to-one therapeutic coaching in North West London and on Zoom.  She is a is a CBT/REBT psychotherapist in North West London, a NLP Master Practitioner and Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapist and runs life coaching groups in London and on Zoom.  She teaches NLP at The City Lit in Central London and tutors at the City Lit and Mary Ward Centre in central London on Using REBT for Managing Stress and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). She runs goal setting and REBT coaching groups for vulnerable people for inner London authorities and charities.  

Her most recent book is Motivate Yourself and Reach Your Goals, pub, November 2013, Hodder Headline. Available on and  For extract visit To inquire or book personal development courses contact Frances on Tel: 07818 896 795; 


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