Mia Tomova aphantasia
© Nikolay Doychinov for the GuardianMia Tomova: ‘I’m dreadful with directions because I can’t remember landmarks.’
I have a condition called aphantasia where I can't visualise things. When I try to picture my daughter when she's not there, I see nothing

I was seven when, in hindsight, I first questioned my imagination. I remember watching the first Harry Potter film and my friend, who was a huge fan, was complaining that the characters weren't how she imagined them to be. I couldn't understand what she meant because, in my mind, they had never been images at all, just concepts. When I shut my eyes, I see nothing. It is black. I have no visual imagination.

I thought everyone's minds worked this way until about two years ago, when I stumbled across a blog post about aphantasia; a condition where you lack a functioning mind's eye. I was 23, and it blew my mind to learn that others could visualise things. I'd never known any different but it was clear I had aphantasia, too, and a lot of things started to make more sense.

I began to look it up online and in science journals. For me, imagination had always been conceptual. I could never visualise a crown, a unicycle or an ice-cream in my hand. If someone asked me to close my eyes and picture myself by the sea, I would see nothing.

I was intrigued to know if it is inherited, so I asked my parents. My mother thought I was lying. "No, no," she said, "you have a wonderful imagination." For her, things are exceptionally vivid; but I think my father is like me (although people have differing degrees: some people see fuzzy images, some see none at all).

I suppose you could say my imagination is broken, but each of us can only experience our own thoughts, so it is hard to compare. For this reason, it is difficult to know how many people have aphantasia, but academics have developed a test using visualisation questions. It has been associated with similar conditions such as face blindness or tone deafness, though it does not affect cognitive or physical function.

A good little test for me is drawing. I can copy things almost like for like if they are in front of me, but if I were to draw from my imagination it would look terrible. It doesn't mean you cannot be creative; you just have to adapt.

I am currently studying for a PhD in reproductive biology in Manchester, and I have found others in the sciences like me. Lacking a visual element to my imagination meant that tests of memory recall were difficult. For example, we had to learn a cell-counting technique but, regardless of how many times I read it, it didn't make sense. When I came to do it in the lab, I understood it immediately. If you have a visual imagination you can look at a diagram and it triggers your memory; but I learn by repetition or physically doing something.

I'm dreadful with directions because I can't remember landmarks. I'm terrible with faces. In that sense, it's a little sad because I cannot picture my five-year-old daughter when I'm not with her. But I could tell you how she looks, where she has a freckle, what her hair is like, from repetitive memory.

I still enjoy reading - sci-fi and fantasy - but detailed literature is a slog. The Lord Of The Rings and A Game Of Thrones are extremely descriptive series that I would love to enjoy, but quickly become bored with.

Strangely, I am a lucid dreamer, so it seems only my voluntary visual imagination is affected. Although, I never really understood the whole "counting sheep" thing as a child: I couldn't see any sheep so I assumed it was just a synonym for counting.

I'd love to take myself back to certain memories, such as when I've had an amazing holiday or when I first held my daughter. I can only look at photos. I'm really envious of people who can picture themselves on a desert island to relieve stress.

On the flip side, I suspect it's helpful in cases where worry may be overwhelming, in that I don't ever spiral into crippling fear and imagine a situation over and over, as some people do.

I sometimes wonder if my daughter has aphantasia, but nothing she has said or done so far makes me think so. I asked her what it looks like when she closes her eyes, and she said she sees things like a video playing in her head.

I'd love to experience life with a mind's eye. I think it'd be cool - and beneficial - to imagine things so vividly. If you offered me a day with a visual imagination, I'd swap. Except I think it'd be so brilliant that I wouldn't want to give it back.

As told to Deborah Linton