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Picture this? Some just can’t.


Picture this? […] A retired surveyor who can no longer imagine. This New York Times article chronicles the experience of a 65-year-old man from the UK, patient MX, who reported losing his mind’s eye after heart surgery. Assigned to the case is UK neurologist Adam Zeman, tasked with figuring out what’s going on in MX’s head. Zeman publishes the first scientific study on aphantasia in June of 2015, and a few days later, is picked up by New York Times writer Carl Zimmer in Picture This? […]. When the research went public, dozens of people from around the world came forward saying they share a similar experience to MX; They do not create mental images in their mind. However, unlike MX, they have it from birth.

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Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia


Neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter publishes Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia, the first fMRI study on mental imagery. The study involved a patient, known as MX, who reported losing his ability to visualize in the mind after undergoing heart surgery. In his study, Zeman uses an MRI scanner to monitor MX’s brain activity when asked to name famous people. The scan reveals that different regions of his brain were active when MX lists the names one by one. However, when it comes time to picture their faces, MX draws a total blank. The scan reveals complete inactivity or total darkness. Zeman refers to the inability to generate mental imagery as aphantasia. Although the phenomenon was already described nearly 150 years ago (Galton, 1880), it regained public attention and was given a name by the scientific community for the first time.

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Severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM)


The ability to recall previously experienced events is a key element of human memory. While deficits in this capacity are often associated with brain disease, little is known about individual differences in autobiographical memory (AM) in healthy individuals. AM is defined as both the recollection of personal past events and factual knowledge about oneself. Recently, healthy adults with highly superior autobiographical capacities or HSAM have been identified. In this scientific study, three healthy, high functioning adults with the reverse pattern: lifelong severely deficient autobiographical memory or SDAM are identified. Their self-reported selective inability to vividly recollect personally experienced events from a first-person perspective was corroborated by the absence of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) giving evidence to the idea that autobiographical memory might lie on a spectrum. Early findings suggest there may be a correlation between SDAM and aphantasia.

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Conflicting Intuitions May Be Based On Differing Abilities


Psychologist Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia argues in Conflicting Intuitions May Be Based On Differing Abilities: Evidence from Mental Imagery Research how people seem to assume that what is in one’s own mind is in everybody‘s mind when empirical studies clearly demonstrate this not the case. According to his research, about 2-5% percent of the 2,500 people he queried reported very poor mental imagery abilities or having no visual imagination. He adds that comparable estimates have been made in auditory and other imagery or sensory modalities related to imagination.

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A Dual Coding View of Vocabulary Learning


Dual coding theory, put forward by psychologist Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario, distinguishes between verbal and non-verbal thought processes, and places mental imagery as the primary function for non-verbal processing. The theory claims that information is stored in two different ways – verbally and visually – and although these two codes are independent of one another, and can each be used separately, they can also interact to enhance learning.

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Statistics of Mental Imagery


Scientists have known that some people cannot visualize things in their mind since the 1880s, when psychologist Francis Galton of York University in Toronto first published Statistics of Mental Imagery. The paper details an experiment where Galton asks 100 male participants to picture their breakfast table and then describe to him the vividness of their impressions. Galton discovered that this ability varied remarkably; some individuals could draw up mental images just as brilliant as the scene itself while 12 of his subjects could only conjure up a dim image, or no image at all.

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