Aphantasia Explained: Some People Can’t Form Mental Pictures

How do you draw from memory if you can't form mental pictures? Evidently, you don’t need to “see” with the mind’s eye to carry-out these tasks.
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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How many times have you watched a book adaptation on film or TV, and felt disappointed when a scene wasn’t quite how you’d pictured it? Or perhaps a character looked nothing like you’d imagined them to look?

Most people, when asked to form an image of a person they’re familiar with, can see it within their mind. In other words, it’s a visual, mental experience – similar to what we would see if the person were in front of us.

But it turns out that this isn’t true for everyone. Some people, when asked to form an image, will report they cannot “see” anything. This recently-identified variation of human experience was named in 2015 as aphantasia. It is estimated that 2% to 5% of the population have a lifelong inability to generate any images within their mind’s eye.

But, how do you recall details of an object or an event if you cannot actually see it in your mind? This is a question my colleagues and I sought to investigate in one of our recent studies.

Studying Aphantasia

We assessed visual memory performance between individuals with aphantasia compared to those who had typical imagery.

In the study, participants were shown three images of a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom, and were asked to draw each from memory. Their drawings were objectively reviewed by over 2,700 online scorers who assessed the object details (what objects looked like) and spatial details (the size and location of objects).

We expected people with aphantasia might find it difficult to draw an image from memory as they can’t summon these pictures in their mind’s eye.

A picture on the left that people were shown, and examples of their drawings on the right.
Examples of drawings from the experiment.
Zoe Pounder, Author provided

Our findings showed people with aphantasia drew the objects of the correct size and location, but they provided less of the visual details such as colour and also drew a fewer number of objects compared to typical imagers.

Some participants with aphantasia noted what the object was through language – such as writing the words “bed” or “chair” – rather than drawing the object. This suggests those with aphantasia could be using alternative strategies such as verbal representations rather than visual memory. These differences in object and spatial detail weren’t due to differences in artistic ability or drawing effort.

Our results suggested people with aphantasia have intact spatial imagery abilities – the ability to represent the size, location and position of objects in relation to each other. This finding has been reinforced in another of our studies examining how people with aphantasia perform in a number of imagery-related memory tasks.

We found people who lacked the ability to generate visual imagery performed just as well as people with typical imagery in these tasks. We also found similarities in performance within the classic mental rotation imagery task, in which people look at shapes to work out if they are the same shape rotated or different shapes.

This performance suggests that you don’t need to “see” with the mind’s eye to carry-out these tasks. On the other hand, it’s been documented that some people with aphantasia – but not all – are more likely to report difficulties with recognising faces and also report a poor autobiographical memory – the memory of life events – a type of memory thought to rely heavily on visual imagery.

A portrait of a woman with a drawing of a galaxy over her brain.
Some people can’t see visual memories.
Shutterstock/sun ok

Life With Aphantasia

People with aphantasia also describe other variations in their experience. Not everyone with aphantasia has a complete lack of imagery experience across all senses. Some might be able to hear a tune in their mind, but not be able to imagine visual images associated with it.

Similarly, research has shown that despite the inability to generate on-demand visual imagery, some people with aphantasia may still report experiencing visual imagery within dreams. Others say their dreams are non-visual – made up of conceptual or emotional content.

These fascinating variations illustrate some of the invisible differences that exist among us. Although many people with aphantasia may not be aware they experience the world differently, what we do know is people with aphantasia live full and professional lives. In fact, it’s been shown that people with aphantasia work within a range of both scientific and creative industries.

For many, visual imagery is intrinsic to how they think, remember past events and plan for the future – a process they engage in and experience without actively trying to. We don’t yet know why such imagery variation exists or the underlying basis. But, as aphantasia has shown, many of our mental experiences are not experienced universally. There are in fact a number of unknowing yet intriguing variations among us.

Zeman, A., Milton, F., Della Sala, S., Dewar, M., Frayling, T., Gaddum, J., … Winlove, C. (2020). Phantasia-The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 130, 426–440. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.003
Bainbridge, W. A., Pounder, Z., Eardley, A. F., & Baker, C. I. (2021). Quantifying aphantasia through drawing: Those without visual imagery show deficits in object but not spatial memory. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 135, 159–172. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.11.014
Jacobs, C., Schwarzkopf, D. S., & Silvanto, J. (2018). Visual working memory performance in aphantasia. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 105, 61–73. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.10.014
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery - Congenital aphantasia. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 73, 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019
Faw, B. (2009). Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(4), 45–68.
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Total Comments (7)

I have suspected that I had memory problems from a young child. I am 77 years old. As a child I didn’t worry about the fact that I couldn’t count sheep for example. I couldn’t visualize when I tried. I could not remember the names of things. However I did very well on multiple choice tests, where the answer was visible among the choices. I also did well on test where I needed to describe a system such as how an automobile engine works. Or what are the relationships between Stellar objects in terms of mass, etc. It seems my entire conscious life I have only talked to myself and tried to describe what my subconscious was experiencing. I have found that I can attach to this subconscious information but I will be in a daydream state in consciousness, totally disconnected from reality which has proven to be dangerous, extreme tunnel vision. while creating art I find I enjoy being and creating in that daydream state. Playing music is similar. I get lost in patterns of improvising. I find I can remember names of people and things better when I relax on the question and don’t try to see an image. The answer just comes to me. I have found many unique advantages to being isolated from visual memory. I can use in Art, Music etc.

I’ve been aware of my Aphantasia for a year or two now. I can draw images of placeres and things I’ve seen/experiences. I do not draw things from an image, I draw things from my “knowing”. My memories are made of (things, sub things, definitions) data elements of what I “know”. My memory has no images in it. My “knowing” is so integrated in my mind, I go without ever thinking I’m missing images. My “knowing” is my primary thought pattern.

Hello I would add that I often see on closing my eyes different colours in my mind despite being  aphantagic in awakened state but visual in dreaming state. However I cannot recollected visual images on awaking.

Is seeing  block Colours unusual it is particularly vivid when meditating or in deep thought processing

 

 

 

Hi Dr Zoë,

At the ripe old age of 66, I have finally got a definition & term for the way I think! I have always struggled with faces, and when asked to visualise people or places, or even objects, always come up blank. I can, for example, ask someone else to imagine a bright pink camel wearing sunglasses and green wellington boots, then find that when I ask them not to visualise said camel, that they struggle not to, whereas I couldn’t visual the camel at the start. However, I have a superb biographical memory, remembering places, people (and their names), and situations from as early as 18 months; I suffer from PTSD and seem to dream almost non-stop when I finally get to sleep – although rarely about fims I have watched, or experiences I am currently having. But we are all different, and I think I have long been aware of this inability to visualise. It also takes considerable effort to memorise poetry (or prose, or, at one time Bible verses). To add insult to injury, I am also dyspraxic!

Great article, Zoë. As a non-academic, you explained this very well.