Remembering the Past—Aphantasia’s Impact on Memory

Recent research has illuminated the challenges individuals with aphantasia face when remembering the past, shedding light on a concern that resonates deeply within our community.
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Bridging Personal Experiences With Scientific Insight

I wish I could picture my loved ones in my mind,” shares a member of our community, articulating a longing echoed by many with aphantasia. This sentiment, alongside others expressing difficulty in remembering the past and reliving past emotions, highlights the profound ways aphantasia affects the essence of how memories are experienced and cherished. 

In a new study conducted by researchers from the University Hospital Bonn (UKB), the University of Bonn, and the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), the relationship between the absence of visual imagination and autobiographical memory, or the memory of one’s personal history, was examined. 

This investigation, involving 14 participants with aphantasia and 16 controls, employed a comprehensive approach, utilizing questionnaires, memory interviews, and brain scans to explore how the lack of visual imagination influences memory recall. The following is a breakdown of their methods.

How Researchers Identify Aphantasia

Aphantasia is often identified using a questionnaire called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). This questionnaire asks people to imagine scenes, like a sunset, in detail and rate how vivid their mental image is on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being ‘No image at all, I only “know” I am thinking of the object,’ and 5 being ‘Perfectly realistic, as vivid as real seeing.’ Scores range from 16 to 80, with lower scores indicating a lack of mental imagery, typical of aphantasia.

To address the limitations of self-reported questionnaires, researchers also use a more objective test called the binocular rivalry task. In this task, after participants try to imagine a specific pattern, they are shown two different patterns, one to each eye, and asked which one they see more clearly. The pattern they were trying to imagine should influence what they see, providing an objective measure of their ability to visualize mentally. This approach helps researchers assess visual imagination more accurately.

The Science Behind Memory Interviews

In this study, the researchers—interested in how well people remember their past— developed a method called the Autobiographical Interview (AI). The types of autobiographical memories queried were personalized and varied, tailored to each participant’s individual experiences. It covered a wide range of past experiences, from significant life events to more mundane, everyday experiences, all of which were unique to the individual’s life history.

The details about the memories were then categorized into two main types: internal and external details. 

Internal details included what was happening, where it occurred, when it took place, what could be seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled. It also included how someone felt or what they thought at the time. 

External details included general facts known about the event, other events that were related but not the main focus, any repeated information, and thoughts about knowing or thinking about the memory itself.

The researchers also scored each memory on how rich or full of detail it was, using a scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘perfect.’ They also scored how confident people felt about the accuracy of their memories using the same scale. This was because some people were very sure of their memories, while others were not as confident.

After sorting memories into internal and external details and scoring them for episodic richness and confidence, researchers followed up with three general questions:

  1. How difficult is it typically for you to recall autobiographical memories?
  2. How difficult is it typically for you to orient yourself spatially?
  3. How difficult is it typically for you to use your imagination?

Exploring Memories Using Brain Scans

The researchers then used an fMRI machine—a special type of brain scanner—to see how people remember personal experiences or solve simple math problems. They designed a test where participants saw words like ‘a party’ on a screen and then had to think of a related personal memory, such as their 20th birthday party. They were asked to dive deep into that memory, thinking about all the details they could, like what they saw, heard, and felt during that moment. Afterward, they rated how vividly they could recall that memory.

In another part of the test, participants solved basic math problems and then rated how easy or difficult they found them. This whole process was not only about recalling memories or solving math but also about understanding which parts of the brain get busy when we perform these tasks.

Key Findings and Their Implications

This comprehensive approach provided insights into how individuals with aphantasia recall and elaborate on autobiographical memories, assessing the vividness of these recollections and the potential differences in memory processing between those with and without aphantasia. And the findings are revealing.

The following is a summary of key findings and their implications:

  • Challenges in Memory Recall: The study confirmed that individuals with aphantasia encounter significant challenges in recalling memories, often described with less detail and lower confidence. This confirms the essential role of mental imagery in enabling a vivid recollection of past experiences.
  • Decreased Hippocampal Activation: Researchers found decreased activation in the hippocampus, the brain’s central hub for memory formation and retrieval, in individuals with aphantasia during memory recall tasks. This neural distinction provides critical insight into the different memory processing in aphantasia.
  • Altered Connectivity: The research also unveiled altered connectivity between the hippocampus and the visual cortex in aphantasics. This alteration emphasizes the critical importance of the interaction between these brain regions in the encoding and retrieval of detailed, vivid autobiographical memories.

Merlin Monzel, a co-author and doctoral student at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bonn, shares in Neuroscience News:

We found that people with aphantasia have more difficulty recalling memories. Not only do they report fewer details, but their narratives are less vivid and their confidence in their own memory is diminished. This suggests that our ability to remember our personal biography is closely linked to our imagination.

The findings from this study not only validate the experiences of those with aphantasia but also underscore the importance of visual imagination in the construction and recall of personal memories. It offers key insights into why remembering the past can be challenging for aphantasics, providing a neural basis for the lived experiences of many within our community. 

Community Stories on Remembering the Past

At the Aphantasia Network, we’re committed to intertwining the science of aphantasia with the compelling stories of those it touches, showcasing the unique challenges and opportunities it presents.

From strategies for learning and remembering to the healing potential in the face of trauma to navigating the complexities of memory akin to ‘Schrödinger’s Box,’ our community’s narratives offer diverse perspectives on aphantasia and its personal impacts on memory. 

Here, you will find a selection of stories from our community, shedding light on the personal journeys of remembering the past through the lens of aphantasia. 

  1. Learning and Remembering, With or Without Aphantasia
    Memory is tricky whether you have aphantasia or not. Here are some strategies you can use to learn and remember.
  2. Aphantasia and SDAM – Gifts of Healing
    When your life has been filled with trauma, you have to wonder: could aphantasia and SDAM be the source of the trauma, or could they be the means of healing?
  3. Memories Inside Schrödinger’s Box
    A cat that is both alive and dead. Memories that exist, yet they don’t. Schrödinger’s Box and the mystery of memory in aphantasia.

New to aphantasia? Check out our Beginner’s Guide.

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