Quantifying Aphantasia Through Drawing

Wilma Bainbridge shares insight into how we can use drawings to uncover what's inside the memory of people with aphantasia in this presentation from the 2021 Extreme Imagination Conference.
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Quantifying Aphantasia Through Drawing with Wilma Bainbridge

Can you draw from imagination? People with aphantasia have an interesting mix of abilities: they can see and recognize images but struggle to imagine them from memory. This hints at a difference in how their memories are stored in their brains. But, until now, scientists haven’t had a way to measure what’s actually in their visual memory. A study led by Wilma Bainbridge from the University of Chicago uses drawings to answer this question.

In the study, participants were shown photos and then asked to draw them from memory, and the drawings were scored for details and accuracy. The results showed that people with aphantasia have less detail and color in their drawings. However, their memories were just as spatially accurate as those without aphantasia.

Curiously, people with aphantasia remembered fewer objects on the tests. Still, they made fewer mistakes, i.e., they did not create false memories of objects that were not in pictures used in the experiments. The findings also showed that aphantasics appear to be using compensatory strategies, such as the verbal-coding of spatial relations that might make them better at avoiding false memories.

In this 2021 Extreme Imagination Conference and Exhibition presentation, Wilma Bainbridge shares insight into how we can use drawings to uncover what’s inside the visual memory of people with aphantasia.

About the Extreme Imagination Conference

Extreme Imagination conference and exhibition is a gathering of the world’s foremost thinkers, scientists and creatives challenging long-held beliefs about what it means to imagine and create. The first event was brought to life by Dr. Adam Zeman and the Eye’s Mind team at the University of Exeter in 2019. In 2021, the second conference was hosted virtually by the Aphantasia Network.

About the Researcher

Wilma A. Bainbridge joined the University of Chicago faculty in January 2020 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. She received her B.A. in Cognitive Science from Yale University, studying both visual neuroscience and human-robot interaction. After a year-long research internship on robotics at the University of Tokyo, she completed her Ph.D in Brain & Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying vision and memory. She then completed postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Mental Health before coming to the University of Chicago.

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