An Overview of Aphantasia

When You Can't See Images in Your Mind

Aphantasia is a phenomenon in which people are unable to visualize imagery. While most people are able to conjure an image of a scene or face in their minds, people with aphantasia cannot.

Imagine that it is a warm summer day and you are sitting on the side of a swimming pool. The sun is shining down and there are children laughing and splashing in the water. What sort of images do you see in your mind as you think about this scene?

If you are like the estimated 1—3% of the population with aphantasia, you may be unable to visualize any type of image in your head.

These individuals have no "mind's eye," or their imagination is essentially blind. This ability to visualize events and images plays an important part in people's lives.

People often visualize scenes, people, experiences, imaginings, objects, and planned events, among other things. When you think about a friend, for example, you might immediately visualize their face inside your mind. People with aphantasia are unable to visualize such a mental image.

If you were to ask a person with aphantasia to imagine something, they could likely describe the object, explain the concept, and rattle off facts that they know about the object. But they would not be able to experience any sort of mental image to accompany this knowledge.

Signs

Do you think you might have aphantasia? Consider the following questions:

  • Think of a friend or family member. Try to conjure an image of their face in your mind. How clearly can you see their features, face, hair, and shape?
  • How clearly can you picture their characteristic movements and gestures?
  • How vividly can you picture that person's clothing?

If you struggle with your responses to these questions, you might have some degree of aphantasia. 

Emerging Research

This lack of mental imagery was described as early the late 1800s, yet it has remained a relatively unstudied phenomenon. Francis Galton first described the occurrence in a paper on mental imagery published in 1880. In addition to noting that people experience various degrees of vividness when describing their mental visual imagery, he also reported that some people experienced no visual imagery at all.

The condition is still largely unstudied and remains poorly understood, although further research is underway.

Much of the available information stems from a few small studies and anecdotal accounts from people who have described their symptoms.

It was not until the publication of additional studies that interest has grown in the topic. The 2015 study introduced the first use of the term aphantasia and has led to a renewed interest in the phenomenon.

The authors of the groundbreaking study were approached by a patient—patient MX—who had recently lost his ability to visualize information following minor surgery. In 2005, a retired 65-year-old man visited a neurologist name Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter Medical School. The man, referred to in the literature as MX, had undergone a minor surgery after which he realized that he could no longer visualize images in his mind. Zeman's search of the medical literature turned up little to explain why the man could no longer generate visual images within his "mind's eye."

Researchers have long debated exactly how this ability to visualize inside the mind works and the role that it may play in planning and memory. While the patient described experiencing almost no imagery, his performance on tests of perception, visual imagery, and visual memory were all normal.

After the details of the patient's case were published in 2010, the researchers were approached by numerous individuals who described experiencing similar symptoms all their lives.

Another study conducted by researchers from the University of New South Wales investigated the question of whether people with aphantasia were really unable to form mental images or if they simply had poor recall of these images. Using a technique call "binocular rivalry," the researchers told participants to imagine an image. Two different images were then shown to the participants via a 3D headset. One eye saw one image, while the other eye saw a completely different image.

When told to imagine one of these images beforehand, people without aphantasia are more likely to see the image they had previously envisioned. There was no such correlation between the imagined image and the dominant image people saw. These findings suggest that it is not that those with aphantasia have poor recall of their imaginings—they literally have no such visual imaginings to begin with.

Possible Explanations

While research is limited, the available findings offer some clues as to what might explain aphantasia.

  • In MX's case, functional MRI scans found that brain activation patterns when looking at pictures of famous faces had no significant differences from normal controls. However, when the patient tried to visualize imagery, there was a significant reduction in activation patterns across posterior networks, while frontal region activity was significantly increased compared to controls.
  • The researchers suggest that this indicates the patient relied on a different cognitive strategy during the imagery task.
  • The authors further propose that such results indicate that performance on visual memory and visual imagery tasks are not dependent upon the actual experience of visual imagery.

Aphantasia and Memory

When people normally cue a memory, they are often able to imagine events almost as though they are replaying a video of the experience. They often recall specific imagery that stands out about the memory. For people with aphantasia, memories of events are often comprised simply of a listing of facts.

While the exact nature and impact this condition are not yet clear, research does suggest that aphantasia may have a negative impact on memory.

Someone with aphantasia might remember the day they were married, names of the people who attended, and even what the weather was like that day, but they will not be able to form a mental image of the events of the event.

Some of those affected by the condition have also reported difficulty when recognizing faces or navigating spaces.

This lack of visual memory might have some possible advantages, however. Because aphantasia leads to a lack of visual imagery, people could be less likely to be troubled by intrusive recollections or disturbing flashbacks.

People with aphantasia do experience visual imagery while dreaming. This suggests that it is only intentional, voluntary visualization that is affected by this phenomenon. Zeman explained to the BBC's Science Focus magazine that this is possible because what the brain does during wakefulness is different than what it does while dreaming. The imagery of dreams originates from bottom-up processes controlled by the brainstem. Visualization, on the other hand, requires top-down processing that originates in the brain's cortex.

Living With Aphantasia

Not being able to visualize people and places can be distressing for people with aphantasia. Not being able to picture the face of a loved one who has passed away, for example, can be upsetting.

The available studies suggest that having aphantasia does not necessarily hurt a person's success in life. People from all walks of life experience this phenomenon, including successful doctorate students, engineers, and other professionals.

It is important to note that this phenomenon is a normal variation of human experience, not a condition that requires treatment. This doesn’t mean that it might not have an effect on different aspects of your life, however. Mental imagery also plays a role in learning, so not being able to visualize scenes in your mind may make certain aspects of learning more difficult.

A number of questions remain about this phenomenon, including just how prevalent it may be and whether it might have a genetic component.

More Research Is Needed

Researchers suggest that future investigations of the condition not only focus on its causes and effects, but also on possible ways of improving the ability to mentally visualize. Further research and a better understanding of the condition are needed to make such recommendations, however.

If you suspect you might have aphantasia, consider exploring some new memory strategies. The inability to visualize can make some types of memorization more difficult, so you may need to experiment to find a technique that works for you. Even though you may not be able to visualize scenes or people in your mind, you can use photography, illustrations, design software, and other visualization tools to fill in this gap.

A Word From Verywell

Research on aphantasia is still very much in its infancy, so there is still a great deal to learn. Many people with aphantasia do not even realize that their experience is any different than that of other people. It is simply part of their existence and has little impact on how they live their lives. Neurologist Adam Zeman, the researcher who coined the term aphantasia, described it as simply "a fascinating variation in human experience rather than a medical disorder" in a radio interview with the BBC.

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