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Aphantasia: The inability to visualize images

Researchers have uncovered distinct differences between people who can create visual images in their mind and those without this ability. They found more proof that ‘mind-blindness’ is a legitimate condition.

The inability to voluntarily form mental images was first described in medical literature by Francis Galton in 1880. People with this condition experience difficulty picturing scenes or objects in their mind, a phenomenon known as mind-blindness.

Since Galton first reported its existence, it wasn’t until a 2015 study published in the journal Cortex that scientist Adam Zeman labeled the condition as “aphantasia.”

Aphantasia is rare, but scientists have identified two types of the disorder, including acquired aphantasia, which can occur after a brain injury or occasionally after periods of depression or psychosis, and congenital aphantasia, which is present at birth.

People without visual imagery can experience a host of challenges. For example, the ability to recall faces or familiar places can cause frustration and social difficulties.

Being unable to visually remember important events, such as what the flowers or dress looked like on a person’s wedding day, can also be disheartening. Even simple imagery tasks, such as counting sheep to fall asleep, is a challenge.

Interestingly, a recent article in Scientific Reports notes that people with this condition experience images while dreaming, although they are not as vivid or frequent. This observation suggests that while unintentional visual imaging may remain mostly intact, intentionally recalling images is more challenging.

To probe deeper into the inner workings of the “mind’s eye,” a group of researchers recently set out to investigate the differences between individuals who have aphantasia and people with typical imagery skills.

The researchers used drawing tasks requiring visual memory to ascertain differences between the two groups. Their findings appear in the journal Cortex.

The study team showed photographs of three rooms to 61 people with aphantasia and 52 without the condition. The scientists then asked participants in both groups to draw the rooms, once from memory and once while using the photo as a reference. The drawings were scored objectively by 2,795 online volunteers.

After gathering the data, the team adjusted for age, differences in art abilities, and visual recognition performance, and compared the participants’ abilities to perform imagery tasks with individual objects versus spatial relations among several items.

When drawing from memory, those with aphantasia had difficulty remembering objects in the picture. They drew significantly fewer objects — 4.98 on average compared to 6.32 for the control group. Their items were colorful, and they spent less time drawing them than those with typical imagery skills.

The aphantasia group also used more symbols and text in their renditions, often relying on verbal strategies by labeling a piece of furniture or architectural component instead of drawing the details.

Study lead Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, said:

“One possible explanation could be that because [individuals with aphantasia] have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies such as verbal-coding of the space. Their verbal representations and other compensatory strategies might actually make them better at avoiding false memories.”

However, participants with aphantasia showed no impairments in spatial memory. This group accurately placed objects in their drawings with fewer mistakes than participants with typical imagery abilities.

When asked to draw directly from an image, both groups completed the task without significant performance differences. This result leads researchers to believe that although those with aphantasia lack visual imagery abilities, they appear to retain spatial memory, possibly indicating these two memory functions are stored differently in the brain.

From the participant’s perspective, when asked about their study experience, one person with aphantasia said, “When I saw the images, I described them to myself and drew from that description, so I could only hold seven to nine details in memory.”

Another explained, “I had to remember a list of objects rather than the picture.”

Bainbridge and her colleagues hope to use MRI scanning in future studies to clarify where and how aphantasia manifests in the brain. Until then, the current body of research is significant, as it reaffirms the existence of this rare condition and gives more insights on what it is like to live without the ability to create images through the mind’s eye.

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