An Overview of Aphantasia

All About Aphantasia: The Mysterious Inability To Visualize Things In Your Mind

An Overview of Aphantasia

If you ask most of the world's population to picture a person, place, or thing, they have no problem conjuring a mental image in their mind's eye. But for a small percentage of the population (estimates range anywhere from 1 to 5%), visualizing or imagining images is impossible.

This phenomenon is called aphantasia—and it's a relatively mysterious neurological condition whereby people are unable to visualize things in their heads. Here's what the little research we have on it has found so far, plus how to find out whether you have it.

Aphantasia & the mind's eye.

While aphantasia has been acknowledged in medicine since the 1800s, the mechanisms behind it have never been fully explained.

When someone with aphantasia does try to imagine something, they simply can't and instead see a void of darkness. Neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., explains that aphantasia is complex, and its effect on people can vary.

For example, she says it can also manifest as the inability to recognize faces, form visual memories, or imagine something new that you haven't seen before. It differs from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize familiar faces, which often happens as the result of a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Swart adds that the condition has «no bearing on intelligence or any other neurological syndrome.»

One explanation for why aphantasia might occur has to do with childbirth and brain development, Swart says. «During the process of childbirth, when the brain is very undifferentiated […] babies actually have a series of mini-strokes.»

Thanks to neuroplasticity, she explains, a baby's brain is usually able to adapt and build more neurons in this developmental stage. But in the case of aphantasia, «That tiny little pathway that's related to visual imagery or visualization just doesn't work.»

Presently, there is no treatment for the condition. But with the proper understanding and tools, people with aphantasia can still thrive.

A simple test for aphantasia.

The only way to be «sure» you have aphantasia would be to see a neurologist and potentially get fMRI brain imaging done, to look at what's happening in your brain when you try to visualize, Swart explains.

That said, there is a simple and helpful test that can give you a clue into whether you may have it: Close your eyes and try to imagine an apple, seeing it mentally in your mind's eye. If you can see anything (anything at all—even a blurry outline), you do not have aphantasia. If you see a void of complete darkness, you might have aphantasia.

If you want to take a deeper dive into testing your ability to visualize, there is something online called The Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire, Swart adds, which has been found to accurately measure the vividness of your visual imagination. Even if you don't have full-blown aphantasia, you might find that you don't visualize in great detail.

Can people with aphantasia dream?

Interestingly, yes, some people with aphantasia do dream in images, according to Swart, but others don't. As one study explains, «The majority of our [participants with aphantasia], in fact, had some experience of visual imagery from visual dreams or from involuntary 'flashes' of imagery occurring.»

Swart adds that many people with aphantasia can still have visual memory recall. However, she's heard of many people with aphantasia report less «rich» dreams, memories, and imagined future scenarios.

This indicates that for some people with the condition, aphantasia means you're deficient in creating imagery in the mind's eye, but you don't lack the ability altogether.

While many people are born with aphantasia, there are reports that it can be induced, either after surgery or an injury or even as a result of a mental pathology such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

«The existing literature points to a range of pathological and pharmacological factors that can influence vividness,» reads a 2016 paper in Cortex.

«Psychological and psychiatric factors should be taken into account in the assessment of a person complaining of aphantasia.

» With that being said, the authors of that study remain doubtful that mental illness plays «a major role among people reporting lifelong aphantasia.»

It seems that in most cases, aphantasia is something people have dealt with for most of their life and doesn't typically have wider implications or associated conditions.

It is worth mentioning that additional research has suggested that «the potential impact of visual imagery absence on wider cognition remains unknown.

» Until the mechanisms behind aphantasia are fully understood, there is no cure for it.

While aphantasia by and large doesn't seem to affect people's quality of life, much of the science behind it still isn't fully understood.

Thankfully, Swart says there are ways to work around an inability to visualize the future, such as making a physical vision board or leaning on sound for inspiration.

If you think you might have aphantasia, know there are plenty of resources available, as well as information and research, to help you understand and manage the condition.


A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia

An Overview of Aphantasia

A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia

For most people, visual imagery is an innate feature of many of our internal experiences, and appears to play a critical role in supporting core cognitive processes. Some individuals, however, lack the ability to voluntarily generate visual imagery altogether – a condition termed “aphantasia”.

Recent research suggests that aphantasia is a condition defined by the absence of visual imagery, rather than a lack of metacognitive awareness of internal visual imagery.

Here we further illustrate a cognitive “fingerprint” of aphantasia, demonstrating that compared to control participants with imagery ability, aphantasic individuals report decreased imagery in other sensory domains, although not all report a complete lack of multi-sensory imagery.

They also report less vivid and phenomenologically rich autobiographical memories and imagined future scenarios, suggesting a constructive role for visual imagery in representing episodic events. Interestingly, aphantasic individuals report fewer and qualitatively impoverished dreams compared to controls.

However, spatial abilities appear unaffected, and aphantasic individuals do not appear to be considerably protected against all forms of trauma symptomatology in response to stressful life events. Collectively, these data suggest that imagery may be a normative representational tool for wider cognitive processes, highlighting the large inter-individual variability that characterises our internal mental representations.

Visual imagery, or seeing with the mind’s eye, contributes to essential cognitive processes such as episodic memory1, future event prospection2, visual working memory3, and dreaming4.

By allowing us to re-live the past and simulate hypothetical futures, visual imagery enables us to flexibly and adaptively interpret the events we experience in the world5, and by extension appears to be an important precursor to our ability to plan effectively and engage in guided decision-making.

Consequently, the frequency and content of maladaptive visual imagery are often defining features of mental illness6 and mental imagery is often elevated in disorders characterised by hallucinations7,8.

One of the most significant findings to date is that despite the prevalence of visual imagery use in the wider population, and despite its functional utility in cognition, certain individuals lack the ability to visualise altogether – a condition recently termed “aphantasia”9.

Beyond self-report measures, this condition is characterised by stark differences between individuals who can and cannot visualise on an objective measure of imagery’s sensory strength10.

This suggests that rather than reflecting inaccurate phenomenological reports or poor population-specific metacognition, aphantasia appears to represent a veridical absence of voluntarily generated internal visual representations.

The potential impact of visual imagery absence on wider cognition remains unknown. No research to date has empirically verified whether this phenomenology extends to other internal experiences and mental processes.

This presents us with a rare opportunity to extend a cognitive fingerprint of aphantasia, in order to better clarify the role of visual imagery in wider psychological functioning and explore the impact of its absence on the subjective lives of individuals with a “blind mind”. Here we investigated whether individuals with aphantasia report reduced imagery in other multi-sensory domains, and assessed self-reports of episodic memory ability and trauma symptomatology in response to stressful life events, in addition to reported mind-wandering frequency and dreaming phenomenology.

We compared a group of self-identified aphantasic individuals with two independent control groups of individuals with self-reported intact visual imagery on a range of questionnaires.

The current study was approved by the UNSW Human Research Ethics Advisory Panel (HREAP-C) in line with National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC) guidelines on ethical human research.

All participants gave informed consent before completing the study.

Given the need for more research in this area, we sought to collect data on as many aphantasic participants as possible. With the limited number of previous studies on aphantasia using small sample sizes of N = 10–209,10, it was difficult to estimate required sample sizes for our study these results alone.

We nevertheless used the limited data available to derive approximate effect sizes for group differences in these studies in the range of d = 1.0–3.0. Effect sizes in small sample studies are often inflated, however, and we expected weaker effects across multiple comparisons in our study, especially in non-imagery domain comparisons.

Establishing a comparatively moderate expected effect size of d = 0.5, with 80% power and a highly conservative alpha of 0.0002 (see Statistical Analyses in Methods), we estimated that at least 170 participants would be required in each comparison group.

Because our study was easily accessible online and received more participant responses than anticipated within our data collection window, we exceeded our sample size aim (N = 170) and ceased data collection for our aphantasic participant group at the sample size reported below.

We then collected an equivalent number of participants for our independent control groups. Sample sizes for the aphantasia group, control group 1 and control group 2 were approximately equal after data cleaning and exclusions (n = 267, n = 203 and n = 197, respectively).

Aphantasia group

Aphantasic individuals in our study were recruited from online community research platforms ( and participated in exchange for entry into a gift card prize draw.

317 aphantasic participants in total completed our study, of whom 33 participants were excluded from analysis due to missing data (not completing all questionnaires). An additional 17 participants were excluded from our aphantasic sample due to unclear reporting (e.g.

scoring at ceiling on the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ; see Methods) in line with older versions of the scale that used reversed scoring compared to the current version of the scale).

Our final sample of aphantasic individuals included for analysis contained 267 participants (48% females; mean age = 33.97 years, SD = 12.44, range = 17–75 years).

Control group 1 (MTurk)

Participants in our main control group were recruited using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and were remunerated to complete the study. This main control group sample comprised of 205 participants, two of whom were excluded from final analysis due to study incompletion.

Our final sample for our main control group thus consisted of 203 participants (35% females; mean age = 33.82 years, SD = 9.33, range = 20–70 years) who were matched on mean age with our aphantasic sample (mean age difference = 0.15 years, p = 0.89, BF10 = 0.107).

Control group 2 (Undergraduates)

A second control group of 193 first-year undergraduate psychology students were tested using the same experimental design. Participants in our second control group (73% females; mean age = 19.

33 years, SD = 3.69, range = 17–55 years) completed the study in exchange for course credit.

All participants were included in final analysis (see section titled Control Group 2: Replication Analysis, in Results).


A table of sample demographics for all groups can be found in the Supplementary Information (see Table S1). Our sample population of aphantasic participants were recruited from online community research platforms dedicated to the topic of visual imagery ability and aphantasia.

Both participants who did and didn’t identify with a history of visual imagery absence were invited to participate in the study. Of the 267 participants in our sample who reported aphantasia, a majority reported English as their first language (83%, n = 220) and identified as White/Caucasian (88%, n = 235).

31 countries of residence were listed, with a majority of participants originating from the United States of America.

Clinical history

Of the aphantasic sample, 24% of participants reported a history of mental illness (compared to 18% in control group 1; χ21,470 = 3.644, p = 0.06), 1% reported a history of epilepsy or seizures (compared to 8% in control group 1; χ21,470 = 14.881, p


When the Mind’s Eye Is Blind

An Overview of Aphantasia

In 2003 a 65-year-old man brought a strange problem to neurologist Adam Zeman, now at the University of Exeter in England. The patient, later dubbed “MX,” claimed he could not conjure images of friends, family members or recently visited places.

All his life, MX, a retired surveyor, had loved reading novels and had routinely drifted off to sleep visualizing buildings, loved ones and recent events. But after undergoing a procedure to open arteries in his heart, during which he probably suffered a minor stroke, his mind’s eye went blind.

He could see normally, but he could not form pictures in his mind.

Zeman had never encountered anything it and set out to learn more. He has since given the condition a name—aphantasia (phantasia means “imagination” in Greek). And he and others are exploring its neurological underpinnings.

An Unusual Blindness

Zeman and his colleagues began their analysis by testing MX’s visual imagination in several ways. Compared with control subjects, MX scored poorly on questionnaires assessing the ability to produce visual imagery. Surprisingly, though, he was able to accomplish tasks that typically involve visualization.

For example, when asked to say which is a lighter color of green—grass or pine trees—most people would decide by imagining both grass and tree and comparing them. MX correctly said that pine trees are darker than grass, but he insisted he had used no visual imagery to make the decision. “I just know the answer,” he said.

He also did fine on a test of the ability to rotate objects mentally. He was shown two pictures of three-dimensional objects and asked to say if they were the same item, pictured before and after being rotated on its axis, or different objects.

Yet in contrast to the control group, he took longer to decide, and the time he took did not depend on the degree of rotation.

In most people, the more that objects differ in their orientation, the longer it takes to mentally rotate them to see if they might match up.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) supported MX’s claimed inability to produce a mental image. Generally, when people are asked to visualize a person, place or object, a network consisting of various brain regions is activated.

Some of them are involved in decision making, others in memory or vision. In MX, the visual regions showed very little activity, whereas those responsible for decision making and error prediction were more active.

The finding suggested that MX used a different strategy than the controls did when tackling the visualization tasks.

An extensive literature search on the inability to form visual imagery offered little help in understanding MX. The first mention of this phenomenon was apparently Francis Galton’s “breakfast” study from 1880.

The British naturalist asked 100 adult men to talk about the table at which they ate breakfast each morning. He requested information on the lighting, sharpness and color of the images in their head.

Much to his astonishment, 12 of his subjects were unable to tell him much: they had assumed up to then that the phrase “mental imagery” was not meant literally.

Since 1880 other researchers had occasionally reported on people who had no ability to create mental imagery. Some had even conducted surveys to estimate the prevalence. In 2009 Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 2 percent of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination. But aphantasia itself attracted little research or public attention.

That began to change in 2010, after Zeman’s team published its study of MX.

Discover magazine reported on the findings, leading a number of people to come forward, all saying they had never been able to create mental images, un MX, in whom the problem was new.

Zeman and two colleagues then had 21 respondents answer questionnaires about their visual experiences, including one known as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ).

They published the findings in 2015, using the name “aphantasia” for the first time.

Most of the 21 said they realized only in adolescence and early adulthood (through conversations or reading) that other people could call up images in their mind.

And although many of the respondents had dreams or flashes of visual imagery while awake, all were substantially or completely unable to purposely call up images in their mind, such as of past vacations or even their own wedding.

Since 2015 aphantasia has became the subject of newspaper articles, television reports, blogs and podcasts. A entry by American software developer Blake Ross, who helped to develop the Firefox browser, has been making the rounds. In it, Ross, too, describes his inability to create visual images.

And several thousand have filled out the VVIQ, thanks in part to its posting by the BBC. It and another questionnaire are also posted at the Eye’s Mind Web page. the first 700 or so surveys, Zeman estimates that aphantasia affects about 2 percent of the population, in line with Faw’s 2009 conclusion.

Relief in Numbers

Many people with aphantasia realized only after Zeman’s studies were published that there was such a thing as seeing with the mind’s eye.

Many also found it comforting that there was now a name for something that distinguished them from others. They had found it hard to describe in words their inability to visualize.

When they tried to explain, they were often met with incomprehension. Zeman was astonished at how grateful these people often were.

One of those who approached Zeman—Jonas Schlatter of Berlin—describes his own moment of discovery. Schlatter scored very low on the vividness questionnaire, which is viewed as strongly diagnostic of aphantasia.

some of Galton’s study participants in the 1800s, Schlatter always thought that such expressions as “fading memories” or “let me paint you a picture” were simply turns of phrase. But then one evening at a house party, he came to understand that he was wrong.

In the kitchen, he got into a conversation about how it could be that a person can simultaneously see something and create a mental image of it. The question initially seemed nonsensical to him, but he realized that he might differ from others in not making mental images.

The next morning he began questioning his friends about their experiences and doing some Internet research. To his great surprise, he found that the ability to visualize images is real—except not for him.

When Schlatter first began to discuss his discovery with friends, he also learned that “people’s ability to synthesize images differs.” Zeman concurs. His 2015 study included 121 control subjects.

Most of them showed a moderately good ability to visualize. But there were outliers at both ends of the scale, with more subjects falling at the high end than the low end.

Zeman calls the above-average ability to create vivid images hyperphantasia.

Under the Hood

The research has raised a number of questions. One is whether aphantasia exists at all. Could people who think they are not making mental images simply be describing their images differently from the way other people do? After all, surveys elicit subjective descriptions, not objective measures of what is going on in the brain.

Zeman admits that answers on the questionnaire are prone to a certain amount of error, but he is convinced that aphantasia actually occurs. For one thing, neurological findings such as those in the case of MX support that claim; for another, people who report lacking a mind’s eye sometimes have other anomalies related to visualization.

For example, some individuals with aphantasia report weakness in autobiographical memory, remembrance of events in their lives. In addition, many with aphantasia also suffer from prosopagnosia, impaired face recognition. To Zeman, the links to other conditions indicate that there may be several subgroups of aphantasia.

Joel Pearson, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of New South Wales in Australia, also considers aphantasia to be real. As part of his work, he studies binocular rivalry, a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when people are shown different images simultaneously to their left and their right eye.

Here subjects do not see a combination of both images but rather only one at a time. Pearson and his team have discovered that a simple trick can influence which image is given priority. Asking volunteers to visualize one of the images before the test increases the probability that that image will come to the fore during the test.

Yet self-diagnosed aphantasics are unaffected, indicating that visualization is impaired.

Zeman and others are also exploring how brain functioning differs in those with aphantasia. He and his colleagues recently invited more than 100 people to undergo a brain scan at his laboratory. They found that when individuals who scored high on the VVIQ were asked to visualize something, only a few brain areas became activated.

Researchers have found that these regions light up when processing complex images, such as faces, events and spatial relationships. In contrast, more and different brain regions lit up in people who reported that they lack the ability to visualize.

Those individuals tended to use regions associated with the control of behavior and planning, as was seen in MX.

Zeman has not yet studied extensively the other extreme, hyperphantasia.  Many people with hyperphantasia have told him, however, that they easily lose themselves in daydreams about the past or the future. In contrast to aphantasia, hyperpahantasia has not yet been found to have links to face recognition or memory.

How Important Is the Ability to Visualize Imagery?

Zeman initially presumed that visualization was central to the creative process. Yet many of the people with aphantasia who contacted him work successfully in creative professions—as artists, architects and scientists.

Jonas Schlatter, for example, creates Web sites for a start-up that he founded. His business partner thought it a bit odd that he used whiteboard, paper and a pencil in the design process.

But Schlatter now understands that this approach is the only way that he can anticipate how the Web pages will eventually look.

How people deal with this condition differs from person to person. Some would to learn to visualize. But no one has managed to do that yet, according to Zeman.

Several test subjects have reported that they have been able to “see” with their eyes closed under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Schlatter, who does not feel especially disadvantaged by his aphantasia, has experimented with jumpstarting his mind’s eye in a less drastic way.

“For two weeks I stared at the same pencil over and over again and tried to memorize it. But in the end I still couldn’t visualize it,” he says.

Fifteen years have passed since MX brought aphantasia to Adam Zeman’s attention. In contrast to Schlatter, who has been aphantasic for his entire life, MX did get back some of his ability to visualize.

Presumably, his brain re-created connections that had been damaged by the stroke or built new connections. When MX dreams at night, he sees images.

And occasionally, when someone mentions a place that he knows, an image pops up in his mind’s eye.


Aphantasia Explained: Some People Can’t Form Mental Pictures

An Overview of Aphantasia

Summary: Aphantasia is marked by the inability to generate visual images in the mind’s eye. Researchers explore the neurobiological basis for the disorder.

Source: The Conversation

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 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 ) 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.

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.

Some people can’t see visual memories. Credit: The Conversation

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 ly 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.

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 amongst us.

About this visual neuroscience research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Zoë Pounder – The Conversation
Image: The image is credited to The Conversation


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