The Inability To Visualize Images Is A Rare Disorder Known As Aphantasia


In 1880, Francis Galton was the first to describe the inability to voluntarily form mental images in his medical literature. Since then, it wasn’t until a 2015 study published in the journal Cortex that a scientist called Adam Zeman labeled the phenomenon as “aphantasia.” Basically, people afflicted with this condition experience difficulty picturing objects or scenes in their minds…also referred to as “mind-blindness.”

According to research, there are distinct differences between people who can create visual images in their minds and those that can’t. Mind-blindness is a legitimate condition. It may be rare, but aphantasia has 2 types of the condition…acquired aphantasia – usually after a brain injury, or after bouts with depression or psychosis, and congenital aphantasia, the condition being present from birth.

So what is the impact of having this disorder? It goes without saying that people without visual imagery can experience a lot of challenges. Definitely frustrating and can present a host of social difficulties. Things like not recalling faces or familiar places, not remembering special events – like the wedding of a loved one, can really be frustrating for the afflicted, and also for those around them.

However, it is interesting to note that a recent article in Scientific Reports noted that people with aphantasia experience images while dreaming, although not as frequent or as vivid. This suggests that unintentional visual imaging is not as affected as intentionally recalling images. A group of researchers decided to investigate the differences between individuals with aphantasia, and those with normal imagery skills.

The study team showed photos of three rooms to 61 people with aphantasia, and 52 without the disorder. The participants of both groups were asked to draw the rooms, once from memory, and once using the photos as reference. The drawings were scored objectively by about 2,795 online volunteers.

Data was gathered, adjusting for age differences, art abilities, and visual recognition performance. It compared the abilities of the participants to perform imagery tasks with individual objects against spatial relations among several items. The results showed that when drawing from memory, those with aphantasia had difficulty remembering objects in the picture. Relatively, they drew significantly fewer objects – 4.98 on the average as compared to 6.32 for the control group. Their items were also less colorful, and those with aphantasia spent less time drawing then those with typical imagery skills.

It is also important to note that the aphantasia group used more symbols and text in their renditions of the drawing, often relying on verbal strategies by labeling a piece of furniture rather than drawing the details.

The Guardian

“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,” explains study lead Wilma Bainbridge, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Another interesting finding is that the participants with aphantasia showed no impairments with spatial memory. They actually placed objects more accurately in their drawings, with fewer mistakes than the control group.

Drawing from a photo, both groups completed the task without significant performance differences. The results led the researchers to believe that although people with aphantasia lack visual imagery skills, they retain spatial memory, possibly indicating these two memory functions are stored differently in the brain.

Looking at it from the participant’s perspective, 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 one explained,I had to remember a list of objects rather than the picture.”

In the future, Bainbridge and her research team hope to use MRI scanning to clarify where and how aphantasia manifests in the brain. Until such time, the current research has proven to be significant, as it reaffirms the existence of this rare condition, and gives us more insights as to the difficulties experienced by those without the ability to create images using the “mind’s eye.” Maybe also in the future, scientists may discover a cure for the condition, or how to make the lives of people with aphantasia more normal and comfortable.