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Aphantasia: why are some people unable to picture things in their mind?

May 20, 2023 · Comment icon 12 comments



Not everyone can picture something in their head. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Andrew Mason
The ability to mentally picture things might seem second nature, but some people are unable to do it at all.
When asked to close their eyes and imagine a sunset, most people can bring to mind an image of the sun setting on the horizon. Some people may experience more vivid details, such as vibrant colours, while others may produce a mental image that is blurry or lacks detail. But recent research has found that some people don't experience mental imagery at all.

This lack of mental imagery is called aphantasia. People with aphantasia are often surprised when they learn others see mental images in their minds. Many people with aphantasia have said they assumed others were speaking metaphorically when they described seeing something in their "mind's eye."

This is because our internal mental processes are not visible to others, so it is easy to assume everyone's minds operate in the same way. It is estimated that roughly four per cent of people have aphantasia.

People with aphantasia report a lack of visual imagery, and 97 per cent also report deficits in at least one other modality of imagery, like being unable to imagine certain sounds or tastes.

Everyday mental imagery

Mental imagery is involved in many other everyday cognitive processes. For example, visual and spatial imagery may play an important role in autobiographical memory. One study found that people with a tendency to generate vivid high-resolution mental images of objects and scenes can recall personal memories more quickly and in greater detail.

People with aphantasia are able to remember autobiographical facts, but when recalling life events they report fewer details and a less emotional experience, despite describing the events as important or personally relevant.

Mental imagery is also experienced when dreaming. Interestingly, 60 per cent of people with aphantasia report visual imagery in their dreams, although the quality of their experience is different from that of people with typical imagery ability. When dreaming, people with aphantasia report reduced experience across all senses, lower overall awareness and less sense of control.

The fact that people with aphantasia have some preserved mental imagery while dreaming suggests that aphantasia could be a deficit in voluntary mental imagery — the ability to deliberately bring images to mind — rather than involuntary mental imagery.

Imagery and reading

Many people also use mental imagery when reading. When we read, we create mental models to help make sense of the words and sentences, and research shows that we create these models using mental imagery.
For example, after reading a sentence such as "the ranger saw the eagle in the sky," people tend to be faster to recognize a picture of an eagle with outstretched wings, rather than a picture of an eagle sitting. This is because they visualize or simulate the situation described in the sentence, and this can help them quickly identify a picture that matches the imagined situation.

Aphantasia seems to affect whether or not people build mental models while they read. One study found that when reading descriptions of scary scenarios, people with aphantasia showed less emotional or physiological responses, suggesting their comprehension was less affected by imagined or simulated sensory experience.

These simulations can also occur subconsciously when we read single words and can help us access word meanings more quickly. For instance, when reading words related to sensory experiences such as vision, action and smell, the brain areas responsible for these senses are also active. However, there is currently no research on whether this is also true for people with aphantasia, so we don't know if they subconsciously simulate sensory or motor information when reading single words.

Different modes

People with aphantasia do not always consider their lack of mental imagery to be a negative thing. Some even credit their lack of imagery for success in other areas such as science and mathematics.

People with aphantasia also pursue creative vocations in fields such as visual art or writing, so mental imagery is not the same as imagination. In fact, the University of Glasgow curated an art exhibition featuring work by artists with aphantasia and those with hyperphantasia (extremely vivid mental imagery).

Discovering conditions like aphantasia tells us there may be different "modes" of cognition. For some people, thinking may involve simulating past sensory experiences both consciously and unconsciously. For others, and for people who have aphantasia, thinking may involve accessing facts.

Aphantasia shows us there is diversity in human cognition — despite our assumptions, our minds do not all work the same way. Research on aphantasia is just beginning, but it is a promising avenue to better understand the inner workings of the human mind.

Emiko Muraki, PhD Candidate, Brain & Cognitive Science, University of Calgary and Penny Pexman, Professor of Psychology, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (12)




Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #3 Posted by lightly 4 months ago
I cant imagine not being able to visualize ! I see words as images.. is that normal? I hear musicI can also see it in imagery.
Comment icon #4 Posted by quiXilver 4 months ago
I've posted on it a couple times in the Consciousness section, wanting to see if other's were aware of it. Search function's a twaddle on these forums so I'm not finding it, but there are a couple conversations on it here. I encountered the reality of Aphantasia a few years back while in a conversation with my wife. I was trying to pin down the world she had experienced from a dream she was sharing with me. As I tried to pin her down on various details of the world, she got a bit exasperated with me and finally stated..." how should I know what it all looked like? It's not like I see any o... [More]
Comment icon #5 Posted by LightAngel 4 months ago
I do the same. I think it's wonderful. However, I would never judge people who can't visualize because as you now understand - they can't help it - and I would be cruel if I did judge them! This is actually a good example of why we shouldn't judge each other. We should always fight against evil and ignorance, but I personally do it without judging.
Comment icon #6 Posted by lightly 4 months ago
I sometimes write music (melodic lines) in my minds ear ..
Comment icon #7 Posted by qxcontinuum 4 months ago
People with phantasia are also known to not have dreams they can remember about. Pretty boring, really.
Comment icon #8 Posted by Nicolette 4 months ago
Me too. I can imagine imagery but im jealous that other people actually see it. Also i don't really hallucinate which sounds good but there are time when i wished i could. I do have vivid dreams and have always been very aware of them even during. Maybe mine only works at night?
Comment icon #9 Posted by Rlyeh 4 months ago
Source? Because according to this they have visual dreams https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11098-020-01526-8
Comment icon #10 Posted by lightly 4 months ago
Sometimes I wish I wouldnt dream so muchespecially at work dreams with old painting partners! Last night it was Bob Dannerand Jimmy Joe! Havent seen them in about 30 years ! We never seem to get much done when we work nights like that! Id rather rest.
Comment icon #11 Posted by quiXilver 4 months ago
My wife dreams nightly. Aphantasia does not imply a lack of dreams.
Comment icon #12 Posted by quiXilver 4 months ago
I never got into writing music, but I have music playing in my mind's ear almost every morning when I wake up, and mind songs accompany me throughout my day. Back in my professional singing days, I could use relative pitch (hearing the note in my mind) and acted as our group's pitch finder for starting pieces if we forgot our pitch pipe.


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