For the two to five percent of the population with aphantasia, not being able to picture things visually could spare them from the lingering spookiness of a horror film or any other scary event. “Aphantasia is a condition characterized by the inability to form mental images in one’s mind,” explains cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, PhD, author of How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess. This condition can also affect your ability to recall sounds, smells, and textures. Rather than something to be cured or treated, however, aphantasia is largely a different way of seeing the world and learning, says board-certified family medicine physician Laura Purdy, MD, MBA.
- Caroline Leaf, PhD, neuroscientist, mental health expert, and host of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess
- Hayley Nelson, PhD, psychology professor and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience
- Laura Purdy, MD, board-certified family medicine physician
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, neuropsychologist and founder of Comprehend the Mind
What exactly is aphantasia?
If someone without aphantasia was asked to picture an apple, they could likely recall the shape, color, and what the inside looks like when they take a bite. “A person with aphantasia would be unable to visualize any of this imagery,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, director of Comprehend the Mind. “This doesn't mean these individuals lack imagination or creativity—rather, they don't experience them visually.”
“Individuals with aphantasia don't lack imagination or creativity—rather, they don't experience them visually.” —Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, neuropsychologist
Most people assume that the way they remember a familiar object like an apple is the same way everyone else does. So, someone with aphantasia may not be aware that they have this condition. (After all, it would be tough to recognize the absence of a mental image if you've never experienced one.) Struggling to really understand the concept of mental imagery or how they might respond to someone prompting them to “use their imagination” might be the first signs that they differ in their ability to call to mind people or objects.
“Individuals with aphantasia might be taken aback when they realize that, ‘Picture this in your mind’ isn't just a figure of speech,” says psychologist Hayley Nelson, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Delaware County Community College and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. As an example, an aphantastic person can understand what air travel means conceptually but can’t picture themselves boarding a plane or arriving at a destination.
How can someone tell if they have aphantasia?
The ways in which different people experience aphantasia vary, which means that it may not be easy to tell if you have this condition. Some aphantastic people have difficulty picturing the faces of close friends or family members. Others may not understand what it means to count sheep or “see something in your mind’s eye,” says Dr. Hafeez.
In recalling a memory, people with aphantasia tend to rely on non-visual senses or use particular words, cues, or sequences. For example, they might think of pointy ears to remember what kind of animal a rabbit is or tap their finger to imagine the hands of a clock as the seconds are going by.
Someone with aphantasia might come to the realization that they have the condition while reminiscing about the past or imagining an upcoming beach vacation or ski trip with friends or family members. As other people call out specific visuals (like rolling waves or powdery snow), the person with aphantasia could find that they aren't able to imagine quite the same things, but instead, can bring to mind certain sounds, smells, or feelings associated with each event.
People with aphantasia also “often have limited or no capacity for spontaneous daydreaming or creating mental scenarios,” says Dr. Leaf. They might have dreams in which they experience different sensations but struggle to really see what’s happening around them.
What causes aphantasia?
The exact cause of aphantasia is unknown. Research suggests that the condition runs in families and is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with aphantasia while others develop this condition in response to brain injuries or psychological trauma, says Dr. Purdy.
To be sure, aphantasia isn’t the result of poor memory or cognition. In fact, a September 2023 study of more than 100 participants with different levels of mental imagery vividness found that aphantastic folks were able to complete all parts of an imagination test (involving visual tasks related to objects, shapes, colors, and the like) with a similar level of accuracy as their non-aphantastic peers. Their response times were just slower, which may point to how the brain of an aphantastic person can compensate with strategies other than visualization to complete visual-based tasks.
Indeed, neuroimaging studies show different patterns of brain activity among people with and without aphantasia, Dr. Nelson explains. “The structures of the brain might be largely similar, but the way they function in response to visualization tasks differs,” she says.
Consider the small 2021 study comparing the brain activity of aphantasic individuals with that of people who fall on the opposite side of the visualization spectrum and have a heightened ability to picture mental images (hyperphantasia) and those with midrange imagery vividness. Compared to people with aphantasia, those with an average capacity for visualization and those with hyperphantasia showed stronger connectivity (meaning better communication) between parts of the brain involved in processing visual stimuli and generating mental images. Hyperphantasic individuals also had greater brain activation in areas responsible for recognizing faces.
What are the benefits and downsides of aphantasia?
If you're someone with aphantasia, discovering that you can’t visualize familiar images might understandably be disconcerting—but the condition does have advantages. Being able to tune out distracting images can be helpful for staying focused, says Dr. Hafeez. Likewise, analytical thinking and unique problem-solving strategies might come more naturally to someone who relies on words rather than images to make sense of the world.
You may be less susceptible to intrusive or distressing mental images, too. (Bring on the horror movies!) “This could be beneficial in professions where detachment from emotional or graphic content is necessary, like some medical fields or emergency response,” says Dr. Leaf. As well, it can help you avoid replaying personal traumatic memories in vivid detail.
Because visual features help with recall, though, memories of happy occasions can also be affected. For example, you might not be able to picture yourself in your cap and gown at graduation or even see a loved one’s face. This can be especially tough if you’re grieving a loss.
You may also have difficulty navigating directions or completing tasks that involve arranging objects, like assembling furniture or creating a seating chart for a wedding. Practices like manifesting or envisioning your dreams can also be challenging since it’ll be tougher to imagine certain things happening to you in the future without the visual component.
Likewise, aphantasia can affect your enjoyment of reading since “some of the sensory and emotional impact can get lost when you can’t see it in your mind’s eye,” says Dr. Leaf.
What does this condition teach us about the human experience?
Research on aphantasia has revealed the human brain’s remarkable ability to adapt and find other ways to process and store information, says Dr. Nelson. A person with aphantasia can recall facts like the date, the people present, and what happened at an event even if they can't picture it. They can also use strategies like talking to loved ones, taking photos, and journaling to help remember visual details that could otherwise be lost, Dr. Purdy adds.
Along with shaping memories, aphantasia affects how a person thinks, plans, and dreams about the future. For instance, if you have aphantasia, you may be able to imagine the sounds, physical sensations, and smells of lying on the beach even if you can’t picture the sand or the waves, and these other sensory details could dictate how you might plan a future vacation.
That’s all to say, visualization is by no means the only way of processing information, reflecting on the past, or thinking about the future. Since not everyone experiences this condition the same way, “aphantasia reminds us of the incredible diversity of human experience,” says Dr. Hafeez. “We know now that there's a whole spectrum of cognitive processing out there waiting to be better understood.”
- Beran, Michael J et al. “Assessing aphantasia prevalence and the relation of self-reported imagery abilities and memory task performance.” Consciousness and cognition vol. 113 (2023): 103548. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2023.103548
- Zeman, Adam et al. “Phantasia-The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes.” Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior vol. 130 (2020): 426-440. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.003
- Liu, Jianghao, and Paolo Bartolomeo. “Probing the unimaginable: The impact of aphantasia on distinct domains of visual mental imagery and visual perception.” Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior vol. 166 (2023): 338-347. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2023.06.003
- Milton, Fraser et al. “Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Visual Imagery Vividness Extremes: Aphantasia versus Hyperphantasia.” Cerebral cortex communications vol. 2,2 tgab035. 5 May. 2021, doi:10.1093/texcom/tgab035
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