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Aphantasia causes blind spots in the mind’s eye

If an interviewer asked you to draw a picture of the room from memory, you were waiting outside before entering the interviewer’s office, could you do it? For most people, specific details are easy to visualize: “There’s a piano in the corner, a palm by the window, and two seashells on the coffee table.”

But for many, such a task would almost be next to impossible. These individuals have a rare condition called aphantasia, which prevents them from quickly recreating images in their mind’s eye – in fact, the term “mind’s eye” may be vague for them.

“There have been reports by some individuals with aphantasia that they don’t understand what it means to ‘count sheep’ before going to bed,” said Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. She recently conducted a study of the condition, which can be innate or caused by trauma. “They thought it was solely an expression and had never realized until adulthood that other people could visualize sheep without seeing them.”

Bainbridge, an expert on the neuroscience of perception and memory, decided to experimentally quantify the differences between aphantasic individuals and those with typical imagery on a specific set of visual memory tasks. The goal was to characterize aphantasia better, which is little-studied and tease apart differences between object and spatial memory.

The journal Cortex published the research. For the study, Bainbridge and colleagues presented photographs of three rooms to dozens of individuals with both typical and limited imagery. They then asked two groups to draw the rooms, once from memory and once while looking at the photo as a reference.

The memory experiment differences were striking: Individuals with typical imagery usually drew the most salient objects in the room with moderate detail, like color and critical design elements (a green carpet, rather than a rectangle).

Individuals with aphantasia found the task to be arduous – they could place a few objects in the room. Still, their drawings were often more superficial and, at times, relied on written descriptions. For example, some put down the word “window” inside an outline of a window rather than drawing the windowpanes.

Intact Spatial Memory

Although people with aphantasia lack visual imagery, they appear to have intact spatial memory, which is distinct from imagery and may be stored differently, according to Bainbridge. People who are congenitally blind, for instance, can still describe the layout of an associated room.

As such, people with aphantasia could place the objects that they did remember in the correct location within a room most of the time, just like those with typical imagery, even though they couldn’t retain many details.

It’s surprising that even though people with aphantasia remembered fewer objects overall, they also made fewer mistakes. They didn’t create any false memories of things that hadn’t been in any of the rooms and placed items in the correct location – but the wrong room – only three times.

“One possible explanation could be that because people with aphantasia have trouble with this task, they depend on other tactics like verbal-coding of the space,” Bainbridge said. “Their verbal descriptions and other compensatory strategies might make them better at avoiding false memories.”

In contrast, people with typical imagery made fourteen mistakes overall and frequently incorporated things that hadn’t been in the photographs. In one case, a person even drew a piano into a living room that had only contained a fireplace, a couch, and chairs. Bainbridge said this could be because they were drawing on their visual memories of other living rooms – something people with aphantasia couldn’t have done.

Both groups drew more objects, made no mistakes, and scored equally well when asked to copy the photographs, suggesting that the difference is real and specific to memory, not artistic ability or effort.

Recognition is also not affected:

People with aphantasia knew which pictures of rooms they had already seen when shown them a second time, and even recognize family and friends – though they cannot visualize their faces without seeing them.

Aphantasia has only come to picture recently as a psychological phenomenon. Bainbridge said that’s due in part to famous people – including Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar, and Blake Ross, a co-founder of Firefox – coming forward and writing about their lack of experience with visual imagery, thereby calling attention to the condition.

Since aphantasia affects only a small percentage of the population, Bainbridge and her co-authors recruited participants from online forums where people with the condition have shared their experiences to ensure a large sample size of 61 aphantasic individuals and 52 controls with typical imagery. Almost 2,800 online volunteers scored the drawings of both groups objectively.

Bainbridge said the study adds to a growing body of research that validates aphantasia as an experience and demonstrates vital differences between object and spatial memory.

She is working with co-authors Zoe Pounder and Alison Eardley at the University of Westminster and Chris Baker at the National Institute of Mental Health. She hopes to explore aphantasia further by using MRI scanning to elucidate some of the mechanisms behind imagery in typical and aphantasic individuals.

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