Aphantasia - a life without mental images

I never knew this existed until someone mentioned to me that Brad Wardell had recently described how he found out he could not visualize things with his mind:

My wife and I recently came across a show that referenced a person who had the inability to visualize images in their minds.

My immediate reaciton was, “Of course they can’t, nobody can. We call those hallucinations.” I thought it was absurd to suggest that people could just conjure up an image in their minds.

Turn out, I’m the defective one

He links to a NYT article describing the condition. The BBC reported on this last year as well, and they have a mini-test you can take to determine if you might have the condition. According to the researcher they interviewed, aphantasia is not a disorder, just a different way the brain works. The opposite condition also exists, "hyperphantasia," in which one has extremely vivid mental imagery.

As a very visual thinker, this condition amazes me. I almost can't conceive of how people manage to cope, but apparently people with aphantasia can somewhat work around it by memorizing numerical or other details of things.

Amazing how we're always learning new things about the brain.

Those of you who think you may have either aphantasia or hyperphantasia really should contact Dr. Adam Zeman in the UK: a.zeman@exeter.ac.uk - I'm sure the research group can use all the data they can get.

More Information:

Thanks to concentric, here is a link to information about a conference scheduled for May 2016 which will examine the findings of Dr. Zeman's team.

This is most interesting, although it's never encouraging to find that I have something in common with Brad Wardell. I feel like I've got some aspect of this. I have an extremely good memory, but it's almost entirely abstract and informational. I can retain enormous amounts of detailed information, but I have very poor recall of actual experiences. (I can remember lots of information about an experience, but my recall of the experience itself is fuzzy and almost completely lacking in sensory data.)

Likewise, when I'm imagining something, it appears as an abstract construct in my mind, with very little sensory component.

Interestingly, I have no trouble recognizing elements of past experiences (for instance, a picture of a person I know or a place where I've been), but conjuring that image in my mind would be difficult without the external stimulus.

Thanks for the pointer. Nice to have a name to put to the phenomenon.

Very interesting. I'm alright recalling images I think, but I cannot for the life of me visualize moving images. The only times I can are either when dreaming or in a very focused, meditative state.

BadKen wrote:

The BBC reported on this last year as well, and they have a mini-test you can take to determine if you might have the condition.

For the sunrise question I visualized Far Cry 2. I got 35/40 on that test, i.e. hyperphantasia. So the total opposite, but it's interesting how they're different but equally capable methods of remembering. For instance:

Dixie_Flatline wrote:

I have an extremely good memory, but it's almost entirely abstract and informational. I can retain enormous amounts of detailed information, but I have very poor recall of actual experiences.

How are you with mental math? If I have to do math on say four different numbers, I'll do the math on the first two, store the answer as an image of the number, then do the math on the other two (so I only have to remember the two numbers I need right then and not get confused with a third number), then "look" at the image of the first answer to know what it was, and do the math on it and the second answer.

Gravey wrote:
Dixie_Flatline wrote:

I have an extremely good memory, but it's almost entirely abstract and informational. I can retain enormous amounts of detailed information, but I have very poor recall of actual experiences.

How are you with mental math? If I have to do math on say four different numbers, I'll do the math on the first two, store the answer as an image of the number, then do the math on the other two (so I only have to remember the two numbers I need right then and not get confused with a third number), then "look" at the image of the first answer to know what it was, and do the math on it and the second answer.

I'm pretty good with mental arithmetic, and my process is similar, but it's all abstract for me -- there's no image of the number, just an awareness of the numeric value that I can call up again easily.

I just can't envision what this would be like.

Wow. Apparently I may have aphantasia.

I took the example in the NYT article about picturing a friend in your mind. I chose a couple people who I'm extremely close to and who I've known for many years. I close my eyes and try to picture them and really can't do it. I can recall facts about the individual (blue eyes, blonde hair, a bit shorter than me, usually wears jeans, wears blue nail polish) but picturing specifics? Nope, no picture at all.

It explains quite a bit actually. I've always felt like I have a really difficult time remembering people - until I've met a person multiple times, I'm liable to not recognize the face. It results in a lot of awkward moments when people say hello or start talking to me and I have no idea who they are.

Also tried the "picture a sunset" example and I can't really do it. I remember seeing sunsets, and if you showed me a dozen different sunset pictures I could probably pick out the one I've seen in person, but I can't really describe one. Perhaps that's why I've always been crap at art

Interesting stuff, I'm going to have to do more reading!

The first thing I thought about when I read the article was, "I wonder which Goodjers might be wired this way and if any of them will speak up." Thanks for posting, Serengeti. I find the subject fascinating, and also questioned how visual arts would be impacted for a person whose brain works this way. Definitely do more reading! I'm very curious about what you might learn.

I wonder if this has an effect on people's dreams?

I'm one of these, even for a simple task. For example imagining an apple; some people tell me they can see it in their mind as surely as if it were actually there and even project that image out onto the actual world such as to 'see' an apple on the table they are looking at. I know what an apple is, and what they looks like, but I simply can't actually 'see' one in my mind in any sense of the word. I can do differential equations in my head, but can't visualize in the sense other people seem to be able to.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

I wonder if this has an effect on people's dreams?

I suspect so, most of the dreams I remember are more conceptual than imagery, I've had some which were purely abstract numerals and others without any sensible form at all. As a philosopher it's certainly interesting stuff.

Gravey wrote:

How are you with mental math? If I have to do math on say four different numbers, I'll do the math on the first two, store the answer as an image of the number, then do the math on the other two (so I only have to remember the two numbers I need right then and not get confused with a third number), then "look" at the image of the first answer to know what it was, and do the math on it and the second answer.

Hey, that's the same thing I do!

My memory is almost entirely visual, with about the only real exception being auditory data.

Serengeti

You might be faceblind. Like Danjo.

http://hatchetjob.libsyn.com/hatchet...

I didn't realize there was a term for this.

I may not have it quite to the degree that Serengeti might, but enough. I recognize people when I see them, but if you ask me to describe them you're going to get basic facts. I know a friend of mine has a beard and blue eyes and shaves his head. I know those things.

But if you ask me to picture him I can't put the pieces together.

The thing described above where you know what an apple looks like and will immediately recognize it when you see it, but if you try to picture one in your head you get this kind of vague, dim empty shape? Yep.

I can sort of get at parts. A general shape. And then oh it's generally either red or green, so the colors come seperately.

But I can't see it in my head as an object.

I took that quiz in the BBC link and it was... revealing.

Can't help but wonder how much this influences the things I enjoy and how I approach them.

LouZiffer wrote:

The first thing I thought about when I read the article was, "I wonder which Goodjers might be wired this way and if any of them will speak up." Thanks for posting, Serengeti. I find the subject fascinating, and also questioned how visual arts would be impacted for a person whose brain works this way. Definitely do more reading! I'm very curious about what you might learn.

Yeah, that's the reason I posted it. The condition fascinates me, and even more so because it was only identified last year, and is only beginning to be researched! I figured some GWJers might have brains wired this way. The articles said that being able to put a name to it helps people not feel "defective," since others can relate to their experiences. The UK researcher said that thinking this way is fairly rare, but it might be around 2% of the population, so not that rare!

Those of you who think you may have either aphantasia or hyperphantasia really should contact Dr. Adam Zeman in the UK: a.zeman@exeter.ac.uk - I'm sure the research group can use all the data they can get.

I ended up in the top band, and I was a bit surprised by this. I don't think of myself as a visual learner yet I love art. I also always try to help my students think of themselves as people in the world they are studying. I did contact Dr. Zeman; I'm interested in how this might help me teach students more effectively.

That is so cool. Neuroscience is really fascinating - there's so much we are still learning about the brain and how people think/learn. Thanks for sharing!

Grenn wrote:

I just can't envision what this would be like.

IMAGE(http://i.imgur.com/lI5S83n.jpg)

On the test I scored with hyperphantasia, which isn't that surprising given that I can get myself off purely on the visual, auditory, and tactile qualities of dreams I can control. Spoiler alert - harder and not much better than the usual way. When I misplace things, I usually find where I placed the missing item by "rewinding" my day mentally, minute by minute. I can even tell that in a particular situation, I was looking in a specific direction and so might have missed certain things.

It is definitely a thing that be degraded or lost. Used to have effortless eidetic memory, but zero creativity, social intelligence, or ability to generalize. I was definitely "the weird one." As I got older, I got better at discerning the subtext or underlying similarities between images, but lost eidetic memory - as if my brain were saving memory space by using pre-remembered versions of a scene rather than the actual picture.

I'm probably hyperphantastic as well. I assume that's the correct terminology at least, and if so, I like it. XD

I have mock conversations or situations play out in my head all the time, imagining what I'd do if, say, I was carjacked or someone broke into my house, or even simple debates with people I know. Very vivid, elaborate scenarios often roll through my head. I guess that's part of why I enjoy writing, though I haven't done much lately. It frankly boggles my mind to think of NOT being able to do that.

I scored average. I do have trouble remembering faces until I've met people several times and I couldn't visualize the co-worker I chose for the example very well, but any other scene is easy to imagine. I recall as a kid, I'd project my imaginary friends and daydreams (iron man suits and gi joes mostly) into reality.

Also, I don't think only repeating facts about what a person looks like is really indicative of anything. English lacks words to describe faces that well.

dhelor wrote:

I have mock conversations or situations play out in my head all the time, imagining what I'd do if, say, I was carjacked or someone broke into my house, or even simple debates with people I know. Very vivid, elaborate scenarios often roll through my head.

Me too, well maybe not that elaborate! I haven't done much of it lately either. Maybe I'm in a rut, in too much of a routine. I'm annoyed at my brain sometimes cause the scenarios it creates are often so outlandish I know they don't have any bearing on reality.

Interesting. I'm in the hyper band, which I always assumed was normal. Funny that, how we assume ourselves to be the default.

I did the test and it said I was at the upper end of the range for imagery. Separately, I think I'm also toward the super-recogniser end of the scale when it comes to faces.

I'm not sure what to think of this test. If you asked me previously if I had trouble imagining things I would have said "no". I can remember what a day at the beach feels like, the sand under my feet, the sun on my face and the sound and smells of the waves. But these things are just memories of sights and sounds. Because this is so subjective I don't have any context to go by, but I suspect that I am incapable of imagining images.

When I close my eyes all I see is darkness with patches of grey fog. If I attempt to imagine a white circle on a black background I just can't do it. I know what white and black look like and what a circle looks like, but the best I can do is imagine that a circle is there. I don't actually *see* anything. At the same time I don't have any trouble at all with images in dreams the way Brad does. I tend to suffer from extremely vivid dreams at times, to the point that they impact the quality of my sleep and I avoid things in the horror genre for that reason.

So I might not be at the bottom but I'm definitely in the lower end of the spectrum.

I recognize people when I see them, but if you ask me to describe them you're going to get basic facts. I know a friend of mine has a beard and blue eyes and shaves his head. I know those things.

After reading that article and taking the test, I realized that I'm fairly weak with picturing faces. I recognize them when I see them, I'm not faceblind or anything like that, but conjuring an image of one isn't always that clear. I'd be absolutely terrible talking to a sketch artist.

Places, scenery, and houses are easy, though.

This is really confusing me - like the first question - think of a friend, I know what my friends look like and can describe them and stuff but I don't literally see an image of them, are we talking like photograph like image or a more abstract form.
When I recall a memory, say Leeds Rhinos winning at Huddersfield last year, I can recall the feelings, the sounds, my fear of losing my glasses (I couldn't see very well till they were found) and Ryan Hall racing down the wing with a huge grin on his face but I don't literally see an image of it but I would say there is an image built up.

I'm terrible at remembering faces, but I have very strong visual memory. I rated as hyperphantasia on the test, partially because there are a couple of close family members who I do remember very strongly and can call up a fairly detailed image...though its easier if I recall a specific expression or detail. But I'm not going to remember your face and name until we've met a few times.

For numbers, I realized some time ago that the reason that I can remember which page I was reading last was because I tend to automatically store a visual memory of the page number.

I've had a pretty good visual imagination as far back as I can remember. Not a photographic memory, per see, since I don't seem to store most memories in that kind of detail, but I can generally invent photographic details of something I'm imagining. It's not like looking at a real photograph; its hard for me to focus on more than a few things at once. And there's...metadata embedded in it for lack of a better term. Its not just visual, its got associations and systems/relationships mixed in.

Hopefully that gives kind of an idea?

onewild wrote:

This is really confusing me - like the first question - think of a friend, I know what my friends look like and can describe them and stuff but I don't literally see an image of them, are we talking like photograph like image or a more abstract form.
When I recall a memory, say Leeds Rhinos winning at Huddersfield last year, I can recall the feelings, the sounds, my fear of losing my glasses (I couldn't see very well till they were found) and Ryan Hall racing down the wing with a huge grin on his face but I don't literally see an image of it but I would say there is an image built up.

It sounds to me like your brain is more "aphantasic." I can understand how it would be confusing, if your memories don't summon up mental images, to have someone describe how they can practically see things with their eyes closed (or even with their eyes open). That's how it works for some people. When I think of someone I know, I "see" their face in my mind. I don't think of them as a collection of details or facts about how they look, I visualize their face as though I was looking at it. Like a photograph, as you say, but more like a perfect hologram.

When I think of past experiences, I can visualize the scene and even look around in it and move myself through it as if I was actually there. This is true even of imaginary or virtual environments, particularly from games. I can visualize the city of Stormwind from World of Warcraft, for example, and walk or fly though it in my mind, visiting the bank, the auction house, swim thorugh the canals, head down to the docks and hop on a ship to Teldrassil, all of it. I can even see the park as it was before Deathwing destroyed it.

Definitely hyperphantasia here. When I read books it's really like I'm watching a movie in my head, which is why I almost always "cast" actors in the roles so I can visualize it even clearer.

Yeah, this is interesting. I don't think I'm completely aphantastic, but the mental images I can generate are more like flashes, even when I close my eyes. Counterintuitively, I have very vivid dreams, and now that I think about it, I believe I'm able to visualize some of those more clearly than actual memories.

onewild wrote:

This is really confusing me - like the first question - think of a friend, I know what my friends look like and can describe them and stuff but I don't literally see an image of them, are we talking like photograph like image or a more abstract form.
When I recall a memory, say Leeds Rhinos winning at Huddersfield last year, I can recall the feelings, the sounds, my fear of losing my glasses (I couldn't see very well till they were found) and Ryan Hall racing down the wing with a huge grin on his face but I don't literally see an image of it but I would say there is an image built up.

Yeah, definitely seems you're on the aphantasic end. I can literally picture every detail of people I know well like they are standing in front of me. It's not like a photograph, it's like a holodeck.

I'd imagine people not as far to the hyperphantasic side as I seem to fall would see less detail, but judging from responses in this thread it doesn't seem like there's much middle ground.