Mind’s Eye Blind – Aphantasia and a Lack of Mental Imagery

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I had some fascinating research pointed out to me today.

Three scientists—Adam Zeman, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala—published preliminary research in Cortex, a scientific journal that publishes articles regarding the relationship between cognition and the nervous system. The article, entitled “Lives without imagery—Congenital aphantasia,” describes a fascinating phenomenon where a person lacks the ability to voluntarily visualize images in their “mind’s eye.” Right now, 2% remains the best estimate of how commonly congenital aphantasia occurs.

For example, a person might be asked a question like “what color is your car?” Now, while they might able to remember that their car is blue factually, a person with aphantasia would be completely unable to visualize what the color blue looks like. Or, for that matter, would be unable to visualize what a sunset looks like, even though they have memories of sunsets.

In some ways, this would be a completely different way of experiencing reality. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction, I can’t even imagine what this would be like.

In order to detail some of the elements of this condition, the scientists constructed a survey called the Vividness and Visual imagery questionnaire (VVIQ). Using this questionnaire, they worked with 21 individuals who had experienced aphantasia their entire lives, and used 121 people without the condition as controls.

The 21 people who had experienced the phenomenon their entire lives scored significantly lower on this VVIQ than the control group. Here’s the distribution they ended up with:

aphantasia

Some other interesting facts emerged.

For example, two out of three of the aphantasia group had problems remembering biographical details about themselves. At the same time, two out of three also had strong verbal, mathematical, and logical skills.

One of the most intriguing things that came up, though, was that while all of the primary group had either significant or complete impairment of voluntary visual imagery, almost all of them experienced involuntary imagery regularly in the form of “flashes” during the day, or by dreaming. This points to some kind of separation in how the brain processes certain kinds of imagery and memories.

The authors of the article hypothesize that further research of aphantasia will find “neural correlates”—that brain imaging can help us to understand structurally was is happening in the brain that causes this condition to manifest itself. I can’t wait to see further research on this. It could really help to further our understanding of human cognition. In a follow-up to their initial article, Zeman et. al. reported that since their article was reported on in the New York Times, over a thousand people with aphantasia have contacted them with an interest in helping with further research.

I look forward to further illumination of this fascinating condition!


If you have access to ScienceDirect, the full article is here.

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