My life without pictures (congenital aphantasia)

One of the main pictures in cognitive psych so far seems to be mental imagery (excuse the pun). It shows up in study tips on how to deep process and then shows up in long term memory because of the deep processing. But how do pictures relate to memory? Easy, by making pictures to associate with words. Like to remember the words ‘elephant’ and ‘piano’ you could create the image of an elephant playing a piano. Seems simple. Everyone can do it, right? I mean Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, said that the better the picture than the more intelligent you were.

Well, actually wrong. I can’t do that. I can’t form any picture in my head. Neither can one of my aunts and her son. Like, when I was a kid and had trouble sleep, my parents told me to close my eyes and count sheep. Anyone with the ability to form pictures in their head would obviously know to imagine sheep and count them, that didn’t even cross my mind. I laid down and counted in my head ‘one sheep, two sheep, three sheep’. I guess according to Galton, I’m an idiot (especially with the counting sheep thing). Well, no again. I am smart, just like everyone else; my aunt, cousin, and I just have aphantasia. Aphantasia is a mental phenomenon meaning that some people can’t create mental pictures.

The term ‘congenital aphantasia’ was created in 2015, by Zeman, Dewar, and Della Sala. But the first findings of aphantasia was recorded in 1883. Galton ‘discovered’ it when he was working on his mental imagery vividness test with fellow scientists. In his tests, he discovered that some of the other scientists had no idea what he was talking about, he referred to them as having a mental deficiency.

Recently a study by Rebecca Keogh and Joel Pearson was conducted to try and figure out what aphantasia is and how it affects people’s minds. The main question though was trying to learn if people with aphantasia really can’t form mental images or if they have poor metacognition (meaning that they have the images just not the ability to access them). They tested these hypotheses with a bunch of different questionnaires, one of the main ones being the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). After all the tests, the results showed that people with aphantasia have impaired visual object imagery but above average spatial imagery. In simple terms, this means that the brain’s ‘what’ pathway is damaged and the brain’s ‘where’ pathway is slightly faster. This was proven again with neuroscience. In a normal neurotypical brain, mental images have activation from the visual cortex as well as the parietal and frontal areas of the brain. In the brain of a person with aphantasia, there is less feedback from the frontal cortex to the visual cortex, saying that the feedback link between those areas is what causes mental images. Meaning that it the lack of images is not poor metacognition, people with aphantasia really just can’t create mental pictures.

Of course, further studies need to still be done. We need to figure out why this bad connection occurs. What other parts of the brain change with the connection? It could also help in discovering why there are mental images, or why mental images are more vivid in people with mental disorders, or why creating mental images helps with long term memory. A study with people and aphantasia and long-term memory might be a good idea as well to see if it is even possible for people with aphantasia to deep-process things in the way others can. I think of this idea because I know for me and my cousin it is hard to remember our childhoods. My mom thinks it’s because most memories are visual, and I would like to see if science agrees and can prove her idea.

Unlike my mom though, who listened to me when I explained my lack of mental images, my dad didn’t believe me (and he wasn’t the only one). My dad probably didn’t believe me, because he has perfected the ‘mind palace’ and has an amazing memory for all of his stand-up comedy (it can last up to three hours!). He tried to teach me how to see pictures in my head to build a mind palace and he couldn’t grasp how I couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp how he could. Also, when I was a kid, people tried to trick me into proving that I could see pictures by asking me what my house looks like, and when I tell them they said that they ‘knew I was lying before’. But I wasn’t lying. It might be that I have higher spatial memory (as proven in the study that people with aphantasia have higher spatial memory). I can tell you where things are in relation, but I can’t close my eyes and tell you the colors of those things. I can’t close my eyes and picture something so vivid it must be real (like my house, which I should be able to).

Now you might say that this doesn’t affect my life, I’m a psych student. If I was an art student it may be a problem. But I think it still does affect me, I’ve just adapted to it. For example, I’m also a double major in creative writing, and my aphantasia still effects me because I’m bad at writing descriptions. Half the time it doesn’t cross my mind to give descriptions until I’ve already handed in a piece. Why would it, I’ve never needed it. It also sometimes makes reading difficult, people claim to see movies when they read, I just see words. I suppose I’m lucky that I still like to read because my aunt stopped altogether. This isn’t to say that I don’t daydream, my daydream is just like a running monologue (probably why I like to write now that I think about it). And, sorry dad, but I can probably never learn how to make a mind palace.

But, even with all of this differences in how I live my life, I like my brain. And I don’t understand how others live with pictures. I learned about the phrase aphantasia in my junior year of high school, and besides a few articles (mostly my mom bloggers) I had no idea that it was scientifically proven. So, I’m happy that there are at least two studies proving that I may not be in the majority, but I’m not alone with my ‘blind’ head.


2 thoughts on “My life without pictures (congenital aphantasia)

  1. afjones

    I have never heard of aphantasia before, so it was really interesting reading your post about it! It is strange that it only was named pretty recently, but yet the phenomenon has been occurring for a long time. It is interesting to see the comparison between a normal brain and a person’s brain with aphantasia. It is interesting that people with aphantasia have higher spatial imagery, I think this might be due to the ‘what’ pathway being damaged. I think the future research on this would be interesting to see the results, to see why this occurs. There is also a definite need for this future research, I think answers are needed, as well as information for people who have this phenomenon. Also, since they have found area that causes mental images and the part that is damaged with aphantasia, I feel like more research would be the easy next step to further explain and explore it. Mental images are important to most people’s learning and memory, so it is interesting that you (and others) have developed ways to work around it. I agree with your thinking of studying the link between aphantasia and long-term memory, I wonder how this affects the people with this phenomenon. I am also curious to how common this phenomenon is, especially since you and two other family members have it. It is interesting to read your description of your life with mental images and it is hard for me to imagine this.

  2. tanjina

    Your post was so interesting to read! I had no idea about this condition so it was really new to me. It’s pretty hard for me to picture not picturing things. It is very interesting to think about how before reading this post it never even occurred to me that there may be other people in the world who can’t visualize things the way I do. I really liked how you described how other people, whether your dad or someone else, didn’t immediately believe what you said. It is as if we created this “normal” for everyone and expect everybody’s brain to be the same. However, it’s not. Whether it is this condition or something else, those who haven’t experienced it will never be able to truly imagine how the world is viewed in someone else’s mind. It is very interesting to see how different we all are.

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