- Aphantasia is a condition where a person has deficits or a complete lack of mental imagery.
- It’s fairly uncommon, occurring in less than 5 percent of the population.
- Researchers are currently exploring potential causes and consequences.
In your mind’s eye, picture the sun rising above the horizon into a hazy sky. When you do, how clear is the image? Perfectly clear and lifelike, just like really seeing it? Moderately clear? Or is it dim and vague? Maybe you don’t see any image at all but just “know” you are thinking of a sunset. If the either of last two of these options sounds about right, you may have a condition known as aphantasia, a deficit (or inability) in mental imagery generation (Zeeman, Dewar, & Della Salla, 2015). This question is in fact adapted from the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ; Marks, 1973), a test designed to assess how individual differences in mental imagery and now commonly used to diagnose aphantasia. If you’re interested to see how you score, you can take the test here.
Two years ago, I learned about this condition for the first time, though I’ve had it my entire life. I always found extended descriptions of landscapes boring and puzzling when I would read novels because, like others with aphantasia, I couldn’t easily or clearly picture the scenes being described. I also found it weird that other people might lose their appetite when hearing something described that was visually gross. Never a problem for me. And like some other aphantasics, for years I thought people were speaking metaphorically when they talked about their experience of mental imagery (Dance, Isper, & Simner, 2022). Even picturing the faces of those I loved most was a difficult task, at best producing dim and fleeting images, often more the idea of the person’s face then something akin to seeing it. I’ve actually gotten a little better at it over the years and when I took the VVIQ today, my score suggested “hypophantasia, or *mostly* image-free thinking.”
What Else Goes With Aphantasia?
Interestingly, those with aphantasia perform similarly on tasks of visual working memory compared to those without the condition (Keogh, Wicken, & Pearson, 2021). Interestingly, people with this condition also tend to have visual dreams (Zeman, et al., 2020), although some evidence suggests such dreams may be less vivid and less frequent than among neurotypical controls (Dawes, et al., 2020). There may in fact be some advantages to not having strong visual imagery. One study finds that people with aphantasia also tend to score slightly higher than controls on IQ tests (Milton, et al., 2021). Another suggests that if you have aphantasia you may be less likely to get freaked out by reading scary stories (Wicken, Keogh, & Pearson, 2021)
People with aphantasia do tend to be at a disadvantage in some other ways, however. For example, they are more likely to have difficulty recognizing faces (Zeman, et al., 2020). As I child I once went wandering on the beach and when trying to make my way back to my parents approached several families who turned out not to be mine! Those with aphantasia are also more likely to experience difficulty with autobiographical memory (Zeman, et al., 2020).
Who’s More Likely to Have Aphantasia?
It turns out this condition is relatively rare, with estimates ranging from slightly less than 1 percent of the population for the most extreme form of the condition to roughly 3-4 percent for more moderate forms, like mine (Dance, Isper, & Simner, 2022; Zeeman, et al., 2020). Aphantasia appears equally common among both men and women (Zeman, et al., 2020). It is also, despite an early claim by Galton (1880) no more common among scientists than others (Brewer & Schommer-Aikins, 2006). Nor, according to a recent study, is aphantasia related to any of the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism; Monzel, Vetterlein, & Reuter, 2022).
Aphantasia does appear to run in families, with one study suggesting that if you have aphantasia there’s a 21 percent chance a member of your immediate family does too (Zeeman, et al., 2020). Further, recent work suggests that a gene related to synaptic transmission, SYT1, may play a role in the (in)ability to generate mental images (Day, et al., 2022).
Aphantasia is a fascinating condition. One that we are only beginning to study rigorously. It also thankfully tends to be one that leaves other cognitive capabilities largely intact. So, if you had trouble visualizing the scene at the beginning of this post, there’s no cause for concern, and in fact, although it’s uncommon, you are far from alone.
Brewer, W. F., & Schommer-Aikins, M. (2006). Scientists are not deficient in mental imagery: Galton revised. Review of General Psychology, 10(2), 130-146.
Dance, C. J., Ipser, A., & Simner, J. (2022). The prevalence of aphantasia (imagery weakness) in the general population. Consciousness and Cognition, 97, 103243.
Dawes, A. J., Keogh, R., Andrillon, T., & Pearson, J. (2020). A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 10022.
Day, J., Frayling, T., Wood, A., & Zeman, A. (2022). Does visual imagery vividness have a genetic basis? A genome-wide association study of 1019 individuals. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 93, A51.
Galton, F. (1880). Statistics of mental imagery. Mind, 5, 301–318.
Keogh, R., Wicken, M., & Pearson, J. (2021). Visual working memory in aphantasia: Retained accuracy and capacity with a different strategy. Cortex, 143, 237-253.
Marks, D. F. (1973). Visual Imagery Differences in the Recall of Pictures. British Journal of Psychology, 64(1), 17–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1973. tb01322.x
Milton, F., Fulford, J., Dance, C., Gaddum, J., Heuerman-Williamson, B., Jones, K., ... & Zeman, A. (2021). Behavioral and neural signatures of visual imagery vividness extremes: Aphantasia versus hyperphantasia. Cerebral Cortex Communications, 2(2), tgab035.
Monzel, M., Vetterlein, A., & Reuter, M. (2022). No general pathological significance of aphantasia: An evaluation based on criteria for mental disorders. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/sjop.12887
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378-380.
Zeman, A., Milton, F., Della Sala, S., Dewar, M., Frayling, T., Gaddum, J., ... & Winlove, C. (2020). Phantasia–the psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes. Cortex, 130, 426-440.
Wicken, M., Keogh, R., & Pearson, J. (2021). The critical role of mental imagery in human emotion: insights from fear-based imagery and aphantasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 288, 20210267.