Aphantasia is a cognitive phenomenon characterised by the inability or difficulty to voluntarily generate visual mental imagery. Coined by Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive and behavioral neurologist, aphantasia refers to the absence of the mind’s eye. It is important to note that aphantasia is not a disorder or a condition that requires fixing; it is simply a different way of processing and experiencing the world.
People with aphantasia, which make up an estimated four percent of the general population, often describe their thought processes as more conceptual or verbal rather than visual.
For example, when asked to imagine a beach scene, individuals with aphantasia may understand the concept of a beach, its sensory aspects, and activities associated with it, but they cannot visually “see” the beach in their mind. The severity of aphantasia can vary, with some individuals unable to visualise any images and others having difficulty with visualisation. It can also extend to other senses such as sound, smell, taste, and touch, impacting the ability to imagine these sensations.
Many people with aphantasia are also unable to recall sounds, smells or sensations of touch. Some also report experiencing prosopagnosia, the inability to recgonise faces.
Some people are born with aphantasia. In these cases, an individual might not even be aware that they have aphantasia because they’ve never known any other way of thinking. In other cases, aphantasia can be acquired through traumatic incidents such as brain injury, or periods of psychosis.
Aphantasia is also familial, with research showing that if you have congenital aphantasia, there is a 21% chance that your first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) will also have it. People with aphantasia often report feeling surprised when they learn others see mental images in their minds. Many people with aphantasia have said they assumed others were speaking metaphorically when they described seeing something in their “mind’s eye.” This is because our internal mental processes are not visible to others, so it is easy for all of us to assume everyone’s minds operate in the same way.
The experience of having aphantasia is difficult to describe because it varies from person to person and there is no conscious equivalent.
Visual imagination varies from person to person, like a spectrum. While most people can picture images in their minds, there are some who experience it more intensely or differently. On one end, there are “aphantasics” who can’t visualise images at all, or very little.
On the opposite end, are “hyperphantasics” with hyperphantasia, who have an incredibly vivid imagination, so strong it’s almost like they’re really seeing it. In between, there are those with phantasia and hypophantasia, experiencing varying degrees of imagery vividness.
Research suggests that there may be a higher prevalence of aphantasia among Autistic individuals compared to the general population. While the exact relationship between the two is still being studied, it highlights the potential overlap and shared characteristics between Autism and aphantasia.
It is theorised that the connection between Autism and aphantasia lies in the perception and integration of sensory information, specifically, a potential overlap in the underlying neural mechanisms and cognitive processes involved in complex thought.
Research has shown that Autistic individuals often display atypical neural connectivity and activity across various brain regions involved in sensory processing, memory formation, and imagination. Aphantasia is theorised to result from disrupted neural connections involving the visual cortex, which prevents the formation or recall of mental images.
Because the episodic system is also involved in imagining future events, a fault in the episodic system also explains why people with aphantasia cannot call to mind imaged sensory information. They cannot see/hear/smell anything when asked to imagine in their mind’s eye what it might be like to walk on a beach or eat a strawberry.
Both Autism and aphantasia can also influence cognitive flexibility. Autistic individuals may exhibit rigid thinking patterns or difficulties with switching between tasks, while individuals with aphantasia may rely more on verbal or conceptual thinking. Recognising and accommodating these cognitive differences can enhance learning and communication for Autistic individuals and aphantasic individuals alike.
The link between aphantasia and Autism has significant implications for social interactions, a core area of difficulty for many Autistic individuals. The ability to visualise people’s facial expressions, body language, and context can play a crucial role in understanding and responding appropriately in social situations. The lack of vivid mental imagery associated with aphantasia may exacerbate challenges related to social communication and emotional understanding for Autistic individuals.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neuropsychology in October of 2022 investigated more general memory problems in people with aphantasia. The results showed that people with aphantasia are not just poor at recalling autobiographical events that happened in their own past, but are generally worse at all memory tasks. This includes both short- and long-term verbal memory tasks.
Research also shows that people with aphantasia have less vivid and detailed memories — particularly when it comes to visual details.
The very fact that aphantasics show these deficits also implies that mental imagery is generally an important part of recalling events or imagining future ones. This probably isn’t a huge surprise — but as the authors point out, is something that has been hard to test empirically until now. However, the study also shows that mental imagery isn’t everything: people with aphantasia were still able to retrieve memories, after all. Instead, it seems that mental imagery is specifically involved in that aspect of memory that involves “re-living” events in our minds.
When we engage in reading, mental imagery is commonly utilised. To comprehend and make sense of the words and sentences, we naturally create mental models, and studies have shown that mental imagery plays a role in constructing these models.
For instance, when presented with a sentence like “the ranger saw the eagle in the sky,” individuals tend to recognise an image of an eagle with spread wings faster than an image of a perched eagle. This is because they mentally visualise or simulate the scenario described in the sentence, aiding in the swift identification of a picture that corresponds to the imagined situation.
Aphantasia appears to impact the formation of mental models during reading. In one study, individuals with aphantasia demonstrated reduced emotional and physiological responses when reading descriptions of frightening scenarios, suggesting that their comprehension was less influenced by imagined or simulated sensory experiences.
Moreover, these simulations can occur unconsciously even when reading individual words and assist in accessing word meanings more rapidly. For example, when encountering words associated with sensory experiences like vision, action, and smell, the corresponding brain areas responsible for these senses also exhibit activity.
However, there is currently no research available to ascertain whether this phenomenon applies to individuals with aphantasia, thus leaving uncertainty regarding whether they subconsciously simulate sensory or motor information when reading individual words.
Mental imagery plays a role in various cognitive processes that we engage in daily. For instance, when it comes to autobiographical memory, visual and spatial imagery is believed to be significant. Recent research has indicated that individuals who have a natural inclination to create detailed mental images of objects and scenes can recall personal memories more rapidly and with greater intricacy.
Interestingly, individuals with aphantasia have the ability to remember factual information about their lives. However, when it comes to recalling specific life events, they tend to provide fewer details and have a diminished emotional experience, even though they deem these events as important or personally relevant.
Additionally, mental imagery is also experienced during dreams.
Surprisingly, around 60 percent of individuals with aphantasia report experiencing visual imagery in their dreams, although the quality of their dream imagery differs from that of those with typical imagery abilities. During dreaming, individuals with aphantasia often report a reduced sensory experience, lower overall awareness, and a reduced sense of control. This finding suggests that aphantasia may primarily affect voluntary mental imagery—the ability to intentionally conjure images in one’s mind—rather than involuntary mental imagery.
Some aphantasics also have synaesthesia, a “crossing of the senses”. In synaesthesia, a person might experience a sound also being associated with a colour, or a number with a smell, or a word with a flavour… and so on. The possibilities when it comes to synaesthesia are varied and individual. When an individual with aphantasia also experiences synaesthesia, it is generally more likely to be a form of synaesthesia that relies on senses other than sight or visual imagery.
If you think you might have aphantasia, you may like to consider the following questions:
If you struggle with your responses to these questions, you might have some degree of aphantasia.
The inability to visualise people and places can be distressing for people with aphantasia. Having difficulty picturing the face of a loved one who has passed away, for instance, can be upsetting.
Studies suggest that aphantasia does not necessarily hinder a person’s success in life. The phenomenon affects people from all walks of life, including successful doctorate students, engineers, and other professionals.
This phenomenon is not a condition that requires treatment, but rather a normal variation of human experience. This doesn’t mean that it might not have an effect on different aspects of your life, however. Learning also involves mental imagery, so being unable to visualise scenes in your mind may make certain aspects of learning more challenging.
Uncovering conditions such as aphantasia suggests that there could be various cognitive modes. Some individuals may engage in thinking by consciously or unconsciously simulating past sensory experiences, while others, including those with aphantasia, rely on accessing factual information for their thought processes.
The existence of aphantasia highlights the diversity in human cognition, challenging the assumption that all minds operate in the same manner. Although research on aphantasia is still in its early stages, it represents a promising pathway towards gaining a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the human mind.
Understanding the relationship between Autism and aphantasia is an ongoing area of research. Through education, awareness, and individualised support, we can empower Autistic and aphantasic individuals to thrive and reach their full potential. Remember, every individual is unique, and it is important to approach support with flexibility and empathy. By embracing neurodiversity, we can create a world that celebrates the strengths and abilities of all individuals, regardless of their cognitive processing differences.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.