Brain: Why people with aphantasis can’t form mental images

Discover, every day, an analysis of our partner The Conversation. Today, a researcher explains how visual memory conditions our perception of the world

UPSIDE DOWN – Discover, every day, an analysis of our partner The Conversation. Today, a researcher explains how visual memory conditions our perception of the world

How many times have you been disappointed by the adaptation of a book to film or television, when a scene did not quite correspond to what you had imagined? Or that a character didn’t look at all like what you had visualized?

Most people, when asked to form an image of someone familiar to them, can “see” it in their minds. In other words, it is a visual mental representation similar to what we would see if the person were in front of us.

But it turns out that this is not the case for everyone. Some people, when asked to imagine a mental image, declare that they can not “see” anything. This phenomenon of the human mind, recently identified, was referred to in 2015 as aphantasis. It is estimated that 2 to 5 percent of the population are unable, throughout their lives, to generate any mental image.

But how can we remember the details of an object or event if we cannot “see” it in our mind? This is an issue that my colleagues and I sought to explore in one of our recent studies.

The study of aphantasis

We evaluated the performance of visual memory in individuals with aphantasis compared to those who had a typical visual imagination.

In the study, participants were shown three images: those of a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom, and were asked to draw them from memory.

Their drawings were objectively examined online by more than 2,700 external evaluators who compared the details of the objects (their appearance) and the spatial details (the size and location of the objects).

We expected that subjects with aphantasis would find it difficult to draw an image of memory because they could not evoke these images in their minds.

© Provided by 20 Minutes Example of drawing an aphantasic participant, from memory, and by observation © Zoë Pounder

In fact, our results showed that they correctly drew the size and location of objects, but provided significantly less visual detail, such as color. They also represented fewer objects compared to the drawings of the witnesses.

Some, finally, have noted what the object was through language – for example, by writing the words “bed” or “chair” – rather than drawing it. This suggests the use of alternative strategies, such as verbal representations, that do not solicit visual memory. These differences in the details of objects and space were not due to differences in artistic ability or a lack of concentration.

All this suggests that people with aphantasis have intact spatial brain imagination abilities: the ability to represent the size, location, and position of objects in relation to one another is preserved. A finding reinforced by another of our studies devoted to their performance in exercises related to memory and its effects on mental representation.

We found that people who did not have the ability to generate visual images performed as well in these exercises as those with good visual mental representation. We also found similar performances with the classic mental rotation (RM) technique, where you have to observe different figures and, by rotating them mentally, determine which ones are identical.

These results suggest that it is not necessary to have a good visual imagination to perform these tasks. On the other hand, it has been shown that some people with – but not all – aphantasis are more likely to have difficulty recognizing faces and poor autobiographical memory – the memory of life events – a type of memory that is thought to rely heavily on mental images.

© Provided by 20 Minutes Some people don’t have a mental picture of past events © Sun Ok/Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

Living with aphantasis

People with aphantasis also describe other disparities. Thus, some have only a partial absence of mental image at the level of the senses and will be able to hear a melody in their head… but not have visual images associated with it.

Similarly, research has shown that, despite their inability to generate visual images at will on demand, subjects report having mental images in their dreams. Others say that their dreams are non-visual, consisting solely of conceptual or emotional content.

These disparities are fascinating and are a reminder of the extent to which the distinctions between individuals are still largely unknown, particularly in terms of the perception of the world. And the difference does not necessarily mean less integration. Many people with aphantasis are not aware of understanding the world differently and experience a very classic professional life. It has even been shown that they work in many scientific and creative industries.

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