Rare Brain Condition Robs People of Mental Imagery

The latest study on aphantasia shows how people can still place objects in a room from memory, but can't imagine them.
Fabienne Lang

Imagine not being able to picture people's faces or memories of places you have been to in your mind.

People living with aphantasia, a rare and still largely misunderstood brain condition where people can't visualize something in their mind's eye, live without pictures in their minds. 

They can still describe what they know thanks to their memory, but they can't picture it. 

The latest study on the condition published in Cortex depicted how people with aphantasia can still draw and explain where objects are in a room from memory, but can't imagine them.


The term aphantasia was only academically established in 2015. Since then, a number of scientific texts on the brain condition have been published. However, it's still a largely poorly understood condition. 

Back in 2015, the BBC interviewed Niel Kenmuir, a man living with aphantasia, and explained how people living with the condition perceive life without images in their mind's eye — or mind. 

Now, thanks to the latest study, we know that aphantasia doesn't block imagination or creativity, but it does impair visual memory. 

The majority of people living with aphantasia lead totally regular lives, and most don't even realize their condition until adulthood. They can still describe people and places using words, they simply can't picture them in their minds. 

Latest aphantasia study showed great spatial memory

In the most recent study, 103 participants with and without aphantasia were asked to draw three different living rooms from photographs. They were allowed to use a photograph while they drew the first image, but not for the second — it had to be drawn from memory. 

The authors of the study noted that there were no differences between people from the two groups when drawing directly from a photograph. However, once the image was removed, those with aphantasia struggled to draw the room from memory. 

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The 61 aphantasic participants remembered fewer visual details of the room, with fewer colors, but with more words. For instance, one participant wrote the word "window" instead of drawing one. 

That said, many aphantasic volunteers still had great spatial awareness, remembering where objects were placed and in the correct size. 

"One possible explanation could be that because aphantasics have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies like verbal-coding of the space," explained psychologist Wilma Bainbridge from the University of Chicago.

"Their verbal representations and other compensatory strategies might actually make them better at avoiding false memories."

Ultimately, those with aphantasia showed a lack of visual memory but still had a strong spatial memory. 

Neurological studies have to be carried out for better understanding

Further research needs to be carried out, as the authors noted, so as to understand the full neurological impact of the brain condition. 

"These individuals have a unique mental experience that can provide essential insights into the nature of imagery, memory, and perception," the authors explained

"The drawings provided by aphantasic participants reveal a complex, nuanced story that show impaired object memory, but intact verbal and spatial memory during recall of real world scene images."

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