Our results showed that people with aphantasia correctly depicted the size and location of objects, but provided significantly fewer visual details, such as color, and drew fewer shapes and objects in relation to witness drawings.
Some participants with aphantasia noted what the object is through language—for example, writing the words “bed” or “chair”—rather than drawing the object. This suggests that people with aphantasia may use alternative strategies such as verbal representation rather than visual memory. These differences in the details of objects and space were not due to differences in artistic ability or lack of focus.
Our results indicate that people with aphantasia have an intact cerebral spatial imagination, the ability to represent the size, location, and position of objects in relation to each other. This finding is reinforced in our other studies examining the performance of people with aphantasia on a number of memory-related exercises and their effects on mental representation.
We found that people who did not have the ability to create visual images also performed in these exercises as well as those with good visual mental representation. We’ve also seen a similar performance with the classic mental rotation (RM) technique, where people examine different shapes and, by mentally flipping them over, have to decide if they are the same or separate.
These results indicate that it is not necessary to have a good visual imagination to perform these tasks. In contrast, some – but not all – people with aphantasia have been shown to be more likely to report difficulty recognizing faces and to report poor subjective memory – the memory of life events – a type of memory thought to be highly dependent on mental images.
Living With Aphantasia
People with aphantasia also describe other variances. Thus, not all people with aphantasia show a complete absence of a mental image at the level of the senses. Some people may be able to hear the melody in their head, but they don’t have visual images associated with it.
Similarly, research has shown that despite not being able to create visual images on demand, some people with aphantasia have reported having mental images in their dreams. Others say their dreams are invisible, consisting only of conceptual or emotional content.
These differences are fascinating and underscore how some of the differences that exist between us are invisible to the naked eye. Although many people with aphantasia do not realize that they experience the world differently, what we do know is that these people live their careers to the fullest. In fact, they have been shown to work in a large number of scientific and creative industries.
For many people, mental images are an integral part of the way they think, remember past events, and plan for the future – a process they subconsciously engage in and live through. However, we do not yet understand why there are differences in mental-visual representation, nor what is the root cause. But what aphantasia attests is that many of our mental experiences are not experienced in all parts of the world. There are actually a number of puzzling and unacknowledged differences between us.