Article image

Aphantasia: What we've learned about people who can’t 'visualize' information

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to close your eyes and not be able to picture a vibrant sunset, a loved one’s face, or a cherished memory? This is a real affliction, not a hypothetical, called aphantasia. It affects a person’s ability to visualize mental images. For many individuals, this is their reality in everyday life.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those with hyperphantasia, who possess an extraordinarily vivid visual imagination. After years of research, let’s explore what we know about the captivating world of these two phenomena and their implications on memory, face recognition, and everyday life.

Ten years of aphantasia research

Professor Adam Zeman, a renowned researcher from the University of Exeter, has been at the forefront of the research efforts into aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

In his recent review, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, he summarizes the findings of nearly 50 studies conducted over the past decade.

This comprehensive analysis sheds light on the subtypes of aphantasia, its potential links to autism, and the physiological and neural differences between those with aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

Professor Zeman’s fascinating work has opened up a new field of study, providing valuable insights into the diversity of human experience.

“Coining the term ‘aphantasia’ has unexpectedly opened a window on a neglected aspect of human experience. It is very gratifying that people who lack imagery have found the term helpful, while a substantial surge of research is shedding light on the implications of aphantasia,” Zeman expounded.

Impact on memory and face recognition

One of the most striking findings from the research is the connection between aphantasia and autobiographical memory.

People who cannot conjure up mental images are less likely to vividly remember details of significant personal events from their past. Additionally, they may struggle with recognizing faces, a phenomenon known as prosopagnosia.

However, it is essential to recognize that aphantasia is not a homogeneous condition. Professor Zeman’s review highlights that not everyone with aphantasia experiences poor autobiographical memory or difficulty in face recognition. These findings underscore the complexity and variability of the condition.

Beyond visual imagery

Aphantasia extends beyond the realm of visual imagery. Individuals with this condition may also have difficulty imagining other sensory experiences, such as music or tactile sensations.

This suggests that aphantasia is not limited to the visual domain but can encompass a broader range of mental imagery.

Interestingly, despite their inability to voluntarily visualize, many people with aphantasia report experiencing visual dreams. This unexpected finding adds another layer of intrigue to the study of this condition.

Spectrum of imagination found in aphantasia research

While aphantasia affects approximately one percent of the population, on the other end of the spectrum lies hyperphantasia, characterized by an exceptionally vivid visual imagination.

Hyperphantasia is estimated to affect around three percent of individuals, although these figures can rise to five and ten percent, respectively, when more inclusive criteria are applied.

Both aphantasia and hyperphantasia often run in families, suggesting a potential genetic component. Professor Zeman’s review provides evidence that variations in physiology, neural connectivity, and behavior are associated with an individual’s position on the imagination spectrum.

Personal perspective from Mary Wathan

Mary Wathen, a 43-year-old solicitor from Newent near Cheltenham, shares her personal experience with aphantasia. She recounts her frustration with struggling to engage in role-playing games with her children, despite finding all other aspects of parenting fulfilling.

It was through conversations with friends that Mary realized the stark contrast between her inability to visualize and the vivid mental imagery experienced by others.

“One of my friends said that he uses the images in his head to enhance role play. When I asked him to explain this in more detail it became clear that he — and everyone else in the room — could easily create an image in their head and use that as the backdrop for the role play,” Mary explains.

“This was totally mind-blowing to me. I just cannot understand what they really mean — where is this image and what does it look like? To me, unless you can see something with your eyes, it’s not there,” she continued.

Mary’s experience highlights the profound differences in subjective experience between those with aphantasia and those with hyperphantasia.

She notes, “I’ve found it quite saddening to learn that other people can call to mind an image of their children when they’re not there. I’d love to be able to do that, but I just can’t — but I’ve learned to compensate by taking plenty of photos, so that I can relive those memories through those images.”

Embracing diversity in human experience

Despite the challenges posed by aphantasia, it is crucial to recognize that it is not a disorder but rather a variation in human experience.

“Despite the profound contrast in subjective experience between aphantasia and hyperphantasia, effects on everyday functioning are subtle — lack of imagery does not imply lack of imagination,” Professor Zeman emphasizes.

“Indeed, the consensus among researchers is that neither aphantasia nor hyperphantasia is a disorder. These are variations in human experience with roughly balanced advantages and disadvantages,” he concluded.

Mary Wathen echoes this sentiment, highlighting the strengths that can accompany aphantasia. “Whilst I’m sure there are wonderful advantages to being able to think in pictures, I think it’s important to remind myself that there are advantages to having aphantasia too,” Mary said.

“I’m a really good written and verbal communicator — I think that’s because I’m not caught up with any pictures, so I just focus on the power of the word. I’m also a deeply emotional person and perhaps that’s my brain’s way of overcompensating; I feel things as a way of experiencing them, rather than seeing them,” she concluded

Study implications and future aphantasia research

In summary, the intense research of aphantasia and hyperphantasia over the past decade reveals just how much we have yet to learn about the human mind.

As studies from Professor Adam Zeman and others continue to unravel the complexities of these conditions, it is essential to raise public awareness and promote understanding.

By recognizing the unique ways in which individuals perceive and process information, we can foster a more inclusive society that celebrates the richness of our cognitive differences.

As Mary Wathen poignantly states, “I think it’s really important to raise awareness that some people just don’t have this ability — particularly as using visual imagination is a key way that young children are taught to learn and engage. Primary teachers need to know that some children just won’t be able to visualize and that could be why they’re not engaging in those kinds of activities. We need to ensure we cater for everyone and encourage other ways of learning and engaging.”

Through ongoing research and open dialogue, we can continue to explore the captivating world of the mind’s eye and embrace the beautiful tapestry of human imagination.

The full study was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day