Afantasia may be associated with more cognitive functions than previously thought

Imagine the sunset over the ocean.

It is large over the horizon, spreading an orange-pink glow across the sky. Seagulls fly overhead and their toes are in the sand.

Many people will have been able to imagine the sunset clearly and vividly, almost like seeing reality. For others, the image would have been vague and fleeting, but still there.

If your mind was completely blank and you couldn’t visualize anything at all, then it could be one of the 2-5 percent of people who have aphantasia, a condition involving the lack of all mental visual images.

Aphantasia challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the human mind. Most of us assume that visual images are something that everyone has, something fundamental to the way we see and move around the world. But what does having a ‘blind mind’ mean for the mental trips we make every day when we imagine, remember, feel, and dream?

Mr. Alexei Dawes, PhD Candidate at the UNSW School of Psychology

Dawes was the lead author of a new aphantasia study, published in Scientific reports. Over 250 people who self-identified as having aphantasia were surveyed, making it one of the largest aphantasia studies to date.

“We found that aphantasia is not only associated with absent visual images, but also with a generalized pattern of changes in other important cognitive processes,” he says.

“People with aphantasia reported a reduced ability to remember the past, imagine the future, and even dream.”

Study participants completed a series of questionnaires on topics such as image strength and memory. The results were compared with the responses of 400 people distributed in two independent control groups.

For example, participants were asked to recall a scene from their life and rate the intensity using a five-point scale, one of which indicates “There is no image, I just ‘know’ that I remember memory”, and five indicate “Perfectly clear and as vivid as normal vision.”

“Our data revealed an extended cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of aphantasia characterized by changes in images, memory and dreams,” says Dawes.

“We are just beginning to learn how radically different the inner worlds are from those without images.”

Afantasia subsets

While people with aphantasia could not have imagined the sunset image mentioned above, many could have imagined the feeling of sand between their toes or the sound of seagulls and waves crashing.

However, 26 percent of the fantasy study participants reported a broader lack of multisensory imaging, including imagination of sound, touch, movement, taste, smell, and emotion.

“These are the first scientific data we have to show that possible aphantasia subtypes exist,” says Professor Joel Pearson, lead author of the article and director of the Future Minds Lab at UNSW Science.

Interestingly, spatial imaging, the ability to imagine the distance or location relationship between things, was the only form of sensory imaging that had no significant change between the fantasies and the people they could visualize.

“The reported spatial abilities of the afanthics were on par with control groups in many types of cognitive processes,” says Dawes. “This is included when imagining new scenes, during spatial memory or navigation, and even when dreaming.”

In action, spatial cognition could be playing Tetris and imagining how a certain shape would fit into the existing design, or remembering how to navigate from A to B when driving.

In dreams and memories

While viewing a sunset is a voluntary action, it was also found that involuntary forms of cognition, such as dreaming, occur less in people with aphantasia.

“Aphantasics reported that they dreamed less often, and the dreams they report appear to be less vivid and with less sensory detail,” says Professor Pearson.

“This suggests that any cognitive function involving a visual sensory component, whether voluntary or involuntary, is likely to be reduced in aphantasia.”

Fantasy individuals also experienced less vivid memories of their past and reported significantly less ability to recall past life events in general.

“Our work is the first to show that fantasy people also show a reduced ability to remember the past and the prospects for the future,” says Dawes. “This suggests that visual imagery may play a key role in memory processes.”

Looking to the future

While up to a million Australians may have aphantasia, relatively little is known about it; To date, fewer than 10 scientific studies have been conducted on the condition.

More research is needed to deepen our understanding of aphantasia and how it impacts the everyday lives of those who experience it.

“If you are one of the millions of Australians with aphantasia, what do you do when your yoga teacher asks you to ‘visualize a white light’ during a meditation practice?” Mr. Dawes asks.

“How do you remember your last birthday or do you imagine relaxing on a tropical beach while taking the train home? What is it like to dream at night without mental images and how do you count the sheep before you fall asleep?”

The researchers note that while this study is exciting for its comparatively large scope and sample size, it is based on participants’ personal reports, which are subjective in nature.

Next, they plan to build on the study by using measurements that can be objectively tested, such as analyzing and quantifying people’s memories.


University of New South Wales

Journal reference:

Dawes, AJ, et al. (2020) A cognitive profile of multisensory images, memory and dreams in aphantasia. Scientific reports.