Not everyone can see images in their minds when they close their eyes and summon thoughts, a skill that many of us take for granted.
Although people have been aware of this phenomenon since the 19th century, it has not been extensively studied and only recently was it called ‘aphantasia’. This absence of voluntarily generated mental visual images is believed to be experienced by 2-5 percent of the population.
Recent studies suggest that aphantasia is indeed a lack of visual images instead of the lack of awareness from having internal visual images, with some people experiencing loss of this ability after injuries.
Now, new research has revealed that fantasy also has other cognitive differences.
“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,” said cognitive neuroscientist Alexei Dawes of the University of New South Wales, Australia (UNSW Sydney).
Dawes and colleagues asked 667 people (267 of whom self-identified with aphantasia) a series of eight questionnaires on visualization, memory, dreams, and trauma response.
This included the Visual Images Vividness Questionnaire, you can find a version of that here on The Aphantasia Network, where participants were asked to rate the level of vividness of one’s memories: “no image at all, just ‘ I know that I am remembering the memory “to five:” as vivid as normal vision “.
“People with aphantasia reported a reduced ability to remember the past, imagine the future, and even dream. This suggests that visual imagery could play a key role in memory processes,” Dawes explained.
Fantasies not only dreamed less often, but their dreams were less vivid and had lower sensory details.
“This suggests that any cognitive function involving a visual sensory component, whether voluntary or involuntary, is likely to be reduced in aphantasia,” said cognitive neuroscientist Joel Pearson, director of UNSW Future Minds Lab.
Some of the people with aphantasia also reported decreased imagination with other senses.
“Our data also showed that people with aphantasia not only report that they cannot visualize, but also report relatively small images, on average, in all other sensory modalities, including auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, gustatory, olfactory, and emotional.” the team wrote on their paper
This supports personal reports from fans exploring their own experiences with aphantasia. Restless Alan Kendle shares the moment when he realized that, unlike him, other people can hear music in their minds.
“At first I couldn’t understand it, the ability to play music in the mind for me was extraordinary, almost like a magic trick seen on television,” he wrote.
But not all people with visual aphantasia had their other sensory imaginations missing, suggesting variations in this way of experiencing our inner minds.
The researchers note that since their study was self-report based, their results may be influenced by response biases, where people who identify in a way will answer questions according to how they think that identity would.
But other aspects of the findings suggest that the self-report may not be biasing the results significantly: there were variations in responses along with data suggesting that spatial capabilities, an ability to map relationships and distances between objects, appear to be unaffected in The volunteers.
“We are just beginning to learn how radically different the inner worlds are from those without images,” Dawes concluded.
There is still much to explore about how each experiences the world of our inner minds. If you think you might have aphantasia, you can help researchers understand more about this phenomenon by registering here.
This research was published in Scientific reports.