If you were asked to draw a picture of your grandparents’ living room from memory, could you do it? For most people, certain details are easy to visualize: “There’s a piano in the corner, a palm by the window and two seashells on the coffee table.”
But for others, such a task would be almost impossible. These individuals have a rare condition called aphantasia, which prevents them from easily recreating images in their mind’s eye—in fact, the phrase “mind’s eye” may be meaningless to them.
“Some individuals with aphantasia have reported that they don’t understand what it means to ‘count sheep’ before going to bed,” said Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who recently led a study of the condition, which can be congenital or acquired through trauma. “They thought it was merely an expression, and had never realized until adulthood that other people could actually visualize sheep without seeing them.”
Bainbridge, who is an expert on the neuroscience of perception and memory, decided to experimentally quantify the differences between aphantasic individuals and those with typical imagery on a specific set of visual memory tasks. The goal was to better characterize aphantasia, which is little-studied, and tease apart differences between object and spatial memory.
For the study, published in the journal Cortex, Bainbridge and colleagues showed photographs of three rooms to dozens of individuals with both typical and limited imagery. They then asked the participants in both groups to draw the rooms, once from memory and once while looking at the photo as a reference.
The differences in the memory experiment were striking: Individuals with typical imagery usually drew the most salient objects in the room with a moderate amount of detail, like color and key design elements (a green carpet, rather than a rectangle).
Individuals with aphantasia had a harder time—they could place a few objects in the room, but their drawings were often simpler, and relied at times on written descriptions. For example, some wrote the word “window” inside an outline of a window rather than drawing the windowpanes.
While people with aphantasia lack visual imagery, they appear to have intact spatial memory, which is distinct from imagery and may be stored differently, according to Bainbridge. People who are congenitally blind, for example, can still describe the layout of a familiar room.
As such, individuals with aphantasia were able to place the objects that they did remember in the correct location within a room most of the time, just like those with typical imagery, even though they couldn’t remember many details.