Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Imagine These Experiments in Aphantasia

When you hear the word “apple”, do you picture a Red Delicious apple or a green Granny Smith? Or neither, because you can't conjure up a visual image of an apple (or of anything else, for that matter)?
Aphantasia is the inability to generate visual images, which can be a congenital condition or acquired after brain injury (Farah, 1984). The most striking aspect of this variation in mental life is that those of us with imagery assume that everyone else has it, while those without are flabbergasted when they learn that other people can “see” pictures in their head.

Programming prodigy Blake Ross created a sensation recently with his eloquent essay on what's it's like to discover that all your friends aren't speaking metaphorically when they say, “I see a beach with waves and sand.”

Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind

I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.
. . .

Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.
. . .

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

It's worth reading Ross's account in its entirety to gain insight into the vast individual variation in our internal mental lives.

Although the term aphantasia is new (coined by Zeman et al., 2015), the condition isn't; Francis Galton published a paper on the Statistics of Mental Imagery in 1880. Similar to Ross, many of Galton's s friends (male scientists) were shocked to learn that others had imagery:1 
To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour. They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing.

The nature of mental images has been a topic of philosophical debate in cognitive science since the 1970s. Are mental images quasi-perceptual representations that activate visual areas of the brain (Kosslyn and colleagues), or non-pictorial, abstract, symbolic descriptions (Zenon Pylyshyn)? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Mental Imagery provides an indispensable background on the philosophical, theoretical, and empirical debates in the field. As well, extensive research on individual differences in mental imagery (e.g., Kosslyn et al., 1984) can inform new studies on aphantasics.

Aphantasia and Paivio's Dual Coding Theory

To investigate the role of imagery in verbal memory, I propose a return to classic cognitive psychology experiments of the 1970s. Alan Paivio's Dual Coding Theory specifies two types of mental representations, or codes, for words and mental images (Paivio, 1971). The verbal code and imagery code are both activated by pictures, which can account for the picture superiority effect: pictures are better remembered than their verbal referents (i.e., words). The picture superiority effect should be abolished in those who cannot generate visual images.2

Even more interestingly, words that are highly imageable (concrete nouns like elephant) are better remembered than words that are rated low in imageability (abstract nouns like criterion). The original ratings from 1968 and the expanded 2004 version (concreteness, imageability, meaningfulness, familiarity) are available online: Clark and Paivio (2004) Norms. Lists of high and low imageable nouns that are carefully matched on other lexical factors (e.g., number of letters, word frequency, complexity) can be presented in a memory test. The recognition memory (or free recall) advantage for concrete, highly imageable words should be diminished or abolished in relation to self-reported imagery abilities.

I believe this experiment would address the objection of psychogenic aphantasia (“refusing to imagine”), because the concreteness advantage (using imagery during encoding) could not be mobilized as an explicit (or perhaps implicit) strategy. Given the hundreds (if not thousands) of Aphantasics who have made blog comments, joined Facebook groups and other communities, taken surveys, and of course contacted Dr. Zeman, the sample size might be quite respectable.


1 Aphantasia seems bizarrely overrepresented in Galton's cronies. Here's his explanation:
My own conclusion is, that an over-readiness to perceive clear mental pictures is antagonistic to the acquirement of habits of highly generalised and abstract thought, and that if the faculty of producing them was ever possessed by men who think hard, it is very apt to be lost by disuse. The highest minds are probably those in which it is not lost, but subordinated, and is ready for use on suitable occasions. 
2 Of note here, some with aphantasia report severe deficits in autobiographical memory.

ADDENDUM (May 16 2016): see this website on Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) - research conducted by Dr. Brian Levine.


Farah MJ. (1984). The neurological basis of mental imagery: A componential analysis. Cognition 18:245-72.

GALTON, F. (1880). I.--STATISTICS OF MENTAL IMAGERY Mind, os-V (19), 301-318 DOI: 10.1093/mind/os-V.19.301

Kosslyn SM, Brunn J, Cave KR, Wallach RW. (1984). Individual differences in mental imagery ability: a computational analysis. Cognition 18:195-243.

Paivio A. (1969). Mental imagery in associative learning and memory. Psychological Review 76: 241-263.

Paivio A. (1971, 2013). Imagery and verbal processes. Holt, Rinehart & Winston / Psychology Press.

Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia Cortex, 73, 378-380 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019

ADDENDUM (May 7 2016): via @vaughanbell, a new review article by the University of Exeter group (part of their project, The Eye's Mind):

MacKisack M, Aldworth S, Macpherson F, Onians J, Winlove C, Zeman A. (2016). On Picturing a Candle: The Prehistory of Imagery Science. Front Psychol. 7:515.

Not only Galton, Paivio, Kosslyn, and Pylyshyn but also Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and more.

- click on image for a larger view -

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At May 04, 2016 7:09 AM, Blogger Mary M said...

I didn't understand this until recently either. But I come from a family with a hilarious history of what we always called the "sense of direction" gene. Half of us lack any grasp of direction, which now makes me wonder if it's a mental mapping visualization problem. We were joking about our GPS savior on twitter as well.

But one of the things that I remember in my youth was taking that ASVAB test that the army would do. I took it in high school. There was one section of the test that I didn't even understand. You had to look at these blocks and you had to rotate them in your mind somehow and predict what the other side would show (or something). I got 90th percentiles on every other section of this test, and that block-rotations section was no better than chance. I've been baffled by that for 40 years now. But I think this may be why.

I wonder if you could look through old ASVAB data at this?

At May 04, 2016 5:07 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Mary - Thanks for your comment, that's a very good idea. According to the official site, "The ASVAB was introduced in 1968. Over 40 million examinees have taken the ASVAB since then."

Wow! That's a huge database. But first, you'd have to find out how willing they'd be to share the data, and see if there are any questions that assess visual imagery.

At May 04, 2016 9:34 PM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

So do aphantasiac people have visual dreams?

At May 04, 2016 9:58 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

That's a great question. It seems to be split: some do, others don't. Check out these comments on a 2010 post by @PsychScientists.

Here's a new comment from May 4:

"I can remember a lot of details about something I have seen or heard..I have a great memory for faces and objects that I have only seen once or just a few times. You can't gross me out nor do I have a problem going to sleep after watching a gory movie because I get no images."

This individual seems to be unusual; many others have poor memories.

In Zeman et al. (2015), 17/21 reported involuntary imagery during dreams. There is so much interesting research that can be done!

At May 04, 2016 10:03 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Oh, I forgot this part of the 4 May 2016  comment:

"... I see no images at all. But, I have very vivid dreams and have a great memory (better than most people)."

At May 06, 2016 5:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imagine you were living at a time before language had been invented. Surely these early Humans only had the mental images to enable them to draw cave paintings for example. I also believe this ability and our visual memory became compromised when we developed language and this enables those without the ability to see mental pictures to survive through language development. Perhaps those with creative talents had ability through genes responsible for schizophrenia hence its survival and those without mental visualisation had none.

At May 07, 2016 4:32 AM, Blogger Sharon Quarrington said...

Excellent article and a great introduction - its good to be reminded that this mental blindness has been known for many years yet has not penetrated the general consciousness. Most people have heard of colour blindness but only a few know of mental blindness.

I am mentally blind - have been as long as I can remember - but that does not mean I do not have a visual memory - or that words with clear images (like elephant) are not easier to remember than words that are not (like whatever that other word was) - oddly with non visual images I can easily remember the first letter (C) even though I have no idea what the full word was.

Before proposing a test you might want to run it by a wide sample of people with zero mental imaging because we have discovered that our memories are not all alike so assumptions like pictures do not make memory easier for those without mental imaging may be very wrong.

I can do the memory game where you remember object by linking them (car on elephant in pool) but am limited to the number of items because my brain does not have a complete image but instead builds it step by step and the better they link to a story the easier it is to remember - elephant drove car into pool.

I hope there is a lot more research done in the area and would love to see if their is a correlation between test scores and imaging ability.

I believe this statement is not true for me: ", because the concreteness advantage (using imagery during encoding) could not be mobilized as an explicit (or perhaps implicit) strategy" I do imagine images (my apple is a gala) I just don't see them!

What matters most to me is that we raise the awareness of the wide range of types of memories and help people understand that their really is no normal - simply a spectrum with photographic memory on one extreme and mental blindness on the other. We need parents and teachers to understand that not everyone learns the same way and penalizing a student because they can't recall a chart or a picture is unfair.

At May 07, 2016 7:27 AM, Anonymous drkrvn said...

I used to have the ability to imagine pictures vividly. I remember designing objects as a child as a past time activity. Then with 16 I smoked a joint and had a bad trip, on which a several-year long depersonalisation disorder (DP) followed. From this point on I was unable to imagine anything visually, even after overcoming the disorder. According to DP forum members it is a common symptom of DP. I have great haptic imagination and normal acoustic, but visually it's almost gone.

At May 07, 2016 4:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes to dream imagery, and have lots of trouble with craters in astro-photography...

At May 08, 2016 1:36 AM, Blogger Non Significance said...

That's a very interesting topic.
I'd find it also interesting to know if people with aphantasia can have visual halluzinations (or if someone with aphantasia could never have it).
"I have great haptic imagination and normal acoustic" I can imagine things visually but I've always wondered (since I first read about it) what haptic imagination (or kinestetic imagination) is and I don't think I've acoustic imagination either. But then, I sometimes "hear" my alarm-clock ringing when it's not actually ringing, so I must know what it sounds like and I must have some kind of acoustic imagination?

At May 08, 2016 3:07 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your additional comments.

Sharon - I agree that raising awareness is important. Given the variation between individuals, as measured on the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), I imagine (i.e. suspect) this would influence the results. In my view, whether there are concreteness/imageability effects for words is an open question, which is why it would be interesting to study in those with aphantasia. When you say that you "imagine images (my apple is a gala) I just don't see them!" -- do you mean "imagine" as an abstract concept? Or do you imagine other sensory aspects (taste/smell/sound when biting into one)?

drkrvn - I'm sorry about your DP (which is a distinctive feature, I believe). You raise the interesting point that your issue is with visual imagination only (and that it was acquired after drug use). It seems there's a lot of variation in the affected sensory modalities in those with congenital/developmental aphantasia. For some it's all senses, for others it's not.

Non Significance - Do you ever "hear" songs and music in your mind's ear? Or get them stuck in your head, the "earworm" phenomenon. For me, musical imagery is more vivid than my visual imagery, which is pretty good but not crystal clear (i.e., not exactly like seeing in real life). Your point about visual hallucinations is fascinating, and raises the question about whether hallucinogenic drugs could induce visual percepts in those lacking visual imagery. Maybe not? I'M NOT ENDORSING SELF-EXPERIMENTATION, but for the population of aphantasics in the UK who have already experimented with LSD, mushrooms etc., then maybe a collaboration between Dr. Zeman and Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris (of LSD neuroimaging fame) would be most informative!

Anonymous - thank for mentioning that site, you've given me the opportunity to expand on the links in the last paragraph of my post.

Can’t form a mental image? No big deal. - Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists

Aphantasia Community
Aphantasia/Non-imager Group

...both of the above Facebook pages associated with the mega-community, Aphantasia

Aphantasia Genetics Working group

The Eye's Mind, University of Exeter

At May 10, 2016 4:45 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

Great post.

I have very strong auditory / music imagery. If I imagine a tune then I can actually hear it - I know it's not real but I hear it, not in a metaphorical sense.

With visual imagery it's harder to describe. If I think of an apple I don't see an apple, at best I get certain vague visual percepts that are kind of like flashes of apple-like features. But these are only "imagery" in a metaphorical sense.

I get visual imagery, often very vivid, in dreams. And I have experienced waking visual imagery under certain conditions (when I first started on the antidepressant mirtazapine, specifically, also on some other drugs). So in some sense my brain must be set up to produce these imagery, it just chooses not to most of the time...

At May 13, 2016 4:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: "some with aphantasia report severe deficits in autobiographical memory."

It would also be good to add to your references the website for Brian levine's lab at Baycrest and their work on Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM).

At May 16, 2016 1:56 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thank you, I've added a link to that site.

At May 17, 2016 10:04 AM, Blogger Non Significance said...

Thank you for your response.

No, I’ve never had an earworm and I can’t hear songs in my mind (at all). (Yet, somehow, I do recognize songs which I’ve heard often enough… though I don’t know what they sound like before I hear them.)

But then, some people with no visual imagery say that they have a good memory and can recognize people without having the ability to imagine them… That’s something I “can’t” do/find very hard, even though I have some (relatively vague, but still) visual imagery.

Like Neuroskeptic I’ve also really vivid dreams, definitely a lot more “real” than visual imagery. (The next day(s) it sometimes feels like a (vivid) memory rather than a dream... So now I just need to manage to dream being on vacation and can train my brain while sleeping ;) )).

I’ve also had medication induced visual hallucinations twice. Which were (maybe obviously) so real, that I couldn’t distinguish them from reality (at the time). But I’ve never had any increased waking visual imagery.

I wonder how you (people who have very clear mental imagery, whether it’s visual, auditory or kinetic) can distinguish that from reality? Is it, that the mental imagery is willingly produced? (But then some people say, it’s not for them, they see what they think.)

P.S.: I hope I didn’t post twice. There was an error before, so I tried again.

At June 05, 2016 2:50 PM, Anonymous Hard to describe said...

Like Sharon, I have never had any mental visual imagery and also feel like some of these suggestions of what would be impacted by a lack of mental imagery do not feel like they are necessarily true to my experience.

Sometimes I wonder if I do have a visual image in my memory of certain things, I just can't actually "see" it in my mind, I just "know" the image. This seems to be a very difficult experience for those with mental imagery to understand, but in the Facebook group discussions, several people describe something very similar.

If I were to "imagine an apple," my first thoughts right now are about it being crunchy to bite into and the size and weight of a generic apple. But if you were to ask about something that is more about the visual experience, sometimes it is like I almost see a picture, in that I know exactly the scene (I am thinking of a specific bridge in a park right now), but I can't actually "see" anything at all, yet I have a pretty immediate sense of knowing what it is and the colors that would be involved and where things are in the scene. Even though I see nothing, it feels more like looking at a picture than a verbal description. For some other things (especially faces) I have no such experience of an "invisible picture" and I can not recall what someone looks like unless I had a discussion or reason to remember a particular feature. I do remember what they look like in a way that I recognize them when I see them again.
I also am able to do the test of imagining rotating an object in my mind. It takes some effort, but I "sketch out" and rotate the object in my mind to figure out the other perspective - I just don't see the object I am rotating. I do have a strong spatial/kinesthetic/proprioceptive awareness, so it feels to me as some combination of imagining the rotation as proprioceptive movement (which is a sense I definitely imagine), and very carefully visually tracking the invisible image I created in my mind. I know this sounds like a contradiction, but it would certainly be something to consider in a test of what can and cannot be a mechanism of memory in aphantasia.
Someone else with aphantasia described drawing the shape with one's eyeballs as a way to "visualize" it without an image, and I also sometimes I do something like this.

At July 20, 2016 7:21 PM, Blogger Dave the S. said...

I have been following stories on aphantasia with some delight since learning of its existence in the last year or so. It is my belief that no one has visual images in their head, and that those that think they do are mearly confused about what is happening with their brains as they recall an event or imagine a scene, object, or experience.
For instance watch a few videos on change blindness. (Susan Blackman has a few compelling ones on youtube IIRC) Now think about a person imagining a scene in their head. I'm sure there may be a small subset of people who could keep all the facts of a busy street scene in their head. The majority of people though will simply believe they are seeing such a picture. (As people viewing a picture in change blindness experiments believe they are aware of all that is in their visual range.) If queried about particular features they may fill in the blanks as they go without ebven realizing that is what they are doing.
I believe that even if people who state they can 'see' things in their head have visual sections of their brains light up it may just mean that the visual centers are online and contributing in some way to the illusion (or delusion if you will) of pictures in the head.
As someone who would be labeled aphantasia I don't feel the need to prove a negative. Prove to me that other people actually do have a cartesian theater!

At August 17, 2016 1:57 PM, Anonymous diann said...

I was listing to the radio and it said picture a white horse ,under a tree by a brook
I am 65 years old and i closed my eyes and it was just black . I ask my Husband if he could he said yes . I thought He was lying to me because i couldn't so I asked more people and they could . so after all these years i find out I am different . It sort of shocked me but if you never knew people could see these things you don't know your different til you hear about it

At November 04, 2016 8:12 PM, Blogger molly said...

We have no idea, but they are color.

At November 04, 2016 8:15 PM, Blogger molly said...

I don't think of myself as being mind blind because I "see"in concepts. I have come up with and designed several patents never seeing them in my mind's eye, but I completely understood them and knew what they would look like ad do. Never have seen anything in my mind's eye.

At December 18, 2016 7:52 AM, Blogger LuxCor said...

Hi, I am a 4th year student at the University of Edinburgh. My dissertation involves thinking about scenarios and objects, and the part aphantasia may play in this. If you are interested, please take a look at my questionnaire (should take less than 10 minutes!) and share it with anyone else who may be interested. You can find it here:

At April 27, 2017 8:17 AM, Blogger Steve King said...

Yes we do. I have very vivid dreams sometimes. But with in a few minutes of waking, they are gone and I cannot visualise the event.

At July 03, 2017 3:24 PM, Blogger Daryl Cobranchi said...

I found this post while searching for a connection between aphantasia and SDAM. Life long for both. No brain trauma that I'm aware of. Of course, I wouldn't remember if I had, would I?

Anyway, I enjoyed the article.

At July 06, 2017 9:28 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your comment, Daryl.

At August 12, 2017 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's bogus. That is, people don't really have voluntary hallucinations, they're just "distracted from their actual vision", but not having the same sort of qualia-forming brain activity (unless perhaps they're about to sleep in a REM-like brain pattern).

I find surprising that this concept is being taken for granted with no skepticism whatsoever, when there are longstanding debates on the nature of mental "imagery", with good arguments that it's not even really pictorial:

Finally, Dennett (1969) presents two examples that seem to cause trouble for pictorialism and provide support for descriptionalism. The first example involves a striped tiger. (See also Armstrong 1968 for a related example involving a speckled hen.) Form a mental image of a tiger and then try to answer the following question: How many stripes does that tiger have? Invariably, the question cannot be answered; the mental images that we form typically do not contain that information. However, just as all tigers have a definite number of stripes, so too do all pictures of tigers. Thus, if mental images were pictorial, a mental image of a tiger should reveal a definite number of stripes. More formally, the objection to pictorialism that the striped tiger example poses can be stated as follows:

Mental images can be indeterminate with respect to visual properties (e.g., the number of stripes on a tiger).
Pictorial representations cannot be indeterminate with respect to visual properties.
So, mental images are not pictorial representations.

While perhaps some people may have a harder time accessing some types of memory in a way that really constitutes some disability, I believe that the "phantasious"/volutional hallucination normal state is bogus. It seems like "repressed memories" in a way - real for those who thought they had them, but were just fooled into thinking they actually had them. There are plenty of well established perceptual illusions that would help creating the folk-psychological notion that we have these volitional hallucinations, in fact, we're actually immersed in a world of perceptions that are really illusory in many ways, like 98% of our field vision being actually "legally blind". But you wouldn't easily get it by relying just on self reports.

The fact is that people are more "blind" than they are really aware of, and think they are not, with a hard time "believing" the illusions that made up normal perception are real. It wouldn't be surprising if this sort of unawareness was what happened with people who say they don't have aphantasia.

Perhaps one should propose non-aphantasia it's really a mental manifestation of Anton–Babinski syndrome.


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