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02 July 2020

Aphantasia, or being ‘mind-blind’, could make it harder to remember, imagine and dream

The strength of a person’s mental imagery may be linked to more cognitive functions than previously thought, new research shows.

  • Aphantasia is a newly discovered neurological condition
  • Fewer than 10 studies have been done since its discovery
  • Scientists say there may be more cognitive functions related to the condition than previously thought

Picture what life would be like if you couldn’t picture things. Say, for instance, a friend calls you and you’re unable to visualise their face, or you’re away from home and simply can’t visualise your own house. For some people, this is a common everyday experience as they don’t have a "mind’s eye".

Being "mind-blind", scientifically known as aphantasia, is an incredibly rare condition that involves a lack of mental visual imagery and has only been discovered in recent years. According to LiveScience, approximately one to three percent of the global population suffers from it, and scientists have recently made some key discoveries about the condition.

"Aphantasia challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the human mind," said Alexei Dawes, PhD Candidate in the UNSW School of Psychology and the lead author of the new study in a news release by the university.

"Most of us assume visual imagery is something everyone has, something fundamental to the way we see and move through the world. But what does having a 'blind mind' mean for the mental journeys we take every day when we imagine, remember, feel and dream?”

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Wales and was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It surveyed over 250 people who self-identified as having aphantasia, making it one of the largest studies on the neurological condition. Fewer than 10 studies on the condition currently exist.

What the study entailed

The 250 participants were asked to complete a series of questionnaires on relevant topics, including imagery strength and memory. The results were then compared with responses from 400 people from two independent control groups.

Questions that were asked, for example, included remembering a scene from their life and then rating the vividness of this on a five-point scale – one indicating “No image at all, I only ‘know’ that I am recalling the memory”, and five indicating “Perfectly clear and vivid as normal vision”.

"We found that aphantasia isn't just associated with absent visual imagery, but also with a widespread pattern of changes to other important cognitive processes," Dawes said. "People with aphantasia reported a reduced ability to remember the past, imagine the future, and even dream."

Dawes further explained that the team’s data showed “an extended cognitive 'fingerprint' of aphantasia characterised by changes to imagery, memory, and dreaming" and that these findings mean that they’re only just starting to learn how different the internal worlds of those without mental imagery are. 

Subsets of aphantasia

There appear to be different degrees of experience of aphantasia. For example, while some people living with the condition may be unable to picture an image of sunrise on a beach, some would be able to imagine the sound of coastal birds and waves crashing on the shore.

In this study, 26% of participants reported a broader lack of multi-sensory imagery, which includes imagining sound, taste, touch, smell and emotion. Professor Joel Pearson, senior author on the paper and Director of UNSW Science's Future Minds Lab said:

"This is the first scientific data we have showing that potential subtypes of aphantasia exist."

Dreaming less often

When it came to involuntary forms of the condition, such as dreaming, participants were found to have experienced this less than voluntary actions, such as visualising a sunrise on the beach. More than this, Pearson explained that in the dreams that were reported, sensory detail was considerably lower and the dreams less vivid.

"This suggests that any cognitive function involving a sensory visual component – be it voluntary or involuntary – is likely to be reduced in aphantasia," he said. The same applied when they were asked about memories of their past life events.

Future studies

"Our work is the first to show that aphantasic individuals also show a reduced ability to remember the past and prospect into the future," said Dawes. "This suggests that visual imagery might play a key role in memory processes."

Studies on the condition are especially important to understand how it impacts the daily lives of those living with it. Although the researchers note that their study size was comparatively larger than previous studies, because it was based on participants’ self-reports, it may be subjective by nature. This means that for their next study, they’re looking at objective testing, such as analysing and quantifying people’s memories.

How aphantasia was discovered

Science Focus reports that the condition was coined in 2015 by Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive and behavioural neurologist at the University of Exeter in England. This came after a patient who had "lost" his visual memory after a heart operation was referred to Zeman.

“He had vivid imagery previously,” Zeman told the publication. “He used to get himself to sleep by imagining friends and family. Following the cardiac procedure, he couldn’t visualise anything.” According to the article, Zeman said that this patient previously experienced a “visual world” when reading, but that after the operation, that no longer happened.

Discover magazine later covered Zeman’s case study and following this, 20 people with similar experiences reached out to him, only that, unlike this patient, they had experienced the condition their whole lives.

Based on his work, Zeman believes that the condition does seem to be heritable to some extent, as his studied patients were more likely to have a close relative who also battled with the condition.

 
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