What You Should Know About Aphantasia

According to an article in the New York Times, many people take mental visualization for granted. People who can easily envision a best friend's face, their bedroom, or a pepperoni pizza may assume everyone possesses the same natural ability. And with practice, many people can visualize things that don't even exist or have yet to exist, such as a dream home, a pink cartoon horse wearing a polka-dotted birthday hat, or other imaginary pictures. 

However, conjuring any mental imagery is difficult or impossible for people with aphantasia. We may think of mental visualization as a fanciful ability to create mental stories or a whimsical talent for vivid daydreaming. But the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims mental imagery plays a far more critical role in our daily lives than we may realize, and the inability to conjure mental pictures also affects everyday life for those with aphantasia. But why is mental imagery so important, and how much does its lack affect us?

What is aphantasia and how does it affect us?

Scientific American defines aphantasia as the lack or inability to see pictures or images in one's mind. A 2020 study published in Scientific Reports reveals that people with aphantasia may have trouble recalling memories, or memories may be less vivid than for others. The study suggests mental imagery is so closely tied to memory formation that its lack may impair the ability to form detailed autobiographical, episodic, visual working, factual, and sensory memory. Interestingly, spatial memory in study participants did not seem to be affected.

But aphantasia doesn't just affect memory. According to the study, aphantasia may also impair the ability to imagine richly detailed, hypothetical future scenarios. And while study participants with aphantasia had significantly fewer night dreams compared to a control group, there was no notable difference in the occurrence of daydreaming. However, aphantasics reported more time spent thinking in their dreams than the control group.

It should be noted, however, that aphantasia doesn't seem to affect creativity or a person's ability to have a professional career. Scientific American notes many people with aphantasia successfully engage in a variety of professions such as artists, architects, website designers, medicine, and engineering (per Verywell Mind). While the causes of aphantasia remain unknown, cognitive scientist Dr. Adam Zeman of Britain's University of Exeter tells the New York Times he doesn't consider aphantasia a disorder, but rather, "an intriguing variation in human experience."