Brain Scans Reveal Why Some People Have A Vivid Mind’s Eye And Some Don’t Have One At All

Some people can't produce mental imagery. Image: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

The phenomenon known as aphantasia – which refers to a complete lack of visual imagery – was first reported in the 1880s, yet wasn’t recognized by the scientific community until as recently as 2015, when Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter University finally coined the term. Now that the condition is acknowledged, researchers are keen to understand what causes it, which is why Zeman and his colleagues have just published the first ever study looking into brain connectivity patterns among aphantasics.

Presenting their work in the journal Cerebral Cortex Communications, the study authors explain how they scanned the brains of 24 people with aphantasia along with 25 individuals with a particularly vivid mind’s eye – a condition they refer to as hyperphantasia – and 20 controls with average mental imagery. Study participants also took part in a range of cognitive and personality tests, thereby allowing the researchers to associate certain character traits with the brain connectivity data they recorded.

Several interesting observations are reported, the first of which is that connectivity between the visual cortex and the decision-making regions of the frontal cortex is noticeably stronger among hyperhpantasics than aphantasics. According to the authors, this may explain why those with aphantasia are unable to will themselves to see images in their heads, despite the fact that they are “capable of experiencing imagery when the requirement for voluntary imagery generation is removed,” such as when dreaming.

The two groups performed equally well on standard memory tests, indicating that aphantasia is not associated with poorer recall abilities, yet those with no mind’s eye achieved lower scores for autobiographical memories than either hyperphantasics or controls. Aphantasics were also less able to imagine future scenarios or recognize faces, although they did tend to have a marginally higher IQ than those in either of the other two groups.

In terms of personality, the study authors found aphantasics to be more introverted than those with a functioning mind’s eye, while hyperphantasics scored higher for the character trait of ‘openness’, which denotes a keenness for new experiences and a broad range of interests. People with aphantasia were also more likely to display traits associated with autism spectrum disorder.

“Our research indicates for the first time that a weaker connection between the parts of the brain responsible for vision and frontal regions involved in decision-making and attention leads to aphantasia,” explained Zeman in a statement.

“However, this shouldn’t be viewed as a disadvantage – it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Many aphantasics are extremely high-achieving, and we’re now keen to explore whether the personality and memory differences we observed indicate contrasting ways of processing information, linked to visual imagery ability.”

So, if you have aphantasia and fear you are missing out, don't. Previous studies have shown that not having a mind's eye not only means you are harder to spook with scary stories which rely on your imagining the worst, but there is also a good chance it could be an advantageous superpower if you happen to be a scientist.


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