Some People Have No Mind’s Eye, But Can Still Remember What They’ve Seen

People with aphantasia lack the ability to conjure mental images. Carlos Yudica/Shutterstock

Though the condition was only recognized in 2015, it’s thought that around 2 percent of people are aphantasic, meaning they have no visual memory. However, despite not being able to conjure up mental images, individuals with aphantasia are still perfectly capable of remembering the locations of items they’ve seen, implying that their spatial memory is unaffected by this odd cognitive quirk.

The term aphantasia refers to a lack of a mind’s eye, making it impossible to visualize the face of a loved one when not in their presence or to mentally count sheep when trying to fall asleep. In spite of this, the condition is not considered a disorder, and recent surveys have revealed that a surprisingly high number of mathematicians, scientists, and even artists are aphantasic.

To learn more about this phenomenon, a team of researchers recruited 61 people with aphantasia from online forums and asked them to take part in a visual and spatial memory test, where they were shown a photograph of a room and later asked to draw it from memory. The same tests were administered to a cohort of 52 people with typical visual memory, allowing the study authors to compare the performance of the two groups.

Publishing their findings in the journal Cortex, the researchers explain how aphantasic participants were able to place objects in their correct location but could not draw them in any detail. For instance, while people with regular visual memory often recreated the designs and colors they had seen in the photographs, those with aphantasia tended to represent items using rudimentary shapes like basic rectangles.

In many instances, aphantasic individuals simply wrote words like “window” or “bed” instead of drawing these features, implying that while they were able to remember the location of items just as well as those with typical visual memory, they could not picture them.

Despite this lack of detail, however, aphantasic participants made far fewer mistakes, incorrectly identifying objects on only three occasions. In contrast, the control group made a total of 14 mistakes, indicating an increased tendency to misremember, whether by omitting items that had been present in the photograph or inserting objects that had not been there.

While the study authors can’t explain exactly why this is the case, they suggest that certain people may have mixed up their visual memories with other rooms that they had seen previously.

Importantly, no differences were observed between the two groups when they were asked to copy the photograph while looking at it, suggesting that the results of this experiment are specific to memory, rather than artistic ability. It’s also noteworthy that aphantasic individuals were perfectly capable of recognizing pictures that they had seen before, implying that they are able to remember images even if they can’t recreate those scenes in their mind’s eye.

Taken together, these findings suggest that spatial memory remains perfectly intact even when visual memory is absent, indicating that the two processes rely on separate neural mechanisms.

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