Visual imagery, in which your brain creates pictures inside your head, is a big part of how most people process information. But some people lack the ability to do this. They have a condition called aphantasia.
Aphantasia, which may affect as many as 1 in 50 people, happens when your brain’s visual cortex doesn’t work properly. Your visual cortex is the part of your brain that processes visual information from your eyes.
Scientists aren't sure what causes aphantasia. Most people with this condition are born with it and are otherwise healthy. Others develop it after a brain injury.
The ability to create mental images exists on a spectrum. On one end are people with complete aphantasia. On the other are people who can create extra-vivid mental images. Most people are somewhere in between.
How It Could Affect Your Life
Most people who have lifelong aphantasia first notice it when they're in their teens or twenties. That's when they realize that other people are able to imagine images through their "mind’s eye."
In one study, people with aphantasia reported having much less vivid mental images than those without the condition. Some of them described their aphantasia as a “substantial” loss of visual imagery. Others could conjure up no visual imagery at all.
But most of the study participants with aphantasia said they had involuntary mental images in the form of “flashes” or dreams. This suggests that there’s a big difference between thinking up visual images and impulsively dreaming about them.
People with this condition may have trouble remembering everyday things, like the number of windows on a building. Most people rely on mental images to jog their memories, so those with aphantasia must use other tactics. They might instead draw on knowledge, memory, or their other senses to help them remember things.
Aphantasia can affect other areas of your life. It might cause you to:
- Struggle to remember or “relive” life events
- Have a hard time imagining future or hypothetical events
- Have problems with your factual memory
- Dream less
Researchers are studying aphantasia to understand how it works in different people. Since some people seem to have worse cases than others, there might be several types or sub-categories of the condition.
Experts aren't sure what genetic and developmental factors might cause aphantasia, or how it could affect the way people who have it think. We also don't yet know of any way to treat it.