by Victoria Cordero
Art by Marcus Tian
Picture this: you’re walking through College Walk, and your friend passes by and waves at you. She’s wearing a red coat, carrying a coffee, and smiling from ear to ear. What do you see in your mind right now? Can you see the vivid color of her coat and Low Library in the background? If you answered “No, I can’t see anything, obviously,” it may come as a surprise to you that the phrase “picture this” is not just a metaphor. If you answered “yes,” it may come as a surprise that for many people even the most salient scenes are difficult to reproduce in their minds. No matter how you answered, I’d like to introduce you to aphantasia, the inability to produce pictures in the mind at will, or the ability to conjure only vague mental images that are difficult to maintain .
Curiously, I've never noticed my lack of visual imagination. I had always assumed that no one could actually see vivid images in their mind before I learned about aphantasia. For individuals with the ability to produce it, visual mental imagery (VMI) is usually used for the completion of a plethora of daily tasks, including problem solving, preparing to speak or move, navigation, remembering faces and places, and much more . VMI may help you remember how to get to class or solve a quick math problem in your head. It’s also extremely useful for artists, chemists, and engineers, for example, who need to picture things they can’t see in real life, or manipulate or rotate objects in their minds to mentally design projects before creating them physically. It wasn't until recently that I learned my brain has simply been taking a unique approach to completing these everyday spatial and visual memory tasks. Given that VMI is so integral to routine function for 96 percent of people, it may be surprising that the remaining four percent of the population functions without VMI, or with a very weak version of it [2,3].
This bar chart displays the diagnoses of the respondents from the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) poll sent out earlier this semester for this article.
Eight percent of Columbia undergraduates reported little to no VMI ability based on assessment with the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), a commonly used visual imagery assessment, when polled for this article in March 2022 . How is it that these are the same students sitting next to you in General Chemistry as you imagine all of those molecules in your head? Or maybe you’re asking, “how is it that there are students sitting next to me in General Chemistry that get to see molecules in their head!?”
This pie chart displays data collected from the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnare (VVIQ) poll sent out earlier this semester for this article. The VVIQ consists of four sets of four visualization questions, with each set having a different theme. The second set’s data is displayed above, with a different pie chart for each of the four questions. The total number of responses for each answer is shown in parenthesis for each question in the set. The set’s introduction is as follows: “Visualise a rising sun. Consider carefully the picture that comes before your mind’s eye.”
Visual Mental Imagery
VMI is how we produce visual images like those molecules in our minds without any tangible visual input of said images . It is specifically called visual mental imagery because there are many forms of mental imagery, including auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste). Mental imagery itself is a “top-down” process, which means that the task is completed using information that already exists within the mind, like memories, rather than information from the external world .
The current working theory is that VMI begins in the frontal region of the brain and moves backward . Let’s say you’re going to imagine a water molecule in your mind. First, your brain triggers the action in the frontal lobe, which coordinates and plans out the movement of information required to create the mental image. Then, those instructions move to the temporal lobe to gather all of the stored visual information you have about molecules, including their shapes, colors, and overall structure. For particularly complex images or images with a large amount of spatial information, such as remembering a room or location, the hippocampus—an interior brain structure involved in memory and spatial organization—may help process the information further before it is transported to the visual cortex. Now that you have all of the necessary information to build the molecule, it moves to the back of the brain to the occipital lobe, where it is converted into the image that is projected in your mind. The occipital lobe is the place in your brain where visual information is usually taken in and processed. Essentially, visual mental imagery is running through this process with visual information from your memories or from other ideas originating in the frontal areas. Once a mental image has been created, the frontal areas of the brain may help manipulate it, like when the aforementioned General Chemistry student needs to rotate their mental image of that water molecule to get a better look at its bonds .
Visual Working Memory
Aphantasia generally exists congenitally, meaning that most people with aphantasia were born with it . Individuals with congenital aphantasia have always had to take different approaches to certain tasks than individuals with the ability to produce VMI, such as when using their visual working memory .
Visual working memory is the process of temporarily holding visual information in your mind so you can manipulate it, work through it, or apply it to an ongoing task . It’s a bit like a visual short-term memory. That information can be “held” as an image in your mind’s eye if you use VMI, or you can use other tactics to help you recall the visual information. There is much debate about where in the brain this visual information of working memory is momentarily held or represented. One hypothesis states that this information is stored in the early visual areas, such as visual area one (V1) and visual area two (V2) [5,6]. These areas
are located in the visual cortex, which consists of posterior sections of the brain including some parts of the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes. V1 and V2, located in the center of the occipital lobe, are called early visual areas. They are labeled as areas 1 and 2 respectively because they come first in visual processing. For individuals that use VMI for visual working memory, this may follow the production of a mental image. So, a mental image is finalized in the visual cortex and then held in the visual cortex as well. Once the finalized image produced through VMI reaches the visual cortex, it can be held there for a few seconds [5,6]. Another hypothesis considers that visual working memory information might be stored in the frontoparietal areas. These areas are commonly associated with maintaining and manipulating a visual mental image . It is possible that both of these hypotheses are true but vary from individual to individual. For instance, similar activity has been found in early visual areas of the occipital lobe during VMI and visual working memory in individuals who use VMI in that process. For aphantasic individuals, the parietal lobe seems to take the visual cortex’s place, where an image is stored in a more abstract way .
One task you might use visual working memory for is mental math. First, you look at the expression. That visual information is held in either your frontoparietal areas or the early visual areas as you begin to add numbers around it, solving it in your head . Let’s say you are trying to solve 14 + 189. Did you envision a chalkboard, or watch yourself “write” the numbers in your head? Or maybe, did you “talk” yourself through the problem, remembering the steps based on hearing and mentally speaking through them? Although intuitively it may seem as though VMI should be crucial to visual working memory, as one would picture the image they are trying to retain, manipulate, or “work” within their head, VMI is just one of many possible ways to use visual working memory. Individuals with aphantasia have to use other strategies. In a study by Keogh, Wicken, and Pearson, people with aphantasia were still able to perform well, or even better than individuals with the ability to produce VMI, on tasks requiring visual working memory . The study reports that individuals with aphantasia used strategies such as labeling images or using auditory mental imagery to remember visual information, rather than remembering the image itself. For example, a person with aphantasia may “say” the numbers in their mind while completing mental math, rather than seeing them, in order to keep track of them. Essentially, people with aphantasia take different approaches to visual working memory, such as remembering a label associated with an image, the concept of the image, or using other forms of mental representation, rather than picturing the visual image in their minds .
People with aphantasia may also store their visual working memories differently than those with VMI . There are two approaches to visual working memory: the “slot-like” approach, and the “resource-like” approach . If an individual uses the slot-like approach to visual working memory, they have a set number of temporary memory storage “slots” that are equal in quality . For example, they may be able to store three images at a time, one in each
visual working memory slot, and each image will be of a set, equal quality. If an individual uses the resource-like approach to visual working memory, they have an unlimited number of memory storage slots in which they can temporarily store memories, but the quality of the memories decreases as the number of stored memories increases . Let’s say you’re trying to remember a list of the food available at Ferris Dining Hall. Using the slot-like approach, you may only be able to remember the images of the vegan station and the action line, but you will remember almost exactly what is there. However, using the resource-like approach, you may be able to remember the pictures of what is at every station, but the images will be increasingly vague, blurry, or incomplete, so you may miss an ingredient or two .
Researchers are still investigating how these differences may impact an aphantasic individual’s ability to perform memory tasks. One study by Bainbridge, Pounder, Eardly, and Baker explores how aphantasic people made fewer errors in drawings of three recalled images than non-aphantasic individuals . This study raises questions about whether aphantasic individuals use the slot-like approach to visual working memory rather than the resource-like approach . Since these individuals only had to memorize three images, the fact that aphantasic individuals performed better, may suggest that they used the slot-like approach, as this may fit within the average number of equal quality slots. In contrast, the fact that non-aphantasic individuals did not perform as well on this task may suggest the use of the resource-like approach, where even in remembering only three images, the quality of each image had already begun to diminish.
While aphantasic individuals are capable of remembering spatial information just as well as those without aphantasia, they must also take different approaches to remembering that information. Bainbridge et al. also demonstrated that people with aphantasia perform equally well on spatial memory tasks as people with VMI . The experimental participants were given a set of real-life images to remember, usually of household rooms which they were later asked to draw. In their drawings, aphantasic individuals efficiently and accurately placed recalled objects around the room, demonstrating a spatial memory ability. It is likely that people with aphantasia use numbering and labeling systems for spatial placement and image detail information storage on these tasks as well [5,8]. An example of such systems may include numbering objects as they appear in a room from left to right to remember their placement, or labeling objects based on their descriptions. When I try to remember spatial information, it helps me to use directions and memories. For example, I know that when I enter my dorm room, my desk and bed are on the left. I also know that my trash can is in front of my bottom-most desk drawer, because whenever I go to open that drawer, I have to remember to move my trash can first. This is one example of how an aphantasic individual might use spatial memory, but it gives insight into the cognitive differences that exist between aphantasic and non-aphantasic individuals.
Interestingly enough, despite not being able to consciously imagine visual images, aphantasic individuals seem to retain the ability to visually dream . In fact, some 81 percent of aphantasic individuals in a study by Whiteley reported having rich visual dreams . Despite having visual dreams, it seems that aphantasic individuals dream differently . In a study by Dawes et al., for example, aphantasic individuals reported less clarity and control over their dreams, but spent more time thinking in their dreams than individuals with VMI capabilities. In a dream, a lack of clarity or control may look like losing control over your actions or feeling slower, and the actual visual dream content being much fuzzier or unclear. Thinking more in dreams may include reflecting during dreams or reflecting on in-dream actions. Because many individuals with aphantasia can dream, aphantasia is actually referred to in this study as the lack of voluntary mental imagery, which adds a new dimension to its definition . Dream studies provide the important distinction between voluntary versus involuntary visual imagery. While aphantasia currently refers to voluntary visual mental imagery, the regions of the brain activated during involuntary versus voluntary imagery are still being explored.
Although congenital aphantasia is the most common form of aphantasia, some people sustain brain injuries that affect their ability to produce VMI [3,11]. This is called acquired aphantasia, and individuals with these injuries may have to adapt to thinking without VMI after losing its functionality. One person with acquired aphantasia, often called “The Architect Who Lost the Ability to Imagine,” and a few other individuals with acquired aphantasia, were studied by Thorudottir et al. . After losing VMI abilities, these individuals adopted altered spatial or motor thinking strategies. For example, they would plot labels for items on a conceptual map or use verbal lists in order to remember visual information presented to them. This is similar to the approaches that individuals with congenital aphantasia use throughout their whole lives. Although their VMI production abilities were damaged, these individuals with acquired aphantasia were able to find new ways to remember information given to them using the brain structures that remained unaffected after their injuries, such as the frontal and parietal regions of the brain associated with spatial skills .
Areas of brain tissue that have sustained damage are called brain lesions, and they are one key way that neuroscientists research and provide insights about the localization of functions like VMI. Scientists identify correlations between areas of damage and function by comparing the regions of brain damage across several patients that have lost a similar function. In the case of aphantasia, scientists may compare the localization of damage in several patients that have lost their VMI ability and pinpoint damaged locations that they have in common. In the study by Thorudottir et al., one common location of damage among patients with acquired aphantasia was the left fusiform gyrus . The left fusiform gyrus is a fold in the bottommost part of the brain, usually associated with object and face recognition . The idea that the fusiform gyrus is connected to VMI is highly supported in research, especially in a paper by Columbia professor Dr. Alfredo Spagna. In his work, Dr. Spagna outlines fMRI data that demonstrates an overlap in VMI related activation between many brain-damaged patients in the FG4 region of the left fusiform gyrus . Although the specific role of the fusiform gyrus in VMI is still unknown, this discovery lays the foundation for future research [11-13].
You Don’t Need to Picture This
It may seem as though people with aphantasia, like me (or maybe you!), are missing out on something really important. I often felt this way before I began research for this article. However, learning about the many ways our brains adapt through labeling and conceptual approaches to spatial and working memory tasks has helped me realize that no one is truly missing out. Using one tactic or another, every student in chemistry class will be able to find their way to class and understand a molecule’s bonds as they sit in lecture, whether the picture of the molecule remains a concept held in the front of our brains or an image held in
the back. I am looking forward to future research regarding how aphantasia works and more solid evidence about the localization of its functions. If you are interested in further readings about aphantasia and VMI, you should look at studies regarding perception, sensory integration, and even other forms of mental imagery. You could also look into sprouting research about how aphantasia may impact behavior, or into technological interventions for aphantasia, like how virtual reality may play a role in VMI. If you are considering whether you may have aphantasia yourself, search for the VVIQ offered by many websites online to learn more about your VMI ability. After all, the most incredible thing about neuroscience is not just the remarkable things we have already discovered, but also the things we have yet to explore.
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