There are people who can describe an object and remember what it’s like, but they’re not able to visualize it in their mind without seeing it in person.
It’s about aphantasia, the inability to evoke a mental image of something in memory, whether it’s a loved one’s face or a place.
Not being able to see objects in their imagination, for people with this rare and little-known condition, counting sheep to fall asleep is an almost impossible task.
Niel Kenmuir was one of the first to speak about his experience with aphantasia. In 2015, the man explained to the BBC that he knew it was different from a very young age since precisely this task was a big problem for him.
“I couldn’t see any sheep jumping over fences, there was nothing to count,” he said.
While aphantasia can make counting sheep difficult, it does not greatly influence a human’s creativity or imagination, as only some individuals report problems with their visual memory.
Most people with this lead completely normal lives and many of them don’t realize that they are different until adulthood.
One of the more recent studies on this condition supported the idea that some individuals with this problem have visual dreams, can describe and recognize what faces and places are like, suggesting that their verbal imagination and spatial memory are still intact.
In another study, an experiment was carried out in which 103 volunteers participated, both those suffering from aphantasia and those who do not have this condition. They were shown the photos of three rooms and asked to draw them on paper, first while looking at the photo and then from memory.
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“It is important to note that we did not observe significant differences between control and aphantasia participants when copying an image directly, which indicates that these distinctions are specific to memory and are not driven by differences in effort, ability to drawing or the perceptual process,” write the authors.
When the image was taken as a reference, two groups scored the same. But as soon as they were asked to recall the scene on their own, people with aphantasia had a harder time drawing a room.
As a result, 61 aphantasia participants recalled fewer visual details and their pictures contained fewer colors and more words. One person, for example, wrote “window” instead of representing the details of the window itself.
At the same time, the individuals with this condition showed the same spatial precision as the 52 participants without this problem, placing objects in their correct places, with their corresponding size. They also had fewer memory errors.
“One possible explanation could be that because aphantasics have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies like verbal-coding of the space,” explained University of Chicago psychologist Wilma Bainbridge. Their compensatory tactics could help them avoid false memories, she stressed.
In turn, individuals with more typical visual memories could be merging mental images from other rooms they know.
In the end, the results of the study suggest that people with Aphantasia lack visual images, but have an intact spatial memory. At the same time, the authors believe that people with congenital fantasy could experience something similar to the blind, who, although they can describe a room, are not able to see it as such.
This phenomenon was described for the first time in the 19th century, but it was properly defined only in 2015. Today, few studies have been published. They are mostly based on self-reports. That’s why more research is needed to find out what is happening on a neurological level, the scientists conclude.