Aphantasia describes a condition where a person is unable to recall images in their mind. If you were to be given a prompt like, “Think of a red apple sitting on a window sill,” most people can picture what that looks like in their mind. Even when prompted, someone with aphantasia is not able to picture that image in their mind at all. They know what the image looks like. If shown a picture of an apple and an orange, they would be able to distinguish the two. They would be able to tell you want an apple looks like in factual manner. They would be reciting what they know is fact (i.e. apples are red, round, with a stem, and waxy outer skin) and not from an image that comes to mind. However, if asked to imagine an apple, they would not be able to bring the image to mind. It is an experience that less than 3% of the population deals with, but recently, awareness of aphantasia has been growin. There has been very little research done on aphantasia, but the growing interest in it has researchers seeking to understand it better. Some people who experienced a traumatic brain injury have lost the ability to recall images. Others, however, have always been unable to recall images.
There are few signs that can help you understand if you have aphantasia:
You cannot recall images even when prompted. Whether you are trying to recall a certain image or you are prompted to think of a certain image, you cannot recall anything. A friend might say, “Hey, I really liked that blue striped shirt you were wearing a few days ago. Where did you get it?” You would not be able to recall the shirt you were wearing in your mind. You might now it as fact thinking, “I know three days ago I wore a blue striped shirt, so I know which one they are referring to,” but you would not envision that shirt in your mind.
Other aspects of your memory are not as good. You find yourself struggling to remember other things like directions to where you are going. When searching for a place, people often use landmarks or descriptions of what is nearby. Not being able to recall imagery makes other aspects of your memory feel as though it does not work as well. Learning through visuals can make it difficult without the ability think back to what was illustrated.
You have trouble recognizing faces. If you see a picture of someone or have only met them once, it might be difficult to recognize them once you see them again. You might need more context because you are not able to visualize the person’s face in your mind and commit it to memory the same way other people can. As you spend more time with someone, you would recognize them, although it would only be if you saw them. It is important to note that aphantasia has the potential to make it more difficult to recognize faces whereas prosopagnosia (or face blindness) is the inability to recognize faces.
Memories of people, places, and experiences play such a huge role in people’s lives. You might not even notice it until you find yourself with the inability to recall certain images and memories. Aphantasia can be difficult because not only can it affect the human experience but it is also something not many people understand. If you believe you may have aphantasia, it could be helpful to speak to a professional where you can have a safe place to talk about your own personal experiences.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.