Dec 30, 2020
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With aphantasia, people do not remember what objects look like, but can recognize them – new evidence of a rare disorder

What is aphantasia

Some people find it very difficult – almost impossible – to draw a picture from memory. For example, they cannot describe in detail the setting of their room. The problem is that it is difficult for them to recreate visual images in memory. This disorder is called aphantasia. It is an understudied condition that scientists have only recently described.

“Some people with aphantasia say they don’t understand what it means to count sheep before bed. As a child, they didn’t think people were counting these sheep in their imaginations without looking at them, ”said Wilma Bainbridge, associate professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

New research

The new study involved 61 people with aphantasia and 52 people with normal visualization ability (control group). The scientists asked the participants to draw the setting of three rooms, which was shown to them in photographs: first from memory, and then by looking at the picture.

The difference in the drawings of the participants in different groups was enormous. People with a normal ability to create mental images displayed in drawings made from memory, most of the objects from the rooms. An important feature was that their drawings were detailed – reflecting the colors and shapes of many objects.

Participants with aphantasia faced difficulties. They could arrange objects in the drawing, but there was practically no detail in their work. For example, in the rectangle that represented the window, they wrote “window”, but did not try to draw the frame as it was in the photograph.

What types of memory are impaired?

Scientists have come to the conclusion that only the visual representation of various images is impaired in people with aphantasia. At the same time, they have a normal spatial memory, which is responsible for orientation in space. A similar combination (lack of visual representations, but normal spatial memory), remind the authors of the study, occurs in people with congenital blindness. They are able to describe the plan of a familiar room, but they cannot provide details.

An interesting observation by the scientists was that people with aphantasia made fewer mistakes than participants with the usual ability to visualize images in memory (3 versus 14 errors). They very rarely “put” things in the wrong place and practically did not add to the pictures things that were absent in the photographs of the rooms. The study authors suggest that people with aphantasia use specific memorization methods that reduce the risk of false memories.

The subjects made control drawings, during which they could look at a photograph of the room. Scientists used this to ensure that inaccuracies in reproducing room details were not related to the artistic ability of the study participants.

People with aphantasia are able to recognize people and places. In the experiment, they had no problem recognizing rooms. It is known that they can easily recognize the faces of friends and relatives, but cannot reproduce them in memory without looking at them.

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