Can’t count sheep? Scientists shed new light on aphantasia, a rare condition affecting visual memory

CHICAGO, Ill. — “Counting sheep” is a trick most people learn at a young age to help themselves fall asleep. So what happens if you can’t picture what sheep look like — or anything else for that matter? A new study is shedding light on a rare condition which prevents people from forming images in their mind’s eye. Researchers from the University of Chicago add the phrase “mind’s eye” doesn’t even have any meaning to patients with aphantasia.

“Some individuals with aphantasia have reported that they don’t understand what it means to ‘count sheep’ before going to bed,” says assistant professor of psychology Wilma Bainbridge in a university release. “They thought it was merely an expression, and had never realized until adulthood that other people could actually visualize sheep without seeing them.”

The study finds patients can both develop aphantasia at birth or acquire it later through some sort of trauma. Bainbridge says she wanted to examine the differences between people with typical imagery skills and those with aphantasia since little work has been done to characterize the condition. The Chicago researcher adds that aphantasia has only gained recent attention after notable patients like Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull came forward to talk about their memory difficulties.

Out of sight and out of mind

The study tested 61 aphantasic individuals and 52 control participants with normal imagery abilities. Bainbridge and the team showed photographs of three rooms to the groups before asking them to draw pictures of them; once from memory and again while looking at the photo.

The results revealed striking differences in how people with aphantasia draw on their memories. Study authors say participants with typical visual memory skills drew more of the noticeable objects in each room with a fair amount of detail. Patients with aphantasia on the other hand had a hard time remembering what each room looked like. Their pictures only placed a few objects and some even opted for written descriptions instead. For example, aphantasic participants wrote “window” inside a box because they can’t visualize what the panes of glass looked like.

Although people with aphantasia have trouble picturing things in their mind, the study finds their spatial memory works fine. This means a person is capable of telling you exactly where an object is located in a room. Bainbridge notes people who are blind can still describe where things are in a familiar room in the same way.

Surprisingly, aphantasic individuals actually made fewer mistakes when it comes to remembering what objects were in the pictures. Although they drew less objects from memory, they did not add objects that weren’t in the photos like some with normal imagery did. People with typical imagery made 14 mistakes due to false memories of what they had seen. Aphantasic patients only did this three times.

“One possible explanation could be that because aphantasics have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies like verbal-coding of the space,” Bainbridge explains. “Their verbal representations and other compensatory strategies might actually make them better at avoiding false memories.”

Aphantasia patients recognize, but can’t remember

When the groups drew pictures while looking at the photos, both did equally well at relaying that information. Neither aphantasic patients nor control participants made a mistake with the objects in the rooms. Researchers say this suggests the condition is specific to the brain’s memory abilities and does not affect recognition skills.

aphantasic drawings
The aphantasic participant drew few details from memory and relied on verbal coding of the space, while the control participant drew more details. Both included details when drawing while viewing the original image. (Credit: University of Chicago)

Although these individuals can recognize family and friends when they see them or a photograph, they’re not able to picture them in their mind after putting that picture away.

Bainbridge and her team are hoping to continue this research by looking at MRI scans of aphantasics. This may reveal how the condition manifests in a patient’s brain.

The study appears in the journal Cortex.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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