Posted on

Aphantasia: Does Not Having a “Mind’s Eye” Affect Learning?

Morgan Lindstead | April 3, 2023

What is Aphantasia?

Imagine you’re sitting in your first-semester organic chemistry classroom. There is a picture of a molecule on a projector at the front of the room. Your professor asks you to close your eyes and imagine the rotation of this molecule in a different, specified configuration. You’re confused. Is this “visualizing” really helpful for people? You look at your friend sitting on your right. Her eyes are closed, and she seems to be following the professor’s directions. You look back toward the screen with the molecule on it. What are you doing wrong? Why aren’t you finding this helpful?

Aphantasia is a rather understudied condition known that can hinder students’ abilities to do simple visualization techniques, such as the one in the scenario above. Acts of visualization are essentially impossible for persons with this condition, but few know of its existence. In fact, many aphantasiacs likely do not know that they even have the condition. 

How do you know if you have Aphantasia?

Consider the scenario at the start of this article. When you closed your eyes, were you able to imagine the room in great detail? What about your friend: what did she look like? Could you visualize the professor at the front of the room? What did they look like?

The ability to use your “mind’s eye” to conjure scenes and use mental imagery is usually described as a spectrum. On one end, some people can describe the room, friend, and professor in great detail. Toward the middle, we see individuals who can define these things in some bland detail, but not with as intense imagery. At the other end of the spectrum, we see individuals who cannot utilize mental imagery at all. When they close their eyes, all they see is darkness. They cannot conjure any mental scenes or generate any sort of detail about the example other than what memory provides. 

Here’s another example. Close your eyes and imagine an apple. 

What color was it? Do you see a particular shine on the apple? Where is the source of light reflecting on it? Close your eyes again and try to rotate it. Do you see the light moving with the apple? Aphanastics cannot do this mental imagery. The distinguishing factor here is the shine on the apple. Aphanastics may be able to remember what an apple looks like, but they cannot modify it or alter the location of the light source. Or, at the very least, they cannot do it voluntarily. 

Additionally, there are a couple of different surveys and questionnaires that you can take online to see if you have aphantasia.

Can people with Aphantasia still dream?

Yes! As someone with Aphantasia (and also backed up by research) I can safely say that people with Aphantasia can still dream. Although I am unsure if this is a shared experience among others with Aphantasia, I can report that my dreams are notably less vivid than those described by my friends and family who don’t share the condition. People with Aphantasia don’t necessarily lack mental imagery, they just lack the ability to do it voluntarily or vividly.

How do people with Aphantasia not know that they have it?

When trying to fall asleep at night, you are often told to “count sheep.” While many people are able to do this and perhaps find it useful, people with Aphantasia often think that “counting sheep” is simply a metaphor. It is only under comparison with others and their different experiences that aphantasiacs really learn that what they are experiencing is not the same as everyone else. Otherwise, as described in the example at the beginning of this article, they may just feel confused and unsure why they don’t seem to be having the same experiences as everyone else.

It’s also important to note that aphantasia is not as rare as you may have thought. Neurologists believe aphantasia affects up to 2% of the population.

How does Aphantasia affect learning?

Many professionals have theorized that Aphantasia may affect an individual’s ability to learn, especially since so many individuals are visual learners. However, I’d argue that people with Aphantasia can still possess the ability to learn visually, it’s just not the same as everyone else. For example, I’m still able to remember something based on where I wrote it on a page, I simply can’t imagine this when I close my eyes (although I’m unsure if this is an experience shared between all individuals with Aphantasia). My ability to study in this way is likely based more on muscle memory and repetition rather than visualization alone.

Mental imagery is an important aspect of learning. Thus, aphantasiacs are not completely void of mental imagery; the difference is that unlike most people, they can’t necessarily use this ability at will. 

Interestingly, audio mental imagery such as earworms also qualifies, to an extent, as a form of mental imagery. Individuals with Aphantasia are able to get earworms, suggesting that these individuals have some mental imagery ability and are just unable to use it willingly. Further, there are artists who have admitted to having Aphantasia and have used their artistic abilities to explain to audiences that they can still draw and be artistic, but are simply relying on years of practice and memory of past art rather than conjuring images in their brain before putting them on paper. 

Aphantasia may cause a notable disadvantage when it comes to visual learning in classes like organic chemistry. However, like everyone else, aphantasiacs have to learn to adapt. Individuals like myself who struggle with visualizing molecules may find the use of model kits to be incredibly helpful in learning these 3D-visual concepts. Further, if you have Aphantasia and believe that it is affecting your ability to be successful in class, it may be helpful to talk to your professor and see if there is another way that they can explain a concept to you that doesn’t rely on complex imagery. Most professors that I’ve talked to about my aphantasia did not know what it was or how to accommodate it. Because people with aphantasia largely adapt and learn to live without it, it doesn’t pose a strong disadvantage for most areas of study. As far as I’m aware, there are no official accommodations offered by Vanderbilt’s Student Accommodations. If you find that your lack of visualizing abilities is affecting your learning, your best bet is to reach out to your professor directly and see if they can recommend alternative resources, such as explanatory youtube videos, that can help you learn the class material. 

Works Cited:

Aphantasia: Losing the mind’s eye – The Exeter Blog. 2015 [accessed 2023 Feb 26].

Costandi M. If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn? The Guardian. 2016 Jun 4 

[accessed 2023 Feb 26].

JAMIE. I have APHANTASIA (and you may too…without realising it!) – YouTube. Youtube. 

[accessed 2023 Feb 26].

Learning With Aphantasia. 2019 Nov 30 [accessed 2023 Feb 26].

Nanay B. Mental Imagery. In: Zalta EN, editor. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Winter 2021. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University; 2021 [accessed 2023 Feb 26].

The Vividness Of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (the “aphantasia Test”). 2021 Apr 12 [accessed 

2023 Feb 26].

What Is Aphantasia? 2020 Apr 30 [accessed 2023 Feb 26].