Aphantasia and ADHD: Differences and Similarities

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Aphantasia are two distinct neurocognitive conditions. ADHD, often emerging in childhood, presents with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that can hinder academic and social activities. Aphantasia is characterized by an inability to create mental images, which has only recently been recognized as a medical condition. Although differing fundamentally—ADHD affecting focus and activity, and Aphantasia affecting mental imagery—both conditions influence daily activities and coexist with other neurodevelopmental disorders. This article will examine these two conditions, comparing their similarities and differences.
Klara Hatinova

Klara Hatinova

Klara is postgraduate researcher in experimental psychology at the
University of Oxford.

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What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is often first diagnosed in childhood and can persist into adulthood [1, 2]. It is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention that is first noticed through educational achievement and/or social interaction [1].

ADHD is common, affecting about 2.5% of the population, according to the APA [2]. In children and adolescents, it is also one of the most frequently seen disorders, with a prevalence of 3-5% [3].

ADHD symptoms can vary over time and between individuals. There are particular differences between adults and children with ADHD. For example, adults with ADHD are better at inhibiting their hyperactivity or impulsive behaviour but struggle more with inattentiveness and restlessness [4].

What is Aphantasia?

Aphantasia is a neuropsychological condition characterized by the inability to generate mental images. This means that individuals with aphantasia struggle to form mental pictures in their mind's eye, making it challenging to visualize scenarios, faces, or objects that aren't in their immediate field of vision [5, 6, 7].

The term "aphantasia" was only recently introduced by cognitive neurologist Adam Zeman in 2015, although the phenomenon was first reported in 1880 by Sir Francis Galton [7]. The recency of aphantasia as a medical condition has its difficulties in establishing clear diagnostic criteria and effective management methods [8, 6, 7].

Aphantasia can look different in different people. Some people may be completely unable to create mental images, while others may have a severely limited ability. There isn’t yet a consensus about the cutoff for diagnosing aphantasia [8]. Although less common, aphantasia can also affect sound or touch mental imagery [7].

Aphantasia does not imply a lack of imagination or creativity, although many may assume this. Individuals with aphantasia can be highly imaginative and can complete tasks that we previously thought relied solely on visual imagery, such as creative writing, composition, or art design [9].

There still isn’t an estimate on the number of individuals who experience aphantasia, but some records indicate it could be between 2% and 7% of the population [7].

What are the similarities between ADHD and Aphantasia?

Visual processing in ADHD and Aphantasia

One similarity between Aphantasia and ADHD is related to visual processing. In ADHD, there are deficits in visual-spatial processing and visual sequential short-term memory [10, 11]. In adults with ADHD, there is a spectrum of visual deficits, such as in the unconscious process of mismatch negativity [12]. Similarly, individuals with Aphantasia show deficits in object memory but not spatial memory [13]. Object and visual memory rely on visual processing, indicating that ADHD and Aphantasia have deficits in visual processing.

Creativity in ADHD and Aphantasia

Another commonality between ADHD and Aphantasia is the approach to creativity. Creativity, particularly divergent thinking, has been associated with ADHD [14]. In Aphantasia, the condition's unique perspective on visual processing could potentially foster unique problem-solving approaches, an often forgotten form of creativity.

Disruption to Daily life in ADHD and Aphantasia

Both conditions also have an impact on daily functioning. ADHD is characterized by difficulties with attention regulation, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, affecting various aspects of daily life [15]. Aphantasia, on the other hand, is characterized by the inability to form voluntary visual imagery, which can affect tasks that rely on this ability [13].

Comorbidity with Neurodevelopmental Conditions in Aphantasia and ADHD

Both ADHD and aphantasia frequently coexist with other neurodevelopmental conditions. ADHD is often comorbid with conditions like sensory processing disorder [10], while Aphantasia has been linked with conditions like synaesthesia [16]. Both ADHD and aphantasia can be comorbid with Autism spectrum disorders [16].

What are the differences between ADHD and Aphantasia?

Aphantasia and ADHD are two distinct conditions that affect different aspects of cognitive functioning.

Aphantasia is a neuropsychological condition characterized by the inability to create mental images. This means that individuals with aphantasia struggle to visualize scenes, events, or objects in their minds. In contrast, ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder primarily linked to attention deficits and hyperactivity. Individuals with ADHD struggle to maintain focus, control impulsive behaviours, and stay still [2].

Another difference is in visual perception and memory. Individuals with aphantasia have been found to recall significantly fewer objects and rely more on verbal scaffolding when asked to draw from memory. In contrast, individuals with aphantasia performed better at spatial memory tasks [13]. Children with ADHD have been found to have weaker visual memory and perform worse than their peers in both visual and auditory symbols at short presentation durations [17]. This shows that the specific perceptual and memory deficit domains differ between ADHD and aphantasia.

In terms of attentional guidance, people with aphantasia have been found to have impaired attentional guidance due to their lack of visual imagery [18]. ADHD, on the other hand, is characterized by attentional deficits that impair attentional guidance [19]. Therefore, the common feature of low attentional guidance has distinct causes in ADHD vs. aphantasia.

Summary: Similarities and Differences in ADHD and Aphantasia

In summary, ADHD and aphantasia are both characterized by changes in visual processing, both disrupt daily function, have neurodevelopmental comorbidity, and unique creative styles. The differences between the conditions are the neurobiological and psychological mechanisms that cause these similarities. Inattentiveness causes many of the deficits in ADHD, whereas lack of imagery causes the same deficits in aphantasia.

Klara Hatinova

Klara Hatinova

Klara is a postgraduate researcher in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. She has worked across a spectrum of hot topics in neuroscience, including her current project measuring reinforcement learning strategies in Parkinson’s disease. Previously, she studied the efficacy of psilocybin as a therapy for critical mental health conditions and examined molecular circadian rhythms of migraine disorders. She completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow and participated in a year abroad at the University of California, where she worked on a clinical trial for spinal cord injury.