An update on ‘extreme imagination’ – aphantasia / hyperphantasia

Our discovery, or rediscovery, that around 2-3% of the population, with aphantasia, lack a mind’s eye, and that a somewhat larger percentage, with hyperphantasia, have imagery that is ‘as vivid as real seeing’ has captured huge public interest, and led to a sustained surge of citizen science. We have been astonished – and delighted – to receive over 14,000 contacts from members of the public with extreme imagery since coining the terms in 2015. These continue. A widely used measure of public interest in scientific publications, the Altmetric Score, indicates that our initial description of aphantasia lies in the top 1%, reflecting, we think, a widely-shared fascination with what happens in one another’s minds.

The first major scientific output from the work inspired and made possible by this public interest, based on data from 2400 participants, was published in May 2020 by the journal Cortex (see the paper in press here). The results of a further study, in around 70 participants, using neuropsychological tests and brain imaging to identify some key signatures of aphantasia and hyperphantasia, will be submitted for publication soon.  This blog gives a brief update on other recent activities of the Eye’s Mind Project and some exciting related developments.

Just over a year ago, around 200 people gathered in Exeter, in April 2019, for our Extreme Imagination conference. It brought together, for the first time ever, a sizeable number of individuals with aphantasia and hyperphantasia. The weekend was intensely stimulating, with contributions from all the members of the Eye’s Mind team, two invited international experts on imagery – Emily Holmes and Joel Pearson – and Ed Catmull, the recently retired President of Pixar Disney, who is himself aphantasic. It included workshops on the implications of extreme imagery for education, psychotherapy, art and creative writing. The audience contributed enthusiastically throughout: there was a sense of a new community coming into being.

The conference coincided with the opening, at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, of our exhibition of art created by people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia – Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye.  The exhibition had travelled down from Glasgow where it ran for three months at Tramway. Several of the artists showing work spoke at an artists’ forum in the conference. Around 20,000 people visited the exhibition which is now available to visit in an on-line version. Copies of the catalogue, including essays by all the members of the Eye’s Mind team, are available via our website.

It is reassuring when work emanating from single team is confirmed and extended by others. Joel Pearson’s imagery research group in Sydney is taking an active interest in aphantasia. Elegant recent studies from Joel’s lab have provided objective evidence for the absence of imagery in people with aphantasia, and shown that this absence leads to strikingly different emotional responses to stories describing emotionally powerful scenes that cause most of us to visualise. Wilma Bainbridge and colleagues, in London, have reported evidence of visual memory impairment in people with aphantasia affecting objects but not their spatial locations.

Public and academic interest in extreme imagery continue. BBC radio 4 recently covered the topic on 13th April in an engaging documentary, Blind Mind’s Eye, which focussed particularly on aphantasic artists; I reviewed the current state of knowledge in the JNNP (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry) lecture on 6th March for the British Neuropsychiatry Association; Alan Kendle, author of the only current book on the topic, has posted an interview in which we discussed a range of questions about aphantasia. A chapter on aphantasia will be included in a forthcoming book edited by Anna Abraham – the Cambridge Handbook of Imagination – which ranges widely across the subject of imagination with an appropriately varied and inspiring group of contributors. Tom Ebeyer, a Canadian with aphantasia who contributed to our 2015 study, has established The Aphantasia Network, based in Canada, with the aims of supporting the community of those with extreme imagery, informing the wider world about its existence and helping to stimulate further research.

Given some preliminary evidence that extreme imagery runs in families, MyHeritage, a commercial genetics organisation, has begun to collect data in collaboration with our team that will, we hope, eventually lead to discoveries about the genetic basis of imagery vividness. We are excited to see what emerges from this effort.

Three questions are often raised in discussions of aphantasia – I will briefly share my thoughts about these.

Is aphantasia a ‘disorder’? I think not. It is an intriguing variation in human experience, analogous to synaesthesia, another variation affecting around 2% of the population which causes unusual experiences like seeing letters in particular colours, or tasting shapes. The evidence we have been gathering suggests aphantasia is psychologically significant – for example, if you have aphantasia you are more likely to work in scientific or mathematical professions than if you have hyperphantasia, but both imagery vividness extremes look likely to have a mix of advantages and disadvantages. In itself aphantasia is no bar to leading a rich, creative and fulfilling life. It is, however, occasionally a symptom of other disorders: for example, aphantasia can, rarely, result from a stroke or head injury or an episode of depression. So if someone who has previously had imagery loses it suddenly, it’s reasonable to ask, and try to find out, why.

Does aphantasia imply an absence of imagination? The answer is a clear no. The examples of Craig Venter, Blake Ross, Oliver Sacks, all aphantasic, and the aphantasic artists and authors who exhibited in Extreme Imagination demonstrate that people with aphantasia can be creative and imaginative, beyond a doubt. This may seem puzzling at first glance, but on reflection imagination is a much richer and more complex capacity than visualisation. Visualisation enables most of us to picture things to some degree in our mind’s eye:  imagination allows to represent, reshape and reconceive things in their absence. Aphantasia illustrates the wide variety of types of ‘representation’ available to human minds and brains: visual imagery is by no means the only option.

Does aphantasia reflect a verbal ‘cognitive style’? This seemed likely to me when I first began to think about this topic. If you lack a mind’s eye, I mused, presumably you will tend to be more interested in sounds and words than visual images. There may be some people with aphantasia for whom this is true, but for several reasons I am doubtful, now, that this way of thinking about aphantasia is generally applicable. For one thing, many people with aphantasia love the visual world, and some of them, aphantasic artists, devote their lives to depicting it. For another, around 50% with extreme imagery report that all modalities of imagery, including imagery of sounds, are vivid, in the case of hyperphantasia, or dim/absent in the case of aphantasia. This suggests that a more relevant distinction than verbal vs visual may be abstract vs experiential: for some of us thought is closer to sensory experience, for others more remote. But it’s possible that no single distinction is sufficient to capture the contrast between aphantasia and hyperphantasia, not least because it is unlikely that either is a single entity – one of the tasks for the next wave of research, for which we are now seeking funding, will be to tease apart the varieties of extreme imagery.

I should close with warm thanks to the many people who have been in touch with us about their experience and taken part in our research. We hope that our findings will be of interest, and, if you don’t mind, we hope to be in touch again soon!

Adam Zeman

The Eye’s Mind:

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