‘Phantasia – The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes’

The Eye’s Mind’s latest paper Phantasia – The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes is in press with the journal Cortex. With findings based on data from 2400 participants, the paper is the first major scientific output made possible by the wide public interest in imagery extremes.

Key findings:

  • aphantasia is associated with scientific and mathematical occupations, hyperphantasia is associated with ‘creative’ professions
  • participants with aphantasia report an elevated rate of difficulty with face recognition and autobiographical memory, participants with hyperphantasia report an elevated rate of synaesthesia
  • around half those with aphantasia describe an absence of wakeful imagery in all sense modalities, while a majority dream visually
  • aphantasia appears to run within families more often than would be expected by chance

Access the paper here

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: http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/

Extreme Imagination Conference 2019

We are very pleased to announce that registration is now open for EXTREME IMAGINATION, the world’s first conference for people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

With lectures by the leading scientists and thinkers working on aphantasia and hyperphantasia, plus themed workshops and discussion groups, the conference will enable people with ‘extreme imagination’ to gain understanding, build a community, and explore the practical implications of imagery extremes.

Confirmed speakers include Adam Zeman, Joel Pearson, Emily Holmes, and Ed Catmull, plus talks by the artists and curators of the associated exhibition ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye’.

We look forward to welcoming you to the University of Exeter, UK, on 5 – 7 April 2019!


Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye

Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye opens at Tramway, Glasgow, 10.1.19

The first ever exhibition of works of art created by artists who have no “mind’s eye” will cast new light on the creative brain when it goes on display in 2019.

Extreme Imagination: inside the mind’s eye will feature works by people who cannot visualise, alongside works by those who have particularly vivid mental imagery.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and curated by the artist Susan Aldworth, the exhibition is the result of research lead by Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health, and the Eye’s Mind research group: Fiona Macpherson (philosophy, Glasgow), Crawford Winlove (neuroscience, Exeter), John Onians (art history, University of East Anglia), and Matthew MacKisack (cultural history, Exeter).

In 2015, Professor Zeman coined the term “aphantasia” to describe a phenomenon in which some people are unable to conjure up pictures inside their minds. He called the opposite phenomenon “hyperphantasia”, in which people have particularly vivid mental imagery.

When these extremes of ‘mind’s eye’ experience were identified, a huge public response followed, with thousands of people recognising themselves as ‘aphantasic’ or ‘hyperphantasic’ – including a number of artists.

Extreme Imagination: inside the mind’s eye presents their artwork, inviting us to consider the impact of these phenomena on the creative process. How can someone make anything without being able to imagine what they want it to look like? Is there a distinctly hyperphantasic kind of art?

Aphantasia and its opposite teach us about human diversity: the easily-missed, potentially startling differences between individuals’ inner lives. The work of the participating artists – and designers, architects, and writers – demonstrates the diversity of means by which things come to be made, challenging long-held beliefs about what it means to be ‘creative’.

Find interviews with participating artists here.

Extreme Imagination: inside the mind’s eye will run at Tramway, Glasgow, from the 10th of January 2019 to the 3rd of March 2019, before moving to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, where it will run from the 30th of March to the 2nd of June. News on this to follow soon.

Extreme Imagination events at Tramway, Glasgow:

Thursday 10th of January, 5 – 7pm: Exhibition Preview

Saturday 12th of January, 11.30am – 1pm: Curator Susan Aldworth introduces the exhibition, with talks by Professor Adam Zeman and Dr Matthew MacKisack of the University of Exeter, and Professor Fiona Macpherson of the University of Glasgow

Saturday 23rd – Sunday 24th of February: Workshop on Dreams, Hallucinations and Imagination, held at the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, University of Glasgow. See dreamshallucinationsimagination.wordpress.com

Image: Isabel Nolan, A lion with a thorn in his paw, 2015. Courtesy Kerlin Gallery

Eye’s Mind Research – an update

There is news to share from the Eye’s Mind team. In 2015 we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380) which attracted global media coverage. Since then we have received frequent and very welcome contacts from people with ‘extreme imagery’ – both from those who lack visual imagery, with ‘aphantasia’, and from those who have it in abundance, with ‘hyperphantasia’. Emails have now come in from well over 10,000 participants. Over 2000 have sent us complete sets of questionnaires. Very many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this unique and growing data base! Please continue to share your experiences with us. Because the publicity around this topic was triggered initially by our description of aphantasia, we have heard from more folk at the low end of the vividness spectrum than the high: we are very interested in both, but especially keen at present to learn more about hyperphantasia.

Over the past eighteen months, the project has been supported by a team of extremely enthusiastic Exeter students. Many of our participants will have heard from Brit and James, in particular, who were able to devote the 2016-17 academic year to the project. The student team’s contribution has made all the difference.

We recently had some great news. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, who funded our work in 2015, have awarded us a ‘follow-on’ grant for dissemination. This will allow us to organise a conference for people with ‘extreme imagery’ – aphantasia and hyperphantasia – in 2018 alongside a travelling exhibition of work by artists with extreme imagery. We plan to contact everyone who has been in touch with us over the past two years with news of both the conference and exhibition early next year. We welcome ideas, suggestions and contributions: these events will be joint ventures between the Eye’s mind team and the enthusiastic group of people who made this work possible – so, we hope to see many of you during next year. The dates are not yet finalised, but the conference is likely to be in mid-late Summer, and the exhibition will travel between the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich, the University of Exeter and Tramway, Glasgow.

In a second piece of good news, our work has been shortlisted for the UK’s ‘research Oscar’, the Times Higher Education Supplement award for a scientific project. While the winner won’t be announced until 30th November, it is an honour to be on the shortlist. The credit belongs in great part to those who have contacted us and completed our questionnaires – thank you for this once again.

Despite these successes, the project needs further funds to enable us to push forward with the neuropsychological, brain imaging, genetic and qualitative studies we are planning. We have recently submitted a large grant application which would go a long way to meet this need. The outcome will be known early next year.

We hope to publish the findings from the questionnaire study in a scientific paper over the next few months. It will describe the striking associations we are observing between imagery vividness and occupation, autobiographical memory, face recognition and synaesthesia (cross-talk between the senses). As our sample size grows, we continue to see consistent themes but also variations – as mentioned in my previous update, many people with aphantasia dream visually, but some do not; some have a lively ‘mind’s ear’, while for others this is deaf. These is a strong suggestion from our data that imagery vividness can run in families.

Brit, James and the rest of the student team have helped us to start pilot work with local participants in and around Exeter: a big thank you to all those who have taken part in this. By the end of the year we will have preliminary data on neuropsychological and brain imaging features in people with aphantasia, hypherpantasia and average imagery. As we suspect that these variations in imagery can result from a number of different causes in the brain, it may be that we will need larger numbers of participants in a future, funded, study to draw firm conclusions, but these are some exciting signals in the pilot data. We look forward to sharing the results once the analyses are complete, in the course of next year.

If anyone is keen to learn more about work in this area generally, we are editing a Special Issue of the journal Cortex on Visual Imagery which will appear in 2018.

As before, our research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. I will and post the conference and exhibition dates and venues soon, and write again as the story develops.

Visual imagination conference 2016

The Eye’s Mind: visual imagination, neuroscience and the humanities

an international conference at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK 21st-22nd May 2016

Our Arts and Humanities Research Council project, The Eye’s Mind – a study of the neural basis of the visual imagination and its place in culture, culminated recently in a major conference. The project involved three strands – a review of the history of thought about the visual imagination, from Plato and Aristotle to Kosslyn and Pylyshyn; a metanalysis of brain imaging studies of visual imagery; a study of individuals at the extremes of the imagery vividness spectrum which extends from superabundance – ‘hyperphantasia’ – to absence, ‘aphantasia’.

The conference included talks by every member of the project team (Susan Aldworth, artist; Matthew MacKisack, historian of ideas – and the project’s full-time Fellow; Fiona Macpherson, philosopher; John Onians, art historian; Crawford Winlove, neuroscientist; Adam Zeman, neurologist) together with a distinguished and lively group of contributors from a wide variety of disciplines. Over the course of the weekend, 24 speakers and 6 poster presenters explored the full range of the elusive but captivating topic of visual imagery in its historical, philosophical, artistic, literary, psychological, neurobiological and personal dimensions.  Keynotes were given by Dr Paul Broks, a clinical psychologist turned creative writer, who engagingly introduced the concept of ‘imaginal reality’ by way of reflections on a set of cultural creations – the Greek gods – and a biological phenomenon – ‘sleep paralysis’ – that predisposes to vivid hallucinations; Prof Michael Tye (University of Austin, Texas), who discussed the nature of visual imagery in the light of philosophical debate and psychological experiment and Prof Joel Pearson (University of New South Wales, Sydney) who has developed path-breaking methods by which to measure the vividness, and even decode the contents, of imagery in the human brain.

Submitted papers considered imagery as a force in artistic and scientific creativity; its role in the reading of literature; its importance in education and therapy; its significance in memory; its heightening in synaesthesia, the merging of the senses; its potential value in computer science. One of the most remarkable features of the meeting was that, probably for the first time in human history, it gathered together a sizeable group of individuals with ‘aphantasia’, a focus of the Eye’s Mind project, and, to date, a strangely neglected psychological phenomenon: there was strong enthusiasm for a future meeting devoted to this subject.

We greatly valued the support received from the AHRC and from the journal Brain. The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, with its unique collection of art works from around the world, drawn from the full extent of human cultural history, was a wonderfully appropriate setting for our meeting. We hope that within a few weeks the pdfs of the slides used by our speakers will be available on the project website (http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/). We are extremely grateful to the speakers and members of the audience who travelled from around the world to join us. During the conference we grew into an exceptionally integrated community of specialists in the sciences and the humanities. Encouraged by an unprecedented sharing of knowledge and of methods of enquiry across our disciplines, we look forward to productive exchanges and collaborations in the future.