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Extreme imagination: What do we see with our mind’s eye?

Mind's eye

Following the recent publication of his team’s research, Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology at the University of Exeter, looks back on his project The Eye’s Mind, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Science in Culture Theme initiative led by the Institute of Philosophy.

Imagination is surely one of the things that makes us human. It allows us to escape from the here and now, and to travel into the past and the future, the minds of others, the centre of the atom and the outer reaches of space. It allows us to envisage unrealised possibilities, and, sometimes, to bring them about. Our ability to ‘visualise’, to see things ‘in the mind’s eye’ is a key part of our ability to imagine.

Around 2–3 per cent of the population, with aphantasia, lack a mind’s eye, while a somewhat larger percentage, with hyperphantasia, have imagery that is ‘as vivid as real seeing’. Our discovery, or rediscovery, of this phenomenon has captured huge public interest, and led to a sustained surge of citizen science. 

Since coining these terms in 2015, we have been astonished – and delighted – to receive more than 14,000 contacts from members of the public who experience this extreme imagery. 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 per cent, reflecting, we think, a widely-shared fascination with what happens in one another’s minds. 

Our project has united researchers and disciplines normally isolated from one another in order to study our distinctively human ability to imagine, highlight links between our experience, brain science and art, and throw light on the wide variation in our capacity to ‘visualise’.

The first major scientific output from the work inspired and made possible by this public interest, based on data from 2,400 participants, was published in the September 2020 issue of the journal Cortex. 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, has been submitted for publication.

On April 2019, around 200 people gathered in Exeter for our Extreme Imagination conference. It brought together, for the first time, a sizeable number of individuals with aphantasia and hyperphantasia. The weekend was intensely stimulating, with contributions from the Eye’s Mind team, two 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 of the Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. The exhibition of art created by people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia 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 in an online version.

Three questions are often raised in discussions of aphantasia:

Is aphantasia a ‘disorder’? I think not. It is an intriguing variation in human experience, analogous to synaesthesia, another variation affecting around 2 per cent 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 VenterBlake RossOliver 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 us 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 per cent 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! 

A longer version of this post can be found on The Eye’s Mind project website. Further information about the AHRC Science in Culture Theme can be found here.

Image: : Heartbeat 1.1 (2010) by Susan Aldworth, who curated the exhibition Extreme Imagination.

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