Aphantasia and Hyperphantasia: What We Know After a Decade of Research

Since 2015, "aphantasia" has reshaped our understanding of imagination, revealing that not everyone visualizes mentally. This discovery, along with "hyperphantasia," highlights the diverse nature of human imagination.
aphantasia and hyperphantasia
Original Photo by Mehmet Keskin on Unsplash.

Table of Contents

I remember the day I discovered my image-free mind, illuminating a part of myself I never knew existed. It all started innocently enough, with a simple conversation with my then-girlfriend. She recounted a memory from a party, remarking on how a mutual friend wore the same sweater as she did the year prior. Intrigued, I asked her how she remembered such a detail, to which she casually replied, “I can see it in my mind.” That innocent remark sent me spiralling into a personal odyssey, trying to understand how my mind worked differently. Aphantasia and hyperphantasia became my passion.

Little did I know, that conversation would lead me down a path of personal and professional discovery, eventually connecting me with neurologist Adam Zeman and becoming one of the first 21 cases of aphantasia ever reported in his landmark paper, “Lives without imagery – congenital aphantasia.” This pivotal moment in my life sparked the creation of the Aphantasia Network, a platform designed to connect like minds globally. Reflecting on these moments, it’s remarkable to witness the evolution of our understanding since then. What a journey it’s been!

Since the inception of the term “aphantasia” in 2015, it has dramatically reshaped our understanding of human imagination. Derived from Aristotle’s concept of phantasia, it marks a significant chapter in understanding the diversity of our imaginative experiences. Not everyone has a “mental picture.” This rediscovery has shattered the age-old assumption that visualization is a universal experience

With the introduction of terms like aphantasia and hyperphantasia, its counterpart representing the absence and abundance of visual imagination, we’ve uncovered a wealth of new insights into the workings of the mind. Drawing from Adam Zeman’s latest Review in Trends in Cognitive Science, we’ve come so far, yet there’s still so much more to discover.

Here’s a brief look at what we know and don’t yet know about aphantasia and hyperphantasia after a decade of research.

Aphantasia: What We Know About the Absence of Visual Imagination

  • Ancient Origins: The foundation of our understanding of imagination can be traced back to ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, who posited that “the soul never thinks without a phantasma,” implying that imagery is essential to thought. This idea has profoundly influenced philosophical and psychological thinking for centuries.
  • Historical Recognition: The concept of “non-visualizers,” as observed by Sir Francis Galton in the 19th century, remained largely unexplored until Zeman’s work catalyzed a resurgence of interest and research.
  • Congenital or Acquired Aphantasia: Aphantasia can be both congenital, meaning present from birth, and acquired, where the ability to visualize mentally is lost due to neurological or psychiatric conditions. This distinction has helped identify key brain regions involved and raised questions about the mechanisms of acquiring and losing imagery abilities.
  • Quantifying Aphantasia: Research now employs diverse methods—self-reported questionnaires, behavioral tasks, physiological responses, and neuroimaging—to uncover the complexities of mental imagery absence in aphantasia.
  • Beyond Visual Modality: While primarily recognized for its effect on visual imagination, some individuals with aphantasia are absent imagery across all senses, while others may experience selective imagery absence in imagining sounds (auditory), smells (olfactory), tastes (gustatory), tactile sensations (tactile), and even motor activities (motor imagination). This complex, nuanced spectrum suggests aphantasia’s broad sensory implications.
  • Prevalence of Aphantasia: Approximately 1% of the population directly experiences aphantasia, with 2–6% having dim and vague imagery.
  • Familial Patterns: Aphantasia’s occurrence in families suggests a possible genetic influence. 

Our research into the neurological basis of aphantasia hints at a complex interplay between genetics, brain structure, and experience,” says Zeman.

  • Cognitive and Occupational Tendencies: Individuals with aphantasia may exhibit a tendency toward occupations in scientific and technical fields, possibly reflecting a different mode of problem-solving and creativity.
  • Preservation of Dream Imagery: Many individuals with aphantasia report visual dreams despite a lack of voluntary imagery, indicating intact visual processing capabilities in different consciousness states.
  • Neurological Underpinnings: Aphantasia’s experience is likely linked to specific disruptions in neural connectivity rather than merely diminished activity, highlighting significant roles for the connections between frontoparietal and visual networks. Notably, alterations in the connectivity of the ‘fusiform imagery node’ (FIN), which plays a crucial role in visual processing, could be a key factor contributing to the phenomenon. This suggests that the neural basis of aphantasia involves complex changes in how different brain regions communicate and coordinate with each other concerning visual and possibly other sensory modalities. These disruptions indicate a foundational difference in how sensory information is processed and integrated in the brain, potentially affecting a wide range of cognitive functions.
  • Autobiographical Memory Effects: Aphantasia leads to significantly reduced autobiographical memory, a reduction that is evident in both subjective reports and objective measures. This indicates a distinct impact on the ability to recall personal past events with vivid detail.
  • Challenges in Face Recognition: Face recognition is notably more difficult for about 40% of those with aphantasia compared to those with typical or hyperphantasic imagery.
  • Intact Spatial Imagery: Spatial imagery abilities remain strong in aphantasia, showcasing a particular aptitude for spatial tasks.
  • Association with Autistic Traits: Higher autism spectrum quotient scores among those with aphantasia suggest an intricate link with autistic traits. However, the relationship between autism, known for its “thinking in pictures” trait in some cases, and imagery vividness remains complex and multifaceted.
  • Introversion and Aphantasia: A higher tendency towards introversion in aphantasia indicates a distinct personality trait pattern.
  • Future Thinking: Aphantasia affects future event visualization, leading to less detailed and vivid imagined scenarios.
  • Mental Health and Aphantasia: Aphantasia may protect against emotional disorders related to distressing imagery, suggesting a link between imagery vividness and certain mental health risks, such as PTSD. 
  • Impact on Daily Life: Despite the absence of visual imagination, individuals with aphantasia often develop highly effective strategies for navigating their lives, employing alternative sensory processing and memory techniques that prove just as effective as visual strategies.

The discovery of aphantasia challenges our fundamental assumptions about how people think and remember, revealing that non-visual strategies for navigation and memory can be just as effective.

Adam Zeman

What We Don’t Yet Know

  • Subtypes and Individual Variance: The existence of aphantasia subtypes and the significant variation within suggest a complex spectrum that has yet to be fully explored. Further research is needed on how aphantasia impacts non-visual modalities such as auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and motor imagery.
  • The Genetic Code: While evidence suggests a genetic link, the specific genes and mechanisms involved in aphantasia remain unidentified.
  • Neural Mechanisms: More research is required to understand the precise neural differences and similarities between individuals with and without aphantasia across various types of imagery and cognitive tasks.
  • Impact on Mental Health: Although aphantasia may provide some protection against emotional disorders linked to distressing imagery, such as PTSD, its broader implications for mental health and well-being are still not well understood. Further studies are necessary to understand how the absence of mental imagery interacts with emotional processing and memory, potentially offering resilience against visually triggered emotional disorders.
  • Relationship with Autistic Traits: There is a noted higher occurrence of autistic traits among those with aphantasia; however, the exact nature of this relationship, especially in how it affects their processing and cognition, is still unclear. This complex relationship warrants deeper exploration.
  • Full Spectrum of Impact: The nuanced ways in which aphantasia affects personal experiences, learning styles, and emotional processing require more detailed investigation.

Hyperphantasia: What We Know About the Abundance of Visual Imagination

  • Prevalence: Hyperphantasia is estimated to affect around 3% of the population, making it more common than aphantasia.
  • Enhanced Multisensory Imagery: Like aphantasia, hyperphantasia can extend beyond visual imagery to enrich the vividness of other sensory modalities. Individuals with hyperphantasia often experience an enhanced ability to vividly recreate and manipulate not just visual but also auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and motor sensations.
  • Creative and Occupational Inclinations: Individuals with hyperphantasia often find themselves in creative professions, potentially benefiting from their enhanced ability to visualize and imagine.
  • Synaesthesia: There’s an observed increased rate of synaesthesia among individuals with hyperphantasia, suggesting a link between the heightened vividness of mental imagery and the tendency to experience involuntary, secondary sensory experiences, such as seeing colors when hearing sounds. 
  • Neural Connectivity: Preliminary findings suggest differences in brain connectivity patterns in those with hyperphantasia. These differences in brain connectivity not only underscore the heightened sensory processing capabilities in hyperphantasia but also may explain the increased prevalence of synaesthesia in this group.

What We Don’t Yet Know:

  • Harnessing Hyperphantasia: Effective strategies to utilize the rich imagery of hyperphantasia in education, professional settings, and personal development are still to be developed.
  • Emotional and Psychological Dimensions: The depth of hyperphantasia’s impact on psychological well-being, empathy, and memory, especially in processing traumatic or emotional events, requires deeper exploration.
  • Neural Foundations: The specific neural mechanisms that allow for the heightened vividness of imagery in hyperphantasia, including potential differences in brain structure or function, need further clarification. Advanced imaging studies are needed to delineate the specific brain structures and functional pathways enhanced in hyperphantasia, which could help tailor educational and psychological interventions to leverage these capabilities.
  • Eidetic Imagery Relationship: The connection between hyperphantasia and eidetic imagery (“photographic memory”) and how these phenomena differ from or overlap with each other warrant further study.

Aphantasia and Hyperphantasia – Moving Forward

Since the formal acknowledgment of aphantasia and hyperphantasia, we’ve learned so much, yet as Zeman’s review highlights, we’re just scratching the surface of our understanding. Each new insight we gain sparks new questions; each discovery opens fresh paths for exploration. The journey to fully unravel the intricacies of extreme imagination is ongoing, and our vibrant community at the Aphantasia Network is pivotal in merging personal experiences with rigorous scientific inquiry. 

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all our members whose contributions and shared experiences make this work possible. As we look towards the future, let us embark on this journey with renewed curiosity and determination, knowing that the pursuit of knowledge is as boundless as the depths of our minds.

The road ahead is filled with promise, brimming with potential discoveries that will not only advance our scientific knowledge about aphantasia and hyperphantasia but also have the potential to enrich our lives, our work, and our well-being. It’s an exciting time to be part of this exploration into human imagination. Let’s keep pushing the boundaries of what we know, together.

Zeman, A. (2024). Aphantasia and hyperphantasia: exploring imagery vividness extremes. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2024.02.007
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery - Congenital aphantasia. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 73, 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019
You must be signed in to comment
Be the first to comment