History of Phantasia

Knowledge of our invisible differences dates back to 340 BC. Aristotle stands at the beginning of this history when imagination was not an established topic of discussion yet.
Image of The School of Athens, fresco by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael taken from the Vatican Muesums in Rome. Image shows a zoomed in perspective of the fresco showing Plato on the left and Aristotle, his student, on the right. Both figures hold bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing to the crowds of people with their right.

The Story Begins With Aristotle

Visualization has played a central role in imagination discussions for thousands of years, first by philosophers, then psychologists, and now neuroscientists. Knowledge of our invisible differences dates back to 340 BC. Aristotle stands at the beginning of this history when imagination was not an established topic of discussion yet.

Aristotle (c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C.) was an Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist who is still considered one of the greatest thinkers in politics, psychology and ethics.

He is best known for:

In De Amina (On the Soul), Aristotle examines human psychology. His writings about how people perceive the world continue to underlie many principles of modern psychology today.

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

~ Aristotle

Phantasia and Imagination

Aristotle popularizes phantasia in De Amina (On the Soul), Part III, to describe a distinct capacity between perception and thought — a sort of ‘sixth sense.’

Phantasia is commonly translated to imagination and is often explained in the context of visualizing and dreaming. Although scholars have mixed views on the meaning and translation of phantasia, most would agree it is not ‘unrelated to the imagination.’ Aristotle uses phantasia to explain other cognitive processes like memory, thought, reasoning, desire, action, etc.

In a brief discussion in De Anima III 3, he describes phantasia as ‘that in virtue of which an image occurs in us.‘ Aristotle accounts for phantasia in thoughts, dreams, memories and even hallucinations. He makes a point to distinguish this capacity for creating mental impressions from perception.

For Aristotle, phantasia ‘need never to have been actually perceived by the senses, nor ever really exist.’ In other words, what we perceive can be a product of our imagination. This means phantasia can be false, often in fantastic ways. Perhaps that’s why it’s closely associated with fantasy.

During this period in history, however, it was generally believed that our thoughts required images. It was widely accepted that:

“…whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images.

~ Artistotle

The rediscovery of aphantasia proves Aristotle may have been wrong about that.

Brief History of Aphantasia

Aphantasia was first characterized as the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free thinking.

Phantasia was the world Aristotle used to describe the faculties of imagination, such as visualization. The a in a-phantasia denotes its absence.

Francis Galton, a British psychologist known for pioneering human intelligence studies, was among the first scientists to recognize ‘non-imagers’ in the 1800s, but it lacked scientific rigour and investigation.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, neuroscience has advanced enough to study this enigmatic condition.

Dr. Adam Zeman, a neurologist from Exeter, receives a patient who can no longer imagine —  known as patient MX. MX goes blind in his mind’s eye after undergoing surgery. 

News of patient MX’s experience attracted media attention, leading to many new discoverers who could relate to similar experiences, only they had been blind in their mind’s eye since birth.

Zeman coined the term congential aphantasia to describe the phenomenon of blind imagination in 2015. This paper was picked up by media outlets, including the New York Times, which led to an outpouring of new discoverers who also identified as having aphantasia.

Watch the following video from Dr. Adam Zeman about rediscovering aphantasia, with a special appearance from MX himself.

The Opposite Extreme: Hyperphantasia

Hyperphantasia was later named to describe an extraordinarily vivid imagination. Individuals with hyperphantasia have a unique ability to generate mental images that are incredibly detailed, vibrant, and immersive. For them, visualizing is akin to entering a mesmerizing dream, where their mind’s eye can effortlessly construct lifelike scenes.

Exploring Extreme Imagination

The discovery of aphantasia and hyperphantasia has significant implications for our understanding of imagination. For starters, it challenges ancient knowledge that thoughts require images.

These imagination extremes call into question many long-held beliefs about the role of imagination in our lives. Understanding how imagination works (broadly) and how it might work differently (individually) could be the key to unlocking many answers about memory, creativity, dreaming, and even consciousness itself.

Questions like:

  • What is the role of imagination in our lives?
  • Where is imagination formed in the brain? How is it different in the aphantasia brain?
  • Can we measure imagination?
  • To what extent does imagination shape or distort our memories?
  • How do people with vivid imaginations distinguish between what’s real and imagined? Is it possible to manipulate the imagination?
  • Can imagination be effectively harnessed to enhance learning, creativity, memory, and well-being?
  • What is the relationship between imagination and the nature of consciousness?

Timeline of Extreme Imagination

Some emerging research into extreme imagination is already unravelling some of these mysteries. Over the last decade, many scientific insights, discoveries, and happenings have occurred. The following is a timeline of some of those events.


Phantasia is the word Aristotle used to describe imagination. Aristotle identifies imagination as a distinct capacity to produce images or ‘pictorial representations’ when there is no perception, as in dreams.


Gustav Fechner, a pioneer in psychophysics, explored how we measure thoughts in his book “Elemente der Psychophysik.” This is when the first mental imagery experimentation began. He compared the brain to a piano that can create a wide range of ideas with just a few “keys.” Fechner was fascinated by the images that flash in our minds when we think or remember. He found that while some images come automatically, others can be controlled, though they often lack clarity and can change on their own.


British psychologist Francis Galton reported cases of individual variability in visual imagery in The Breakfast Study. The study asked participants, including 100 scientists like his half-cousin Charles Darwin, as well as 172 schoolboys divided into two groups based on their class level, to picture their breakfast table and describe its vividness, including the lighting, sharpness, and colors. The responses varied greatly—some had crystal clear images, others had only faint impressions, and to Galton’s surprise, few couldn’t see any mental image at all. 


A.C. Armstrong followed Francis Galton’s footsteps, asking college students in the USA to describe their breakfast table from memory. The study replicated Galton’s findings. Most could vividly imagine colors and details, while a few needed extra focus. Participants typically saw their mental images at a realistic distance, but some varied, seeing them closer or from a bird’s eye view. Armstrong highlighted a man named Mr. A.G.C., who had an exceptional ability to visualize objects realistically.


George Herbet Betts publishes ‘The Distribution and Functions of Mental Imagery‘ and introduces the groundbreaking Questionnaire Upon Mental Imagery (QMI) and distinguishes between Voluntary and Spontaneous Imagery, significantly advancing the understanding and measurement of mental imagery in psychology.


William Grey Walter describes two ways of thinking, visualizers vs. conceptualizers, in the 1963 text The Living Brain. In his studies, Walter found that one in six people are conceptualizers. To illuminate the differences in these two thinking styles, try this Ball on the Table experiment.


British psychologist David Marks created the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) to measure individual differences in the vividness of visual imagery. Since its publication, VVIQ has been referenced in over 1200 studies.


Oliver Sacks publishes an article, ‘The Mind’s Eye‘ in The New Yorker. Sacks points to the huge variations in visual imagery. Mentions his mother’s accurate visual imagination. He describes meeting a man at a medical conference who had “no visual imagery whatsoever.”


A 65-year-old man and former surveyor, known as ‘patient MX,’ underwent heart surgery and reported losing his ability to imagine. Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter published a study and coined “blind imagination.”

Bill Faw of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia reported that about 3-5% of the 2,500 people he queried reported having no visual imagination. This figure served as the first population estimate of people living with blind imagination.


Discover magazine publishes a story about patient MX, only to discover that MX is not alone. Several respondents to this publication report no visual imagery, but unlike patient MX, they have been this way since birth.


Professor Adam Zeman conducted another study with 21 control subjects, revealing outliers on both ends of visual imagery extremes. The inability to voluntarily visualize is given the name congenital aphantasia, meaning from birth. Zeman later names the opposite phenomenon hyperphantasia.


A team of scientists led by Dr. Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter and Professor Joel Pearson from the University of New South Whales embarked on brain imaging studies of people with aphantasia to determine the neural basis for why some people cannot create visual images of people, places and things in their mind’s eye.

Dr. Joel Pearson and researchers conduct a study to measure sensory imagery in subjectively self-diagnosed aphantasics using the binocular rivalry paradigm, a more objective measure. The study finds that aphantasia is a condition involving a lack of mental imagery and not a lack of metacognition.


Tom Ebeyer, one of the first 21 reported cases of congenital aphantasia mentioned in Zeman’s original paper, establishes the Aphantasia Network—a place to discover and learn about aphantasia and connect aphantasics globally.

The first international conference for people living with extreme imagination takes place at the University of Exeter, alongside an exhibition of work by aphantasic and hyperphantasic artists at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

In a surprising survey of his former employees (n= 540), co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, discovers that some of the world’s best animators are aphantasic — including the animator of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Glen Keane


A study led by the University of Exeter finds that aphantasia has certain benefits when it comes to working in technical sectors. People with low or no ability to visualize mental images are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries than in creative sectors. The phenomenon is the opposite of hyperphantasia which is more common in creative professions.

Aphantasia receives its first mention in a major motion picture: Netflix original series Space Force with Steve Carell.

A study led by the University of New South Whales found that the strength of a person’s mental imagery is linked to the excitability of neurons in different brain regions. These shocking insights are the first clue as to what might cause aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

According to a study from the University of New South Whales, aphantasic individuals report decreased imagery in other sensory domains. However, not all report a complete lack of multisensory imagery. This discovery highlights the wide variability that characterizes our internal mental representations and the different sub-types of aphantasia. 


Aphantasia Network hosts the second Extreme Imagination conference and exhibition in partnership with Dr. Adam Zeman and the Mind’s Eye team. The virtual event brought together over 400 people across 16 different countries. 

The first physiological indicator of aphantasia is discovered. Researchers at the University of New South Whales investigate whether people with aphantasia have different pupillary responses to people with visual imagery. They found that the pupils of those with aphantasia do not respond in the same way as those with visual imagery. Pupil size could be used to measure the strength of mental imagery.


Aphantasia Network launches a new sensory imagination assessment. The Imagination Spectrum Questionnaire is the world’s first publically available test for multisensory aphantasia, hyperphantasia and all subtypes. The platform is in the early stage of development.

study conducted by a research team from the University of Bonn finds no pathological significance of aphantasia based on evaluating criteria for mental disorders. In sum, although aphantasia meets the criterion of statistical rarity, the impact on activities of daily living and personal distress is too weak to justify classification as a mental disorder.


The city of Rowlett, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, declares the world’s first Aphantasia Awareness Day on February 21, 2023.

What will we discover next?

There are still many more questions than answers, and the research is far from conclusive. However, what is clear is that the discovery of aphantasia provides a stark reminder of the vast differences in our imaginative experiences. It prompts us to consider how diverse our internal worlds truly are, some devoid of visual thought.

Monzel, M., Vetterlein, A., & Reuter, M. (2022). No general pathological significance of aphantasia: An evaluation based on criteria for mental disorders. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/sjop.12887
Kay, L., Keogh, R., Andrillon, T., & Pearson, J. (2022). The pupillary light response as a physiological index of aphantasia, sensory and phenomenological imagery strength. ELife, 11. doi:10.7554/eLife.72484
Zeman, A., Milton, F., Della Sala, S., Dewar, M., Frayling, T., Gaddum, J., … Winlove, C. (2020). Phantasia-The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 130, 426–440. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.003
Dawes, A. J., Keogh, R., Andrillon, T., & Pearson, J. (2020). A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 10022. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-65705-7
Keogh, R., Bergmann, J., & Pearson, J. (2020). Cortical excitability controls the strength of mental imagery. ELife, 9. doi:10.7554/eLife.50232
Keogh, R., & Pearson, J. (2018). The blind mind: No sensory visual imagery in aphantasia. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 105, 53–60. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.10.012
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
Zeman, A. Z. J., Della Sala, S., Torrens, L. A., Gountouna, V.-E., McGonigle, D. J., & Logie, R. H. (2010). Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: a case of ‘blind imagination’. Neuropsychologia, 48(1), 145–155. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.024
Faw, B. (2009). Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(4), 45–68.
Marks, D. F. (2014). Vividness of visual imagery questionnaire [Data set]. PsycTESTS Dataset. doi:10.1037/t05959-000
You must be signed in to comment
Be the first to comment