Can We Reliably Evaluate the Vividness of Our Mind’s Eye?

When it comes to visualizing things in the mind's eye, our experience varies widely. Exploring the phenomenon of visual imagery and its assessment.
mind's eye, breakfast study
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Table of Contents

The Breakfast Study

Think of your breakfast table, the one you sat down at this morning. Consider carefully the mental picture that comes to your mind’s eye.

Is the image of the table dim or reasonably vivid? Life-like? Or did you think we were speaking metaphorically?

Some of us can readily conjure images in our mind’s eye, but for approximately 3-5% of the global population, there are no mental images at all.

Brief History of Visual Imagery

Francis Galton was a British psychologist known for pioneering human intelligence studies. In 1880, Galton conducted the Breakfast Study, where he asked participants to imagine their breakfast table and rate the illumination, definition, and colouring of the table and the objects on it.

Most study participants reported some capacity to visualize in their mind’s eye, though their experiences varied widely. In extreme imagery cases, some reported above-average abilities for visualization:

Thinking of the breakfast table this morning, all the objects in my mental picture are as bright as the actual scene.

Hyperphantsic Participant

To Galton’s surprise, some described a strikingly different capacity:

It is only by a figure of speech that I can describe my recollection of a scene as a ‘mental image’ which I can ‘see’ with my ‘mind’s eye’.

Aphantasic Participant

As the Breakfast Study demonstrates, remarkable, often unsuspected, invisible differences exist in our imaginative experiences ranging from aphantasia or complete absence to hyperphantasia or an abundance of visual imagination. A fact that has surprised those who’ve encountered it for more than a century.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon remained largely unexamined until British scientist David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) in 1973 during his research on human consciousness.

Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ)

VVIQ is a proven assessment for measuring individual differences in visual imagination. This visual imagery test consists of four scenarios and asks you to rank how vividly you can visualize them in your mind’s eye on a scale of one to five.

There are four groups of four questions. Each group asks you to picture a particular scenario, like the face of a loved one, your favourite shop, or a beautiful landscape and asks you to rate the vividness of the details within each scene.

Since VVIQ was first published, it has been referenced in over 1200 studies on mental imagery. It has been given considerable attention in the domains of psychology, philosophy, and, more recently, cognitive neuroscience.

In 1995, psychologist Stuart Mckelvie published a second version, VVIQ2. Both instruments are considered reliable measures for identifying individual differences in visual imagery and are proven to be accurate measures of the intensity with which individuals can visualize settings, people, and objects in their mind’s eye.

But what if you can’t visualize at all?

VVIQ and Aphantasia

When it came to visualizing things in the mind’s eye, people were either classified as ‘good visual imagers’ or ‘poor visual imagers.’

That changed in 2015 when professor Adam Zeman received a patient known as patient MX, who reported losing his ability to visualize after undergoing surgery and suffering a minor stroke. Zeman later named the phenomenon aphantasiaand a new classification emerged: ‘non-visualizers.

Visual imagery tests like VVIQ are now often used as an initial assessment to identify aphantasics, or people with aphantasia.

A low score on VVIQ or a high score on the VVIQ2 (since the scale is flipped) may be characteristic of hypophantasia or ‘low vividness,’ or, in rare cases, aphantasia or ‘non-visualizer.’

Reliability of VVIQ Results

It’s no secret that our conscious thoughts are private and that evaluating the vividness of our own internally generated experiences – such as those assessed in VVIQ – can understandably raise some questions about the reliability and accuracy of results.

On the one hand, it can be challenging to determine the precise details of the mental images in our mind’s eye and even sometimes tell whether we have formed a mental picture at all.

Some people will find it hard to classify the vividness of their mental pictures when there’s nothing to use as a reference point.

How can we possibly know to what extent our mental pictures are accurate, detailed, and vivid if we cannot compare them to someone else’s experience?

VVIQ asks you to compare the image in your head with how you know it looks in real life to reconcile this somewhat. Is the scenario you’re visualizing equally vivid to its real-world counterpart, a little less vivid, not vivid at all, or completely non-existent?

Still, comparing the real world with the subjective one inside our heads is challenging. The real challenge is: How well do you know your thoughts?

As it turns out, you may know your thoughts much better than you think you do!

Metacognition and the Mind’s Eye

Research has provided a growing body of behavioural and neuroimaging evidence that would suggest we have a pretty good understanding of our thoughts when it comes to mental imagery.

study led by cognitive scientist and mental imagery expert Joel Pearson found that subjective reporting of imagery vividness was highly predictive of the efficacy of the individual’s imagery experience when compared with results from more objective measures.

Participants in the study completed VVIQ2 and subsequently tested using a behavioural experiment called binocular rivalry, which provides a more objective evaluation of mental imagery. Their results indicated that participants not only had good metacognitive knowledge of their overall imagery ability but that they could also evaluate the vividness of individual episodes of imagery, such as those present in VVIQ2 (Pearson et al., 2019).

So despite the highly subjective nature of visual imagery tests like VVIQ, these findings conclude that we can reasonably rely on our self-reported evaluations of the vividness of our mind’s eye or lack thereof.

Accounting for Biased Brains

It’s worth noting that any self-reporting test will always be subject to human bias. We all have biased brains. One bias that could impact the results of your VVIQ test is that you might be more likely to subconsciously (or consciously) choose answers that will give you the result you want.

For example, if you already believe you have aphantasia after seeing the apple test on social media, you might be more inclined to answer 0 for every scenario on VVIQ. What is more, the results could be impacted by how you feel when you complete the test. 

To reduce bias in self-reporting, make sure to approach the process in a clear-headed, rational way. Eliminate any distractions that might prevent you from thinking clearly. If you feel your emotion might be getting in the way, try retaking the test later and comparing the results.

You may find after taking the quiz that you are more biased about your visualization skills based on the results you get. For these reasons and more, VVIQ is only recommended as an initial evaluation of aphantasia. It is not a conclusive diagnosis of whether you have aphantasia or not.

Beyond VVIQ: Imagination Spectrum Questionnaire

Finally, it’s important to note that VVIQ only measures the vividness of your visual imagery. There are other sense modalities to consider when evaluating your mental imagery experience.

When you think of your favorite breakfast food, can you smell or taste it in your mind?

These sensory experiences are called olfactory and gustatory imagery. And yes, some people can actually “smell” pancakes in their minds!

Imagination is multisensory; each “sense” is a spectrum ranging from completely absent to abundant mental imagery and everything in between. 

So, while the VVIQ can provide some helpful insight into your visual imagination, it’s important to remember that it’s just one aspect of a much larger Imagination Profile.

Take the Imagination Spectrum Questionnaire (ISQ) to discover your Imagery Profile.

Pearson, J. (2019). The human imagination: the cognitive neuroscience of visual mental imagery. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 20(10), 624–634. doi:10.1038/s41583-019-0202-9
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
McKelvie, S. J. (1995). The VVIQ and beyond: Vividness and its measurement. Journal of Mental Imagery, 19(3-4), 197–252.
Marks, D. F. (2014). Vividness of visual imagery questionnaire [Data set]. PsycTESTS Dataset. doi:10.1037/t05959-000
Galton, F. (1880). I.--statistics of mental imagery. Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy, os-V(19), 301–318. doi:10.1093/mind/os-v.19.301
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Hey Dale, great questions and we seem to be very aligned in our thinking. Understanding your imagery profile can reveal a lot about your natural strengths and weaknesses. We believe that with greater knowledge of these invisible differences we can help tailor learning, problem-solving strategies, therapies and more to people’s unique cognitive style and avoid common pitfalls and challenges.

This “condition” if one might call it that, is probably not “treatable”. So, if we are to live this way, how are we to navigate in this world? If our children, or anyone else, has this condition, how might we be able to help them. I see this as a possible way to assist others in this world.

What are the natural weaknesses and how might one mitigate problems that are sure to come?

What are the natural strengths and how might one be useful to others in their application?

What are the interpersonal problems or advantages that one might share with others so that they might understand and work around them?

Anybody interested?