What Happens In The Aphantasia Brain When Imagining? Extended Interview with Jianghao Liu

A picture paints a thousand words, but what happens when our aphantasia brain can't visualize that picture? Jianghao Liu, a brain researcher from the Paris Brain Institute joins Aphantasia Network to dive into this probing questions.

Unlocks on May 24, 2025

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Exploring The Neural Mysteries of The Aphantasia Brain

A picture paints a thousand words, but what happens when our aphantasia brain can’t visualize that picture? Researchers are identifying brain regions linked to aphantasia.

How does the absence of visualization impact our perception? Is aphantasia deeply rooted in the brain’s neural networks, or is it an offbeat mode of introspection?

Jianghao Liu, a brain researcher from the Paris Brain Institute and currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in NYC, joins Aphantasia Network to dive into these probing questions.

Liu has been working to understand the neural bases of human visual experience. His extensive research, employing state-of-the-art techniques like ultra-high field fMRI and computational modeling, provides fascinating insights into the aphantasia brain. 

His recent paper, Probing the unimaginable, sheds light on the speed and precision of processing visual information among those with aphantasia. To delve into these inquiries, researchers Paolo Bartolomeo and Jianghao Liu conducted a study involving 117 volunteers, including 44 aphantasics, 31 hyperphantasics, and 42 individuals with typical mental imagery abilities. They administered a mental imagery and visual perception test known as the Imagination Perception Battery (BIP) to assess the relationship between perception and mental imagery.

During the test, participants were presented with a blank screen and given audio cues for visual qualities (e.g., ‘shape’) along with two corresponding concepts (e.g., ‘beaver’ and ‘fox’). They were then asked to mentally visualize and decide which concept best matched a qualifier (e.g., ‘long’). Response times and the quality of the mental images generated were recorded. Additionally, participants took a perception test where stimuli were presented visually.

The results of the study revealed that individuals with aphantasia performed similarly to the other groups in terms of perception and the ability to associate concepts with their representations. However, a significant difference emerged in processing visual information, where aphantasics were slower, particularly in relation to shapes and colors, and had less confidence in the accuracy of their answers. This delay in processing visual information was attributed to a slight deficiency in phenomenal consciousness, meaning that while aphantasics have access to information about visual characteristics, it does not translate into a conscious visual mental image.

However, despite this difference, aphantasics appear to compensate through alternative cognitive strategies, such as mental lists of visual characteristics, which enable them to remember what they have seen accurately. As this research indicates, the phenomenon of aphantasia might be more about the uniqueness of conscious experience rather than a deficit.  

This presentation and discussion was hosted by Aphantasia Network Founder Tom Ebeyer, and offers an in-depth look at the complex world of aphantasia brain research. This event is a must-watch for anyone intrigued by the intricacies of the human mind or curious about the scientific underpinnings of extreme variations in imagination. As the journey into the depths of aphantasia continues, it opens doors to a deeper understanding of the human brain and the vast spectrum of imaginative experiences that reside within it.

Liu, J., & Bartolomeo, P. (2023). Probing the unimaginable: The impact of aphantasia on distinct domains of visual mental imagery and visual perception. Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 166, 338–347. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2023.06.003